NJSO concert review: A season opener for cool cats

09.28.15
Star-Ledger

The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra kicked off its 93rdseason this weekend with a program that featured a few things French, as well as a little flash.

The French things were courtesy of Maurice Ravel and Darius Milhaud, two composers NJSO Music Director Jacques Lacombe clearly enjoys playing, and the flash was delivered by guest soloist, Branford Marsalis (making his NJSO debut) and his gleaming, gold saxophone.

But also on display was Williams' genius for orchestration and, of course, melody. The twelve-minute piece opens with playfully jazzy vibraphone riffs, followed by the orchestra snapping and "shush"-ing, giving the piece an instant cool-cat, 60's feel. Lacombe kept it all balanced, from the rumbling chords of the basses, to Marsalis' cool sax playing. The conductor even kept the horns in check when they threatened to overpower the soloist.

"Escapades" second movement, "Reflections," opens with an extended sax solo, which Marsalis played with assurance and style. Here, Marsalis and the orchestra showcased Williams at his best: a simple melody, set against a carefully orchestrated background. It evoked the haunting "Love Theme" Jerry Goldsmith wrote for "Chinatown," and was the highlight of the concert.

"Escapades" ends with a flourish. At one point towards the finish, Williams calls for a break and lets the saxophone, vibraphone and upright bass jam as a jazz trio. And the three — Simon Boyar on the vibes, veteran bassist Paul Harris and Marsalis — simply crushed it.  All three took solo bows at the end and earned loud ovations. 

After the break, Marsalis returned to play Milhaud's lively "Scaramouche." He had no problem bringing life to the doodley-doodle melodies Milhaud wrote for the sax. 

One part of the 35-minute piece was noteworthy: "The Old Castle" passage, which features a part for alto saxophone. When you heard the clear tone and looked closely up at the stage, who was seated with the orchestra? Without any fanfare or fuss — or listing in the program — Marsalis was there with the band, his graceful horn playing meshing perfectly with the woodwinds seated around him. Talk about a class act.

Read the rest of the review here