Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 30
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
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New Jersey Symphony, Opera New Jersey Join Forces in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony

Nancy Plum

The key to survival among arts organizations in this economy seems to be partnership, and New Jersey Symphony (NJSO) and Opera New Jersey (ONJ) joined together to present a “Midsummer Celebration” this past weekend. Each of these organizations has stood well on its own this past season, but together they were able to produce a work which has not been done in Princeton in a while, but which is always a crowd pleaser. Under the leadership of conductor Mark Laycock, NJSO and ONJ performed Ludwig van Beethoven’s towering Symphony No. 9 to a sold-out house in Richardson Auditorium, not an easy feat in summer weeks when most of New Jersey seems to be at the beach. Thursday night’s concert took a while to get off the ground, but by the second movement Scherzo, the symphony was rolling along with tempi that kept players, singers, and soloists very busy.

Conductor Laycock, in Princeton from his current home in Germany to conduct this concert, began this “Midsummer Celebration” with excerpts from a work almost as nationalistic as Beethoven’s 9th is revolutionary. Bedrich Smetana’s 1865 opera The Bartered Bride was considered the cornerstone of a 19th century Czech national opera tradition, and the three dance movements presented by NJSO gave the orchestra a good chance to warm up on majestic and lively music with a Bohemian flavor. Beginning with the strings in their lower register, accompanied by timpani, the opening Polka was majestic and royal, and Mr. Laycock effectively teased the audience with Viennese “lifts” in the tempi.

Mr. Laycock clearly seemed to be enjoying his return to the Richardson stage, and kept the tempi moving through the punching rhythms of the second movement Furiant (a Bohemian dance with 5/4 rhythms) and swirling strings of the closing Dance of the Comedians. In this third dance, the lilting melody of the winds contrasted well with the martial style of the trumpets and percussion.

The Smetana dances were a nice teaser to the evening’s main event, Beethoven’s 1824 Symphony No. 9, the first symphony to include extensive vocal soloist and choral writing. Incorporating the poetry of Friedrich von Schiller, Beethoven’s final symphony set the stage for symphonic composition for the rest of the 19th century.

Beethoven’s signature opening 5ths in the horns and strings in the first movement announce a work that automatically makes an audience sit back and relax. No matter how well listeners think they know this symphony, something new always comes out in performance. Mr. Laycock kept the movement true to its classical roots, with a flowing tempo, punctuated by precise timpani from Randall Hicks. The drama in the symphony came to life in the recapitulation section of the movement, with a real sweep to the line and graceful wind melodies.

With each subsequent movement, Mr. Laycock brought out more drama from the music, as well as increasingly faster tempi. Conducting from memory, Mr. Laycock had the work well under control. The second movement Scherzo was marked by very steady winds, and the transition to a light trio was clean (with a nice oboe solo from Sarah Skuster).

The third movement Adagio begins with solo entrances from the bassoon and clarinet which have confounded many conductors with a necessity for exactness and timing. Bassoonist Robert Wagner and clarinetist Karl Herman handled the entrance cleanly, and Mr. Laycock took a very tranquil approach to the movement, with well-handled key changes.

The movement everyone waits for in this symphony, however, is the choral fourth movement, which introduces four vocal soloists and a usually substantial chorus into the work. Opera New Jersey had compiled a chorus of sixty young singers, some of whom had roles in other ONJ productions this season. Prepared by Keith Chambers, the singers were solid in knowing the work, and reveled in their ability to sing full out. The four vocal soloists were equally up to the task, and one of them, bass-baritone Eric Dubin, was a last minute replacement. Soprano Sharon I-Chun Cheng, a participant in ONJ’s Young Artist Program, seemed to have a hard time enjoying her line at the speed Mr. Laycock took for the Schiller verses, but her light and pure sound topped off the quartet well. Mr. Dubin, together with tenor Jonathan Boyd, also worked to keep up with the tempo, but joined by mezzo-soprano Ellen Putneymoore, the quartet conveyed the drama of the text well.

The operative word for this performance was “collaboration” — NJSO sought out a partnership with Opera New Jersey and longtime patrons William and Judith Scheide in order to strengthen its ties in the Princeton community. Tickets for the performance, deliberately set at a low price, sold out quickly, and the orchestra opened its afternoon dress rehearsal to the public with great response. It was clear that even in the heat of summer, people will find time for great music.

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