Music director Jacques Lacombe has chosen a big piece to conclude the 2010-’11 New Jersey Symphony Orchestra season — Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 3. The longest piece both among Mahler’s works and in the standard repertory, the composition takes more than 90 minutes and consists of six movements. Written from 1893 to 1896, it demands musical forces the size of at least two major performing groups when Haydn and Mozart flourished at the end of the previous century. Two choral groups, a vocal soloist, and off-stage instrumentalists join with a massive onstage instrumental cohort that includes eight horns, five clarinets, and four bassoons.

Mahler 3 is the finale to the first season of Lacombe’s tenure. It makes the season’s opener, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, where four vocal soloists and a choir joined instrumentalists in a 70-minute work, appear relatively dainty. “For the final classical subscription program I have chosen to honor the 100th anniversary of Mahler’s passing,” Lacombe says. “For the occasion, I’ve selected his epic Third Symphony. The music runs such an incredible gamut of emotions, and it never fails to inspire and stir the soul.”

Performances take place Friday, May 20, in Princeton’s Richardson Auditorium; Saturday, May 21 in Newark’s New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC); and Sunday, May 22 in New Brunswick’s State Theater.

The Montclair State University Chorale women and the American Boychoir join the NJSO in performance. The vocal soloist is Canadian-born mezzo soprano Mireille Lebel.

The Montclair State University (MSU) Chorale is the core mixed-voice choral ensemble of the John J. Cali School of Music at Montclair’s College of the Arts. The ensemble has appeared in conductor Lacombe’s “Carmina Burana” with the NJSO. Its members consist of both music majors and non-music majors. Its conductor, Heather J. Buchanan, director of choral Activities at MSU, is a specialist in body-mapping for musicians, a holistic approach to vocal performance based on a non-stressful use of the body. Buchanan holds a master’s degree from Westminster Choir College of Rider University, where she was previously a member of the conducting faculty.

The American Boychoir, based in Princeton since 1950, grows out of the only non-sectarian boys’ choir school in the U.S. Consisting of boys in grades four through eight, the choir performs internationally and has released almost 50 recordings on its own label. Fernando Malvar-Ruiz, music director of the ensemble, leads the group. Certified in the rigorous Kodaly approach to music, he holds a master’s degree in choral conducting from Ohio State University and has completed the coursework toward a doctoral degree in musical arts from the University of Illinois.

NJSO music director Lacombe was born in Cap-de-la-Madeleine, Quebec, Canada. His musical training was at the Conservatoire de Musique de Montreal and at the Hochschule fur Musik in Vienna, Austria. As guest conductor of a riveting NJSO performance of Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” in 2008, he became an inevitable choice as successor to Neeme Jarvi, NJSO’s conductor laureate. Lacombe continues as music director of the Orchestre Symphonique de Trois-Rivieres in Quebec, a post he has held since 2006. His travel schedule is demanding: he just returned, for example, from a performance of Mahler 3 with that symphony as did soloist Mireille Lebel. The choirs for that performance are based in the Trois Rivieres region.

Lebel holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Toronto and a master’s degree from the University of Montreal. She has completed her tenure as a young artist at the Montreal Opera. On the roster of the Erfurt, Germany, Opera Company, she maintains homes in Erfurt and in Montreal. Lebel has performed Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (“The Resurrection”) with conductor Lacombe.

In a telephone interview from her Montreal home prior to the Trois Rivieres performance, Lebel says the concert will have been her first performance of the piece. Rejecting the idea of that concert as a preliminary run, she says, “It’s a premiere, not a dress rehearsal.

“Singing this piece is like heaven for me,” Lebel continues. “Mahler wrote incredibly well for the mezzo voice. Generally, he writes in the middle of the range. When he moves lower or higher than the middle, he never gets extremely low or high. It gives you a chance to explore colors.”

Lacombe has definite ideas about Mahler and his Symphony No. 3. In the “NJSO Backstage” feature on the syphony’s website, he says why he thinks the piece is such a powerful, enduring work. “All Mahler symphonies are really exceptional. He is really quite a benchmark in music history — there is music before and after Mahler. In Mahler 3, the symphony is a hymn to creation and from nature, literally, to God almost. So it is a big, long journey. Mahler originally gave titles to the movements. So from that we know it goes from nature, from flowers and animals, eventually to man, and ultimately to love, and to God.”

Lacombe is in no danger of mutiny from Lebel about interpreting the piece. She has no hard-and-fast positions about conveying Mahler’s material. “I’m just going to go with Jacques,” she says. “He will have a vision about the direction the piece will take. I’ll sink in and go with that.”

Born in Calgary, Lebel moved to Vancouver when she was so young that she has no memories of Calgary. She gives her age as “not a day over 29,” and comments, “That ought to work for me for the next five years.”

Lebel calls her family “not particularly musical.” Her father was president of a mining company; her mother taught English before Mireille was born. As an adolescent, her father played electric bass in a rock band. The parents encouraged their four children to enjoy music. Mireille is the oldest of the siblings, who were all born within a five-year period.

“Very agreeable” is how Lebel describes her bi-continental existence, living in Germany and keeping an apartment in Montreal. “As a member of the Erfurt Opera, I have time for guest contracts, and I have a salary. Erfurt is a central point, two hours from Frankfurt, two hours from Berlin, and 20 minutes from Weimar.

“Generally, people in Germany learn about opera earlier than people in the U.S.,” Lebel says. The average person in Germany would know more than a North American. They grew up with opera. In North America, when I say I’m an opera singer, people have asked, ‘Does that mean that you do ‘Phantom of the Opera?’”

Lebel labels her musical focus as “very diverse.” She says: “The only thing I haven’t done much is current music of living composers. I started in early music and kept those connections. I’ve done a lot of early opera — Lully, Blow, Monteverdi, and Handel. I added symphonic repertoire later.”

Lebel is serene about collaborating with Lacombe in Mahler’s Symphony No. 3. “Jacques is extremely generous,” she says. “He’s so sensitive to a singer, it’s remarkable. I feel safe with him. I feel safe to take risks. Working with him is a pleasure.”

Mahler 3, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, Friday, May 20, 8 p.m., Richardson Auditorium; and Sunday, May 22, 3 p.m., at State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Jacques Lacombe, conductor; Mireille Lebel, mezzo-soprano; Montclair State University Chorale, and the American Boychoir. In honor of the 100th anniversary of Mahler’s death. $20 to $82. 800-ALLEGRO or www.njsymphony.org.

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