The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) focused its Winter Festival this year on the theme of “Fire,” including a well-received performance of the rarely-heard complete ballet score of Stravinsky’s The Firebird. Winter is by no means over, and the NJSO brought its festival to Richardson Auditorium this past weekend with a concert described as “Fire: Light and Legend.” Music Director Jacques Lacombe accomplished several of his stated goals with the orchestra in this concert while staying within the “Fire” theme, including presenting lesser-known works of familiar composers and promoting the music of important composers of our time. The Richardson audience at Friday night’s concert came away hearing the music of Haydn and Beethoven in a new way, as well as becoming familiar with a significant leader in new music.
Franz Joseph Haydn’s symphonies are frequently heard on orchestra programs, but often they are the same pieces — ignoring much of the composer’s more than 100 symphonic works. Mr. Lacombe found an early Haydn symphony which fit with the idea of “Fire,” and the ensemble’s performance of Symphony No. 59 in A Major was as crisp and chipper as a crackling winter blaze.
The presence of a harpsichord onstage indicated the symphony’s roots in the early Classical period and its connection to the previous Baroque ear. The opening movement had unusual rhythmic gestures which Mr. Lacombe brought out decisively, accompanied by a well-unified string sound. Mr. Lacombe demonstrated an elegant touch to the more lyrical second phrases, keeping the movement’s “development” section light. The customary third movement, menuetto, was unusually forceful, contrasted by a flowing solo string quartet for the “trio” section and a graceful ending to the movement. A pair of horns, led by principal hornist Lucinda-Lewis, provided strong hunting calls in the fourth movement.
As music director of the New Jersey Symphony, Mr. Lacombe has made a strong commitment to contemporary music, including European composers who may not be as familiar in the United States. Kaija Saariaho is well-known in her native Finland and is clearly respected enough in the United States to be named composer-in-residence at Carnegie Hall. Ms. Saariaho has collaborated with Finnish cellist Anssi Karttunen for a number of years, and the NJSO brought both together with a performance of Saariaho’s Notes on Light —a concerto for cello and orchestra.
Saariaho scored this five-movement work for standard orchestra, with the addition of unusual percussion instruments and unconventional playing styles. Mr. Karttunen began the opening “Translucent, Secret” finding the quarter-tones in the solo line, and throughout the work he derived a variety of musical effects from the cello against a palette of orchestral colors. Mr. Lacombe kept a steady beat pattern on which the players could focus, and it was clear that the solo cellist had the piece well under control. Four flutes and piccolo excelled in the second movement, and in all movements Mr. Lacombe built dynamic intensity without allowing the piece to become strident.
Like Haydn, Beethoven is a popular composer on orchestral programs, and his 1800 Opus 43 ballet The Creatures of Prometheus is recognizable to many from its often-played overture. For Friday night’s concert, Mr. Lacombe chose to approach the familiar music as a multi-disciplinary performance, inviting two actors and a dance ensemble to convey a more complete story, accompanied by eight movements from the complete ballet score.
The story of Prometheus connects to fire in that fire brings the two central characters — clay statues — to life. In Friday’s performance, the two live characters were Zeus and Prometheus, acted by André de Shields and Claybourne Elder, respectively. Both actors conveyed their lines vividly, tying the story together around the musical vignettes. Acting the parts of the “Creatures” were dancers of The Francesca Harper Project.
Making room for actors and dancers required the orchestra to be more closely placed together on the stage, which brought out a very compact sound, especially from the winds. Flutist Kathleen Nester and oboists James Roe and Andrew Adelson played elegant solos in the overture, with Ms. Nester providing another clean solo in a later movement against pizzicato strings. A poignant duet was played late in the performance by Mr. Roe and clarinetist Andrew Lamy playing a basset horn, with a nice Viennese lilt maintained by the rest of the orchestra. Mr. Lacombe led a smooth transition to the coda as the work closed and Zeus seems to have his way at last.
The performance of the Beethoven ballet was visually interesting to look at, and with an additional libretto and lighting effects, was certainly a new way of approaching the work. Designing creative ways to present familiar music will no doubt work in the New Jersey Symphony’s favor in bringing people back to their concerts to see what is new.