Travel Diary: NJSO donors enjoy trip to Germany

May 20, 2015

A group of NJSO donors in the Orchestra’s Amadeus Circle are currently enjoying a musical tour of Germany, experiencing the culture and taking the opportunity to see NJSO Music Director Jacques Lacombe conduct Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin.

Travelers including NJSO Senior Director of Development Alicia Benoist are chronicling the experience as the tour unfolds—enjoy their dispatches from the trip!

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May 20, 2015

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Phil Neches reflects on The Damnation of Faust:

Berlioz tells a fairly conventional version of the Faust legend in his opera, The Damnation of Faust.  Faust is bored, Faust tries suicide, Faust seduces the young virgin, Faust moves on while she is disgraced, Faust makes a deal with the devil, Faust goes to hell, the heroine goes to heaven.  By contrast, Goethe's version is much more elaborate and philosophical -- but we digress.

But Berlioz's score, especially as staged by the Deutcher Oper, and interpreted by maestro Jacques Lacombe, is anything but conventional.  With no overture, the opera opens to find Faust moping at his desk on a tilted rotating circular platform that fills the entire stage.  Characters and chorus enter and exit through trap doors at the rear and middle of the circular platform.  When the platform rotates a half turn, the high end facing the audience becomes the back wall of Auerbachs Kellar, the subterranean drinking house in Leipzig which figures in the story.

With minimal scenery, the chorus and ballet company indicate much.  A few trees make the forest; miniature houses make the town.  Projected galloping horses turn into skeletons in one dramatic climax.

A woodwind player takes to the stage to accompany the heroine at one point.  It takes no less than four harps to get her into heaven at the end.

Unconventional and unsparing, this production needed little prodding from Mephisto to get Faust off to hell in modernist, minimalist style.

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May 18, 2015

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Phil Neches captures the scene at Hilary Hahn's performance with the Deutsches Symphonie Orchester:

The Philharmonie in Berlin is one of the world's iconic concert halls, home to both the Berliner Philharmoniker and the Deutsches (German) Symphonie Orchestras.  Opened in 1963, it was the first to put the stage in the center of the hall, with the audience on all sides.  The idea has been emulated, notably by the Los Angeles Walt Disney Concert Hall.  Direct sight lines result in excellent acoustics, but a confusing plethora of staircases.  Its easier to find the concert hall on Berlin's U-bahn subway than to find one's seat in the hall.

For our final musical outing in Berlin, the Amadeus Society traveling group heard Hillary Hahn perform Beethoven's Violin Concerto with the Deutsches Symphonie Orchester led by guest conductor Leonard Slatkin.  Warming to the task during the first movement, Ms. Hahn caught fire in the cadenzas, and delighted the audience with a Bach partita as an encore.  In a meeting after the concert, we learned that she is expecting a baby (sex not revealed) and planning residencies in Vienna next season.

The program concluded with Czech composer Joseph Suk's Second Symphony, the "Asrael".  Asrael is the Old Testament angel of death.  The symphony, composed in 1905 and 1906, was originally to have been a memorial to his mentor and father-in-law, Dvořák.  The first three movements quote Dvořák's works, but in a heavy style more reminiscent of Mahler than the sunnier Dvořák.

To add to Suk's troubles, his wife, Dvořák's daughter, Ottika, died during the composition.  The last two movements memorialize her.  They employ a lighter, more loving touch than the earlier movements that poured out Suk's sense of loss.

Benoist writes:

We met Hilary Hahn after she performed Beethoven's Violin Concerto with the Deutsches Symphonie Orchester under Leonard Slatkin—five curtain calls, and then a Bach partita as her encore. Great concert!

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May 17, 2015

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The travelers at Sans Souci.

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Benoist writes:

Kasia Borowiec gave an impromptu recital for us in the lobby of our Regent Hotel in Berlin. Brava!

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May 16, 2015


No bus, no problem! NJSO Board Co-Chair Ruth Lipper writes: 

Our bus did not appear after the Luncheon Cruise so our intrepid group took the UBahn!

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NJSO Board Co-Chair Ruth Lipper, Music Director Jacques Lacombe and Senior Director of Development Alicia Benoist.

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May 15, 2015

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The travelers in Berlin.

Phil Neches reflects on the travelers' experiences at the Bach Museum on Tuesday (scroll down for photos):

Where we got to spend a day, Bach spent the last 27 years of his life.  As cantor (music director) of the Thomaskirche (Saint Thomas Church), Bach was responsible for all the religious and civic music programs in the city.  He directed the music and choirs at all 4 churches, educated the singers and instrumentalists, taught private students, played the organ, founded the Collegium Musicum (which later evolved into the Gewandhaus orchestra), directed performances for city occasions, and so on.  In his spare time, he wrote 5 cycles of cantatas for every Sunday of the year, plus holidays, plus masses, plus exercises for his students, plus secular music.  He raised a family: 10 of his 21 children survived into adulthood, and four of his sons were more famous in their lifetimes as composers than their father.

