I am playing Janus, and viewing the musical scene backwards into 2004 and forwards into 2005. Looking in both directions at once, two high-profile entities emerge: the 81-year old New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and the new New Jersey Opera Theater. The two have memorable narratives. In both cases, the story lines, like well-constructed theater pieces, involve dramatic entrances and exits.
At the NJSO, Zdenek Macal, music director from 1993 to 2002, made a definitive exit and music director designate Neeme Jarvi, whose term officially begins with the 2005-06 season, entered as a frequent guest-conductor (U.S. 1, November 17, 2004). With the move from Macal, born in Brno, in the Czech Republic, to Jarvi, born in Tallinn, Estonia, the programming has shifted from central Europe to Scandinavia.
As for the fledgling New Jersey Opera Theater, we have a newcomer entering into a center-stage position (U.S. 1, July 21, 2004). The lone purveyor of summer opera in the area, now that Opera Festival of New Jersey has departed (at least for the moment) NJOT had notable success in its initial season. In a telephone interview artistic director Scott Altman calls the summer events "stunning and an absolutely overwhelming success. It exceeded expectations 10-fold in audience exuberance, artistic objectives, and educational objectives."
Having modestly made its debut in 2004 at the tiny Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton campus with a single piano as instrumental accompaniment, NJOT moves to McCarter’s Berlind Theater for summer, 2005, and adds an orchestra. The perennial Boheme Opera Company, meanwhile, fills the Trenton War Memorial for its fall and spring offerings.
2004 began with a January Dvorak festival executed in the absence of Macal. Macal had instituted the winter festivals in the mid 1990s and championed devoting two consecutive festivals to Dvorak. Following Macal’s cancellation for 2004, the orchestra magically found substitute conductors and carried on.
The orchestra’s instrumentalists, a collection of self-starters, can perform with minimal outside direction. In a conductorless concert in October, Jackie Kimura, leading invisibly from the keyboard, commanded a lively performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3. He set an irresistible pace, evoking aggressive, punchy sonorities from the brasses that contrasted effectively with his firm, yet cushioned, piano sound. Prowess notwithstanding, members of the orchestra have approved wholeheartedly of Jarvi.
I caught up with Jarvi at a performance of Johannes Brahms’ "German Requiem" in the Trenton War Memorial, where the orchestra’s enthusiasm for him became totally understandable. Jarvi’s conducting embodies small-scale choreography, vivid in its clarity. He has expressive wrists and elbows. His movements are precise and sensitive, workmanlike, and beautiful. His shoulders and back work. With an upturned palm, he conveys a mood of calmness.
With charm and humor, Jarvi talks to the audience. Yet he remains firmly in control of the listeners.
Reverent at the end of the Requiem, Jarvi freezes as the string players steady their motionless bows on their instruments. A single, audience member applauds. With a miniscule, right-hand gesture Jarvi signals what looks like the beginning of more music. The entire audience is noiseless. There is, in fact, no more music, and Jarvi re-establishes the frame of silence with which he wants the piece to end. The episode is an understated test of wills with a subtext of humor.
Jarvi makes his programming imprint with the NJSO Northern Lights Festival, which he designed. He conducts two batches of concerts during the festival, which began Tuesday, January 4, and runs to Sunday, January 23.
In a November conversation with U.S. 1, Jarvi talks of the general need to program familiar pieces because of their box office appeal, even though the less familiar interests him enormously. "That’s where the festival comes in," he says. "You can go in different directions and help orient people. Every year you can do something fresh. The Nordic repertoire is wonderful music, not much performed in the United States, not even in Germany." In an interview with Joseph Horowitz, humanities coordinator for the festival, he says, "Poor world! Poor and unenthusiastic approach to so much great music!" He continues: "I’m amazed at how emotional this music is, because we’re talking about Nordic people – basically, they are cold. Their beauty is on the inside, where there is great tenderness, great feeling." Horowitz calls Jarvi "eloquent in his impatience."
By E-mail Horowitz talks of the accessibility of the festival programs. "This is mainly romantic music, very tuneful," he says. "There is no excuse for our not knowing it." Asked if there is a Scandinavian musical esthetic, he says "this is a huge question. You can begin with cold weather."
Jarvi, in his conversation with Horowitz, says, "Yes, there is such a thing as Nordic music. Historically, these are all small nations, neglected nations, somehow out of sight of Europe. Norway today has only 4.5 million people, Sweden has 9 million, Denmark 5.4 million. Sweden and the Nordic countries, Estonia and the Baltic countries, we can consider all these together. Today people think of Estonia as having been part of Russia. No way! This was only from 1940 to 1991. Estonia and Finland are almost the same nation. Estonian and Finnish are closely-related languages." The remoteness of northern Europe from middle Europe seems to explain the obscurity of its music.
