The 2006-’07 music season is actually beginning with an ending of sorts. Commemorations of musical high points stemming from the years ending in ’06 or ’56 are reaching their final moments. Celebrations of the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth in 1756 are waning. The nods to the centenary of Shostakovich’s birth in 1906 are fading away. New York’s 92nd Street “Y” is recognizing the 150th anniversary of Robert Schumann’s death in 1856, but there is no general swell of attention to the composer. Among concert programs in the Princeton area that reveal compositions in advance, only six Schumann works are listed. In fact, he is outdistanced by two non-anniversary composers: Brahms with 12 works, and Tchaikovsky with 8. Pieces by Haydn, whose anniversary dates have nothing to do with either ’06 or ’56, equal the number of pieces by Schumann.
With anniversary dates based on ’06 and ’56 on the way out, births and deaths of composers in the years ending in ’07 and’57 do not seem to be making their presence known on area programs. The stats give the lead to Edvard Grieg, who died in 1907, with two of his works listed for performance. Mikhail Glinka, who died in 1857; Edward Elgar, born in 1857; and Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Jean Sibelius, both of whom died in 1957, fare less well than Grieg.
Instead it is Beethoven we see as omnipresent — and he has no relations to any anniversaries this season. Pieces by the versatile, groundbreaking composer are staples for musical nourishment in any performing context. Enticing as it is to look for the novel and the unexpected in the forthcoming season, Beethoven (1770-1827), nevertheless, commands special attention. If any composer is featured for 2006-’07, he’s the one.
The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra plays all nine Beethoven symphonies during the course of the concert year, opening its season in late October with Symphonies No. 1 and No. 9. The performance at New Brunswick’s State Theater takes place on Sunday, October 22, at 3 p.m. The Montclair State University Chorale joins the NJSO in Symphony No. 9 (“The Choral”). The remaining seven symphonies are scattered throughout the season.
Performing all of Beethoven’s symphonies is dear to NJSO’s artistic director Neeme Jarvi, now in his second season at the helm of the orchestra, who conducts 10 weeks of the orchestra’s 17-week season. In the past Jarvi has distinguished himself by making even the most familiar of Beethoven’s work sound fresh and surprising.
Jarvi approaches the Beethoven project with a sense of awe and a feel for craftsmanship. Challenged at the press conference announcing the season by a reporter who inquired why we need another Beethoven cycle, Jarvi says, “We’re not just playing his music, we’re studying it from scratch. Beethoven is an education.”
Successfully, Jarvi conveyed to the gathering the joy of discovering new musical treasures in a piece where every note is familiar. “The opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is a melody,” he says, then demonstrates by first singing the well-known dot-dot-dot-dash material lyrically followed by the same but in staccato form, transforming its character completely. “I’ve conducted 50 Beethoven Fifths” he says, “and they’re always different.”
The NJSO is not alone in presenting the complete Beethoven Symphonies this season. Lincoln Center’s “Great Performers” series opens with performances of the cycle, along with selected overtures, in a five-concert series compressed into the period from October 7 to 13. Bernard Haitink conducts the London Symphony Orchestra. The opening LSO performance begins with Symphony No. 2 and Symphony No 3, pairing one of Beethoven’s most diminutive symphonies with one of his longest ones. In a way, the programming parallels the NJSO’s coupling of the relatively short Symphony No. 1 with the massive “Choral” Symphony. Just as there are multiple choices for interpretation, there are multiple choices for configuring an all-Beethoven series.
Not only are Beethoven’s nine symphonies being programmed by two different orchestras this season, but, remarkably, Beethoven’s complete works for cello and piano are also scheduled twice, both in New York City. As part of “Great Performers’” new series, “Voices and Visionaries,” cellist Pieter Wispelwey and pianist Dejan Lazic present the cycle in a single three-hour program on Sunday, October 15, at Alice Tully Hall. Taking a more leisurely approach, cellist Miklos Perenyi and pianist Andras Schiff, cover the same musical ground in two evenings, Wednesday, April 11, and Thursday, April 12 at the 92nd Street “Y.”
Duplicate programming in the Princeton area is of smaller proportions. Both the NJSO (March 10 in Trenton) and the Academy of Ancient Music (April 30 at McCarter) play the Telemann “Water Music” as well as the Handel “Water Music.” Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” appears at both the NJSO (January 25 in New Brunswick, January 26 in Trenton) and the Princeton Symphony (April 15).
The NJSO “Scheherazade” is part of its annual Winter Festival in January, which this season focuses on music of the Russian Romantics. Rachmaninoff, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Tchaikovsky are included, as well as the lesser-known Russian composers Cesar Cui, Mily Alexeyevich Balakirev, and Osyannikov-Kulikovsky.
