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New Jersey Symphony Orchestra Closes Season With Works by Wagner, Mackey, and Tchaikovsky

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) completed its 2012-13 Princeton concert series in grand fashion on Friday night with a performance full of precision, operatic flair, and innovative musical composition. Music Director Jacques Lacombe led the orchestra in a program of two works linked by musical richness and complexity, combined with a concerto capturing the essence and humor of the growing child, all served to a wildly enthusiastic audience in Richardson Auditorium.

The opening work commemorated the birth year of towering composer Richard Wagner, who would have been 200 years old as this review arrives on Princeton doorsteps. Wagner’s Prelude to his monumental opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg brought together the major themes of the opera in a majestic flow well captured by the New Jersey Symphony. The opening phrases showed a bit of heavy playing, but the strings developed a leaner sound for the second section with clean and stately motives from the brass. Mr. Lacombe kept the tempi moving along, marked by sinuous solo lines from oboist James Roe, flutist Bart Feller, and clarinetist Karl Herman, and a solid underpinning from the tuba, played by Derek Fenstermacher. Mr. Lacombe took an especially broad approach to the close of the work, with precise rhythmic motives from the brass.

As part of its New Jersey Roots Project, the orchestra presented the east coast premiere of Princeton composer Steven Mackey’s Stumble to Grace: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra — a unique piece capturing an aspect of everyday life in innovative musical style. All parents can identify with the struggles, both poignant and humorous, of a child learning to walk, as Dr. Mackey characterized, “learning to become human.” A joint commission by NJSO, the St. Louis Symphony and Los Angeles Philharmonic, Stumble to Grace musically depicts several stages of child development, emphasized by a huge range of percussion instruments and effects.

The piece began with what sounded like looking out over a collection of child’s toys, followed by an effect with which all parents are familiar — the sound of things dropping. Piano soloist Orli Shaham (to whom the work is dedicated) played the appealing jazzy piano lines with swing as Mr. Lacombe kept a crisp beat from the accompanying orchestra. The musical communication and jazz rhythms between soloist and orchestra was exact, with a light right hand in the piano perfectly answered by the orchestra in the first section. Stumble to Grace changed character among its five movements (much like the day-to-day changes of a growing child), and Ms. Shaham and the NJSO captured the different moods well. So varied were the percussive and orchestral effects that this is the kind of piece one might want to hear again just to catch all the different instrumental tricks.

Tchaikovsky’s massive yet elegant Symphony No. 5 in E minor has been a cornerstone of the orchestra’s late spring concert offerings, and clearly one with which Mr. Lacombe is very familiar. Composed in 1888, the four-movement symphony is cyclical (considered one of Tchaikovsky’s “motto” symphonies), with a theme which recurs in some form in each movement. Like many of Tchaikovsky’s symphonic works, the piece retains an element of tragedy, but has an overall arch leading to triumph which Mr. Lacombe captured with a musical approach emphasizing elegance and clean harmonic flow. Clarinetists Karl Herman and Andrew Lamy opened the first movement in dark and stately fashion, as Mr. Lacombe took his time leading up to a lilting first theme. The wind melodies maintained an even flow, with solos from Mr. Herman and bassoonist Robert Wagner. An almost imperceptible beginning marked the second movement Andante with the beginnings of triumph well introduced by an expressive solo from hornist Chris Komer. The winds took charge in this movement, with graceful solo playing by Mr. Herman, Mr. Wagner, and oboist James Roe topping off the orchestral fabric.

This was a symphony of great tunes and melodic phrases, and Mr. Lacombe paid tribute to its light-hearted touch in the third movement Valse, saving an operatic crescendo for the fourth movement Finale. The work closed in grand fashion, with crisp trumpets and a joyous coda which seemed to characterize the NJSO’s season this year. A lively encore excerpt from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet score sent the audience home in high spirits, no doubt looking forward to more great music from the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra next year.

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