During the weekend from February 28 through March 3, Hans Graf was the guest conductor of New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) for a remarkable program featuring the brilliant Jeffrey Kahane. Initially, the program looked very eclectic, but when we got to the heart of the matter, the music on the program was a sublime blend of delicious sound for a mid-winter evening.
Maurice Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin” led us off with a worthy double entendre. “Tombeau” in French means both “tomb” and “remembrance.” On the surface, this is a modern masterpiece, a music gambol that takes the structure of François Couperin and bends it to Ravel’s modernist will. The Allegro moderato is a light and vibrant introduction for what’s to come. The Forlane is more contemplative, flute flirting with strings, and the oboe adds to the conversation. The Menuet is pensive and flowing with an outdoor feel, a wander in the woods with one’s thoughts for company. The Rigaudon, however, is the bookend that returns us to vibrance with undeniable verve and joie de vivre!
When I was reading the program, Ludwig van Beethoven seemed like an odd pairing with the Ravel. However, when it was the Piano Concerto Number Four in G major, Opus 58 and with the hands of a master like Kahane, it was clear we were going for Baroque! This is a different facet of Beethoven–the architecture is there in abundance, the resonant beautiful structure. The features are almost like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Kahane’s thrilling trilling sounds like when a soprano achieves the “spinning ball” feel in spectacular light! And Kahane’s dynamic choices give us a three dimensional aspect to his phrasing, starting with the Allegro moderato, which has a majesty that foreshadows the Romantic period with a lushness one does not often associate with Beethoven. The Andante con moto gives us the more familiar aspect of Ludwig, a rainy day with weak light through stained glass windows, with the orchestra displaying an insistent energy contrasting with the piano’s continued meditation. Graceful bell tones seem to tell a story of love, loss, and life. Finally, the Rondo: Vivace puts a button on the concerto with a glorious return–happy horns, lively strings, and the piano scintillating with joy. Sprightly dancing passages give smartly playful festive glimpses into Ludwig’s febrile brain. The motif is chasing itself, spiraling through the orchestra, and Kahane melts us with his melismatic passages and dazzles with his dynamics for a thoroughly satisfying ride into intermission.
The vernal triple treat concluded in the second act with Symphony Number One in F Minor, Opus 10, written by Dmitri Shostakovich as his final exam, when he was not yet twenty years old! Consider what foreshadowing this was for the man who would write 14 more symphonies in his career and was on his way to becoming one of the foremost composers of the 20th century. We hear in the Allegretto–Allegro non troppo a modern motif, restlessly seeking something and bearing the obsession of the madness of dreams, and the juxtaposition of a martial flair with an evocative oboe providing some exoticism and fantasy. The Allegro has a different texture, integrating piano, not as a solo instrument, but as its own voice at the table, with some modal mysterious and grand arpeggiations portending others, work in something orange, or perhaps hearkening back to a great gate. This 19-year-old’s musical imagination shows the world he sees before him, and he plans to take us along. The Allegro molto–Lento final movement is sturm und drama and, with the movements played without a break, more like a pause or a lift in singing, we feel how fresh and new this must have been in 1919 when it was written. What a gift to send us off into the snow-dappled night.
Want more? I know I do! “Mary Poppins,” the NJSO Gala, and more are in store, so visit now.at www.njsymphony.org