By WILLIAM AMORY
For Montclair Local
“Contrasts,” from the Montclair Orchestra on Sunday, Feb. 25, truly was a study in contrasts. The three pieces on the bill are not typical of the composers’ works.
It was a wonderful and varied afternoon.
“Contrasts” took place in Montclair State University’s Leshowitz Recital hall in the Cali School of Music, included Richard Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll,” “Two Pieces for String Octet” by Dmitri Shostakovich and, after intermission, Wynton Marsalis’ “A Fiddler’s Tale,” with a dynamic reading.
Before the concert began, Conductor David Chan pointed out that the title of the concert, “Contrasts,“ could be applied to the three composers’ works contrasting with each other, as well as each composer’s works’ contrasting with the type of music we might ordinarily associate with each composer.
Chan said that one might expect a long opera in Wagner, but instead, we would hear a lyrical gift to the composer’s wife. Shostakovich, who writes symphonies, would be represented by two short pieces, played by eight musicians. One might expect jazz from the jazz musician Wynton Marsalis, but it was a piece with a spoken narration, Chan said.
“The Siegfried Idyll,” named for the Wagners’ son, Siegfried, showed his mastery of building up of tension, using beautifully simple themes shapes this intimate piece into a profoundly dramatic sequence of moods. The players evoked all of these moods with incisive playing and a lyrical sense of the line. The counterpoint, drawn in vivid duets and trios between various instruments, was transparently sounded. One aspect of the “Idyll” is the use of rhythm to give a heightened sense of anticipation. Minus a tiny lapse or two, the players were excellent, elegantly folding these accelerating rhythms into the texture, heightening the drama, but preserving the “idyllic” in the Idyll.
The two pieces by Shostakovich scored for a string octet were overwhelming in their beauty and wit, evinced by the virtuosic playing of the octet. Chan led, playing first violin. The first of the two pieces showed not only the young composer’s talent for breaking new ground harmonically (it was written in 1924) but also for expressing pathos and an ethereal atmosphere. The playing of the second piece, the Scherzo, was a revelation: because of the commitment of the players and their sense of proportion, phrasing, and conception of the piece, this scherzo was actually funny! Humor depends, among other things, on rhetoric and timing, and Shostakovich, at the age of 19, seems to have had mastery of these elements in a musical context. Dov Scheindlin’s viola playing was exceptional: marvelous both in its resonant lyricism, and its bite.
Commissioned to be based on Stravinsky’s “L’Histoire du Soldat,” Marsalis’ “The Fiddler’s Tale” tells of a bargain with the devil. The Fiddler trades her soul for success, with words by Stanley Crouch. The strengths of Marsalis’ piece were manifest in some of the musical set pieces, particularly when the cornet was featured (an excellent David Krauss), but the piece suffered from interludes that were too long. Perhaps more freedom from the Stravinsky template would have allowed Marsalis more freedom to follow more succinct musical arcs.
Three locals provided the narration: Jazz House Kids’ Founder and President Melissa Walker, a clear and naturally believable Narrator; Marsha Mercant as a truly honey-voiced Fiddler; and Montclair Film Founder and CEO Robert Feinberg as a music-mogul devil speaking with varied accents. The ensemble created the broad spectrum of sonic textures that Marsalis matched to some of the moments in the story. He has scored a driving musical force, led by percussion and cornet, with great color and humorous commentary added by the trombone and woodwinds. Sometimes these fused with a particularly vivid passage by Crouch and a vivid feeling from the narrators. Though inconsistently spread throughout the piece, these moments show us both the potential of Marsalis’ vision, and at times, his real achievement.
Chan has consistently shown over this inaugural season of the Monclair Orchestra his gifts as a conductor and violinist. Another facet of Chan that is emerging is his flair for programming.
The lineup of the night’s concert looked so varied, that one might not have thought the three composers’ works could go together. But we left the concert hall conscious of all the sensations we have felt, wondering at the genius in all three composers, with a lingering feeling that we will be thinking about this concert for some time.
The next concert by the Montclair Orchestra will take place on Sunday, March 4, with the MO Chamber Players, at Van Vleck House & Gardens, followed by a concert on Sunday, March 25, titled “Balletic Reinvention,” at MSU. For more information, visit montclairorchestra.org.