But by the time Bach died in 1750, he and his music were regarded as hopelessly  dated.  The Baroque Era ,  over, and the complex, polyphonic, disciplined, yet emotionaally expressive style that Bach epitomized gave way to the monophonic, more lyrical style of the Classical Era.  Even Bach's sons deserted the Baroque to become founding members of the Classical movement.  The city council of Leipzig was glad to be rid of their stubborn, exacting Cantor. The cantata manuscripts took up too much room in the Thomas school music library, and were literally used to protect seedling trees and wrap fish.  More than half are lost forever.

It took another émigré to Leipzig, Felix Mendelssohn, to bring Bach back to prominence.  We owe the recognition of Bach's pivotal role and enormous stature in Western music to Mendelssohn.  And since then, Leipzig has embraced its Cantor and builds its reputation as a musical city on Sebastian's sturdy shoulders.

Tuesday began with a tour of the GRASSI Museum of Musical Instruments.  Starting with a collection of Renaissance instruments, the collection goes through the Baroque and Classical Eras, ending with a number of curiosities from the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.The strength of the collection lies in instruments from Bach's time, including many played by Bach himself and his students.

From Bach's instruments, the group moved on to his manuscripts during a very special visit to the Bach Archiv arranged by Anne O'Neill and Judy Scheide, a major patron of the NJSO.  Accorded the rare and special privilege to not just see, but to handle, manuscripts by Bach and his family, the Amadeans could feel the vigor and control of Bach's music on 290-year-old paper.

In the Bach Museum, the group saw portraits of Sebastian, his father, and his sons.  Family trees traced the family of musicians back five generations.  At Bach family reunions, they would start by singing a religious motet, then move on to rowdy, even bawdy, songs.

Finally, we crossed the street to the Thomaskirche itself. Bach's statue stands guard at the entrance.  Bach's grave holds center court in the nave.  Bach's face appears in a stained glass window, opposite the organ and choir loft where Bach led countless performances.  A student practiced a Bach passacaglia on the organ, filling the sanctuary with music that is as close as human beings can get to the sound of God.

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May 14, 2015

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Benoist writes from the opening gala of the Dresden Music Festival:

Featuring Jan Volker, Lil Buck, Simone Kermes, the Dresden Festival orchestra and hundreds of young dancers. Like the NJSO's "Man and Nature" Winter Festival, the Dresden festival explores the elements of fire and ice.


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May 13, 2015

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Ellen and Phil Neches enjoy dinner at a Michelin started restaurant Stadtpfeiffer in the Gewandhaus in Leipzig.

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Benoist writes:

Here is the group at the Meissen porcelain factory. Note the pipe organ made of porcelain pipes in the background.

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May 12, 2015

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The travelers started the day with a trip to the Grassi Museum of Musical Instruments.

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Above left, Phil Crowley plays a model of the Christofiori piano at the Grassi. Above right, Stan Borowiec and Norm Slonaker work the bellows on the Bach organ at the museum.

Benoist writes:

Amazing afternoon at the Bach Archiv Museum in Leipzig. Director Peter Vollny showed us Bach manuscripts. Some done in his own hand, some copied by his children and students. Incredible.

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May 11, 2015

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The NJSO travelers arrived at the Leipzig Halle Airport and, after checking into the hotel, enjoyed their first excursion. Above, A. Michael Lipper stands at the conductor's podium at Mendelssohn's Leipzig home. Phil Neches writes of a special surprise the group received when touring Mendelssohn's home:

Amadeus Circle travelers received a surprise first concert during a tour of Felix Mendelssohn's home in Leipzig, Germany.  Francesca Rambaldi, piano, and Felix Eugen Theimann, cello, two superbly talented young Leipzigers played the sort of program that Felix and his beautiful wife Cecile would have put on for their friends and wealthy patrons of the Gewandhaus.  Felix was the youngest music director there, starting at the tender age of 26.

Opening with the allegro ma non troppo from Beethoven's Cello Sonata Op. 69, No. 3, Rambaldi and Theimann had the audience of veteran New Jersey concertgoers enthralled. 

Just as Theimann was about to launch into the Prelude from the Bach solo cello suite BWV 1009, one of the audience member's cell phone went off, with a different Bach cello solo as the ring tone. As NJSO board chair Ruth Lipper often says, you can't make this stuff up.   The phone mercifully silenced, Theimann demonstrated how Bach can really rock a stringed instrument.  Mendelssohn brought Sebastian's music back to the concert stage and gave it the place of honor it so richly deserves in our musical heritage.

Robert Schumann provided the next piece with the Adagio and Allegro from his opus 4. Robert and Clara Schumann were great friends of Cecile and Felix, and works like this must have often graced the music room when the Mendelssohns were in residence.

One of Felix's ever popular songs without words would have been the climax of such a program in Mendelsohn's day.  But this program went on beyond 1847, the year of Mendelssohn's death, with arrangements for piano and cello of Manuel de Falla's Suite popular espangole.  

After an hour of non-stop virtuosity, the only question in the audience's mind was, "When will this talented pair debut with our band, in our land?"

After that special experience, the group had dinner at Auerbach's Keller. As Director of Development Alicia Benoist shares, the spot is where "Goethe set his scene where the Faust makes a deal with the devil. It's where all the students go drinking."

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