Named artistic director of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra in October, 2009, Jacques Lacombe officially takes over in September, 2010. However, he has been building a dossier of performances with the orchestra. As a guest conductor in November, 2008, he electrified both audiences and orchestra members with a stunning performance of Karl Orff’s choral romp “Carmina Burana.” Last month he re-introduced himself to New Jersey audiences with a three-genre program consisting of a tone poem by his Canadian compatriot, Jacques Hetu; Johannes Brahms’ violin concerto; and Antonin Dvorak’s well-known “New World Symphony.”
During the period of Thursday through Sunday, May 20 to May 23, Lacombe leads a batch of performances in the NJSO’s “Best of” series, which offers excerpts of works, rather than pieces in their entirety. Introduced in the 2008-’09 season, the “Best of” concerts are 75 minutes long with no intermission; they draw on works too long in their entirety to fit into a single program. The series has attracted a growing number of listeners. The Friday, May 21, concert at Trenton’s War Memorial joins Englewood, Red Bank, and Morristown as venues for the May “Best of Composers at the Keyboard” performances.
The program consists of selections from the works of nine different composers ranging from the 18th to the 20th century. It includes excerpts from Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” and from concertos by Robert Schumann, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Sergei Rachmaninoff. The piano soloists are Italian-born Alessio Bax and his wife, Canadian-born Lucille Chung. The couple alternates in playing solo because of the breadth of the program. Lacombe has worked previously with Chung in France.
In a telephone interview from Montreal, he calls the “Best of” series “a discovery.” “I’ve done similar programs before,” Lacombe says. “They bring in a slightly different audience, which is desirable. They’re good for people who want to learn how to listen. They can be a very positive experience.”
Lacombe likes to speak to audiences. “I’ll talk about aspects of the music we play at the ‘Best of’ concerts.’” he says. “For ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ I’ll compare the original piano version and the orchestral version. It’s always interesting to see what an orchestra can do with a great piano composition.”
Lacombe is eager to participate in every activity of the NJSO, rather than limiting himself to the major subscription concerts. In 2010-’11, his inaugural season, he is scheduled to conduct not only subscription events, but special concerts, and concerts in the “Best of” series, as well as the Pops series and the Family series.
“The relationship between a conductor and an orchestra is like a marriage,” Lacombe says. “The first season is like a honeymoon, where you get to know, discover, and surprise each other.”
Since Lacombe’s appointment as music director, he and the orchestra have had a close look at each other in the April concerts featuring Hetu, Brahms, and Dvorak. “The musicians were interested in learning the Hetu,” Lacombe says. “I had done the piece once before and knew what needed to be rehearsed. We solved the problems very quickly, even a particularly difficult bird song passage. It was a nice surprise. The orchestra was quick at getting to the essence of the music, and I was very happy with the performance.
“We played the program four times,” Lacombe says of the April concerts. “I always try to find something new in performance. I modify things here and there. It keeps the orchestra on edge and responding. In rehearsal, we work in detail. When it comes to performance, what happens is of the moment. I sometimes change a gesture or an indication. I may take a transition a bit slower than the last time, add an accent here, or have the orchestra play a bit softer there. Some orchestras react quickly. The response I got from the NJSO was very satisfying.”
Orchestra members are enthusiastic about their new leader. An NJSO staff member reports that after the mandated break in rehearsal, players are in their chairs early, impatient to experience what Lacombe helps them find in the music.
As a conductor, Lacombe considers himself to be a collaborator with the orchestra’s instrumentalists. “I try to leave room for players to express themselves,” he says. “The last batch of concerts was good for that. The opening of the second movement of the Brahms violin concerto is a big moment for the oboe; and the Dvorak has an important English horn solo. The musicians are eager to do what I want, but in rehearsal, I ask, ‘Show me what you feel.’ Great musicians bring new ideas to the table.”
Preferring to conduct by memory, Lacombe, nevertheless, uses a score when the orchestra accompanies a soloist in a concerto. “It makes everybody more comfortable,” he says.
Lacombe made a conscious decision to conduct without a score when he began working on a doctorate in Vienna after finishing his studies in Montreal. “When I arrived in Vienna, I had to conduct a piece that I had conducted in Montreal. I thought I knew it, but I could only remember the first few bars. I decided that I didn’t want to have to keep relearning old pieces and began to force myself to memorize most of the repertoire.”
