Seems like someone at New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) knows how to throw a party. Friday, September 28, saw the bustling gala opening of the Orchestra’s 90th season. An elegant crowd schmoozed and sedately imbibed cocktails in Prudential Hall’s cavernous foyer, to the softly swaying soulful tunes of a jazz trio, which set the tone for the concert program of jazz-influenced symphonic works by George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Ferde Grofé, and living composer John Harbison, each in some way with ties to the Garden State.
Those of us less-fortunate (or economically challenged) who couldn’t or didn’t plunk down $275 for ticket and preconcert cocktails—or $775 for ticket, cocktails, and post-concert banquet—observed wistfully from the First Tier balcony and in consolation bought a beverage of choice from one of the wet-bars scattered throughout yet accessible public areas.
Soon enough the time came to get things underway in the auditorium, which filled to capacity. Recently knighted Maestro Jacques Lacombe has a gift for programming works that share ideas or elements in common. Opening night’s motifs: jazz-influenced pieces by composers from New Jersey or who resided there for a time or were somehow influenced by the state.
Orchestra members respected a white-tie dress code: the men in black cutaway tails, the women presenting glittering floor-length black gowns. Jacques Lacombe mounted the podium to hearty welcoming applause, decked out in a traditional black tuxedo.
John Harbison’s creation from 1985, Remembering Gatsby: Foxtrot for Orchestra, got things rolling. As the title suggests, the deservedly famous novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald inspired the musical number, as it also inspired Harbison’s later stage work, which premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 1999—with a revised Foxtrot for Orchestra now serving as overture. The dramatic dissonance that initiates the piece soon resolves into a tried-and-true Charleston that flows and sways until it all melts away. The augmented percussions included a flexatone, claves, and yes, that was a real trap set among numerous more-customary instruments. A zesty crowd pleaser indeed.
French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet next took the stage sporting a slate skinny suit with a subtle sheen, a white open-collar shirt with a flash of crimson to one side. His pianism opened with a straightforward declamation of “I Got Rhythm,” by George Gershwin, while the orchestra provided restrained accompaniment. The second of five succeeding Variations tossed the tune to the orchestra while pianist served as accompanist with numerous seemingly simple quarter-note pairs of rocking chords wandering up and down the keyboard—slowly—leading to a quick embellished flourish. Variation 3, in contrast, is all syncopated playfulness of fleeting keyboard work, and Variation 4 takes us to a lonely tavern where we hear its soulful piano man. Any regrets about 4’s brevity dissolve with the rollicking festive finale of Variation 5. Again, the audience repaid Jean-Yves Thibaudet with hearty applause for his convincing interpretation of this jazzy 1934 work.
Ferde Grofé’s five-movement Grand Canyon Suite (1931) marked the concert’s halfway point. Folksy melodies serve as foundation to each movement, evoking vivid mental images aptly named: “Sunrise,” “The Painted Desert,” “On the Trail,” “Cloudburst,” and “Sunset.” The orchestra played “Sunset” directly following “Sunrise,” which allowed the repositioned final three movements to build in intensity and end with a bang. Otherwise the work would have ended as serenely as it began.
The section with self-explanatory title “Cloudburst” truly sounds like a wet windy bluster, thanks to timpani and bass drum thunderclaps, fleeting flutes and piccolos evocative of lightning, and a wind machine providing sounds of, well, wind. But undoubtedly the work’s most recognisable section is “On the Trail,” populated by indistinct people on horseback and one very sharply defined burro with its clip-clopping hooves (Chinese temple blocks) and unmistakable braying, blasted by brass. A few audience members stood to applaud Grand Canyon Suite, but it may be that they simply hoped to get a head start to restrooms or return visits to wet-bars.
After the interval, Jean-Yves Thibaudet again occupied the spotlight with arguably the evening’s most well-known and perhaps best-loved work, George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, dating from 1924. From sweeping melodies to jaunting bluesy tunes to brilliant keyboard pyrotechnics, Rhapsody in Blue has everything that speaks of American jazz. In its slower E-Major section—the one containing the work’s most famous melody—a slinky tune first sashays from the piano like a sultry woman who thinks she’s alone in a piano bar, cigarette lightly clutched between fingers the tips of which tuck a stray strand of hair before softly touching her left eyebrow and dropping to her side once more. The rousing finish brought most audience members to their feet in an explosive ovation that included an occasional timid Bravo!; this time, though, no one was headed anywhere.
The year 1950 saw the composition of Duke Ellington’s symphonic creation A Tone Parallel to Harlem, created for but never performed by Arturo Toscanini. On NJSO’s spectacular opening night, this work crowned the program, proving if nothing else had done so, that jazz belongs in the concert hall every bit as much as Beethoven, Bach, and Brahms. It also proved that an orchestra can produce a Big-band sound only through tight ensemble work.
Before the concert performance had gotten underway, co-chairs of NJSO’s Board of Trustees Ruth Lipper and Stephen Sichak, Jr., engaged in a bit of shameless money grubbing and announced the presence of two composers in attendance: Steve Mackey and Robert Aldrich. Ruth Lipper mentioned that the two had been or will be represented in the Orchestra’s New Jersey Roots Project.
At 9:10 p.m. the crowd stood as if one person to cheer Jacques Lacombe and the mighty NJSO following a riveting performance of Harlem. The well-deserved ovation lasted fully five minutes and might have continued considerably longer if a significant portion of those in attendance who paid big bucks did not yet have to dine, their gastronomic conclusion to the festive gala event. Even without preconcert cocktails and post-concert dinner fare, whether in splendid attire or business casual, everyone certainly had plenty to digest at the auspicious beginning of the 2012-2013 season.
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