Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

BWW Reviews: THE NEW JERSEY SYMPHONY with VIOLINIST GIL SHAHAM at NJ PAC

If Gioacchino Rossini had written no music in his career other than his overtures, he would still hold a great place in the pantheon of music history. Despite the fact that they tend to follow a formulaic pattern - invariably beginning slowly, frequently just a solo cello, then slowly adding instruments, leading to a great crescendo. The primary motif generally gets repeated numerous times, each time further developed, adding more and more instruments. In spite of all this, they are mini masterpieces. The "Guillaume Tell" is possibly his greatest and certainly his most famous overture, and with its four clearly defined and brilliantly contrasting parts it is practically a full symphony in microcosm.

As musical director Jaques Lacombe pointed out very adroitly in the program notes, in spite of the Americana image that the piece now conjures up (largely due to a half century of use as the theme to "The Lone Ranger," first the radio show, then the TV show, then the movies), the piece is actually extremely international in its pedigree: a French opera, set in Austria, written by an Italian, based on a German poem. One would be seriously hard pressed to find a more international creation!

Maestro Lacombe brought fresh enthusiasm to the well-worn chestnut. From the dark and moody opening cello parts through the famous depiction of morning and climaxing with the majestic fanfare and gallop, the conductor drew tremendous energy coupled with subtlety detailed playing from his orchestra.

The beloved Mendelssohn Violin concerto completed the first half of the program, as Violinist Gil Shaham, performing on and his 1699 "Comtesse de Polignac" Stradivarius violin, brought vim and vigor to what must be the most-performed violin concerto of them all. Mendelssohn broke tradition by introducing the solo instrument right at the beginning of the piece and also by writing out the solo cadenza. Previously, cadenzas had typically been completely improvised by the soloist. Mendelssohn's letters have told us that he chose to connect the movements of his concerto into one uninterrupted piece because he detested mid-performance applause - which he viewed as an annoying distraction, and it was a masterstroke.

The instantly memorable first movement, "Allegro molto appassionato," is in a traditional sonata form, but Mr. Shaham found delightful nuance in virtually every passage - he even appeared to be fingering the parts of the other string players when he was not playing. Mr. Shaham created some beguilingly beautiful colors in the brooding first movement, and chose to deliver the ravishing Andante in a spirited, but effective, "walking pace." The famous third movement was delivered with high voltage and speed adding a level of energy not always heard in performances of the piece. Interestingly, the Mendelssohn was the first recording of Shaham's long and storied career and to his immense credit, nearly thirty years later, he still manages to bring a freshness and vitality to his performance of the work.

As delightful as the Mendelssohn Concerto was, the second half of the concert was unquestionably the highlight, as Maestro Lacomb marshalled the considerable forces of his orchestra in a powerful and passionate reading of Franck's much-loved, and under-performed Symphony in D Minor.

As is often the case with ground-breaking works, at the time of its premier the work was poorly received. The major criticism leveled at the work was that the composer, widely considered merely a composer of organ works, had orchestrated the piece to sound too much like an organ! What they (critics as well as composers such as Gounod and Ravel) largely ignored was the fact that the piece was incredibly almost radically original, boasting a completely unique sonic palate.

The symphony has only three movements, a style of form that Franck preferred and used in most of his major works. The sumptuous score is dominated by a main theme, a three-note motif which is introduced in the mammoth first movement and that echoes the famous question of Beethoven's last string quartet, which he memorably dubbed: Muss es sein? (Must it be?)

Impressively, Maestro Lacombe conducted the piece entirely from memory and seemed to be in a state of ecstasy from start to finish. He brilliantly captured the epic, almost Wagnerian breadth and sweep of the first movement, but did so without ever surrendering to bombast. Throughout the second movement and the joyful finale, the orchestra was on fire, providing their leader with marvelously vivid and colorful playing.

One can only wonder how this magnificent piece, which was once a staple for Furtwangler, Monteux, Klemperer and Van Karajan, has found its way into relative obscurity nowadays. The NJ Symphony's performance of the piece this weekend provided a very powerful argument for the work's reinstatement to the highest ranks of the standard repertoire. Bravo!

Peter Danish

Classical Editor-in-Chief



Related Articles View More Classical Music Stories


From This Author - Peter Danish