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New Jersey Symphony Orchestra Presents Fiery Soloists, Unusual Works, in Their Thanksgiving Weekend Concert

Nancy Plum

For performers, good musical collaborations are hard to come by, and to find a composer who instinctively understands one instrument is something to hold on to. Guitarist brothers Sérgio and Odair Assad, together with violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, have combined the best of all worlds in their long-time partnership.

As a composer, Sérgio Assad has written a number of works for guitar and orchestra infused with the music of the brothers' native Brazil. Mr. Assad's triple concerto for violin, two guitars and chamber orchestra, subtitled Concerto Originis, was designed to showcase Ms. Salerno-Sonnenberg's fiery approach to her instrument, accompanied by the steady virtuosity of Mr. Assad and his brother Odair. This innovative and unusual work has been performed by this trio less than a handful of times, and came to Princeton via the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, led by Uraguayan conductor Carlos Kalmar. Friday night's performance in Richardson Auditorium featured this piece with another unusual 20th century work by John Harbison, and Mozart's immortal Symphony Number 40 in G Minor.

Combining the timbres of guitar, violin, and orchestra was the first challenge in Mr. Assad's Concerto Originis, but by dividing the concerto into dances with Brazilian musical styles, and his feel for mixing orchestral colors, enabled all aspects of the concerto to be distinctly heard. Guitar virtuosity alternated between the two brothers, with both playing with a similar style and tone. Ms. Salerno-Sonnenberg, renowned for her range of playing characteristics, used her innate energy and athleticism to derive both fire and luxurious sonorities from her part of the musical dialog. Ms. Salerno-Sonnenberg did not try to merely match the timbre of the guitar, but rather found her own personality as a solo instrumentalist. Several instrumental soloists, including oboist Carolyn Pollak, bassoonist Robert Wagner, and clarinetist Karl Herman, added yet another texture to the orchestral fabric.

Mr. Assad's concerto was preceded in the program by a work that was equally, but subtly, unique. John Harbison's The Most Often Used Chords was inspired by a chart Mr. Harbison came across listing the ten allegedly most often used chords in music. Although these chords were likely never meant to be played sequentially (and certainly not in the same piece), Mr. Harbison combined them in a surprisingly tonal set of four conventional musical movements. In conducting this work, Mr. Kalmar brought out the jaggedness and angularity of the work, yet enabled the scales to pass seamlessly through the instruments. Mr. Kalmar effectively closed the second movement "Variazioni" by allowing the sound to taper away to nothing.

The third movement "Ciaconna" was the central point of the piece, with the music almost movie-like in richness. Mr. Kalmar was able to maintain the greatest tension in the piece thus far, with a solo harp delicately closing the movement.

Mozart's Symphony Number 40 not only closed the concert with a familiar work but also brought the music back to a very melodic and motivic realm brought out clearly by the playing of the orchestra. Mr. Kalmar emphasized the sweep of musical line in the opening movement, with a nice balance among the instruments, and effective dialog between the upper and lower strings. The "Andante" was well played in its chromatic intensity, the syncopated offbeats in the "Minuet" were well emphasized, and the very familiar fourth movement "Allegro assai" brought the evening to a close.

New Jersey Symphony has recently announced that Estonian conductor Neeme Järvi will be the ensemble's next Music Director. Mr. Järvi, whose son once attended the American Boychoir School, will be conducting the orchestra in April, while the ensemble seems content to spend the intervening months of its "transition" year presenting a unique repertoire while maintaining the artistic standards developed by Music Director Emeritus Zdenek Macal.

The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra's next Princeton performance will be on Friday, January 2, 2004, with a program of Hindemith, Ravel, Walker and Schu- mann. Call 1-800-ALLEGRO for information.

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