By Leslie Kandell
NEWARK, N.J. – Barcarolles for a Sinking City is the title of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra’s commission from Lowell Liebermann, introduced in a subscription series that concluded on Dec. 1. Liebermann’s “sinking city” refers to the grim future of Venice, but in 1967 the sinking city was Newark, whose back story could drown out chatter about any new orchestral music.
Old newsreels on YouTube show the awful aftermath of six days of race riots and looting. The city looked burned down, its streets deserted. Whites fled, the middle class vanished, crime soared, and public schools deteriorated. It was an East Coast Watts, or Detroit.
The city’s comeback has been fantastic, if slow. It is now safe to walk to the New Jersey Performing Arts Center from Newark train stations, and there are no mounted police, as there were in 1997, when the center opened. Prudential Insurance, which gave the main hall’s naming gift, is constructing two more prominent buildings for itself, and a new neon sign on the skyline announces the headquarters of Panasonic. Two restaurants in the arts center complement the nearby dining scene. In 2010, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg surprised Newark with a $100 million matching grant for education. It is not known how much of that money will yield audiences for NJPAC down the road.
The orchestra, which has been the centerpiece at NJPAC, used to play in a Shriners’ temple known as the Mosque Theatre. Since 2010, the ensemble’s music director has been Jacques Lacombe, whose program on Nov. 30 also featured Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G and Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. It was repeated, as is this group’s custom, in other locales around the state.
The orchestra no longer uses string instruments involved in the Herbert Axelrod scandal. In 2003, the collector made a bargain-price offer of some two dozen apparent Strads and Guarneris supposedly worth $50 million. There ensued a scramble to raise money to buy them, the discovery of Axelrod’s fraudulent overvaluing, and his flight as a fugitive to Cuba and Berlin, followed by extradition and imprisonment. (Where the instruments are now is a question unanswered.)
NJPAC’s Prudential Hall, with warm red-brown shading, light wood floors, and stage-level loges, was about two-thirds full, mostly on the main floor. Lacombe spoke about Liebermann’s new piece in a homey way – calling its Quodlibet movement “Name That Tune” – and presented a framed photo to a retiring stagehand.
His program, which avoided repelling anyone, inhabited a tonal world. The Ravel is suffused with Satie and jazz; Bartók was Ravel’s contemporary; and Liebermann has an ingratiating style. His four-movement work for large orchestra was inspired by Liszt’s La lugubre gondola and evokes funeral gondolas carrying the dead along Venetian canals. It is less a barcarolle than a lament, or an elegy.
Modal melodic lines, with full cinematic strings, were a prologue to the third movement’s string and chime timbres, and to the mournful Barcarolle Oubliée, with rainstick and swelling chords. The second barcarolle, Quodlibet, which displays extreme ranges of piccolo and bass clarinet, riffs on how the word “barcarolle” sounds like “Bach chorale.” The movement, which in another piece might be the scherzo, is interrupted by snatches of Watchman, Tell Us of the Night, as well as the famous Tales of Hoffmann barcarolle and, somehow, the theme from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.
The joyful trumpet solo in Ravel’s concerto was an immediate reminder that the native language of the Quebec-born Lacombe is French. In fact, there was more French perfume in the orchestra than in the hearty pianism of the young Texan Adam Golka. Rapport was there, but without Lacombe and the orchestra, the expansive second movement solo came out wooden. Better was the teamwork in the peppy finale.
Lacombe has used the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra as an audition piece, and at this performance it was the piece he came to play. Conducting without a score, he shaped the solo sections cleanly, keeping good control of the striding brass, and the fourth movement’s impudent intermezzo crashers.
The third performance of the program was on Dec. 1 in pleasant New Brunswick. The site is a movie theater, but this orchestra makes it work, having adapted to different venues for decades. The revival of Newark, crowned by a home in NJPAC, is the New Jersey Symphony’s well-deserved reward.
Leslie Kandell has contributed to The New York Times, MusicalAmerica.com, Musical America Directory and several publications in Western Massachusetts. She can be seen in the September issue of Inside Southern Berkshire.