When the Capital Philharmonic Orchestra of New Jersey is at “full throttle,” its power and resonant sound rival that of its big city brethren to the north and south. The programming selected by conductor and music director Daniel Spalding is no doubt as challenging.
The CPNJ’s season-opening concert on October 21 at the War Memorial Theater was a prime example of the difficult and thought-provoking music this group performs.
The concert featured works by Berlioz and Hovhaness, as well as Saint-Saens’ “Symphony No. 3.” The latter showcased organ soloist Joseph Jackson on the 93-year-old Moller theater pipe organ, a Trenton treasure that was originally in Trenton’s Lincoln Theater.
The organ is usually housed in the basement of the theater, but for this concert was brought up to the orchestra level. Dampness alone must have wreaked havoc on its intonation and agility. Then, bravo to the craftsmen of the Garden State Theater Organ Society (GSTOS), who worked for weeks to bring the organ back to its original splendor.
After organist Jackson treated the audience to a musical sampler, the concert was launched with the sprightly “Roman Carnival Overture” by Berlioz.
The piece opened with an English horn solo, soon joined by the full orchestra in a subdued volume and stately tempo. Then, with a kind of swirl through the strings, winds, and percussion, the pace quickened and the volume intensified, filling the huge hall with sound.
Probably less familiar to the audience was Alan Hovhaness’ “Mysterious Mountain” (Symphony No. 2). Spalding noted that Hovhaness felt the mountain was a metaphor for life: the central movement represents human worries and foibles, whereas the first and third movements are more spiritual and numinous.
“Mysterious Mountain” began in a prayerful mood, with the basses, harp, and celeste creating a sense of mystery. Hovhaness crafted some lovely, surprising chords, evoking Eastern/Asian harmonies, and played beautifully by the orchestra, especially the wind section, and particularly the solo oboe.
The symphony’s middle section is a real workout. The double fugue was a steep climb for the CPNJ’s meticulous strings, grounded by the resounding trumpets and lower brass.
The full orchestra worked itself into a precision frenzy, then broke off suddenly into silence, as though the musicians (and the audience) needed to take a deep breath. You could have heard a pin drop.
Then it was back to the main theme as it meandered through the instruments, exploring the colors and tonalities of varying emotions.
Completed in 1886, with its wistful chords and somewhat unusual structure, the Saint-Saens’ Symphony No. 3 might be an early example of Impressionism.
The lower brass paved the way for the solo organ, its soft, hymn-like melody balanced by plucked strings. The organ is used sparingly in the piece and at first you had to really listen to the subtle solo lines. This highlighted the intonation between the orchestra and the old organ, which was spot on, thanks to the GSTOS’ skills.
The energetic second movement opened with more gymnastics for the musicians — this piece is a bear, and that’s why you probably don’t often hear it.
While appreciating the difficulty of this work, I almost forgot about the organ but quickly remembered when soloist Jackson returned with a triple-forte, lower register “boom.”
The orchestra’s sumptuous sound was balanced by the vintage organ’s majestic, thick chords. The symphony increased in tempo and volume until the finale, when the Moller organ really sang, rattling the rafters of the theater.
The standing ovation was for the orchestra, the conductor, and the soloist, but also for the Moller organ and the craftsmanship of the GSTOS. I hope this splendid instrument will make many more appearances.
The CPNJ’s 2017-’18 season continues with its New Year’s Eve concert, Sunday, December 31; Saturday, March 10, a salute to “The Jazz Age,” with soprano Gianine Campbell; season finale, Saturday, April 21, an all-Rachmaninoff program. The War Memorial Theater, 1 Memorial Drive, Trenton. 215-893-1999 or www.capitalphilharmonic.org.