July 19, 2017

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra Presents Culmination of Cone Composition Institute

In its ongoing commitment to contemporary music, every summer for the past four years New Jersey Symphony Orchestra has created a “laboratory experience” for four emerging composers to develop their craft and produce a unique work of music, subsequently presented to the public in Richardson Auditorium. Guided by Institute Director and Princeton University Professor of Music Steven Mackey, the four composers who participated in this year’s NJSO Edward T. Cone Composition Institute created pieces reflecting diverse backgrounds and talents. Led by conductor JoAnn Falletta, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra presented a more casual concert atmosphere last Saturday night than during the regular season, but were no less serious about the music, executing well the sophisticated scores of these promising composers. 

For her one-movement Tereza Slumbers, Princeton University PhD candidate Alyssa Weinberg was inspired by Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, musically juxtaposing existential struggle of character with levity and freedom. In Ms. Weinberg’s piece, the gravity of human burden was conveyed by lower strings and brass, with lightness interpreted by impressionistic flute. Such unusual percussive effects as bowing a xylophone were combined with a solid harp played by Lynette Wardle, supported by a pulsating flute played by Kathleen Nester. Ms. Falletta moved the piece along well, with repeated rhythmic patterns in the trombones and two very high piccolos creating musical effects well appreciated by the audience.

Composer Sam Lipman also created dichotomy in his work Song of the Bhagavan, between 20th-century jazz and the 19th-century orchestral music of Mahler and Wagner which Mr. Lipman heard as a youth in Australia. Currently a composition student at the University of Texas at Austin, Mr. Lipman divides his musical life between composing and playing jazz saxophone, often combining these two careers in his works. Song of the Bhagavan paid tribute to the Hindu literary classic Bhagavad Gita, depicting the characters of Krishna and Arjuna in the musical language of both jazz and the 19th-century orchestral tradition. Song of the Bhagavan began with the music of the God-King Krishna in the brass, punctuated by the bass drum. The music of the mortal warrior Arjuna was well conveyed by the section of eight violas. The opening of this work was very ethereal and melodic, and one could tell that Mr. Lipman has extensive experience scoring for film. The lighter passages were lush, with a similar character to the more elegant music of Mahler, with a 3/4 meter adding an element of grace. The sectional viola sound fit right into the texture and dynamic builds were particularly impressive.

Saad Haddad, whose works have been performed by orchestras nationwide (including Princeton Symphony), composed Takht (whose title means “ensemble” in Arabic) as a tribute to traditional Arabic music of the first half of the 20th century. Arabic music is very vocally based, and Takht utilized this characteristic well. From deep within the orchestra, harpist Lynette Wardle began the work with actual singing (screened by the frame of her harp), matched by the flutes, who also vocalized into their instruments. Ms. Wardle controlled much of the changing chromaticism of the piece by sliding a piece of metal up and down the strings of the harp. Other instruments, especially oboist Melanie Feld, added typically Arabic wailing effects. The percussionists played with their hands, rather than sticks or mallets, creating a more natural effect. Throughout the piece, the audience was no doubt always looking to see where the sound was coming from, as Mr. Haddad’s work developed quite a majestic character.

The fourth participant in the Cone Institute is also a PhD candidate at Princeton, and like Mr. Lipman, also a jazz saxophone player. Noah Kaplan’s Forest Through Forest was not so much based on a dichotomy, but rather the idea of things coming together and breaking apart. Mr. Kaplan’s compositional style is rooted in the concept of microtonality, exploring the melodic and harmonic possibilities of notes and tones between conventional pitches, creating a new world of sound. Forest Through Forest employed more conventional instrumentation than previous pieces heard on Saturday night’s program, and contained a great deal of brass fanfare and unusual wind effects with percussion. Sliding trombones and a mournful trumpet solo contrasted with driving rhythmic motives, bringing the work to a close with an orchestral bang.

Institute Director Steven Mackey has always included himself on the program with these young composers, and his Four Iconoclastic Episodes showed how broad and all-encompassing his approach to music is. Dr. Mackey may have been one of those students who drove traditional music teachers crazy — absorbing all the conventional tools of classical music but really wanting to transfer them to his electric guitar and other rock instruments of the 20th century. Fortunately, there is plenty of room at Princeton to think outside the box, and joined by NJSO concertmaster Eric Wyrick on violin and the string sections of the NJSO, Four Iconoclastic Episodes rocked the house at Richardson. Each Episode conveyed a different mood, with both Dr. Mackey and Mr. Wyrick interspersing solo riffs into the orchestral palette. Dr. Mackey brought a number of musical traditions to this piece, from African popular music to Radiohead, to a bit of Van Halen jamming. The four composers who were lucky enough to participate in the Cone Institute this year no doubt learned from Dr. Mackey that music is a continuously evolving medium, and in this 21st century, pretty much anything goes.