It’s hard to go wrong with Shakespeare. Music from Leonard Bernstein’s “Romeo and Juliet” update “West Side Story,” arranged into a suite by David Newman and featuring violinist Sarah Chang, was the main attraction of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra’s Thursday night concert at BergenPAC in Englewood (which will be repeated at NJPAC in Newark, Saturday, and the State Theatre in New Brunswick, Sunday). But the evening as a whole was a celebration of Shakespearean-inspired music, since the orchestra also played two richly multifaceted pieces — Edward Elgar’s “Falstaff,” Op. 68 and Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s “Much Ado About Nothing” Suite, Op. 11 — in addition to the short “The Walk to the Paradise Garden” from Frederick Delius’ opera “A Village Romeo and Juliet.”
Newman created the “West Side Story” suite specifically for Chang, and it’s easy to see why: The larger-than-life yearning of “Tonight” and “Somewhere” and the swaggering aggression of “The Jet Song” and “The Rumble” all play to her theatrical strengths; she often leaned far back, while playing, to underscore a musical point. (It was a clever touch to have orchestra members snap their fingers during “Jet Song,” and yell out “Rumble!” later.) Chang, who is near the end of a two-week residency with the Symphony that involves both playing at concerts and participating in educational programs, exuded confidence, and added some memorable flourishes to the familiar melodies. But the piece lasted less than half an hour, and she didn’t play on anything else, so those attending primarily to hear her didn’t really get that much of her.
The Delius excerpt was a late addition to the program: a “bonus track,” in the words of conductor Jacques Lacombe, who noted that the orchestra played it in concerts last week (also featuring Chang), and it fit so well with the “West Side Story” suite that they decided to add it. It’s mostly a calm, thoughtful piece, and served as a dream-like prologue to the fireworks that followed.
Elgar’s “Falstaff” was inspired by Shakespeare’s “Henry IV,” parts 1 and 2, in which the blustery, hard-drinking Falstaff is a character, and appropriately has some earthy interludes and a military beat at times (evocative of the plays’ battles) in addition to its soaringly beautiful passages. Korngold’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” similarly, evokes the bumbling nightwatchmen Dogberry and Verges with some gruff instrumental outbursts and halting rhythms, but is, overall — just like the play — a meditation on the unlikely blossoming of love.
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