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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the June 4, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Acoustic Magic for the NJSO

Centuries ago Italian craftsmen turned out violins,

violas, cellos, and double basses that are the role-models for present-day

instrument-makers in search of sonic perfection. As the owner,, since

February,, of 30 vintage instruments the NJSO is unique. No other

orchestra in the world possesses so large a collection of the sought-after

instruments, whose acoustic magic is thought to depend on secrets

no longer accessible.

Herbert Axelrod, owner of the rare instruments, sold the collection

valued at $50 million to the NJSO for $18 million. A Bayonne native,

he wanted the instruments to stay in New Jersey. Pursuing a staged

plan for using the "Golden Age Collection" of instruments,

the NJSO has scheduled a week-long Bach festival, which comes to Princeton

Thursday, June 5, and Saturday, June 7. Less than 40 orchestra members,

about half the orchestral forces, participate in order to show off

all 30 Golden Age instruments. That means maximum saturation for hearing

the rare instruments in an orchestral concert. Those not playing the

newly-acquired instruments are only the winds and the double basses,

since the collection is limited to violins, violas, and cellos.

Thursday, June 5, at 8 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium violinist and

conductor Jaime Laredo leads a program consisting of Bach’s Brandenburg

Concertos No. 3 and 4 and the Double Violin Concerto in D minor. Laredo’s

solo collaborator in the concerto is Eric Wyrick, concertmaster of

the NJSO. Curiously, the Golden Age Collection consists of only two

violas, and one of the three solo violas called for in the Third Brandenburg

Concerto will not be a Golden Age Collection instrument.

Saturday, June 7, at 8 p.m., also in Richardson, pianist Vladimir

Feltsman conducts and solos in a program consisting of Brandenburg

Concertos No. 1 and 2, and the keyboard concerto in G minor. Feltsman

performs on piano, an instrument unknown to Bach. The harpsichord,

the keyboard instrument of Bach’s time, is used in other pieces during

the festival.

"We decided against an early-music approach," says Lawrence

Tamburri, NJSO president. "We’re trying to show off the sound

of the instruments in a familiar context, the way they’re used in

the modern world," he explains. "We don’t want people to have

to get used to a new sound."

The Bach festival is a state-wide splash for the NJSO. The Princeton

concerts duplicate performances at Newark’s New Jersey Arts Performing

Center (NJPAC), where 500 free tickets have been made available for

each of the concerts. Other events were scheduled for Newark’s Newark

Museum, West Orange, Cape May, and Morristown. This Wednesday, June

4, at 7 p.m. in the Newark Museum, instrument maker, dealer, and restorer

James McKean talks about what makes old Italian instruments special,

and members of the NJSO demonstrate the sounds available using their

own instruments and those from the NJSO Golden Age Collection.

Benefactors Herbert and Evelyn Axelrod are unable to attend the festival.

They are in Cremona, Italy, birthplace of the instruments in their

collection, to receive an award from that city. As the guest of the

Axelrods, Cremona’s mayor, Paolo Bodini, attended the $2,500-a-plate

gala in April at the old railroad terminal in Liberty State Park,

where some of the instruments were unveiled. At that time he invited

the orchestra to visit Cremona. Tamburri characterizes the status

of an NJSO visit to Cremona as "wait and see." "We’re

investigating," he says.

Settled, however, is the orchestra’s intention to incorporate

all the instruments into the scheduled 2003-’04 concert season. According

to Tamburri, 10 of the Golden Age instruments have been used in concerts

since their acquisition. While their number is a decided minority

in the 80-member orchestra, Tamburri notes their impact on the sound

of the NJSO. "Just from fall to spring, you can hear the difference,"

he says. In addition, he points out, "they’ve had a positive effect

on morale throughout the orchestra even among non-string players."

The heady prospect of acquiring the Axelrod collection, and the rush

of the first employment of the instruments is now giving way to devising

ways to use best the treasured collection. There are not quite enough

instruments to go around. Furthermore, the quality and value of the

instruments are not identical.

Forty-seven instrumentalists will have to share 30 instruments. The

Golden Age collection furnishes 24 violins for 28 violinists; 2 violas

to be used by ten violists, and 4 cellos to supply 9 cellists.

A committee of musicians, board members, and staff is working out

a rotation system, treading a fine line between mutually exclusive

options. "There are two key issues," Tamburri says. "We

want people to have the instruments long enough to get to know them,

but we want everybody to get a chance at them." He anticipates

a two to three-year cycle for their use by individual musicians.

The heavy involvement of musicians in the planning is one of the hallmarks

of the NJSO. While some orchestras chafe under the rule of autocratic

leaders, the NJSO has been recognized by the American Symphony Orchestra

League, an association encompassing most performing groups, for its

open management.

Typical of the NJSO management approach is Tamburri’s response to

a question about security issues involving the instruments. Understandably

reluctant to discuss the matter, he says, "The most important

security issue is the musicians. We don’t want people to know who

has an instrument and how much it’s worth. If some thief knows that

a musician has a world-famous $3 million instrument, he might not

realize that there’s not really a market for it. He might just end

up pawning it for $100."

Meanwhile, the instruments have to be paid for, and

maintained. Their acquisition was financed by a set of loans and guarantees,

which is falling into place according to plan, says Tamburri. Their

condition will be checked four times a year by an instrument maker

yet to be selected.

The NJSO is exploring ways to use the Golden Age instruments, cherishing

the possibilities. "It’s possible that the Bach Festival is the

first of special events that might take place annually or every two

years to feature these special instruments," Tamburri says. "And

then there are also recording and touring possibilities."

The Golden Age hoard of instruments adds a new dimension to the evolution

of the NJSO as it searches to replace conductor Zdenek Macal, under

whom the democratic management style emerged. The selection of a leader

who will take on the stewardship of an orchestra marked by personal

harmony, and about to consolidate its corner on some of the most precious

instruments on the planet, is a development worth following closely.

— Elaine Strauss

Bach Festival 2003, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra,

Richardson Auditorium, Princeton, 800-ALLEGRO. Music of Johann Sebastian

Bach with guest conductor and violinist Jaime Laredo. $40 & $50. Thursday,

June 5, 8 p.m.

Bach Festival 2003, NJSO, Richardson Auditorium,

Princeton, 800-ALLEGRO. Music of Johann Sebastian Bach with pianist

and guest conductor Vladimir Feltsman. $40 & $50. Saturday, June

7, 8 p.m.

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