Branford Marsalis helps NJ Symphony Orchestra kick off 2015-16 season

by JAY LUSTIG
BRANFORD MARSALIS

BRANFORD MARSALIS

The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra had a lot to celebrate when it performed at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark on Friday. It was the first concert of conductor Jacques Lacombe’s last season with the NJSO as music director, and included saxophonist Branford Marsalis’ first appearance as a guest musician with it. It was also an occasion to honor famed mezzo-soprano opera singer Marilyn Horne with its NJSO-Victor Parsonnet, M.D. Leadership Award.

The program — which was repeated at the State Theatre in New Brunswick on Saturday, and NJPAC on Sunday — took advantage of saxophonist Marsalis’ jazz background with the swaggering “Escapades,” adapted from John Williams score for the 2002 movie “Catch Me If You Can.” This piece heavily featured bass and vibraphone, so at times it was almost like there was a jazz trio at the core of the larger orchestra. In one section, percussion was added by the finger snaps of the orchestra members who were not playing.

The concert began with Maurice Ravel’s sometimes bright and cheerful, sometimes calm and lyrical suite of waltzes, “Valses nobles et sentimentales.” Marsalis did not play on this piece, but was featured on Darius Milhaud’s “Scaramouche” and unobtrusively joined the orchestra’s horn section to play on the concert’s centerpiece, the Ravel orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky’s monumental “Pictures at an Exhibition.”

No opening night jitters were apparent on a program that covered a lot of stylistic ground.

Horne — who performed frequently with the NJSO in the late ’60s and ’70s, when she was married to its music director, Henry Lewis — attended the concert and accepted her award from former Gov. Thomas Kean, but did not speak.

The NJSO’s next concerts are live performances of the soundtrack to the movie “Back to the Future” at 30th anniversary screenings of the movie at Radio City Music Hall in New York, Oct. 15-16; and “Cirque de la Symphonie” concerts, combining acrobatic stunts and dancing with classical favorites, at NJPAC, Oct. 17, and the State Theatre, Oct. 18.

For the complete NJSO 2015-16 schedule, visit NJSymphony.org.

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