Orchestra shows off its new sound

Tuesday, June 03, 2003

Star-Ledger Staff

It's easy enough to introduce a new work at a classical concert, but how to adequately debut a whole new set of instruments?

This was the dilemma facing the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra this past Sunday at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center as it presented to the public for the first time its recently acquired collection of 30 fine Italian-made string instruments. (The group, which includes 13 violins by Stradivarius, three by Guarneri del Gesu and an Amati viola, is called the Golden Age Collection, after the 17th- and 18th-century golden age of Italian violin making.) Whether to primp these historic beauties or play them, that was the question.

They chose to play, and they chose as the medium Bach's Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 3 & 4 and his Orchestral Suite No. 4 in D, scores crafted at approximately the same time these instruments were made. With Jaime Laredo as both guest solo violinist and conductor, this became an echo of a visit by Laredo and the Brandenburg Ensemble to NJPAC just a few months ago the programs were nearly identical. The difference was that the instruments and the ensemble, more than the soloists, were the attraction.

So, through the spirituality and layered counterpoint of Bach, these recent New Jersey émigrés made their first public speech, and their voices were, as the name implies, golden. This was by far the best prepared and rehearsed the players have been when presenting these instruments so far (a series of private events preceded this debut), and so, with the exception of some minor intonation problems in the opening work, one got a taste of the luxurious new sound that has come to the humble NJSO.

Imagine being thirsty and drinking a glass of water clean, functional, easy to ingest, it satisfies the basic need but little more. Now imagine being offered also a nice, steaming hot cup of the finest Belgian chocolate. Suddenly there is flavor, there is a sequence of sensations heat, sweetness, a touch of bitter, perhaps some spices you can't quite name, and the robust satisfaction of a milk base. This is something like the difference between the NJSO's string sound pre-Strads and now.

The most poignant example came in the Largo movement of the Double Violin Concerto, in which concertmaster Eric Wyrick played a 1737 Guarneri del Gesu and Laredo performed on his own silky-toned 1717 Strad. While the rest of the orchestra offered gentle, velvety tufts of chordal harmony at the start of each measure even the accompaniment has a glossier, richer presence to it now -- Wyrick and Laredo traded notes and sequences in what became the classic moment of the evening.

Those listening carefully would have heard the essential difference, illustrated like a textbook, between the two violin makers. Laredo's Strad offered a projecting edge of sweetness in its tone, like a knife that first cuts into the fabric of your ear, then fills in the gap with a seductive rich sensation.

Del Gesus are rarely called "sweet"; instead, these instruments have a robustness and complexity to their sound that is more intriguing than pure. Hence, Wyrick's instrument spoke with a darker, more richly textured voice than Laredo's, and one got the impression that Strads like to speak easily, while del Gesus require more work from their players to get the sound to the listener.

Laredo and the orchestra chose an additive approach. It began with just three each of violins, violas and cellos plus one doublebass for the Third Brandenburg to open the program (with Laredo, on his violin, as soloist) and ended with the entire collection plus winds, brass and extra string players (on their own more modern instruments) for the Fourth Suite. NJSO flutists Bart Feller and Wendy Stern were soloists in the Fourth Brandenburg, and harpsichordist Robert Wolinsky had the thankless task of providing the continuo part in all four works in an environment that tended to make the harpsichord sound disappear.

This was not the most moving Bach concert one could hope for -- Laredo, though an exquisite player, is a competent but not extraordinary Bach conductor. But it was a clean performance, one that showed that the first differences listeners might notice in the NJSO's sound could be the added sensuality and new flavors offered in softer, more introspective moments.

Since Prudential Hall looked to be just over half full, it's clear the instruments alone will not draw audiences to the orchestra. Timing, location, repertoire, soloists and conductor are still big factors in programming. NJSO violinist Joseph Gluck offered good news from the stage, announcing that the orchestra had raised $800,000 of a $1 million challenge grant it desperately needs to complete its season in the black by June 30.

I vaguely remember they originally was offered 46 instead of 30 of these priceless instruments. What happened?