In the first year of his tenure as music director of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO), Jacques Lacombe has propelled the orchestra’s January Festival onto a multi-year path with compositions inspired by natural elements. The 2011 installment of the project is devoted to water and consists of three programs running between Friday, January 7, and Sunday, January 23, at the seven venues where the orchestra performs. In central New Jersey the first program takes place on Saturday, January 8, at 8 p.m., in New Brunswick’s State Theater.

When the NJSO says “Water,” it is thinking of more than those rippling, bubbly sounds by which musical instruments bring to mind streams, rivers, and seas.

Water itself is the featured instrument in the first set of January programs, when percussionist David Cossin solos in Tan Dun’s “Water Concerto.” Outside of the concert hall, Tan Dun is perhaps best known for his score for the film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

Interviewed by telephone, music director Lacombe says, “The first things that came to mind when water was selected as a theme were the need for theatrical elements and the need for something that people have never seen before.” He found it in Tan Dun’s 1998 “Water Concerto.” Soloist Cossin can be seen performing the 20-minute work with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic on YouTube.

In performance, Cossin presides over two large, illuminated bowls of water at center stage. He splashes and slaps the water; dips a stick into water and whips it through the air; and alters the sound of a vibrating gong by immersing it in water. Two supporting percussionists, one at each side of the stage, assist Cossin. Each plays just one bowl of water.

“I’ll be conducting the piece for the first time,” says Lacombe. “I’ve looked at the score and am fascinated by how you can play with these big bowls and make different sounds. Sometimes they’re background sounds; sometimes they’re percussive rhythms. After a while, as I look at the score, I forget that the solo instrument is water.”

Composer Tan Dun, quoted on the website of G. Schirmer, publisher of his “Water Concerto,” says: “What I want to present is music that is for listening to in a visual way, and watching in an audio way. I want it to be intoxicating. And I hope some people will listen and rediscover the life things, things that are around us but we don’t notice.”

“He sounds like a conductor,” Lacombe says. “A conductor must be able to hear with his eyes when he reads a score, and see with his ears when he’s on the podium. The ‘Water Concerto’ is scored more or less conventionally for a classical orchestra, with winds, brass, tympani, harp, percussion, and strings.” Still, special techniques are called for: winds and brasses must produce sliding pitches; mouthpieces of wind instruments are used by themselves as an instrument; trumpeters make percussion sounds by beating their mouthpieces.

Moreover, the score demands special sound-emitting devices that composer Tan Dun created. “It calls for agogo bells, water phones, slinky phone, water shaker, and water tube,” Lacombe says. The special instruments are rented from New York’s Parnassus Production Company, which also provides the required illuminated glass vessels for water.

Lacombe could provide no information about the special instruments. “Since the soloist [David Cossin] knows the piece well, he will be our guide in the rehearsal process,” Lacombe says.

The desire to make music relevant to daily life lay behind Lacombe’s invitation to non-musical organizations to partner in the NJSO winter festival. “The environment and water are very much in news,” he says. “We need to think about these matters. If we build something artistically interesting, it adds another dimension to the topic. It’s a great occasion to get to know our partners. Maybe from this first step, partnering organizations will come back to us with further ideas for collaborations.”

The orchestra has joined with more than a dozen organizations to present related events that encourage an awareness of water beyond the concert hall. These include the Branch Brook Park Alliance, Friends of Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the Greater Newark Conservancy, the Land Conservancy of New Jersey, the Nature Conservancy, New Jersey Highlands Coalition, New Jersey Meadowlands Commission, Newark Museum, the Sandy Hook Bird Observatory, Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association, Upper Raritan Watershed Association, and the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University.

Special events in conjunction with the festival include “Water: Global Challenges and Local Solutions: A New Jersey Perspective,” a lecture-demonstration by Jim Waltman, executive dircetor, and Jeff Hoagland, education director, both of Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association, highlighting the Watershed’s successful approaches to conservation, education, and advocacy.

Lacombe stops short of believing that the January concerts will automatically have an impact on the natural world. “The nice thing with music is that there are so many different ways to approach it. It’s wide open. You could sit in a concert hall and have an entirely different experience from your neighbor. Listeners can enjoy these concerts for the music alone. We’re not forcing anybody to do anything; people can come to these performances and do what they want.”

The first non-NJSO event took place in October under the auspices of Rutgers’ Zimmerli Museum, where a four-month long special exhibit devoted to water closed on Sunday, January 2. The museum sponsored a free concert at the Raritan River in Highland Park with the New Brunswick Chamber Orchestra playing George Frideric Handel’s “Water Music” and an arrangement of the Rutgers anthem “On the Banks of the Old Raritan” by New Jersey composer Ben Williams.