He relishes the intimacy that conducting by memory creates between himself and the musicians. “If I can get rid of the music, I feel more freedom because there’s no longer the wall of using the score,” he says.
Hesitant about recommending his strategy for memorizing music as a general remedy, Lacombe has arrived at a procedure that works for him. He avoids starting at the beginning and proceeding bar by bar. “I go from the big picture to small details,” he says. “I need a map in my head, to know where the different elements are. Music is like architecture.”
Lacombe identifies four aspects of memorizing music. First on his list is analysis. He starts with the structure of a piece.
Second, by his system, is what he calls “visual memory.” “It’s something like photographic memory. I get to know the location of a particular features, like a certain melody or a crescendo. It’s like reading music in my head.”
“Audio memory,” in Lacombe’s words, comes next. “I hear in advance what the music is going to be,” he says. “As I conduct one phrase, I hear what will come next. The conductor’s brain is a funny thing. There are three zones: You make a gesture in advance; from that the sound will come; what you hear will shape the next gesture. It has to become second nature.”
“Physical memory” is last. “After you conduct something awhile your arms or eyes go to a particular place. You don’t think of each step. It happens automatically. Glenn Gould [the pianist] would listen to one piece and, at the same time, move his hands for another. I’m an organist. I can play a piece while I have a conversation.”
Lacombe was born in Cap-de-la-Madeleine, Quebec, on Bastille Day, July 14, 1963, and grew up in Trois-Rivieres. His father was a shoemaker, like his grandfather and great-grandfather. “If I had followed him, I would have been the fourth generation,” Lacombe says. “My father didn’t encourage his kids to take over his shop; he spent many long hours there.” Lacombe’s stay-at-home mom became a clerk in a pharmacy after her three children grew up. Neither parent is alive now. Lacombe has two younger sisters. One is a judge in Trois-Rivieres; the other works in administration for a “big box” store.
The family listened to all kinds of music, Lacombe says. His music lessons began at L’Ecole Marie, a private school in Trois-Rivieres, run by Les Filles de Jesus, a religious community. He started with recorders and xylophone, which were part of the normal curriculum. At age 11 he began piano and joined the boys’ choir at the school.
Lacombe’s advanced musical training was at the Conservatory of Music in Montreal. He thinks of his studies at the Vienna Hochschule fuer Musik as a continuation of his training in Montreal. His teachers in Montreal had graduated from the Vienna conservatory, and Lacombe studied in Vienna with a teacher of his Montreal teacher.
“I wanted to be in another country, in a city with much to offer,” says Lacombe, who spent the years 1986 to 1989 in Vienna. “My first year, I went to the opera 85 times. Vienna was affordable, unlike London, Paris, or New York. Sometimes, there was free standing room at the opera. The rush tickets cost five dollars.”
In 1989 Lacombe accepted a position at the University of Trois-Rivieres. Andre Gremillet, who is now CEO of the NJSO, was in his last year at Trois-Rivieres and studied orchestration and conducting with Lacombe.
Lacombe has held a series of conducting posts. He was assistant conductor of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra (1994-1998) and its principal guest conductor (2002-2006); music director of the Philharmonie de Lorraine in Metz, France (1998-2001); chief conductor and music director of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens (1990-2003). He became music director of the Orchestre Symphonique de Trois-Rivieres in 2006 and continues to hold that post along with his NJSO appointment.
As a guest conductor, Lacombe has been on the podium of major orchestras and major opera houses throughout the world. He made his Metropolitan Opera debut in Massenet’s “Werther.”
In the midst of conducting Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, Lacombe jetted back for an NJSO rehearsal in New Jersey. His wife, Janet, a former computer consultant, has taken on the full-time job of planning his travels. “We travel together,” Lacombe says. “It’s a good thing. I’m on the road eight months a year.”
Best of Composers at the Keyboard, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, Patriots Theater, War Memorial, Trenton. Friday, May 21, 7:30 p.m. Jacques Lacombe leads the orchestra in selections from works of Mussorgsky, Schumann, Mozart, and Rachmaninoff. $17 to $55. Register separately for optional light supper in the ballroom at 6 p.m. 800-ALLEGRO or www.njsymphony.org.