By Erica Miner
This weekend, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and Music Director Jacques Lacombe push the musical envelope by combining perhaps the world’s most iconic work with a piece by one of America’s foremost contemporary composers.
Having conducted the Beethoven early in his very first season with the orchestra, Lacombe and the NJSO have a mutual history with the piece. Pulitzer prize winning composer Jennifer Higdon sets the tone for the Beethoven in her blue cathedral by creating an atmosphere of contemplation about the kinds of lofty ideals that Beethoven’s Ninth embodies.
The impressive array of soloists for the Choral Symphony adds to the anticipation over the event. Barbara Shirvis, soprano, and Metropolitan Opera baritone Stephen Powell perform together frequently to rave reviews as a husband and wife team (http://www.laopus.com/2015/08/boston-landmarks-orchestra-serves-up.html). Metropolitan Opera mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop and internationally known tenor Jonathan Boyd complete the solo quartet. The Westminster Symphonic Choir, directed by Joe Miller, adds their incomparable sound to the mix.
The contrast between Beethoven’s monumental Ninth Symphony and Jennifer Higdon’s meditative blue cathedral will be fascinating to witness. Higdon, whose opera based on Charles Frazier’s bestseller, Cold Mountain, received wide acclaim at its Santa Fe Opera debut last summer, is one of America’s foremost contemporary composers. blue cathedral is one of Higdon’s most widely presented works, having seen 500 over performances since its 2000 premiere. Québecois Lacombe has appeared with celebrated orchestras and operatic soloists worldwide. Both Lacombe and Higdon shared a number of their insights about the upcoming program.
EM: Programming Beethoven’s 9th and Jennifer Higdon’s blue cathedral together makes for a very unusual evening. What unites these two works in your mind?
JL: We were looking for something different to open this program. The last time we did Beethoven’s Ninth was my first week with the NJSO in 2010; we performed Copland’s Canticle of Freedom and wove in famous speeches. So we had already done something special with Beethoven’s Ninth. I had known Higdon’s blue cathedral for quite some time and had always wanted to do it. Then, almost like a light bulb going off, I thought, what if we were to do this piece almost like an overture leading right into the symphony without intermission? In our programming meetings, others had never heard the piece before. So I went to play just a little bit of the recording to give them a taste, and people didn’t want me to stop! They immediately loved it. I think because it feels like the music creates this big cathedral space, feels sort of like a meditation. Jennifer plays around a lot with sounds, even with the physicality of sounds coming from different places. Toward the end, there’s a section in which we use Chinese bells, and you don’t know where the sound is coming from. It creates this impression, this mood that you almost lose sense of time. I feel that same way with Beethoven’s Ninth, regardless of how often I do it. It’s this monumental piece, an hour of music, yet when you finish you almost don’t remember where you started - you get wrapped up in it. So this pairing was interesting to me, and I think it will be powerful in concert.
EM: I absolutely agree. You seem equally at home in symphonic and in operatic repertoire. Do you feel a leaning toward one more than the other?
JL: No, I always try to find a balance because I find that both activities feed each other. It’s healthy for musicians to work with singers because you are constantly reminded of how natural music should sound - in my opinion, the best instrument is still the human voice. When I conduct orchestral works, I am inspired by [imagining] the way singers would approach any specific melody. Then, I like to think that because of all my work as an orchestra conductor, when I am in the pit conducing an opera or ballet, I see my role as not only accompanying the singers but also of making the orchestra almost another character in the opera. I bring my experiences to the symphonic stage and into the pit.
EM: That is a wonderful perspective. What motivated you to launch the NJSO Edward T. Cone Composition Institute program to work with young composers?
JL: It’s always very stimulating for the musicians and me to do new works. When you premiere a new piece, you feel this sort of ownership and a responsibility to the composer - even more so with young composers. I’m not a contemporary music specialist, but I’ve done quite a lot, and I’ve always approached those works with special care and preparation. So when I worked with the composers at the first Cone Institute, I tried to share with the four participants my experience and perspective from my job. Young composers always have a lot of ideas, and it’s important to learn the practical parts of composing for orchestra. We talked a lot about really taking the time to think about how you write and score certain passages, how to make sure all the notations are there, so you can save a lot of time in rehearsal. In professional life, you need to be extremely efficient. I hope they learned from our insights. It was fascinating to see the different personalities and wonderful composers. Chris Rogerson’s Night in the City really felt like a finished project, a huge accomplishment. So I wanted to give him his place in the NJSO’s regular classical season. I’m proud to have his work on the program for my final week with the NJSO, to show the attention we give to new music and young artists and composers.
EM: Rogerson is indeed a promising young talent. You will soon assume leadership of the Bonn Opera. Which are your preferred operatic works?
JL: I have a lot of different tastes. I love French operas, and I grew up listening to Puccini and have always loved Italian opera. I eventually got into German repertoire, works by Wagner and Strauss; I’ve done Russian and Czech repertoire - I love to perform Janáček and would like to do Dvořák’s Rusalka. Classical operas, by Mozart for instance, are such strong ensemble pieces that having a strong team lets you present those works in the best way. I’ve had great pleasure working with the bel canto repertoire recently. With the right cast - I recently did La Favorite by Donizetti with Juan Diego Flórez in Monaco and Paris - it can be just incredible. I also like to explore less-performed works, so I’m quite flexible.
EM: Since its premiere in 2000, over 400 orchestras have performed blue cathedral. To what would you attribute its remarkably universal appeal?
JH: I’ve had the privilege of attending many performances of blue cathedral, and I’m touched by the number of audience members who thank me for writing the work and describe a personal experience they can relate to what they’ve heard. Others have talked about how exciting it is to hear a contemporary work that touches listeners on a purely emotional level. I’ve heard similar comments from musicians and conductors, and I hope that the work continues to touch listeners at a very basic human level in dealing with death and life.
EM: I have no doubt whatsoever that its positive effect will continue. Santa Fe Opera is renowned for its premieres of contemporary works. What was it like to have your first opera premiered there?
JH: It was an incredible experience to see my first opera go to the stage. Nothing can prepare you for all of that’s involved in producing an opera, and I have an even deeper respect for singers who can traverse giant pieces of scenery while acting and singing!
EM: Do you plan on writing more operas?
JH: Since I’ve just finished revisions for the East Coast premiere of Cold Mountain, I’m a bit exhausted and can’t imagine doing anything else at the moment! However, yes, I do see more opera projects in the future.
Concert tickets are available online at www.njsymphony.org or by phone at 1.800.ALLEGRO (255.3476).
Photos used by permission of: Fred Stucker, J. Henry Fair
Erica Miner can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org