George Manahan doesn’t do labels. Go ahead and try. They won’t stick. Symphony, opera, musical theater and beyond — he does it all, floating from one repertoire to the next, with ease.
As a former interim music director of The New Jersey Symphony, wide-ranging musical fluency was his benchmark. It’s the through line of the “Jessie Montgomery & Mozart” concerts — featuring classical works by Montgomery, Mozart and Strauss — that he will conduct at NJPAC in Newark, Nov. 17; The Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown, Nov. 18; and The State Theatre in New Brunswick, Nov. 20.
“I’m certainly looking forward to seeing a lot of my old friends from the New Jersey Symphony,” Manahan says of the return engagement. “Seeing the old familiar faces and meeting the new young ones.”
The concert is one of the meaningful initiatives planned by music director Xian Zhang for the symphony’s 2022-23 centennial season, to spotlight past and beloved talents.
“Over our 100-year history, this orchestra has been shaped by wonderful conductors,” Zhang said in a press release, “and I am so happy to welcome some of my predecessor New Jersey Symphony music directors to the podium during the centennial season.”
In addition to Manahan (1983-85), Neeme Järvi (2003-09), Hugh Wolff (1985-92) and former associate conductor Gemma New have been invited back. Jacques Lacombe (2010-16) had to bow out due to scheduling conflicts.
Manahan’s signature program is a lively, accessible, inclusive framework of classical and contemporary repertoire by established and emerging composers.
The process began as an open dialogue. The orchestra approached him with the idea of conducting the New Jersey premiere of “Rounds” for piano and string orchestra by American composer Jessie Montgomery. The solo piano work was commissioned by the Art of the Piano Foundation specially for pianist Awadagin Pratt, who premiered it in South Carolina, in March.
“I immediately said, ‘Yes, absolutely!’ ” laughs Manahan, who has worked with both artists before. “It’s always fun to be doing a new work. This will be my first time doing it, and it’s very cleverly put together.”
Manahan respects Montgomery as a skilled composer and violinist. “She’s a beautiful player herself,” he says. “I’ve done Jessie’s music a good bit. There’s a fantastic piece of hers called ‘Banner.’ I’ve done it with the Richmond Symphony and I took it to the Manhattan School of Music as well. She’s also served on some panels with the American Composers Orchestra as a mentor, working with young composers.”
“Banner,” a co-commission with the New Jersey Symphony, opened the centennial season on Oct. 7 at NJPAC, in a concert conducted by Zhang and featuring Yefim Bronfman performing Rachmaninoff.
“Rounds” is a meditation on interconnectedness inspired by T.S. Eliot’s poem “Four Quartets.” The one-movement concerto is structurally set in the form of a rondo with five major sections, and the centerpiece is a partially improvised solo cadenza played by Pratt.
“I’ve worked with Awadagin a few times,” Manahan says of the esteemed piano soloist, “but it was a while ago. The piece is delightful and he improvises. I saw a streaming video of him doing the same work with the BSO (Boston Symphony Orchestra) and it was good to catch so I could hear it and see what kind of tempos he had in mind. It’s a lot of fun and accessible.”
Manahan was given carte blanche for any of Mozart’s symphonies, so he chose Symphony No. 38 in D Major, known colloquially as The Prague. It was composed in 1786 and premiered a year later in the Czech capital.
“It’s one of my favorites and one of the reasons is Mozart wrote it about the same time as he wrote ‘The Marriage of Figaro,’ and there’s some similarities. For instance, the last movement of the symphony has a motif, and it’s the same tempo as the ‘Figaro’ duet with Cherubino hiding in the closet. Susanna comes over and they’re alone for a minute, and she says, ‘Come out, come out! We’ve got to get out of here!’ ”
Manahan demonstrates the quicksilver tempo by singing to me Susanna’s “Aprite, presto, aprite” duet with Cherubino. “It’s the same tempo and the same gesture,” he says, “almost like a cousin to that little duet.”
The Prague begins with an energetic first movement and a buoyant allegro, followed by an andante with expressive woodwinds, and ends with a lively finale.
“The piece is so beautifully written and there’s a lot of great woodwind work. It flies by — it only has three movements. There’s no boring minuet the orchestra has to play!” he jokes. “It’s a delightful first movement and then comes this gorgeous andante like a sarabande, and then the last movement sounds like the ‘Marriage of Figaro’ finale.”
The concert concludes with Richard Strauss’ Suite from “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme,” which Manahan chose for its charming, colorful, melodic music and biting wit. The work originated from the incidental music Strauss wrote for a revival of Molière’s 17th-century satiric play while he was working on his 1912 opera “Ariadne auf Naxos.”
