New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) pulled out all the stops again for Week Two of its Winter Festival, “America, Inspiring!” This week our treats included a lesser-known work by Bohuslav Martinu and favorites by Maurice Ravel and Sergei Rachmaninoff, with guest conductor Andrew Constantine and featured piano soloist, Terrence Wilson–what an aural feast!
The appetizer was a special pre-concert lecture hosted by classical host and podcaster Naomi Lewin, and featuring experts Dr. Simon Morrison of Princeton University, a professor and author whose latest book “Bolshoi Confidential” is nearing release, and Mark Pottinger of Manhattan College, a professor and hermeneutics expert, who in addition to founding the Visual and Performing Arts Department there, recently returned from a Fellowship at the American Academy in Berlin and is working on “Science and the Romantic Vision in Early Nineteenth-Century Opera.” The conversation provided fascinating insights from scientific, historic and cultural perspectives that are even more poignant with immigration in the news and Twitter feeds of many who regularly attend these very special events. Morrison and Pottinger gave us a great deal to listen for and consider, under Lewin’s expert questions, including how inspired each of the program’s composers had attended carefully to the rhythms of jazz and worked to incorporate the sounds of the people–ALL of the people from laborers to bus drivers to shop keepers, not just socialites or captains of industry–as well as the energy of the early 20th century into their work.
After a brief respite, NJSO and Constantine took the stage. It is such a gift to hear what a guest conductor brings to interpretation of a concert or a body of work. Constantine set the stage for us brilliantly for each piece, adding to what the panel had given us earlier.
Martinu was fascinated by Republic Aviation’s Thunderbolt P-47, a fighter plane that Allies Britain, America, and France, used in the waning years of World War Two. Hans Kindler, a conductor original from Holland, commissioned Martinu in 1945 to write a symphonic scherzo and Martinu decided to give a song of glory to the dedicated pilots who risked their lives and fed their need for speed in the wild blue yonder. Close your eyes and if you’re motorifically inclined, as I am, you thrill to the thrumming of the engines as the strings and orchestra paint a picture of a beautiful day to fly–blue sky flight made more sharply piquant with tendrils of danger woven in. There is a brief peaceful cruise in the central portion of the work, but then it’s back to business with what sounds like a paraphrase of a snippet of “Ride of the Valkyries,” giving us the spice of danger and engagement with the enemy. Fortunately, the war was done before the piece was complete and there is a happy ending after all. This piece reminded me of a brief poem, also completed in 1945, Randall Jarrell’s “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” and I’m grateful for the relative peace we currently enjoy.
We journey back a little further for Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major, featuring the luminous soloist Wilson, who is now a Jersey treasure. Ravel had initially begun sketching this work, then World War One broke out, and other projects, more inspiringly patriotic, necessarily took center stage. Ultimately, the piece took a different shape, moving from a rhapsody to a concerto, and the melody has also undergone a transformation–a theme from Ravel’s native province, with Basque influence, now had the filter of American Jazz and George Gershwin’s work inspiring Ravel, who by now was based in the US. Ravel’s first movement, Allegramente, is brass and brash–blue notes in brass limning the modal texture and Wilson’s lush solos stood as conversation with the orchestra–sometimes pillow-talk, other times philosophy, motion, action and life. Ravel and Wilson told a story together of energy, articulate motion. There is a sensibility of the “now”—again, the music of all people—and drive with sophisticated phrasing and articulation. Allegro Assai is sunlight on a beautiful afternoon, a walk with a beloved, with the measured beat reminiscent of Erik Satie’s “Gymnopédie,” where a Baroque sensibility encounters a Romantic flair and some Modern harmony, finishing with drama. Presto is agile and swift, reminding us that a heartbeat pounds within–sometimes the continual flow of commuting Myrmidons heading into and out of the subway and playful comic moments. We were not at all ready to let Wilson go, and he graced us with a palate-pleasing Études-Tableaux Opus 39, Number Five in E Flat Minor by Rachmaninoff. Each of the Études is not for the faint of heart and Wilson gave us a gift many of us will cherish until his next appearance–this work requires strength, stamina and laser focus: truly a treat!
The second act was devoted entirely to Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, Opus 45, which has a regional history, having been written on Long Island back when it was significantly less populated than it is now. The Non allegro gives us a slightly dark brooding, questing and pensive like a walk through a darkling wood and not quite knowing what you are seeking. Then there’s a familiar motif that many of us first learned not as Rachmaninoff, but rather as the melodic line in an Eric Carmen song in 1976, “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again,” which is actually part of Rachmaninoff’s much earlier third movement of Symphony Number Two from 1906-07. Returning thematically to an earlier work that was not commercially successful in its time lends a memory lane feeling. The Andante con moto (Tempo di valse) has dissonant brass leading to a waltz from a febrile dream, slightly “off,” almost like a more subtle entropy of a music box, giving way to woodwinds and bittersweet spectral sense of danger, before a haunting valse macabre leads to rising energy in the final portion. The Lento assai–Allegro vivace completes the journey but gives us a Rachmaninoff’s sense of impending doom. This was written three years prior to his death, and his fascination with the medieval Dies Irae melody comes full circle. We have his beginning with Symphony Number Two and his career’s culmination with this work a life in a crystal—a complicated, rutilated gem of thrilling and masterful flourishes, aching strings and the clear vision of a man who knows the End—the flirtation with the idea of Death and Wrath of an Almighty, leading to the ultimate realization of the fate of all—making for a brilliant finale to a glorious afternoon.
But wait, grab your coat and plan to stay! The January 21 post-concert accent event was a teaser for January 23 and January 25’s midweek Chamber Music with Eric Wyrick and Brennan Sweet on violin, David Blinn on viola and Na-Young Baek on cello. Hope to see you there!
What is next? Join me for the final week of Winter Festival, America, Inspiring–hurry now for the remaining seats at www.njsymphony.org