Not all the composers are unfamiliar. American audiences have encountered pieces by Norwegian Edvard Grieg, Finn Jan Sibelius, and Dane Carl Nielsen. Among the lesser known composers are Swede Wilhelm Stenhammar, Estonian Rudolf Tobias, Dane Niels Gade, and Norwegian Johan Svendsen.
"There is really no excuse for our not knowing the Svendsen symphonies; they are terrific," Horowitz says. " And Stenhammar is a composer we need to know. And those Sibelius legends, to my mind, are a lot stronger than most of his symphonies."
The first orchestral concert opens with Sibelius’ "Finlandia," with its familiar patriotic hymn. The choice seems designed to assert that we are all Finns.
A unique feature of the festival is what Horowitz calls a Sibelius marathon on Friday, January 21, at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. The evening starts at 6 p.m. in the Chase Room, with a bilingual re-creation of excerpts from the Finnish epic Kalevala, using actors, song, and antique instruments. Transmitted for more than a millennium by oral tradition, the Kalevala was first written down in 1835. The orchestral concert begins at 8 p.m. in Prudential Hall and includes Sibelius’ demanding Violin Concerto and his "Four Legends from the Kalevala," with interpolated readings. The half hour interval between events allows listeners to bolt down some food.
Perhaps the beginning of an epic, in its own way, is the tale of New Jersey Opera Theater. A year-round enterprise, the organization began with two events in 2002-2003. Twenty events were presented in 2003-04. In 2004-2005, 58 events are taking place, according to Artistic Director Scott Altman.
Committed to fiscal responsibility, the company made its debut in August, 2004, with a set of performances that sampled the opera repertory: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s "Don Giovanni," Benjamin Britten’s "Albert Herring," Maurice Ravel’s "L’Enfant et les Sortileges," and Jacques Offenbach’s "Ba-Ta-Clan." The demand was so great that the company added an extra performance of "Don Giovanni."
The site was the 200-seat Murray Theater on the Princeton campus. A single Yamaha piano was the sole instrumental accompaniment. Master classes by James Morris, Susan Quittmeyer, and Sharon Sweet, as well as concerts by young artists, were part of the program.
For 2005 NJOT plans eight performances from August 8 to August 21 in McCarter’s 300-seat Berlind Theater. The three operas to be presented are all based on plays by that contributor to the French Revolution, playwright Pierre Beaumarchais. They include Mozart’s "Marriage of Figaro," Gioachino Rossini’s "Barber of Seville," and Jules Massenet’s "Cherubin." Performances will be in the original languages, with English supertitles.
As part of its Summer Vocal Institute, NJOT will also present staged scenes from operas by Giovanni Paisiello, Darius Milhaud, and John Corigliano, who also drew on Beaumarchais. In addition, master classes by master vocalists will be included.
NJOT is the vision of vocalists Scott Altman, who serves as artistic director and his wife, Lisa Altman, executive director. Scott is a bass; Lisa, a lyric soprano. Wary of financial problems, the couple, West Windsor residents, handled all aspects of running the company and collected no salaries until November 30.
NJOT has been able to maximize its operations because artists excited about the program agreed either to donate their time or to accept fees well below their normal compensation. Backing also comes from grants. The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the largest private underwriter for the arts in NJ, has awarded the organization a $5,000 grant. Although the award is one of Dodge’s smallest, receiving the grant puts NJOT in prestigious company alongside recipients of hundreds of thousands of dollars, all of whom have survived a rigorous application process. NJOT has also received a $10,000 grant from the Frank and Lydia Bergen Foundation, the Summit-based philanthropy. "We have been in the black since day one," Scott Altman says.
Lisa Altman describes the current status of NJOT with satisfaction. "NJOT is growing by leaps and bounds and has made every effort to reach its goal of creating a full-scale opera company," she says in an E-mail message. "Every step is calculated. Every project has a sound budget. We are extremely proud to have received the incredible response that we have from student to school, educator to parent, young artist to professional artist, and then to our public. According to Geraldine R. Dodge, we are right on target, the target being a financially sound and artistically gratifying company."
With their shared goals of artistic excellence and fiscal soundness, the Altmans and NJSO’s Neeme Jarvi could harmoniously spend a long quiet evening together seeing eye-to-eye. There would be no dramatic tension, just a lot of hearty agreement, providing little inspiration for hopeful playwrights.
NJSO Northern Lights Festival, Tuesday, January 4 to Sunday, January 23, at various locations, including Richardson Auditorium on the Princeton University campus, the State Theater in New Brunswick, and the War Memorial in Trenton. From $20 to $82. Full information at www.njsymphony.org or from 800-255-3476.