Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 18
 
Wednesday, May 6, 2009
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Music/Theater

New Jersey Symphony Bids Farewell to Neeme Järvi in Grand Romantic Style

Nancy Plum

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra said a musical good-bye to Music Director Neeme Järvi this past weekend with four performances in three venues in central and northern New Jersey. Although Maestro Järvi has been Music Director for only four years, he has had a significant impact on the programming and artistic mission of the orchestra, bringing “spontaneity and a sense of fun” (as described by a Board member) to the ensemble. NJSO maintained healthy audience numbers during the Järvi tenure, credited in part to his closing each concert with a “bon-bon” — a short encore to end the performance on a bright note. The audience at the State Theatre in New Brunswick on Sunday afternoon (the concert was also presented in Princeton last Friday night) was treated to two “bon-bons,” one after each of the two major works on the program. The State Theatre in New Brunswick is a charming design, with the performers nestled in a wood-paneled shell, creating the impression that the audience is watching a performance in a wooden Faberge egg or a Beatrix Potter musical scene in an acorn. Several layers of acoustical doors help refine the sound, and only a few were open on Sunday afternoon, but few were necessary — the sound of the orchestra, including the timpani far back on the stage, was clear right to the back of the balcony. Maestro Järvi would probably never refer to himself as an “emperor” of the podium, but the choice of Beethoven’s Emperor Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major was fitting. The printed program defined the word emperor as conjuring up power, nobility, and majesty, all qualities which Maestro Järvi has brought to the stage over the past four years.

Ludwig van Beethoven’s reputation as a pianist preceded his notoriety as a composer, so it is to be expected that the solo piano part in a Beethoven piano concerto would be monumental. Although the piano of Beethoven’s time had expanded from the instrument on which the composer learned, the keyboard was far from what it became later in the century, and the Concerto No. 5 Beethoven conceived in his mind would be even more appropriate for the instrument as it is today. Swedish pianist (and Princeton resident) Per Tengstrand has received considerable acclaim worldwide (and especially in Sweden) and has plans to record and perform the complete cycle of Beethoven’s sonatas in the coming season. A tall and spry pianist, Mr. Tengstrand took charge of the keyboard from the opening cadenza of the first movement, rising up from the bench at times for emphasis.

Mr. Tengstrand used little pedal in the parallel chords and octaves, saving a more sustained sound for the arpeggios. Both Mr. Tengstrand and Maestro Järvi seemed to know the hall, inherently sensing which sonorities needed to be crisp and which could be more blended together. Mr. Tengstrand’s octaves were especially forceful, giving the impression that Beethoven was making a political statement with this concerto, composed while Vienna awaited the next onslaught by Napoleon. The upper register of the piano rang especially well in the hall, aided by the clarity of Mr. Tengstrand’s playing in the right hand. The orchestra brought out the hymn-like nature of the second movement adagio, a fitting companion style to the Bruckner symphony in the second half of the concert. The very quiet entry of the piano in this movement was accompanied well by unified strings and effectively muted horns. An almost inaudible bridge in the keyboard led to a joyous rondo to close the concerto. Knowing Mr. Tengstrand would be a crowd-pleaser, Maestro Järvi wisely scheduled a “bon-bon” before intermission — a lush rendition of “Bottleneck Barbiturate,” a composition by Swedish composer Ola Salo, arranged for keyboard and orchestra by fellow Swede Jonas Nydesjö. Maestro Järvi paired the Beethoven concerto with one of Anton Bruckner’s substantial symphonies. Symphony No. 7 in E Major began with shimmering upper strings and a long melodic line played richly by nine celli. Bruckner spent two years composing this symphony, and as in many of his works, the music tended to unfold in a long arch. Bruckner revered Richard Wagner, but fortunately did not borrow Wagner’s more wide side, choosing instead to emulate his lush orchestrations.

The long lines of the first movement were presented by the celli and then picked up by the clarinets and oboes. Maestro Järvi maintained an easy ebb and flow to the music, with a seamless shift to a more lilting section of the movement. Solo wind playing by clarinetist Karl Herman and flutist Bart Feller provided contrast to the lush strings, and at the end of the movement Maestro Järvi kept the motion going in what can seem like very repetitive music. Bruckner used solo winds a great deal for contrast, and Mr. Herman, Mr. Feller, and oboist Sarah Skuster were at the forefront throughout the symphony. Also borrowed from Wagner (with a nod to Berlioz) was the heavy emphasis on brass, and the four horns and four Wagner tubas were key in bringing the final movement to a close. Maestro Järvi closed the concert with a second “bon-bon” which characterized his tenure with the orchestra. The Menuet and Trio movement from Haydn’s Symphony No. 96 was refined classicism at its best, and led by Ms. Skuster, the players of New Jersey Symphony made the most of some elegant final movements with their Music Director.

Maestro Järvi is stepping down as Music Director, but will continue as Conductor Laureate and Artistic Advisor, and will return to the podium next January to conduct Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem. The orchestra’s concert series next season will feature a variety of guest conductors as the ensemble organizes its search for its 13th Music Director.

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