Music Review: Jacques Lacombe and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra

June 11th, 2012

NEWARK — Mahler’s Ninth Symphony is a brave undertaking for a smallish band. The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra ended its season, its second with Jacques Lacombe as music director, with performances of that work over the weekend. (Mr. Lacombe closed his first season, last year, with Mahler’s Third Symphony, also a difficult but arguably less challenging assignment.)

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It has been an eventful spring for Mr. Lacombe and the orchestra. Last month they performed at Carnegie Hall as part of the Spring for Music festival. Mr. Lacombe, 48, who hails from Cap-de-la-Madeleine, Quebec, was knighted on Thursday by the National Order of Quebec (in absentia, occupied as he was with the orchestra). And now — 100 years to the month after the work’s premiere, 101 years after the composer’s death — here was Mahler’s grand farewell symphony.

In the first concert, on Thursday afternoon at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center here, the sense of valediction and resignation seemed palpable in the work’s final minutes. With Jonathan Spitz, the principal cellist, setting the tone, those faltering wisps of melody proved truly transcendent, prevailing despite several thunderous fits of coughing from an audience that had been blessedly quiet through most of the afternoon.

There were other lovely moments from the strings, especially in the sighing principal theme of the first movement and its offshoot in the second. But the performance as a whole lacked weight, seeming underpowered in both sound and emotion.

The New Jersey Symphony lists 66 players in its program, some two-thirds of the complement needed to do justice to Mahler’s bigger works. There were 98 musicians onstage: many of them extras, and fine ones, obviously, since the playing was mostly very good apart from a few entrances faulty in intonation or timing (and those not necessarily from extras).

But certain qualities — a taut unity of purpose, a corporate heft that is more than the sum of its parts — come only to players with long experience together. And nowhere are those qualities needed more than in the finale of the Mahler’s Ninth, which has to carry the listener on surges of sound and desperate emotion.

True, that emotion has to begin with the conductor. And Mr. Lacombe, who had obviously prepared the performance meticulously, seemed content to settle for fastidiousness rather than risk the messiness that can come with unbridled passion. But Mahler without risk or passion is not quite Mahler, least of all in the Ninth.

Leonard Bernstein showed one way in this work: several actually. Even Herbert von Karajan, the ultimate perfectionist, discovered another.

Perhaps when Mr. Lacombe and the orchestra return to it in a few years, with more Mahler under their collective belt, they will find the heat and gravity the work demands throughout. They’ve already nailed the ending, and that may be the toughest part.

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