Review: Guest conductor makes debut with N.J. Symphony, leads rich spring program
By James C. Taylor
This past weekend rested on the cusp of March and April as the weather in Newark likewise seemed split between winter and spring. The New Jersey Symphony played along with a program that balanced wintery remorse with the bloom of spring.
The guest conductor on hand Thursday at New Jersey Performing Arts Center contributed to this dichotomy too, sporting an old-fashioned coat with tails (calling to mind a Victorian-era undertaker) but also rocking hot-pink socks. Eric Jacobsen was making his New Jersey debut with these concerts and his conducting bridged this divide of dark and light with grace and insight.
The concert began appropriately with Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin,” … Written for piano during the Great War, and then orchestrated in 1920, “Le Tombeau” is also a remembrance of Couperin (a celebrated French composer from the Baroque era) and other great musicians of the past. Jacobsen truly evoked those past styles in the rich, rhythmic fourth movement “Rigaudon.”
A more piercing piece of remembrance closed the program: Faure’s “Requiem.” … Most impressive was the third movement “Sanctus,” where the voices, harp and strings created a celestial sound, setting the stage for some epic horn blasts.
But the highlight of this program was the hint of spring, evoked in George Walker’s Pulitzer Prize for Music-winning composition, “Lilacs.” This 15-minute work for voice and orchestra won that prize in 1996 (making the longtime Montclair, NJ resident the first African American composer to win that award) and the piece still delights. It’s written in a decidedly 20t Century idiom, but unlike much of the American classical music from that time, it doesn’t feel overly formal or stiff. Walker set four stanzas of Walt Whitman’s elegiac 1865 poem, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” to a score that feels urgent, but not forced.
Much of the credit for this goes to Jacobsen for playing up the brightness in Walker’s orchestrations and soloist Townsend connecting with the composer’s vocal lines. When the soprano sang—and held—the notes of the word “bloom’d” in the first section, it felt as if the first rays of Spring were pouring right from the sun into NJPAC.