“It’s a favorite of mine though I haven’t done it in about 20 years,” Manahan says. “It’s just gorgeous. It was the original first act of Strauss’ ‘Ariadne auf Naxos,’ which he composed when he was still at the height of his powers, not long after ‘Der Rosenkavalier.’ It’s got a huge piano part, and for the concertmaster and the first cellist, it’s quite a tour de force because it’s got big, long solos and numbers that are almost like a violin concerto. It’s a virtuoso piece for all the players, really. It’s just a masterpiece of orchestration.”
Strauss compiled the nine movements he considered the most appealing into the instrumental suite.
“They’re all rather short little movements and some are connected together. You find Strauss’ profile in every bar of the composition. It’s very Viennese with its waltzes and little burlesque numbers with these incredible modulations everywhere.
“There’s also these sorts of musical jokes. The finale is called ‘The Dinner,’ so while serving the various courses, Strauss quotes ‘Das Rheingold’ and his own ‘Don Juan.’ And then when they have the lamb dishes, he quotes his own ‘Don Quixote’ when the sheep are herding. When they’re having various fowl, duck and birds, he quotes from ‘Der Rosenkavalier,’ all the birdcalls with the woodwinds, exactly from his operas.”
Before serving as acting music director at the New Jersey Symphony, Manahan was an assistant conductor for one year prior. His easy-going nature and professionalism made him a respected colleague and his artistic leadership reflected the symphony’s core values.
“Back then, we travelled all over the state,” he says. “We took the concerts everywhere. When I was first with the symphony, they still performed at least one concert every year at Carnegie Hall and I remember doing some wonderful concerts there, like Béla Bartók’s ‘The Miraculous Mandarin.’ ”
In the ’70s, while pursuing degrees at the Manhattan School of Music, he went often to hear the New Jersey Symphony, which coincided with the directorship of Henry Lewis (1967-76). Lewis was the first Black music director of a major symphony orchestra, and was married to the mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne. Lewis debuted the symphony’s Carnegie Hall engagement with Horne, who became a regular guest soloist during her husband’s tenure.
After his New Jersey Symphony tenure, Manahan became the music director of the Richmond Symphony for 12 years. He left in 1997 to become the music director of the New York City Opera, and was there for 14 years until the position was eliminated.
He is currently the music director emeritus of the American Composers Orchestra after a 10-year directorship role. In the position, he renewed his commitment to contemporary American orchestral music and composers through educational programs and innovative performances.
When we spoke by phone, he was rehearsing for a concert with the Manhattan School of Music, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in 1973 and 1976. He has been on the faculty for more than a decade as the director of orchestral activities and holds the department’s conducting chair.
“The kids are doing great,” he says of his students. “The soloists are outstanding. We’re doing large orchestra concerts again and it just feels very good.”
Born in Atlanta in 1952, he started his musical training as a pianist and took up the bassoon to play in orchestras and bands. He joined an elementary school band program of about five East Atlanta schools that toured around the country and granted him invaluable access to the classical repertoire.
In high school, he continued playing bassoon in bands and community orchestras. “Much of the standard repertory I heard for the first time was because I was playing bassoon,” he says.
While the bassoon taught him symphonic masterworks such as Beethoven and Schubert’s symphonies, the piano connected him to opera. “Piano was always my first instrument,” he says. “One of the reasons I was also lucky to get involved in opera is because I could be a repetiteur. I got hired as a coach at the Santa Fe Opera. I was chorus master out there. Then John Crosby started giving me shows to cover and then to conduct.”
Crosby was the general director of the Santa Fe Opera for 43 years. Manahan made his debut conducting the American premiere of Arnold Schoenberg’s “Von Heute auf Morgen.” Tobias Picker’s “Emmeline” and Hans Werner Henze’s “The English Cat” are some of the other memorable world premieres he conducted there.
“Crosby always did the big Strauss operas,” he says, “and there would always be a new work, usually something thorny and German, a really thick piece, and it was usually staged by Francesca Zambello, so we were partners every summer, it seemed, for a long time.”
In the year ahead, he will double down on his advocacy of contemporary American orchestral and operatic composers through a handful of stateside premieres.
In February, he will make his Arizona Opera debut conducting a new production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The Sound of Music.” When it premiered this past summer at the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, N.Y., he and his wife drove up to see it. “The Rodgers and Hammerstein score is so gorgeous,” he says. “I’ve heard that Arizona is a great place to be in February and we’ll be there six weeks, so I’m really looking forward to that.”
In April and May, he will conduct a new production of Scott Joplin’s “Treemonisha” at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. Pianist and composer Damien Sneed is rewriting the orchestrations and composing a new backstory that drops Joplin into the narrative. “We workshopped it last month and had follow-ups to hear the new music and talk it through,” Manahan says. “The creative team is really great. It’s going to be a lot of fun!”
Manahan conducts The New Jersey Symphony at NJPAC in Newark, Nov. 17 at 1:30 p.m.; The Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown, Nov. 18 at 8 p.m.; and The State Theatre in New Brunswick, Nov. 20 at 3 p.m. Visit njsymphony.org.
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