At the debut concert of the Montclair Orchestra at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Sunday, music director David Chan honored the spiritual heritage of the original Montclair Orchestra, formed in 1924. That Montclair Orchestra performed in the same church, but went on to move to Newark and become the current New Jersey Symphony Orchestra.
All key elements of this new orchestra were carefully prepared by Chan and the orchestra’s president, Andre Weker: The repertoire and the musicians, but also the marketing and the fundraising, which started a year ago. Tryouts were extensive — only the finest and most promising musicians were selected.
Many of the members of the metropolitan region’s powerhouse ensembles live in the area; the new orchestra is comprised of musicians from the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera, plus students from the major university music schools of the area and local professional and avocational musicians. The final ensemble selection was narrowed down to nothing less than an all-star team.
The opening work, Verdi’s overture to the opera La Forza del destino, was chosen by Chan — who also serves as concertmaster for the Metropolitan Opera in New York — because of his close ties to opera music. Indeed, he chose the rest of the opening night repertoire for its operatic lyricism.
The church’s acoustics were absolutely perfect for the ensemble, as they are incredibly warm and intensely live, due to the relatively small space, made of solid stone and wood.
The acoustics truly enhanced the opening clarinet solos of the Verdi overture by principal Inn-hyuck Cho, which were pitch perfect, highlighting excellent harmonic tonal quality on his instrument. Furthermore, the oboe solo by principal Julia DeRosa was also pitch perfect and tonally gorgeous.
The dynamic control of the first and second violin sections throughout this aggressive Italian overture was breathtaking — both aggressive and refined. These musicians were holding nothing back, offering their experienced professionalism, playing every note with passion and every phrase poetically. Concertmaster Daniel Khalikov led as a master musician but gradually came to the fore as true lead musician of the orchestra in the works to follow. The second violin section, under principal Quan Yuan, was nothing less than astounding.
The principals of this ensemble were playing with the elán of accomplished musicians, propelling the orchestra forward with refined assertiveness. Dov Scheindlin, principal viola, was a wonder to watch in action, moving and breathing with the orchestra along with his stand partner, second violist Maurycy Banaszek — both seemed to completely enjoy the experience. The musical intimacy between the string principals Khalikov, Yuan, Scheindlin and Joel Noyes on cello was more akin to that of an intimate string quartet in full swing. Principal string bass player Brendan Kane, while seated a distance from the Fab Four, was also most certainly in sync with the other string leaders. And that was just the Verdi overture.
The Mozart Symphony No. 29, chosen by Chan for its melodic lyricism, had more of the feel of an intimate chamber ensemble in the hands of this group than a full symphony. Again, usually buried behind the first violins, the second violin section, seated smartly to the right of Chan, was astounding in attacks, releases, accuracy, pitch control, melodic and counter melodic phrasing, and tonal quality.
Viola dynamic duo Scheindlin and Banaszek again exhibited a special vigor and attentiveness to their most important and complex middle range parts. Mozart neglects no instrument and there is plenty of intellectual interplay and integration between all the sections — all the more remarkable since Mozart was a teenager when he wrote this work.
The final movement of the Mozart highlighted some super-aggressive writing which Khalikov and his first violin section dispatched summarily with a high degree of articulation, supported by the orchestra’s very strong string sections. Themes were vigorous and just plain fast. The shaping of the phrases was gorgeous. It is noted and appreciated that a large amount of attention and care was taken by Chan in creating these incredibly strong sections.
Maestro Chan led the ensemble very well. His finest quality is that he understands the music. If intentions of the composer are truly going to be heard, the conductor must allow the amazing professional musicians the freedom to play — for they certainly knew what they were doing. Chan allowed free flow and did not interfere in any way. It is obvious that he is a string player. While he favors the first violin section and relies upon them as his reference point, the woodwinds and brass needed no coaxing or special attention. They were there when force was needed in the Verdi and, finally, the Mahler.
For after intermission, the orchestra returned in full force to present the formidable Mahler Symphony No. 4.
While the symphony is not one of Mahler’s most massive works, it’s certainly not for sissies. It contains deep, rich and powerful passages that are as poignant as Mozart — just louder. A soprano soloist is even brought in to sing the text of an intense account of child’s vision of heaven from a collection of German folk poems called Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn.)
Khalikov and the principals again played a vital role in this work. Cello principal Noyes was vigorous and exciting with his pizzicato technique and bow attacks. Mahler’s writing here is so rich for all instruments, highlighting the interplay between string sections, woodwinds, brass and percussion — super interesting and quite lyrical. The second violin section and violas were breathtaking and offered the audience a wow ending.
The second movement is one of intense musical color. The movement highlights gorgeous techniques and writing by Mahler, including harp string glissandos, pizzicato, string harmonics, solos, tight interplay between sections, and interesting countermelodies. The concertmaster’s extensive solos were exciting and in this movement, Khalikov switched back and forth between a secondary violin instrument sitting next to him that was strung to produce a more crass and aggressive sound. He played this curiously interesting instrument no less than three times throughout the movement, with profound effect.
The third movement of the symphony was beautiful, opening with cellos and basses pitted against each other in complex writing. The fourth French horn redeemed the section in this movement from a host of earlier infelicities in the concert, with a flawless solo played in tandem with the concertmaster’s musical lines.
Chan was a very effective conductor. In fact, as the evening unfolded, it became apparent that he is completely dedicated to the music, shying away from the spotlight. It was, actually, refreshing. Verdi, Mozart, Mahler and the orchestra shined here, which is, frankly, how it should be (but isn’t always). But Chan put it all together and made it work. Twenty years as concertmaster at the Metropolitan Opera taught him how to follow. And if one is to lead, one must learn how to follow. Chan led the orchestra perfectly by allowing these musicians the exact amount of freedom they needed.
All sections were producing throughout the work. The section leaders, primarily drawn from New York’s finest orchestras, were demonstrating a clear path for their sections to follow. While the principals shined, the musicians in their sections certainly did their part, following diligently and, if not quite breathing and animating in the same way as their leaders, at least keeping up with them.
The Fourth Movement was downright exciting, featuring a soprano soloist, Ying Fang, who appeared suddenly, hovering over the orchestra in the hand-carved pulpit like a pale moon goddess in a stunning teal evening gown. Fang offered beautifully pronounced German text, accurate and lyrical. Absolutely ausgezeichnet. Her beautiful voice rang out clearly over the orchestra as she stood perched above. It was the perfect setting for a solo vocalist with orchestra.
Indeed the interplay between soprano and orchestra was interesting and sonorous — lyrical folk melodies offered by soprano and orchestra against bells being rung by the percussionist and horn calls against the strings and woodwinds. As big as the fourth movement is, however, the work ends silently. In fact, with deafening silence. The sophisticated audience enjoyed the moment after the orchestra faded as Mahler had intended. The audience then showed their appreciation only after Chan brought his baton to rest. They offered their own deafening sound of appreciation, which continued for a long time.
It was great to see many of these MET musicians, usually hidden from site under the opera stage, shine for all to see in the intimate setting of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church of Montclair. The audience loved every minute of it. More is needed.
For more on the orchestra, and its future concerts, visit montclairorchestra.org.