The end of 2015 brought the return of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) presentation of George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah,” which will hopefully become a tradition. Handel’s masterwork was performed on December 18 in Princeton, and also at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) in Newark on December 20, which is the performance I enjoyed. There was a holiday atmosphere at NJPAC on Sunday afternoon, as there was a gift fair for last-minute holiday shopping and one-of-a-kind finds among the unique vendors featured. The audience ranged from children through most mature adults, and the glorious music we were soon to enjoy was dancing like sugarplums through my head.
Prior to the beginning of the concert, NJPAC CEO John Schreiber took the stage with NJSO interim CEO Susan Stucker and Montclair University President Susan Cole to discuss the value of partnership. Ably demonstrated by the Montclair State University Singers joining with New Jersey Symphony Orchestra players to perform at NJPAC, partnership, which they all discussed, is so very important is to all organizations, all people. At this time, with so much dissension in the world, Dr. Cole was eloquent on the role of music in giving us all some respite from the world around us. The tone was well-set by our interlocutors for the power and the peace yet to come.
This year, the soloists were as dynamic as last year’s, given Celena Shafer’s glorious soprano, the rich timbre of Adriana Zabala’s mezzo-soprano, William Burden’s noted tenor, and the profundo of Dashon Burton’s bass-baritone. The rich palette that Maestro Jacques Lacombe had to work with made jewel-tone magic in our afternoon.
The Montclair State University Singers was set behind the augmented orchestra. Watching Maestro Lacombe deftly conducting soloists, the choir, and the orchestra was bittersweet, knowing this is his final season with NJSO. His tempi for the choral numbers trended faster than other versions I’ve heard and this gave lightness to what could be unbearable in less experienced hands. The additional energy in these choral sections had me listening differently to a work I’ve heard, and performed several times. There’s always something new in Lacombe’s perspective.
The program included a perfect line reminding some, and informing others, that it is traditional to rise during the “Hallelujah.” This made for a very smooth and orderly process for all and was the classical version of the fabled “seventh inning stretch”.
For the adventuresome, it’s interesting to follow the score of “Messiah” to hear, and see, the choices the soloists and conductor make. The ornamentation and range of each soloist was thrilling and each had something special that remains with me still. Shafer’s effortless high notes, especially on “Come unto Him” often well above the staff, were especially thrilling. Zabala’s gorgeous round tone and delicate, expressive diction were joyful, with my favorite being “He was despised.” Burden’s tenor is a beautiful instrument, silky toned from the beginning Recitativo Accompagnato “Comfort ye,” though for my taste there was emotion in his interpretation better suited to later Italian opera than Baroque music, where the extemporizing is in the ornamentation. His featured “Thy rebuke hath broken His heart,” “Behold, and see,” and “He was cut off” had cantorial moments, perhaps his homage to the recently past Chanukah. Burton’s beautifully wine-rich voice continues to delight in contemplation on the thrilling “The Trumpet shall sound,” one of my favorite passages in the entire work. When it was through, several people were saying the same thing as we wandered to our cars: “NOW it feels like Christmas!”
Remember to get your tickets at www.NJSymphony.org
for the 2016 Winter Festival, which features words of William Shakespeare, as well as Hector Berlioz’ “Symphonie Fantastique.” Celebrate the New Year with the brilliant sounds of NJSO!