New Jersey Symphony Orchestra explores music of Italy

By Ronni Reich
The Star-Ledge
Tuesday March 12, 2013

For two hours on Sunday, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra transported its audience from the Bergen Performing Arts Center in Englewood to 19th-century Italy, with a series of arias by native opera composers and a symphony by a visitor paying an admiring tribute.

Guest conductor Marcelo Lehninger led compelling, if not flawless, performances that showcased serious potential. An assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and music director of the New West Symphony Orchestra, Lehninger drew a rich, sonorous, balanced tone in performances that often featured precise gestures and organic phrasing.

Besides its survey of Italy, the program also provided varied portraits of youth in music. Mendelssohn wrote his “Italian” symphony when he was just 22. In addition, each of the arias on the program represented a different facet of young love.

“Caro Nome” from Verdi’s “Rigoletto” marked a first infatuation, “Sempre Libera” from his “La Traviata” illustrated a courtesan’s futile attempt to resist it, and “O luce di quest’anima” from Donizetti’s “Linda di Chamounix” basked in it. In “Ah! non credea mirarti” from “La Sonnambula,” the sleepwalking title character pondered the pain of believing her relationship with her fiancé had ended — and then the euphoria of realizing that she was wrong.

Joanna Mongiardo displayed a classically lovely light soprano and solid coloratura skills. In terms of tonal and emotional weight, however, she may not have been ideally suited to the selections.

Still, she gave a charming rendition of the showy Donizetti aria. Lehninger proved a guiding hand throughout.

He seemed not quite tailormade for Rossini’s “The Italian Girl in Algiers” overture, however. The piece came off cleanly, but missed some of its playful character. A better fit was Puccini’s “Chrysanthemums,” which Lehninger imbued with brooding intensity.

In Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony No. 4, the bracing opening had aristocratic polish as well as the necessary vitality. Still, the music took off rather quickly and there were some coordination issues at the outset.

Without even denting the musical line, Lehninger emphasized the shuddering grace notes and sixteenths within the andante con moto processional to poignant effect. In the third movement, the music sometimes lost its sense of impetus. But the fiery finale more than made up for it as it began at a furious gallop and maintained a sense of urgency while dynamics seamlessly shifted.

At 33, Lehninger is in his early years as a conductor. The program left one eager to follow his progress.

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