Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXV, No. 30
Wednesday, July 27, 2011
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ONJ and NJSO Join Forces to Explore Mendelssohn’s Celebration of Gutenberg Bible

Nancy Plum

It is hard to argue with the choral music of Felix Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn rediscovered and popularized the music of J.S. Bach, and his own oratorios were key in the evolution of the amateur choral society tradition and the now worldwide movement of choral festivals. Like many 19th century composers, Mendelssohn wrote works for festive town occasions, and the 1840 400th anniversary of Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press (and its subsequent influence on the Protestant Reformation) gave the choral field a Festgesang — a one-movement strophic piece for brass and men’s chorus — and a Lobgesang, a full choral symphony. As part of their continuing summer collaboration, Opera New Jersey (ONJ) and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) brought these two pieces together (apparently a rare occurrence) last Thursday night in Richardson Auditorium. Led by conductor Mark Laycock, who has been on hand conducting Opera New Jersey’s Barber of Seville, Thursday night’s concert brought Mendelssohn’s dramatically-crafted choruses and melodic solo writing to a sold out and very appreciative house.

Following a false start caused by an unfortunate triggering of the fire alarm (sending more than 900 people into the sweltering night), Mr. Laycock showed the NJSO’s ability to play crisp and clean music in the “warm-up” piece of Mendelssohn’s Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Mr. Laycock kept the violins’ swirling-bee figures moving along, gliding easily among sections nicely punctuated by winds and timpani.

Mr. Laycock dispatched the strings for the festive hymn Festgesang, a celebratory piece performed outside in Leipzig as part of the June 1840 Gutenberg Festival. With brass choirs both onstage and in an upper balcony, Mr. Laycock and the men of the Opera New Jersey Chorus recreated the outdoor scene with a spirited and energetic performance. In this piece (whose principal tune was later extracted to become “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”), one could hear the impact of Bach on the young Mendelssohn in the full-bodied men’s sound and antiphonal brass.

Symphony No. 2, Lobgesang, is a nine-movement cantata for six-part chorus, orchestra, and soloists in which, as Mendelssohn wrote, “First the instruments praise in their fashion, and then the chorus and the individual voices.” The first movement’s extended Sinfonia borrowed from the Baroque practice of multi-sectional orchestral introductions, and Mr. Laycock brought out effective nuances and swells. The upper strings cleared the way for Mendelssohn’s elegant writing for the violas, aided by a graceful low clarinet solo from Karl Herman.

The 60 voice Opera Chorus assembled for this performance sang with a full convincing sound, losing a bit of refinement in the top registers of the soprano section, but providing very well-blended a cappella singing in the eighth movement’s chorale harmonization. The chorus and orchestra were joined in this work by guest sopranos Maria D’Amato and Sarah Asmar, as well as tenor Joshua Kohl. Ms. D’Amato demonstrated a full and free voice, singing with ease and emphasizing key words to bring out the text. Mr. Laycock kept her second movement aria, accompanied by women’s voices, moving along quickly. Ms. Asmar sang with the same free and easy vocal quality, but with a lighter texture, and in the fifth movement duet, the two voices were well matched, accompanied by a subtle French horn in the background. Mr. Kohl also sang very expressively, providing a point to the sound to get the text across.

Neither Opera New Jersey nor New Jersey Symphony Orchestra is by any means finished with their summer seasons, but this mid-summer “gumdrop” of Mendelssohn choral music (generously sponsored by William and Judith Scheide) was a pleasure to hear all the way around.

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