A big orchestra with a big, lush sound, the Capital Philharmonic of New Jersey, led by music director Daniel Spalding, opened its 2016-’17 season October 22 at the Patriots Theater at the War Memorial in Trenton, a resplendent setting for this gem of an orchestra.
The season-opener was titled “The Dream of America” and featured cherished works by Aaron Copland and Antonin Dvorak, as well as the multimedia work “Ellis Island: The Dream of America,” by contemporary American composer Peter Boyer.
The latter, which encompassed the second half of the concert, mixed historic photographs from the Ellis Island archives projected on a screen above the stage, along with actors from Trenton’s Passage Theater delivering the words of actual immigrants who passed through the facility, collected through the Ellis Island Oral History Project.
It was certainly a night when the brass section excelled, and particularly so during Copland’s lean but stirring “Fanfare for the Common Man” (1942). The grand opening theme played by the trumpets and punctuated by the bass drum, timpani, and gong, seemed to herald the new season for the orchestra. The theme worked its way from the brilliance of the higher brass, through the French horns and trombones, giving us a kind of sonic “cuddle.”
When Symphony in E minor, No. 9, “From the New World,” was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic in 1892, Dvorak wove many American musical idioms throughout this multi-faceted work — hymns, spirituals, and even Native American music.
As the piece opened the main theme was established and then bounced around the ensemble, popping up in the French horns, then the reeds, then the strings. Passages of the first movement echoed a feeling of movement, and to me, a gathering storm.
Many in the audience probably knew the main melody of the second movement, later adapted by one of Dvorak’s students into the song “Goin’ Home.” This central theme was played tenderly by English Hornist Rheta Smith.
Throughout the work, the strings had absolute control through the softest of sections, as well as intonation that made it seem like only one instrument was playing.
We could hear more of the composer’s Bohemian/Czech roots in the third and fourth movements, as the music zigzagged into a dance between the strings, percussion, and brass.
Several themes, including “Goin’ Home,” came together in the finale, a commingling of musical ideas that might have seemed unlikely but blended beautifully.
As for the 2002 composition “Ellis Island,” composer Boyer reflected in his notes that it is “closer to a theater piece than a pure concert work, though it is intended to be performed in the concert hall.”
The prologue introduced the work’s principal themes, essentially two tempos and moods, one slow and one fast. There were discernible elements of folk music, which transitioned into more brisk, vigorous passages, traded between the brass and the string section, conveying the immigrants’ difficult journeys.
Throughout I could hear a little John Williams (and other crafters of the great American soundtrack), but the Boyer piece also had a strong element of neo-Romanticism.
In addition, there were shades of classic Broadway musicals, even touches of George M. Cohan or Irving Berlin.
A highlight: Susan Moses portrayed the Russian immigrant Katherine Beychok, and as she spoke, first cellist Katrina Kormanski played a bittersweet solo.
The immigrants’ stories tugged at the heart, and the orchestra provided a solid but comfortable musical bed beneath, rising and falling, the mood shifting from yearning, to playful, to martial — the latter illustrating the wars many of the people fled from.
As the orchestra rose to a majestic, cinematic finale, the epilogue had all the actors reading “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus, a poem synonymous with Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty, and American immigration.
The Boyer piece took us through a multiplicity of emotions, but the music was never sentimental or overbearing. The Capital Philharmonic played it with artistry, passion, and compassion.
Next up is the Capital Philharmonic’s New Year’s Eve concert, Saturday, December 31, featuring works by Bernstein, Gershwin, and Strauss. Then, in 2017, the group will perform with guest violinist Ilmar Gavilan, Saturday, March 11. The season concludes Saturday, April 22, with “In the Mood,” a retro 1940s musical featuring singers, dancers, and the String of Pearls Big Band Orchestra.
There were about 400 people in attendance — a good-sized crowd — but dwarfed by the huge theater. I’d love to see many more people discover the Capital Philharmonic and fill those many seats. The group well deserves it.
The Capital Philharmonic Orchestra of New Jersey plays at the Patriots Theater at the War Memorial, 1 Memorial Drive, Trenton. www.capitalphilharmonic.org.