Friday, Sept. 27, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra’s 2013-14 season opening-night program packed a punch that brought the heavily-sold audience to its feet. Maestro Jacques Lacombe led the assembled forces of an enlarged orchestra, jazz pianist Geri Allen and Afro Blue, Howard University’s 13-member a cappella jazz chorus directed by Connaitre Miller, in a stirring eclectic program that included a world premiere commission, symphonic works by Duke Ellington and Antonín Dvořák, and traditional American spirituals that were, well, spirited.
President and Chief Executive Officer James Roe—recently promoted from the ranks of the Orchestra—addressed the gala audience and spoke of his 31-year history as oboist. ‘Music is completely invisible, yet utterly handmade. It has uniting potential. It shines a spotlight on how similar we all are instead of focussing on our few and slight differences.’
The program opened with Duke Ellington’s “Three Black Kings,” the third movement of which honours Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The centrepiece of the concert’s first half was Geri Allen’s commissioned work titled “Stone & Streams” for piano, speaker, chorus and orchestra. During quieter passages M. William Howard Jr. declaimed words that tribute Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
The second Ellington composition, “New World A-Comin’,” which closed the concert’s first half, could be called a concerto for piano and orchestra in the jazz idiom. Geri Allen again served as soloist in this crowning work. The sophisticated yet fun Ellington works from this year’s and last year’s opening night programs make one wonder why more orchestras are not performing the symphonic Ellington.
Following the interval, the Orchestra and Afro Blue again took the stage for a stirring performance of “Symphony No. 9, ‘From the New World’,” by Antonín Dvořák. Interspersed among its four movements, the chorus sang three moving traditional American spirituals: “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “(Sometimes I Feel Like a) Motherless Child” and “Ain’-a That Good News.” English Horn Andrew Adelson received a deserved ovation for the extensive plaintive solo passages in the Symphony, the audience stood for the whole orchestra and its maestro, and it raucously cheered for Afro Blue’s solo bow.
Though from the former Czechoslovakia, Antonín Dvořák composed original melodies in the New World Symphony, the basis of which were numerous spirituals he heard and studied throughout his American sojourn. So twice in consecutive opening-night programs Maestro Jacques Lacombe has honoured, first American music in general and now, African-American music in particular. Kudos for the adventuresome programming.
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