In the realm of opera, Puccini’s “Turandot” appears twice. Boheme Opera Company’s fully staged production of “Turandot” takes place Friday and Sunday, November 3 and 5. A semi-staged New Jersey Opera Theater “Turandot” takes place at McCarter Theater on March 4 and at New Brunswick’s State Theater on March 11.
The State Theater presents two differing “Aidas” in January. Three performances of the Elton John musical take place on January 19 and 20. A production by the Bulgarian Opera plays on January 28.
Despite the comfort of the familiar, I could not resist tracking the non-traditional programming for the current season. For me, the zest of the unique leavens the staples.
Exceptionally, Le Triomphe de l’Amour, playing baroque music on period instruments, devotes its three-concert series to literary themes. Jane Austen, Shakespeare, and authors of classical antiquity are each the focus of a separate performance. The Colonial Assembly, a historic dance troupe, participates.
Similarly oriented to a literary theme is “Britannia’s Invitation,” a program of Princeton University Concerts on April 19. With vocalists, a narrator, and an actress, backed up by the 15-member Richardson Baroque Players, the presentation surveys the musical scene familiar to George Frederic Handel, as seen through the eyes of his friend, Mrs. Mary Delany, and other 18th-century commentators.
In addition, Princeton University’s Richardson Chamber Players offers a set of concerts with an out-of-the-ordinary focus. Founded in 1995, the ensemble specializes in off-the-beaten-track music that requires unusual musical forces. This year the group honors patrons whose perception and funding has led to the creation of chamber music masterpieces. Compositions originating in the United States, Paris, and Vienna will be featured in concerts on October 15, February 25, and May 6.
Other innovative events pepper the season. Take, for example, percussion performances. STOMP has four performances in late September at the State Theater. This inventive percussion group uses poles, brooms, newspapers, and hubcaps to make its sounds. We already know from the resident Percussion Ensemble at Rutgers’ Mason Gross School for the Arts that every object is a potential instrument to a percussionist. The Mason Gross group appears in a free concert at Nicholas Auditorium on the Douglass College campus on Friday, October 27.
Also a departure is the State Theater’s celebration of its 85th anniversary by a free screening of “White Oak,” the first feature film shown at the theater in 1921. Dennis James plays organ accompaniment. Later in the season, James provides organ accompaniment for Rudolf Valentino’s last film, “The Sheik” (1926), and “Ben Hur” (1925).
Also making a mark on the innovative agenda is the Princeton Symphony, which presents the exceptional forces of two harps in a December concert on its chamber music series. Awarded for its imaginative programming, the ensemble is also imaginative about its venues. Concerts by the full orchestra take place in Richardson Auditorium. The chamber music concerts are presented at Duke Farms and the Montgomery Center for the Arts’ 1860 House. This season, the Princeton Symphony turns extra-imaginative, when it comes to locations. Its February concert of Paganini and Bartok plays in the auditorium of Stonebridge, a recently-opened continuing-care community adjacent to the 1860 House.
Another Princeton Symphony event worth noting is the return of Mariam Nazarian in a Mozart piano concerto for a March program. U.S. 1 has been following Plainsboro resident Nazarian’s career since she played the Bach “Goldberg Variations” in Carnegie Hall in 1999 at age 16. She is now a graduate student at Harvard.
Looking over plans at Westminster Choir College of Rider University, I register the appointment of Joe Miller as director of choral activities as a major happening. In his first year at Westminster Miller’s gigs include an inaugural performance with the 200-voice Westminster Symphonic Choir on October 20, a performance of the Durufle Requiem with the 40-voice Westminster Choir on November 11, and leading the Symphonic Choir and a Westminster orchestra in Verdi’s Requiem on March 24.
Much as tracking novelty appeals to one surveying the concert season, departing from conventional fare can have its downside for presenters. Sandra Pucciatti, the managing director of Boheme Opera, brought the point home vividly. Last season Boheme departed from its taken-for-granted programming, heavy on Italian works. Knowingly, the company took the risk of presenting Carlisle Floyd’s 1955 masterpiece “Susannah.” It was a compelling production sung with intensity and choreographed to enhance the Appalachian setting. Pucciatti called the move “a professional gamble that paid off professionally.”
However, “Susannah” was not a box-office success, and Boheme has retreated this year to two staples: “Turandot” and “Rigoletto.” “We still want to do non-traditional opera,” Pucciatti says, “but maybe something not as off-beat as `Susannah.’”
I, for one, hope that Boheme and other presenters innovate with their programs. We are blessed in central New Jersey with a cornucopia of musical offerings. The harvest is rich, and welcome. But we need the spice of innovation to enhance our bounty.