Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 45
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
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New Jersey Symphony Orchestra Introduces New Music Director Jacques Lacombe

Nancy Plum

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra’s newest Music Director formally met the Princeton community on Friday night as the orchestra came to Richardson Auditorium for its second performance of its Princeton series. Newly-appointed conductor Jacques Lacombe had already demonstrated commitment to New Jersey and its composers with last week’s performances of music of former Princeton University composer Roger Sessions. For this past Friday night’s concert, Mr. Lacombe continued his survey of American music with a lesser-known work of George Gershwin as well as Johannes Brahms’ towering Piano Concerto No.1 in d minor.

Mr. Lacombe set a new tone for the orchestra’s relationship with its audiences by prefacing his first concert in Richardson with remarks from the stage. He gave the audience perspective on why he programmed the concert the way he did, as well as explaining the unfortunate last-minute withdrawal of pianist Yefim Bronfman, featured soloist in the Brahms concerto. It was also clear from the outset of the concert that although Mr. Lacombe’s relationship with the orchestra is only a few weeks old, his rapport with the players gives the impression of having known them for a very long time.

Mr. Lacombe is a very clear and well-defined conductor, maintaining a saucy lilt to Gershwin’s Lullaby (transcribed from string quartet to string orchestra by Broadway orchestrator Frank Sadler), drawing out the third beat of the bar and the nuances at the ends of phrases. The collective violin sound was lean in the middle register, with a quirky but deliberate straight tone effect from time to time. The four principal string players presented a smooth solo quartet passage, with Jonathan Spitz providing an especially rich tone on the cello. Throughout this work, Mr. Lacombe was careful not to ask the strings to overplay, building orchestral lushness when called for and ending the piece with a touch of humor.

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra’s next performance will be on Friday, January 21 in Richardson Auditorium. Conductied by NJSO Conductor Laureate Neeme Järvi, the concert will feature music of Dvorak, Elgar, and Tchaikovsky. For information call 1-800-ALLEGRO.

German composer Kurt Weill was more well-known for his theater music during his lifetime, with his worthy concert works hidden in mid-20th century political and music history. Weill’s Symphony No.1, subtitled Berliner, was comprised of previously unused incidental music to a play. Because the scores Weill left behind when he fled Germany in the early 1930s were so well-hidden, the symphony was not premiered until 1957, seven years after Weill’s death. The one-movement work had several contrasting sections (including a fugal passage which did not seem to fit) which the orchestra maneuvered seamlessly. Lilting winds and very clean brass complemented a lean violin tone and especially strong sound from the double basses. Violinists Eric Wyrick and Brennan Sweet, together with violists Frank Foerster and Kyle Armbrust, provided very interesting instrumental color, aided by Mr. Spitz on the cello.

This symphony recalls Mahler to a certain extent by its use of brass, and pure trumpet solo passages played by Dominic Derasse added luster to the overall sound. Principal oboist Robert Ingliss was also effective in solo passages as part of extended sections for winds. Mr. Lacombe was obviously looking for precision from the players, and maintained a clean conducting style, subdividing the beat only when called for to build a bridge between sections.

The keynote piece on the program was Brahms’ Piano Concert No. 1, which was to feature as soloist Mr. Bronfman. He had to withdraw the week of the performance, and stepping in at the last minute was Yuja Wang, one of the most exciting pianists of recent years. Ms. Wang took her place at the keyboard unassumingly, as though she did not want to take over the stage before getting a feel for the performance. As the concerto rolled out and orchestra and soloist came together, Ms. Wang’s star quality was clearly evident. She contrasted forceful trills with feathery running notes in the right hand during the first movement and showed her power and strength of arm in repeated octave passages. Mr. Lacombe demonstrated that he was not afraid to communicate with the players, maintaining a very steady conducting style. Brahms created much of this work’s drama through use of the timpani, and Randall Hicks added the appropriate emphasis to contrast the more lyrical sections.

Orchestra and soloist collaborated well together, as the strings and winds picked up where the piano left off. Keyboard triplets in the first movement fit particularly well into the orchestral fabric and all players were very much together at the close of the first movement. Brahms originally conceived this concerto as a symphony, with a tremendous variety of orchestral and keyboard color. A pair of bassoons combined with the strings to create a hymn-like chorale in the second movement, as Mr. Lacombe kept the sound well contained to accompany an almost imperceptible piano. Especially pleasing to hear were oboists Mr. Ingliss and Andrew Adelson, whose solo passages were the first oboe sectional solos heard in the evening.

The third movement rondo began with the piano taking off in a blaze of fire, and pianist and ensemble found several well-executed combined rubatos. Ms. Wang’s closing cadenza contained a great deal of dramatic flourish, as she showed the pinnacle of her flash and intensity in the Beethoven-esque closing coda.

The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra has always held a strong position in the state’s arts scene, and has committed to reaching into new corners of repertory and audiences under Mr. Lacombe’s leadership. As he musically announced his governance of the ensemble from the podium on Friday night, Mr. Lacombe made it clear that this is a relationship which will continue long into the future.

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