The musical celebrations of Leonard Bernstein’s centennial continue, and on October 20 it was the Capital Philharmonic of New Jersey’s turn to toast the American composer.
The all-Bernstein program at the War Memorial’s Patriots Theater in Trenton opened the CPNJ’s 2018-’19 season, its sixth season in its most recent incarnation, led by conductor and music director Daniel Spalding.
This is a big, lush orchestra to begin with, but thanks to Bernstein’s taste for adding instrumentation, it was even bigger Saturday night, with expanded percussion, woodwinds, upper and lower brass sections, a harp, celeste, and a piano. The CPNJ has the size, talent and range to execute these vast pieces by the larger-than-life American composer.
The evening of music started off with Bernstein’s 1944 composition, music for the ballet “Fancy Free.” Westminster-trained tenor Timothy Lupia poignantly sang the introductory vocal “Big Stuff,” once sung by Billie Holiday, among many of music’s luminaries.
Guest pianist Don Tenenblatt really shined in “Fancy Free, his playing evoking something between a smoky, urban jazz club and old-timey saloon. The plot has three boisterous sailors on leave in New York City, drinking and flirting with women, and you could almost hear the “liquid courage” kick in thanks to the piano, strings, and swaggering trombone.
The famous “three sailors’ dance” section of the composition launched into action, as Spalding vigorously led his musicians. Sounding almost like a can-can at one point, the lumbering lower brasses provided the drive and foundation, as the strings dazzled above. Spalding easily managed the transition from mood to mercurial mood.
Plaudits go to a number of soloists for their work on this piece, including Lish Lindsey on piccolo, Sherry Hartman-Apgar on E-flat clarinet, and principal French hornist Craig Smith and principal trumpeter Robert Gravener.
“Symphonic Dances from ‘West Side Story’” was up next, a blend of familiar and beloved melodies from the 1957 show, spiced up with syncopation, jazz, and street influences.
As the well-known tunes trundled by, the CPNJ easily executed the busy orchestration, with everything from finger snaps and shouts of “mambo” to plucked strings, earthy lower brass, and agile winds. I kept an eye on percussion section leader Phyllis Bitow as she moved ably from woodblock to marimba to finger cymbals.
Bravo also to saxophonist Drew Wierzbowski, who provided a plaintive refrain, a kind of urban leitmotif — I could almost see Riff and the Jets skulking through the mean streets.
As the piece transitioned from “Cool” to the controlled chaos of “The Rumble,” the music reached a dizzying peak and then dropped off, except for solo flutist Erica Jo Simon introducing the first few notes of “I Have a Love.”
“The Symphonic Dances” closed with the strings and French horn caressing the ear with this and “Somewhere,” both prayer-like melodies.
Finally the orchestra played Bernstein’s “Symphonic Suite from the film ‘On the Waterfront,’” a dynamic and rarely performed work, almost as gritty as the film itself. The tense, complex, sometimes violent music is challenging to hear and play, but the CPNJ was up to the task.
Out of the three works on the program, this piece really allowed the brass to shine, featuring some excellent solo trumpet and French horn work. The lower brasses were given a vigorous workout, too.
Before the concert, CPNJ president Gloria Teti welcomed the sizable audience to the new season and promised we would be “blown away” by the night’s rip-roaring program. That promise was kept, and the CPNJ did not disappoint.
Next up for the CPNJ is a solo recital by soprano Carla Maffioletti on Friday, December 28, a preview of her appearance with the CPNJ for its popular New Year’s Eve concert on Monday, December 31. On Sunday, February 24, 2019, it’s a program dedicated to great African-American composers. Saturday, March 9, features the CPNJ’s harpist Cheryl Cunningham, and the season closes Saturday, May 4, with violinist Joseph Hsia and musicians from area youth orchestras.
Capital Philharmonic of New Jersey, Patriots Theater at the War Memorial, Memorial Drive, Trenton. 609-203-7433 or www.capitalphilharmonic.org.