The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra ignites novel attractions for concertgoers in its 2012 winter festival, which runs in central Jersey venues from Saturday, January 7, to Sunday, January 22. Taking fire as its theme, the NJSO presents an extravaganza consisting of three programs. In addition to musical depictions, myth and metaphor play a part. Visual effects enhance the programs. Dancers and actors add their ardor. Craftspeople show wares in which fire plays a part. Environmentalists and community leaders radiate their fire-based concerns.
Music director Jacques Lacombe leads all three programs. A multi-year approach to the January festival that draws on elemental forces was his brainchild. The musical depiction of water, along with non-musical spillovers, gave coherence to the festival in January, 2011. This year fire provides the spark.
The NJSO performs in several different venues but the first program, “The Hero’s Fire,” takes place in central Jersey on Saturday, January 7, at New Brunswick’s State Theater. It brings fulfillment to a dream of visionary composer and mystic Alexander Scriabin. Scriabin associated pitches with particular colors. His music is, on the whole, dissonant without being harsh.
For his Symphony No. 5, subtitled “Prometheus: The Poem of Fire,” Scriabin envisioned color projections to accompany the music and wrote a part for what he called a “color organ.” Scriabin himself participated in the first performance of the piece in 1911, playing the part he wrote for conventional piano. The debut performance took place without color organ.
Veteran lighting designer Al Crawford joins others who have attempted to make up for inadequate technology a century ago. Using a full-size 88-key Yamaha electronic keyboard, Crawford has linked notes on the keyboard to lights corresponding to Scriabin’s color scheme for pitches.
Crawford plays the light-producing keyboard onstage in NJSO performances of “Poem of Fire.” The lighting designer, who is the son of jazz pianist Chip Crawford, says in a phone interview from his New York office, “Piano is in my blood.”
Pianist Yevgeny Sudbin, whose specialties include Scriabin’s music, performs the part that Scriabin wrote for acoustic piano on a conventional concert grand. Igor Stravinsky’s “Firebird” and music from Richard Wagner’s “Die Walkuere” complete the program.
The second program, “Best of Playing with Fire,” turns allegorical with musical depictions of characters who made deals with the devil. It takes place Friday, January 13, in Trenton’s War Memorial.
The final, third program of the festival, “Fire: Light and Legend,” culminates in a presentation based on Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Creatures of Prometheus,” which adds ballet, narration, and lighting effects to the composition. Choreographer Francesca Harper, lyricist Murray Horwitz, and lighting designer Al Crawford enlarge the scope of Beethoven’s score in the newly commissioned production. The concert includes a reading of Kaija Saariaho’s cello concerto, “Notes on Light” with Anssi Karttunen, the Finnish cellist for whom Saariaho wrote the work. It opens with Franz Josef Haydn’s Symphony No. 59 (“Fire). In central New Jersey the concluding program takes place Friday, January 20, at Princeton’s Richardson Auditorium, and Sunday, January 22, at New Brunswick’s State Theater.
Lighting designer Crawford contributes to two of the three programs. His experience with the Alvin Ailey Dance Company furnished him with ample parallels for the NJSO projects. Lighting director for Ailey since 1998, Crawford has produced the lighting for the company in 48 states and more than 60 countries.
He is a man who enjoys the demands of diverse novel challenges. “For Scriabin’s ‘Poem of Fire,’ I was asked to implement the ‘color organ’ that Scriabin imagined would be played with the piece. He clearly had more vision than capability, and my goal is to honor his dream while embracing modern technology and bringing in my sensibility of the music.
“For the Beethoven piece, ‘Creatures of Prometheus,’ it will be much more about story telling,” Crawford continues. “Compared to the Scriabin, lighting the Beethoven is relatively tame.”
In the creative stretch required for both of these non-traditional projects, Crawford maintained close touch with NJSO music director Lacombe. “One of the main things we wanted to accomplish was to use light as another instrument in the orchestra. We wanted to make a bold statement and to avoid some wimpy presentation like just lighting up the piccolo in the corner.
“For the Scriabin I wanted a lighting design that had a dynamic similar to the ‘Poem of Fire’ — something with the same contours in light that the piece has in sound. My lighting is a composition. I have found light to be a perfect medium for me personally.
“Scriabin leaves a lot of unanswered questions,” Crawford says. “That’s gold to me. It gives me an opportunity for my esthetic to come forward. Everyone’s concept of purple is different, the same as are concepts of how a particular color relates to the color that comes before or after. The colors must flow or be jagged appropriately. A lighting system can be staccato and rhythmic or soft and legato. It depends on what the music is doing and on what I see in the score.”
