A vibrant ‘Carmina Burana’ by Xian Zhang, New Jersey Symphony and guests



Jana McIntyre sings with the New Jersey Symphony at NJPAC in Newark.

New Jersey Symphony had good reason to celebrate at the opening concert of “Xian Conducts Carmina Burana” at NJPAC in Newark, March 1. Earlier that day, they held a press conference to announce their eclectic 2024-25 season, which will feature some dazzling stars along with up-and-coming mavericks.

The mood was still buoyant at the second Carmina Burana concert, which I attended, March 3 at NJPAC. The pulsating program featured works by J.S. Bach and Zoltán Kodály, crowned by Carl Orff’s blockbuster, which featured guest vocal soloists and The Montclair State University Chorale.

Zhang and the orchestra were in their element with all three selections, which ranged from baroque to contemporary.


From left, Heather J. Buchanan, Hugh Russell, Xian Zhang, Jana McIntyre and Andrew Morstein take their bows.

Kodály, along with Béla Bartók, was an icon of modern Hungarian composition. He was particularly drawn to Hungarian folk music with its dancerly rhythms, typical in his Dances of Galánta suite from 1933.

Making up the basis of the work are Hungarian verbunkos, which are dance tunes native to the small Hungarian town of Kodály’s childhood, to which he returned as an adult.

The first movement is slow and leisurely. Many maestros begin with a broad and stately opening, then rely on the natural propulsion to drive the five movements toward the whirlwind finale. Not Zhang. From the start she used incisive rubato with an urgent, con brio pulse. The effect was electrifying and radiant.

Shaping was enormous and full of depth with an extraordinary control of dynamics. Zhang drew out neat, firm phrasing and sensitive contrasts from the musicians, painted in sensuous, high color. Featured orchestral soloists — cello, horn, clarinet — were stylized and impeccable. In the lush, lyrical allegros, she captured Kodály’s essence with all the exotic musical overtones characteristic of his folk music.

Both the Kodály and Orff selections are bound by these sorts of ritualistic, hypnotic rhythms. Melodies are deconstructed in favor of harmonic evolution. Both are reactionary pieces, although Orff’s work is also something else — a scenic cantata that blends music with dance, theater, singing and a choral oratorio. (Performance practices sometimes include a choreographed dance element. That approach was not used here.)

When Carmina premiered in 1937, it was Orff’s first major success, catapulting him to fame.

Orff considered himself a musical dramatist and regarded the spoken word as the ultimate creative source. The narrative is taken from a manuscript, discovered at a Bavarian monastery, of 11th-13th century texts written in medieval German, Latin and old French.

Themes are based around the wheel of fortune and celebrate love and lust, religion and morality, and much in between. Three sections — “Spring,” “In the Tavern” and “The Court of Love” — are framed by the monumental “O Fortuna” hymn.

Central to the work’s narrative is the mixed-voice choir, sung here by the MSU chorale under the direction of Heather J. Buchanan. They sang flexibly and mastered clear contrasts between moods and voices from a staccatissimo “In taberna quando sumus” to a meltingly legato “Ecce gratum.”

Instrumentation is for a full orchestra, including two concert grand pianos, a celesta and an expanded percussion section. There are strong rhythms and melodic interplays, with, mainly, strophic songs that are static with little variation in verses and tonality. Melodies are diatonic — some reminiscent of Gregorian chant.

As with the Kodály work, Zhang tapped the vibrant, complex pulse at the heart of the piece and took it to the next level, leading the musicians sure-handedly, with an impeccable sense of ensemble.


Hugh Russell sings with the New Jersey Symphony.

For those who like Carmina with manic mood shifts … this wasn’t that. Zhang’s architecture was more cohesive and symphonic than episodic, and shaped with sensitivity, cunning and vigor. Melodic richness was at a high level and dynamics were full.

Darkly shaded and silken tonalities explored the opposite end of the bright, expressive palette used for Kodály. The riotous drinking song (“In taberna quando sumus”) that ends the “Tavern” section was an eerie, crawling menace. These sorts of tonal sophistications were haunting and spectacular.

Slower, airier movements (“Veris leta facies,” “Chramer, gip die varwe mir”) were taken broadly and languidly, shining the spotlight back on the narrative, captivatingly told by baritone Hugh Russell, an Orff specialist who has sung the role more than 150 times.

Most vocalists sing their parts with polished poise but Russell — in a rich voice, with glimmering pronunciation and full expression — elevated Orff to high art, putting drama and spontaneity at the center of his interpretation.

The high-spirited “Estuans interius” section is about the misfortunes of love. The text is an angsty tale of a tortured heart that burns with anger. Russell was so emotive and passionate that the audience responded with spontaneous applause. In the “Ego sum abbas” section, he sang as the corrupt, drunk abbot, beating at his chest and grimacing at his cursed fate.


Andrew Morstein sings with the New Jersey Symphony.

Tenor Andrew Morstein similarly rose to Orff’s high drama (and even higher tessitura) as the roasted swan, putting his whole body into the swan’s imagined misery and lament.

Soprano Jana McIntyre led Part Three — a mini-drama of love, passion and seduction — highlighted by a lyrical “In trutina” with tenderness and allure.

As with the Kodály-Orff selections, the Concerto for Oboe d’Amore in A Major (BWV 1055) by Bach is an accessible work, free in its musical language.

It is small and intimate, with a melodic, middle Larghetto framed by upbeat and optimistic outer Allegro movements. The solo instrument, the oboe d’amore, lends an air of sensuality.

The instrument traces back to the early 1700s and Bach first wrote for it in 1723. His treatment of wind instruments was distinctive: He wrote copiously for the oboe and this piece shows off the entire range of the instrument and how it blends with the other orchestral instruments (a small ensemble of strings and continuo).

As the “alto” instrument of the oboe family, it is slightly larger and longer than the standard oboe and smaller than an English horn. It has a complex, unique mezzo voice that is mellow and dusky, and shaded in melancholy and tenderness.


Andrew Adelson plays oboe d’amore with the New Jersey Symphony.

Bach specialist Andrew Adelson — a Juilliard-trained English horn and oboe player who has played with the symphony for more than 20 years — was the featured soloist. His fluency and enthusiasm for the oboe d’amore made for an engaging performance.

Good baroque oboe playing is all about line work, the obbligato, which should be delicate and not overdone. Adelson’s oboe sang the intricate solo melodies of the Larghetto in a pure, supple line with lightly romantic gestures and gently vaulted phrasing. The outer movements showed off clean, agile finger work across Bach’s prolific passages.

Nestled between the program’s Kodály-Orff giants, Adelson’s performance added a warm, generous heart, even tacking on a charming encore of the Adagio from Telemann’s Fantasia No. 2

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