March 27, 2013

New Jersey Symphony Brings a Bit of Vienna to Princeton

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra paid tribute to both New Jersey composers and music educators this past weekend with a concert of Classical period music—touched with a bit of 20th century New Jersey. NJSO Music Director Jacques Lacombe led the Orchestra in a performance of Mozart, Schubert and Cone works which also showed off the results of effective music education.

The Orchestra began Friday night’s performance at Richardson Auditorium with a demonstration of an NJSO educational initiative. Four members of NJSO’s Greater Newark Chamber Orchestra, violinists Winifred Waters and Rachel Seo, violist Melissa Hollfelder and cellist Nicholas Wu, played an excerpt of a Dvorak string quartet, showing solid technique individually and a well-blended sound among the four players as an ensemble. Under the careful watch of coach Stephen Fang, the Orchestra’s Assistant Principal Cellist, this quartet of young musicians showed their drive and dedication to music with elegant melodic lines played by each instrumentalist and handling well the responsibility of communicating as a quartet.

Mr. Lacombe paired the New Jersey educational initiative with a work by a New Jersey composer.  Edward Cone’s Elegy is a piece NJSO has presented before as part of its New Jersey Roots Project, and is a work with which both conductor and Orchestra becomes more comfortable with each performance.  The combination of haunting oboe and English horn solos played by James Roe and Andrew Adelson, respectively, sounded especially smooth in the hall, and Mr. Lacombe found both a crispness and flow which gave the work direction.

The wind effects of the Cone piece were well paired with another work with elegant wind writing—Franz Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 in B minor, the “Unfinished” Symphony.  Conducting from memory, Mr. Lacombe began the first movement with creeping celli and the familiar theme played lightly with a Viennese touch.  Mr. Lacombe brought out the sforzandi well and effectively used a pair of teasing horns to lead back to the restatement of the theme.  The second movement was marked by a light touch on horn and strings, aided by a light clarinet solo played by Karl Herman and Mr. Roe’s clean and lilting oboe solos. Mr. Lacombe’s concentration and focus in this piece was exceptional, given the unfortunate instances of Richardson house staff seating late-comers (very late-comers) just as he was ready to give the downbeat and a cell phone ringing in one of the quietest moments of the second movement.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is viewed as a height of the Classical period, and his Requiem is seen as a zenith of his compositional powers. Left unfinished at Mozart’s death, the Requiem includes challenging quick passages for the choral singers and opportunities for chorus and orchestra to create an elegant 18th-century Viennese musical palette.   Joining the pared-down NJSO were four vocal soloists and the 60-voice Montclair State University Singers, who had been thoroughly prepared by Heather J. Buchanan.  Bassoonist Robert Wagner provided the dark opening theme, and the basses of the chorus began the Mass for the Dead text with assuredness.

In the more elegant and lyrical movements the chorus provided a very full and blended sound in the hall without having to oversing, and the phrase directions requested by Mr. Lacombe were well executed.  Running passages were well handled by all sections, with the tenors impressively light and clean.  The soprano section was able to float their sound well in the beginning of the piece, but as the mass went on, vibrato began to control the sectional sound.  The tenor and bass sections provided particularly effective bite in the “Confutatis” movement, answered by a sweet “voca me” from the women.

The vocal quartet, soprano Christine Brandes, mezzo-soprano Suzanne Mentzer, tenor Gordon Gietz and bass Robert Pomakov, showed especially solid ensemble in the “Benedictus” section, as well as other moments when all four singers were singing together. Ms. Brandes was consistently a decisive singer with a voice full of color, and Mr. Pomakov showed his best lower range on the “Tuba Mirum” text elegantly accompanied by tenor trombonist Vernon Post. The Orchestra maintained a Viennese lilt to the accompaniment, with very clean brass playing among two trumpets and three trombones in the “Benedictus” movement.  Showing the attentiveness of the chorus, the final fugue was as clean as the first as the Requiem closed in dramatic fashion.

This performance was a solid collaborative effort among New Jersey ensembles as well as student players from within the NJSO organization.  Performing Viennese such staples as Mozart and Schubert no doubt made everyone’s late winter Friday evening just a bit more pleasant.