Jacques Lacombe, artistic director of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, turns to playwright William Shakespeare for the orchestra’s 2015 three-concert Winter Festival — one that begins Saturday, January 10, in New Brunswick and includes a Friday, January 16, Princeton engagement.
The 2015 set of festival concerts is the first installment in a two-year project to be completed in 2016. Accounting for the two-year time-line in a telephone interview from his home in Montreal, Lacombe says, “The number of works inspired by Shakespeare is enormous. He has been the inspiration for operas, tone poems, and ballet.”
A Shakespeare enthusiast, Lacombe says that he has supplemented his own knowledge of musical repertoire by consulting Herbert Kupferberg’s “The Book of Classical Music Lists,” which classifies music by topics. “In the section on literature Shakespeare occupies the most space,” Lacombe says.
He adds that his 2015 and 2016 Winter Festival programming choices were connected to anniversaries and notes that Shakespeare was born in 1564, 450 years ago, and died in 1616, 400 years before 2016. “The anniversaries are a good excuse for focusing on Shakespeare,” he says.
Among Shakespeare’s numerous works, his “Romeo and Juliet” pervades the 2015 concerts. The first group of concerts opens with Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture” and excerpts from Charles Gounod’s opera “Romeo and Juliet.”
After intermission the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey and the NJSO dissolve the boundary between actors and instrumentalists. Readings from “Romeo and Juliet” are intertwined with Sergei Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” ballet music. In central New Jersey the event takes place Saturday, January 10, at 8 p.m. in New Brunswick’s State Theater.
The Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey, headquartered on the campus of Drew University in Madison, is the longest-running Shakespeare theater company on the east coast. Bonnie Monte has been its artistic director since 1990.
Monte and Lacombe joined forces for the first time in a presentation based on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” at the NJSO Winter Festival in 2013. “It was her first collaboration of this sort,” Lacombe says. “We learned how to work together.”
The second and third groups of Winter Festival concerts include music from Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story,” where Romeo and Juliet counterparts live in New York City. Hollywood composer David Newman has transformed Bernstein’s Broadway melodies into a violin concerto. The soloist is Sarah Chang, for whom Newman wrote the piece. Chang premiered the work in 2011. She plays the Bernstein/Newman piece in all six venues where the NJSO performs. Chang soloed with the NJSO in Max Bruch’s violin concerto in March, 2013.
In central New Jersey the second group of 2015 Winter Festival concerts can be heard in Princeton’s Richardson Auditorium at 8 p.m. Friday, January 16. Along with the Bernstein/Newman piece, the program includes a version of Tchaikovsky’s orchestral “Fantasy-Overture” with vocal soloists; an excerpt from Frederick Delius’ “A Village Romeo and Juliet,” which sets the tragedy in Switzerland; and Shakespeare-inspired pieces by Antonin Dvorak as well as Samuel Barber.
The central New Jersey venue for the third group of concerts is New Brunswick’s State Theater, where the performance takes place on Sunday, January 25, at 3 p.m. In addition to the Bernstein/Newman piece with Chang, other pieces on the program are Edward Elgar’s “Falstaff” and Erich Korngold’s “Much Ado About Nothing.”
Lacombe describes how this year’s Winter Festival came to concentrate on “Romeo and Juliet,” recounting his thoughts and their evolution into programming decisions.
“It started when I worked with Chang last year,” he says. “We were planning her residency this season at the NJSO. She mentioned the Newman ‘West Side Story’ suite written for her. Then I remembered that I had done the Prokofiev ballet with ‘Romeo and Juliet’ readings twice before. It was one of my first projects in Montreal, and I did it again in France.” (Lacombe conducted the Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal and also the Philharmonie de Lorraine in France.) “It was a matter of putting one and one together.”
“When I learned that Chang could come for two weeks, I programmed the Newman ‘West Side Story’ for all the New Jersey Symphony venues. Then I remembered that after [the NJSO] did ‘The Tempest’ with the New Jersey Shakespeare Theater in 2013, I had talked about other projects with [Shakespeare Theater’s artistic director] Bonnie Monte. I combined my conversations with Sarah and Bonnie,” he says.
“I showed Bonnie my French scripts for the ‘Romeo and Juliet’ performances I had done before,” Lacombe continues. “She took the scripts, listened to the Prokofiev ballet music, and made suggestions resulting in a remodeled and improved version of what I had done. The idea behind the new collaboration is to tell the story of Romeo and Juliet — sometimes by acting, sometimes with music, sometimes by using both. The back-and-forth between text and music creates a different art form, a different artistic object.”
