A floral supplies store would seem an odd place to shop for musical instruments, but in preparation for New Jersey Symphony Orchestra’s (NJSO) recent North American premiere of Tan Dun’s Earth Concerto, members of the ensemble’s percussion section found themselves looking at planters of varying sizes and materials to serve as drums. Audience members at NJSO’s concert last Friday night at Richardson Auditorium peered with great interest at the three sets of multiple planters, not necessarily realizing that the three percussionists were creating amazing music on items available at the neighborhood gardening emporium.
NJSO Music Director Jacques Lacombe programmed Friday night’s concert of the Tan Dun concerto and Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde as part of the orchestra’s Winter Festival theme of the relationship between music and the elements of nature. Both the Tan Dun and Mahler works were “songs to earth” concerning man and nature. In a type of “chicken and egg” cycle, Chinese composer Tan Dun drew his inspiration for Earth Concerto from Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, while Mahler found inspiration for this work in Hans Bethge’s poetic translation of Tang dynasty poetry.
NJSO programmed Earth Concerto as a closing bookend to Tan Dun’s Water Concerto, performed in the Winter Festival of 2011. The complete title of the work is Earth Concerto for Stone and Ceramic Percussion With Orchestra, and the three-movement work is scored for 99 ceramic and stone instruments with large orchestra. The concerto had its premiere in 2009, and what made NJSO’s North American premiere unique was its use of local instruments. The terra cotta, ceramic, and metal planters played by David Cossin, James Neglia, and James Musto provided scales, bell-like tones, and a somewhat rustic effect which Mr. Cossin noted “brings people back to a quieter and less distracting time.”
Understandably, most of the focus during the performance of Earth Concerto was on the three percussionists, as well as guest artist Zhang Meng, who played three traditional Chinese instruments — ceramic horn, xun, and flute. The most melodic of these instruments was the xun, a globular ocarina-type instrument providing a rich and mellow sound, especially when accompanied by harp. Adding to the percussive effects of the piece was the ceramic horn, which Mr. Zhang blew into, not unlike the indigenous Australian didgeridoo. The ceramic flute, used primarily in the third movement, contrasted with the ostinato played by the three percussionists and a slightly tipsy string sound to match the movement’s title: The Drunkard in Spring.
Tan Dun’s concerto was a work of innovation, as was Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde in its time. Composed in 1907-08, the six-movement work straddled the genres of orchestrated song cycle and symphony, while musically addressing Mahler’s obsession with mortality. Beginning with the trademark Mahlerian horn calls, Mr. Lacombe and the NJSO kicked off the piece majestically. Mahler changes musical moods on a dime, and throughout the work the players had no trouble navigating the composer’s very complex and evolutionary imagination.
American tenor Russell Thomas, who presented the first, third, fifth and final movements, sang with bright and sometimes fierce sound which was necessary to be heard over the thick orchestration. A nice Viennese flow from both singer and instrumentalists marked the reflective third movement, and like its companion third movement of the Tan Dun concerto, the fifth movement of the Mahler was sufficiently tipsy.
Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop displayed exactly the rich vocal tone and sensitivity to the text required for Mahler’s pensive approach to Bethge’s poetry. Both of these vocal soloists were necessarily operatic, and Ms. Bishop was in no hurry to rush the text, providing a bit of sauciness in the fourth movement. In the closing movement, in which both soloists sang, Ms. Bishop floated text describing the peaceful earth as Robert Ingliss’ oboe solo combined with undulating violas to depict a brook that “sings loudly through the darkness.”
The mid-19th century was a heyday for horns, and the horn section of the NJSO showed clarity and unified sound throughout. Mahler exploited almost every instrument of the orchestra in his larger-than-life musical concepts, and NJSO’s wind players in particular demonstrated both grace and strength. A pair of clarinets “wandered” through eternal love and English hornist Andrew Adelson provided supple melodic lines periodically throughout the movements. Mahler’s unique orchestration of piccolo solos, played by Kathleen Nester, added to the playfulness of the Drunk in Springtime fifth movement, and Bart Feller’s sensitive flute playing added to the pathos of the final farewell. Mahler’s underlying optimism was conveyed by the celeste, played by Elizabeth Difelice, as the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra brought the substantial yet poignant work to a close.