Saturday night, Jan. 26, in Newark’s Prudential Hall, Jacques Lacombe and his world-class New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) scored another resounding success with a concert program that focussed on orchestral storms. The first two works—Tchaikovsky’s ‘The Tempest’ Fantasy-Overture and Jean Sibelius’ Selections from Incidental Music to ‘The Tempest’—shared the same inspiration: Shakespeare’s final stage work. The culminating work, Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony, brewed up a storm of its own.
‘Embattled’ might well describe the composers Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) and Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893). Tchaikovsky waged a lifelong inner conflict, whereas Beethoven was angry with the world.
When Beethoven composed his Sixth Symphony in 1808, he had been battling steadily worsening deafness—a severe form of tinnitus (‘ringing’)—nearly 12 years. The affliction did not impede his creative work as composer, but by 1811 it put a stop to his performing career as pianist and conductor. Yet ahead beginning in 1815 was his protracted custody battle over his nephew Karl; Beethoven sought sole guardianship striving to prove his brother’s widow was an unfit parent. Reasons abound for so much passion, which for our benefit found a suitable outlet in his considerable artistic output. It’s practically amazing that such an understandably angst-ridden man could come up with a lilting optimistic work like his Sixth Symphony.
Tchaikovsky composed ‘The Tempest’ Fantasy-Overture in 1873 at age 33. He had by then recovered from a romantic disenchantment with Belgian soprano Désirée Artôt, who in 1869 up and married Spanish baritone Mariano Padilla y Ramos, effectively breaking her engagement to the composer without prior warning. One would suppose he was not invited to the wedding. In 1877, four years after composing the Fantasy-Overture, he married former student Antonina Miliukova—a disastrous union that lasted only two months. During all this time, he was concerned about keeping quiet the double life he led.
As Saturday’s concert got underway, Maestro Lacombe took the podium and opened the score of Tchaikovsky’s Fantasy-Overture, unleashing a stiff wind, which blew all the notes off the page. (Please comment below if you know who first said this, regarding what work.) NJSO dazzled the Saturday night audience with an ardent reading of the score. Delicate violins at first produced the shimmering waters of a placid sea. Suddenly a storm broke out, turning calm waters into a roiling maelstrom in an overwhelming depiction of thunder, lightning, raging winds, and surging waves. The sweeping love theme exemplifying Miranda and Ferdinand’s quickly aroused passion was nearly as powerful as the sea storm.
Shifting gears to Jean Sibelius’ Selections from Incidental Music to ‘The Tempest’ (1925), the orchestra played first the storm that shipwrecks Ferdinand and his father on Prospero’s enchanted island. Four actors from Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey performed five roles in a heavily abridged version of the fantastical Shakespeare drama: Sherman Howard as Prospero, Victoria Mack as Miranda, Jon Barker as Caliban, and doing double duty, Robbie Collier Sublett as Ariel and Ferdinand.
Sibelius’ seafaring storm is underwhelming when heard in context with the Tchaikovsky. Yet the ten pieces performed from Suites 1 and 2 of the incidental music are characterful. The orchestra by far out-performed a classic 1955 recording of the suites by Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Sir Thomas Beecham.
The concert’s second half was devoted to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68, “Pastoral” (1808), which Maestro Lacombe conducted from memory. He and the orchestra truly hit their stride in this almost completely danceable symphony. The fourth-movement Allegro, subtitled “Thunderstorm,” must be the darkest fleeting Allegro (meaning ‘merry, cheerful, joyous, happy’) ever written. Orchestra and director were in their element. Kudos to the woodwinds and French horn.
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