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NJSO review: Orchestra scales the heights in Winter Festival concert

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Jan. 24 concert performance of New Jersey Symphony Orchestra

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Friday, Jan. 24, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) presented three complete works on mountain themes. Why read about it now, nearly two weeks later? Because “past performance is the best predictor of future performance.” (Thanks, Dr. Phil, for words of wisdom, from relationship advice. It applies equally well to live music.) And because it was that good.

The three pieces were: “Venusberg Music” from Richard Wagner’s “Tannhäuser” (1861), Vincent D’Indy’s “Symphony on a French Mountain Air,” Op. 25 (1886), and Richard Strauss’ “Alpine Symphony,” Op. 64 (1915). Attendance at the concert was thin, no doubt due to the extreme cold, but maestro Jacques Lacombe and his orchestral forces kept things hot to boiling in Newark’s Prudential Hall. The audience received each piece with warm enthusiasm.

“Venusberg” describes a setting within mountain grottos where the love goddess after whom the mountain is named presides sensuous goings-on. She and her charms have held in thrall various noblemen, among them Tannhäuser, who wishes to leave to experience the real world. Wagner’s music is a lively, at times intense, ballet sequence that ends quietly. Wagner inserted it into the first act of the 1845 opera to comply with French taste when the work was first given in Paris in 1861, when second-act ballet sequences were de rigueur. The ballet’s timing failed to please; in fact, numerous audience members disrupted performances so much that Wagner withdrew the opera after its third performance.

Jacques Lacombe conducted the “Venusberg Music” from memory and drew an appropriately passionate performance from NJSO.

Soloist Pascal Rogé dispatched the subtleties and brilliance of Vincent D’Indy’s “Symphony on a French Mountain Air” as if it were second nature. As mentioned in his pre-performance interview, many times he made the piano blend perfectly with the rich orchestral fabric. Whereas the orchestra introduces the piano in the first movement, the reverse happens in the second and third movements. Maestro Lacombe wove a colourful sonic tapestry from the Orchestra, at times evoking Joseph Canteloube’s much-later “Chants d’Auvergne,” which Canteloube composed 1924-1955. Charming folk tunes dance winsomely in both works.

After the interval, the huge orchestra performed Richard Strauss’ “Alpine Symphony,” a marvel in composition. As Jacques Lacombe said in rehearsal Friday morning, the opening sounds like timelessness. The quiet events accompanying the hiker’s Alpine ascent abruptly dissolve in a blazing C-Major “Sunrise” segment, the motifs of which more quietly recur at various points later in the 51-minute work. Along the way, Strauss’ music paints vivid pictures of the hiker’s encounters with grazing cattle, a sparkling, crystalline waterfall, and even a tremendous storm complete with orchestral rain, thunder, lightning, and gusting wind.

Program notes proclaimed the “Alpine Symphony” a “part of the NJSO’s ongoing observance of Strauss’ 150th birthday.” Next up in the observance? Richard Strauss’ unjustly neglected “Violin Concerto,” to be led by guest conductor Gerard Schwartz in a March 21-23 concert series; NJSO’s concert master, Eric Wyrick, will solo in this brilliant piece. Then, May 30–April 1, the Orchestra presents Strauss’ tone poem “Ein Heldenleben” (A Hero’s Life) under the baton of maestro Lacombe. If past musical performance is indeed the greatest predictor of future performance, NJSO audiences are in for a thrilling time during the rest of the 2013-14 season.

Before returning to NJSO with Giuseppe Verdi’s “Requiem” April 3-6, Jacques Lacombe will conduct Ernest Chausson’s rarely performed opera “Le Roi Arthus” (King Arthur) in France, at Strasbourg’s Opéra national du Rhin (March 14-25, then later, April 11 and 13 in Mullhouse), and in Canada, an all-Brahms program with Orchestre symphonique de Trois Rivières and pianist André Laplante (March 30).

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