French is a problematic language for translating Shakespeare. French sounds are less crisp than the sounds of English. Further, French poetic practice differs from English usage. Nevertheless, French speakers encounter Shakespeare in their native language.
“I first encountered Shakespeare in French,” says Lacombe, whose native language is French. “Some of the poetry is lost in translation. The rhythm differs in French and in English, but the story and the drama come through. Shakespeare in French translation is a way for us to get to know this giant.”
Lacombe reads literature in French, German, and English. “I first read Goethe in French. Now I read it in German,” he says. (Lacombe’s background includes study at Vienna’s Hochschule fur Musik.) “There’s always something missing in translation.”
Working with actors requires a different approach from working with musicians, Lacombe has learned. “Actors are used to working in another world from orchestral musicians,” he says. “The actors were at first intimidated. They rehearse at length. An orchestra rehearses for two or three days. My role was to make the environment as comfortable as possible for the actors.”
Lacombe describes his procedure for melding actors and musicians. “First the Shakespeare Theater has meetings with Bonnie [Monte],” he says. “I give them the soundtrack, establish cues, and cite where on the track their part starts. Then I rehearse with actors alone, using the cues.”
“Working with actors is not quite like working with a choir,” Lacombe says. “It’s more like working with opera singers. The actors are soloists.”
Lacombe leaves questions of lighting design, costumes, scenery, and props to Shakespeare Theater’s Monte. “That’s her business,” he says.
“The Winter Festival is about combining different art forms,” Lacombe says. Dancers joined the orchestra for Beethoven’s “Creatures of Prometheus” in 2012, when the Winter Festival theme was fire. However, dance is missing from the Shakespeare programs, and Lacombe explains. “I have collaborated with dancers before, but they are not part of this year’s Shakespeare festival. Not all the stages where we perform can accommodate dancers.”
The 2015 Winter Festival is Lacombe’s penultimate set of NJSO January concerts. He announced in October that he would leave the orchestra at the completion of his current contract in August, 2016.
Since his appointment as music director in 2008 Lacombe has been responsible for a variety of initiatives. His New Jersey Roots Project provides a hearing for compositions by New Jersey composers. He has led an array of world and U.S. premieres by contemporary composers and founded the Edward T. Cone Institute in Princeton for training young emerging composers. Lacombe has involved non-instrumental cultural institutions in NJSO programs, drawing on dance, theater, visual arts, choirs, and children’s performing groups.
“One thing I would have loved to do is not going to happen unless there’s a miracle,” Lacombe says. “That is to present a full opera in concert.”
“I conducted ‘Carmen’ in Berlin,” Lacombe says. “I think I do opera well. But it’s difficult to pull it off at the NJSO. NJSO’s schedule calls for performing several nights in a row, and singers need a day off between performances. We would need double castings, which would require additional rehearsal time and would be expensive.”
Lacombe will play no role in choosing his successor. “It’s fine like that,” he says. “It would be odd to be involved.”
Still, Lacombe is open about the qualities he would like to see in his successor. He hopes for a strong musician with an instinct for creativity. “The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra has become known for the kind of programming that we’ve done. I hope that my successor will continue this kind of programming, making his own choices. Audiences responded well to our mix of known compositions and new things. I hope that the person who follows me will continue the pattern.”
Winter Festival. New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, “Romeo and Juliet,” State Theater, New Brunswick. Saturday, January 10, 8 p.m., $20-$87. 800-255-3476, www.njsymphony.org. Also Friday, January 9, 8 p.m., and Sunday, January 11, 3 p.m. NJPAC, Newark.
“Sarah Chang Plays Bernstein,” Richardson Auditorium, Princeton, Friday, January 16, 8 p.m. $20-90. 800-255-3476. www.njsymphony.org. Also Saturday, January 17, 8 p.m. Count Basie Theater, Red Bank, and Sunday, January 18, 3 p.m. Mayo Performing Arts Center, Morristown.
“West Side Story with Sarah Chang,” State Theater, New Brunswick. Sunday, January 25, 3 p.m. $20-$90, 800-255-3476. www.njsymphony.org. Also Thursday, January 22, 7:30 p.m., Bergen PAC, Englewood and Saturday, January 24, 8 p.m., NJPAC, Newark.