Crawford now knows the Scriabin work intimately. “I listened to the point that it’s natural to my ears. Beyond that, I’ve learned the piece to the point that I can play the color organ with the score. That was my goal. It’s a big honor for a lighting designer to do something of this sort with a large orchestra like the NJSO. It’s very special to me.”
Pianist Yevgeny Sudbin, who performs in the Scriabin “Poem of Fire,” remained outside the loop in preparations for lighting the piece. His first experience of Crawford’s lighting would come at an NJSO rehearsal. But he has vivid memories of exposure to Scriabin. In a telephone interview from his London home, Sudbin says, “Scriabin’s music is dangerous. You don’t know how it affects you until afterwards. His music is like a drug. You feel good while you’re working on it. You don’t notice that you’ve become addicted.”
Sudbin was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1980. His parents, both pianists, met at the St. Petersburg conservatory. The family fled to Berlin in 1990, when Yevgeny was 10. “We had to leave like visitors, and make it appear that we were coming back. When he was 17 he left for London on his own, and completed his education there. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Royal Academy of Music.
“Not only were Scriabin’s ideas ahead of the technology,” Sudbin says, “Scriabin was ahead of humanity. He regarded himself as the messiah. Maybe he was manic-depressive. His ideas were incredibly different from other Russian contemporary composers. He believed that he could fly if he jumped high enough; he believed that he could walk on water.”
Pianist Sudbin calls “Poem of Fire” “very intense.” He labels it “dark and full of mysticism.” The harmonies, he says, are “satanic. It has an amazing impact on audience and performer.”
Sudbin offers no advice on how to approach the piece. “Listeners don’t need advice,” he says. “The piece should affect everyone immediately. There is no need to listen many times. There is something raw and primal about it. The audience should just let things happen, and see how they work out.”
As a basis for “Poem of Fire” Scriabin devised a six-note chord, known as the “mystic chord” with intervals larger than the intervals in conventional chords — the notes are A, D#, G, C#, F#, and B. “The effect of the chord ranges from purely sensual to extremely dark,” Sudbin says. “It can sound innocent and floating, depending on how Scriabin puts it together.”
The piano is a team player in this piece, according to Sudbin. “It’s not like a concerto. It’s more a symphony. The piano is integrated into the orchestra. The piece is a massive organism where the piano is one part of it, rather than having a prominent solistic role.”
To some extent it is possible to pinpoint the means by which the music suggests the idea of fire. “Vibrations,” Sudbin suggests. “Tremolos,” he adds. “A lot of trills. There is a heroic element with horns and other winds.”
Sudbin considers the piano part quite difficult technically. “Scriabin was a great pianist. He had small hands, but his left hand was very developed. His later pieces are difficult for the left hand. They have a lot of jumps. Scriabin had a good ability to spread his hand. That’s clear in the piece. But the main challenge is musical — to convey the mood.”
After recording all of Scriabin’s solo piano works (a prize-winning disc on the Swedish label BIS), Sudbin reports, “I didn’t want to have anything to do with Scriabin. I became almost mentally ill. I became too consumed by the music. It was hard to become normal again. The music is so intense. It is difficult to stay mentally completely stable with those unstable chords around you. You always have to keep a distance to maintain your balance. I overcame my exposure to Scriabin by stopping playing for a while.
“I like to stop playing for a period each year to regenerate,” says the pianist. “After Scriabin I had to stop for several weeks.”
The Hero’s Fire, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Saturday, January 7, 8 p.m. Wagner’s “Wotan’s Farewell” and “Magic Fire Music;” Scriabin’s “Prometheus: the Poem of Fire;” and Stravinsky’s “The Firebird.” Jacques Lacombe conducts. Yevgeny Sudbin on piano. $20 to $85. 800-ALLEGRO or www.njsymphony.org.
Best of Playing with Fire, War Memorial, Trenton. Friday, January 13, 7:30 p.m. Selections from Offenbach, Weber, Gounod, Offenbach, Berlioz, and Dompierre. Jacques Lacombe conducts. $20 to $60.
Fire: Light & Legend, Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University. Friday, January 20, 8 p.m., and the State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Sunday, January 22, 3 p.m. Haydn’s “Fire;” Saariaho’s “Notes on Light;” and Beethoven’s “The Creatures of Prometheus.” Jacques Lacombe conducts. Anssi Karttunen on cello. $20 to $82. A talk, “Hero as Myth: Prometheus Unveiled,” takes place at 7 p.m. at Nassau Presbyterian Church before the Princeton concert and at 2 p.m. before the New Brunswick concert.