New Jersey Symphony Orchestra Brings Winter Festival to Princeton
By Nancy Plum
At first glance, the title of New Jersey Symphony Orchestra’s concert this past Friday night would seem to have little connection to the pieces performed. As it turned out, the works by Bohuslav Martinu°, Maurice Ravel, and Sergei Rachmaninoff were all linked to “America, Inspiring,” with each piece rooted in the composer’s association with the United States. Led by guest conductor Andrew Constantine, the orchestra’s performance at Richardson Auditorium showed a little-known side of how America in the first half of the 20th century affected European composers from all regions.
Czech composer Martinu° lived through two world conflicts, residing in the United States for much of the Second World War. He took an interest in American industrial ingenuity, in particular the fully armed Republic Aviation P-47 Thunderbolt fighter aircraft used by the Allied Forces. When commissioned to write a short work for the National Symphony Orchestra in 1945, Martinu° chose to pay tribute to the fighter planes and their pilots with a piece “in praise of speed.” Thunderbolt P-47 started off with a bang on Friday night, with sharp jagged lines and tight orchestration. Constantine kept a steady beat through the frequent changes of musical style, maintaining an urgency and fervor which characterized the music as a wartime piece. The NJSO musicians played crisply and efficiently through swirling music that never stopped, and well-accented offbeat meters kept the music intriguingly unsettled. A lyrical middle section was led by a trio of clarinets, with effectively melodic sectional cello playing. Composed as Allied Forces were marching across Europe in the closing months of the War, Martinu°’s symphonic scherzo well captured the atmosphere of fighter planes soaring through the sky and dodging enemy fire.
Ravel’s connection to the United States came from his travels in the 1920s, when he became familiar with the jazz craze sweeping the country at the time. As a result, his Piano Concerto in G Major was full of Gershwin’s influence and jazz harmonies. Featured with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra was New Jersey pianist Terrence Wilson, considered one of the most exciting up-and-coming piano soloists in the field. Wilson played fluidly throughout the concerto, in a piano part which never stopped and which combined virtuosity and slow jazz. Wilson’s cadenza to the first movement was very compact and impressionistic, well matching the misty orchestral palette. Wilson especially took his time in the second movement songlike passages, executing an extended trill contrasting with Karl Herman’s high register clarinet solo and Andrew Adelson’s mellifluous English horn playing. Military influence could be heard in the snare drum which punctuated the third movement, as Wilson took off in a display of fire and brilliance. Slide trombones recalled American jazz, with quirky wind solos, especially from Robert Wagner on bassoon, an instrument often relegated to the orchestral background.
At the height of his popularity and toward the end of his life, Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff found refuge one summer on the shores of Long Island. It was in this idyllic environment that he composed his last completed score in the three-movement Symphonic Dances. Initially conceived as a ballet for four individual dancers, this work may have been Rachmaninoff’s last orchestral creation but it was his most difficult, especially in the string parts. Conductor Constantine warned the NJSO audience that he would be exploiting possibilities for rubato and flexibility within the music, and the players followed him to the letter.
The first movement was marked by steady pulsating horn playing and clean winds, including graceful solos from flutist Bart Feller, oboist Alexandra Knoll, and English hornist Adelson. Rachmaninoff paid tribute to the American musical scene with the inclusion of alto saxophone, richly played by Chad Smith. An eerie second movement waltz lent itself well to the composer’s original intention to choreograph the work, with solos from Adelson and concertmaster Eric Wyrick suggesting ghostly characters against lush strings. Constantine built the orchestral palette well through the closing movement, with tubular bells adding a distinctive Russian flavor. The full brass introduced Rachmaninoff’s oft-used “Dies Irae” theme as Constantine brought the concert to a swirling close.
Friday night’s concert was part of NJSO’s Winter Festival, and focused on how the United States has inspired composers over the past century. The three works presented in particular showed how seemingly insignificant travels or random encounters with musical genres can have a tremendous, and often unknown, impact on a composer’s work.