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Jeffrey Kahane and New Jersey Symphony Bring Early 20th Century Music to Richardson

Nancy Plum

Music is often a reflection of the times. World or personal calamities often inspire works of classical music, and such was the case with several of the works presented Friday night by the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra in Richardson Auditorium. Conductor Jeffrey Kahane, who doubled as piano soloist, programmed pieces which reflected, from different geographical perspectives, on one of the most intriguing periods in world history.

Composer Paul Hindemith, who eventually ended up in the United States, spent his early years in Germany, where he became very interested in the music of J.S. Bach. Following a post-World War I trend turning away from 19th-century Romantic lushness, Hindemith composed six sets of Kammermusik, inspired not only by Bach but also the cabarets and dance halls so prevalent in Germany in the 1920s. In the first of these Kammermusik, Opus 24, No. 1, each of the thirteen players is called upon to be a virtuoso, yet work together as an ensemble. In Friday night's performance, Mr. Kahane served as both conductor and pianist, emphasizing the strong rhythmic character, yet kept the ensemble sound under control. The inclusion of an accordion in the scoring paid tribute to the Berlin cabarets, but the accordion seemed merely to be part of the color. In the third movement, a glockenspiel called the world to listen, and the ominous and manic finale, complete with siren, foreshadowed the dark period in world history to come.

France was a different world in the 1920s, captured in part by Maurice Ravel's Piano Concerto in G. Completed in the early 1930s, this work shows the influence of Ravel's tour in the United States. Again, Mr. Kahane served as soloist and conductor, proving himself to be very light on the keys and playing with a wide range of drama. Mr. Kahane conducted with a lot of ebb and flow, allowing instrumental soloists, such as harpist Lisa Nadeau Harman, to shimmer. A piano – English horn duet between Mr. Kahane and Andrew Adelson in the second movement was especially effective, together with flutist Bart Feller and hornist Lucinda Lewis.

The third piece with possible wartime influences presented by the orchestra was American composer George Walker's Lyric for Strings, composed shortly after World War II as a memorial to the composer's grandmother. Although not overtly capturing any post-war feeling, Mr. Walker acquired some early 20th-century Ravel style through his studies with Parisian teacher Nadia Boulanger. In the tradition of the Adagio for Strings of Samuel Barber (who also studied with Boulanger), Walker's brief one-movement Lyric for Strings offers especially transparent writing for the inner strings. This piece was cleanly conducted by Mr. Kahane, with these inner voice sonorities well brought out.

Mr. Kahane closed the concert with Schumann's Symphony No. 2, a work of contrasting drama to the previous three pieces. This symphony was composed against the backdrop of Schumann's gradual illness from mercury poisoning, and is full of majesty, fire and dark colors. Coming after three such "heady" pieces, this symphony could have used a bit more fire and fury as it got off the ground. Crisp winds added to the spirit of the Scherzo, and oboe and bassoon solos by Carolyn Pollak and Robert Wagner in the Adagio helped the orchestra settle into the piece. The fourth movement Finale brought out the robust level the orchestra could well have used at the beginning, and brought the symphony to an energetic close.

The New Jersey Symphony's next concert will be March 12. Conducted by Stefan Sanderling the concert will feature pianist Markus Groh in Beethoven's Emperor Concerto, and music of Stravinsky and Schubert. Call 1-800-ALLEGRO.

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