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Concert review: NJSO ends season on a high note with Beethoven and Strauss

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May 30 concert by New Jersey Symphony Orchestra

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Touted as the last subscription concert of the 2013-14 season, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) presented two German works Friday, May 30, at Newark’s Prudential Hall. Music Director Jacques Lacombe led the ensemble in Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Concerto in D Major for Violin and Orchestra,” Op. 61, and Richard Strauss’ final tone poem “Ein Heldenleben” (A Hero’s Life), Op 40. Canadian violinist James Ehnes was soloist in the Beethoven, and Concertmaster Eric Wyrick played a leading role in the Strauss.

Tall, slender, James Ehnes cut an elegant figure in black tails and white tie in Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. The wealth of trills in the first movement, marked “Allegro ma non troppo” (Glad but not too glad), he dispatched with complete elegance. Legato was the byword during the Larghetto (A little broadly). The energetic Rondo: Allegro (Round: Glad) came off brilliantly, giving the lie to the misperception that this concerto is introspective, not flashy. The violinist played the cadenzas by Fritz Kreisler.

The ensuing standing ovation elicited an encore from the soloist, namely, the third movement from Bach’s “Sonata No. 2 for Unaccompanied Violin.” The audience listened in rapt silence.

Many commentaries point out Strauss’ autobiographical intentions when composing “Ein Heldenleben.” The titular Hero represents Strauss himself, the Hero’s Companion soprano Pauline De Anha, Strauss’ beloved but often-combative wife, whose music in the symphony is a hefty violin solo, at first excitable before waxing sublime in a magnificent sweeping orchestral tutti. The most amusing depiction comes in the section known as “The Hero’s Adversaries”—the music critics—as squeaky clarinets and piccolo, chirpy flutes and fluttery violins join other woodwinds and limited percussion in an episode of inconsequential cacophony.

The first episode, “The Hero,” came off rumbustiously, full of energy. The third, “The Hero’s Companion,” pitted an at-first chatty and querulous violin played by Concertmaster Eric Wyrick against the orchestra, the eponymous Hero. Numerous times the Hero tried to speak, only to be bettered by the garrulous solo violin of the Companion. Her reappearance in an extensive duet between French horn and violin in the final episode, “The Hero’s Retirement from this World and Consummation,” was touching, as if welcoming her Hero, praising his accomplishments and—ever the soprano—ending on an ethereal high note.

Jacques Lacombe was in peak form, leading both monumental works masterfully. Beethoven flows through his veins, but he and NJSO virtually have Strauss in their genetic makeup.

The program repeats May 31, at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, and June 1, back in Prudential Hall. Far from finished for now, NJSO presents a pops concert June 7 and 8 called “Cirque de la Symphonie,” featuring works by various composers and appearances by “aerial flyers, acrobats, contortionists, dancers, jugglers and strongmen.” Then, June 19-29, Associate Conductor Gemma New leads the Orchestra’s annual free concert series in various venues throughout the state.

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