Lacombe’s intervention shows itself by the inclusion of elements from his “New Jersey Roots” project in the January Festival. The multi-year initiative is an effort to program compositions by New Jersey composers. The opening concerts, Friday and Sunday, January 7 and 9, at NJPAC in Newark, and Saturday, January 8, at the War Memorial in Trenton, includes “Old and Lost Rivers” by Princeton-trained Tobias Picker. The second concert, part of the NJSO “Best of” series, which presents relatively short pieces or selections from long pieces, takes place on Friday, January 14, in Trenton’s War Memorial, and includes Edward T. Cone’s “Dover Beach.” Lacombe conducts both concerts.

Composer Cone, Princeton Class of 1939, long-term Princeton professor, and philanthropist, died in 2004 at age 87. The NJSO presented his music for the first time in November, 2010, when NJSO concertmaster Eric Wyrick performed Cone’s Concerto for Violin and Small Orchestra. Lacombe says, “Cone’s music is not very well known. He was a great composer, but he didn’t have a big interest in getting his music performed. We’re going to try to fix that. I want to allow this music to become alive.”

One of Lacombe’s innovations is to take part in the “Best of” series. Until his arrival these concerts were directed by guest conductors. “It’s a lot of fun conducting the ‘Best of’ programs,” Lacombe says. “It gives me a chance to talk to the audience. I like to do this.” In addition to “The Best of Water,” Lacombe is scheduled to conduct the “Best of Ballet” program in June.

The third concert in the January festival, on Friday, January 21, in Princeton’s Richardson Auditorium, is conducted by emeritus Music Director Neeme Jarvi. “The first program is more French and the Jarvi program is more Russian,” Lacombe says. “We built it together with the orchestra and Jarvi.

“Jarvi will be returning to the [NJSO] for the next few years,” Lacombe says. “It’s so good that he was able to leave on good terms. He wants to come back and has saved time in his schedule for us.”

The natural elements to be featured in future January Festivals are plentiful. That water won out this year may have had something to do with Lacombe’s childhood. “I have been playing with the idea for years about doing something with water, perhaps because my hometown, Trois Rivieres, [Quebec] is surrounded by water. “

Lacombe lists a handful of possible themes for future Winter Festivals: fire, earth, wind, storms, and seasons. “The choice has been made for next year,” he says. “I know what it is, but I can’t tell.”

Lacombe has been keeping his secret during a stay in Canada for the holidays. “We have two homes,” he says, “Montreal and New Jersey. Now that we have an apartment in New Jersey I’m beginning to feel at home here.

“I’ve now conducted in all the [NJSO] venues,” Lacombe says. “Every community has its own personality, its own flavor. I’m very fortunate. I like variety; I find it stimulating. You have to be ready to adjust. There are differing acoustics; you have to be flexible. I think that’s very good for the orchestra.”

Lacombe’s wife Janet, a former computer consultant, has taken on the full-time job of planning his travels. “I’m on the road eight months a year,” he says. “We travel together. She is basically my boss.”

Water! From the River to the Sea, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, Saturday, January 8, 8 p.m., State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, Music of Faure, Tan Dun, Picker, and Debussy. Jacques Lacombe, conductor; David Cossin, percussion. $20 to $82. 800-ALLEGRO or www.njsymphony.org.

At 6:45 p.m., at the Heldrich Hotel in New Brunswick, Chris Wojcik, marine biologist, filmmaker, and Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week” shark cam host, gives a presentation of his short film about the ocean and its inhabitants, including a discussion of his creative collaboration with composer Eric Hemion, who wrote the string quartet heard in the film.

Best of Water, Friday, January 14, 7:30 p.m., War Memorial, Trenton, Music of Handel, Smetana, Mendelssohn, Offenbach, Cone, Chausson, and Strauss. Jacques Lacombe conducts. John Hancock, baritone, is featured. $18 to $57.

At 6:45 p.m., Water: Global Challenges and Local Solutions-A New Jersey Perspective.” Jim Waltman, Executive Director, and Jeff Hoagland, Education Director, Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association give a lecture-demonstration highlighting the Watershed’s successful approaches to conservation, education and advocacy.

“Water: Global Challenge and Local Solutions in Developing Countries,” Friday, January 21, 6:45 p.m., Nassau Presbyterian Church Assembly Room. Daniel Rubenstein, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, and Kelly Caylor, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, both of Princeton University, explore the specific challenges faced by developing countries — how they balance the need to improve the lives of their citizens with the need to conserve natural resources such as water.

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