New Jersey Symphony Orchestra explores Romantic era with uneven results

Mezzo-soprano Marianne Beate Kielland sang impressively with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra at NJPAC in Newark, Feb. 25.

The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of guest conductor Rune Bergmann, offered a full plate of Romantic era fare on Feb. 25 at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark — a marathon concert of Wagner, Mahler and Brahms that was somewhat lazy, but also luscious.

The Sunday afternoon concert opened with the Meistersinger overture, of which there is nothing quite like. The power and allure of Wagner’s music should be understood by most folks in their first hearing of this opening overture to his great opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg — sheer energy, drive and intensity.

Bergmann started strong with an exciting opening to this piece, despite the crucial timpani not quite cutting through the orchestra. It became quickly apparent, however, that the rear players of the First Violin section were playing with less enthusiasm than is required when called upon to play Wagner, leaving their lead-role parts sounding thin. Why were some in the orchestra holding back? Perhaps they were uninterested or bored, or perhaps they were saving their energy for the heavy Mahler and Brahms to come. It was apparent, however, that more than a few in the orchestra were just trying to get through this piece, with the results sounding accordingly.

Alternatively, the NJSO French horn section, heroic as usual, started strong and carried themselves well throughout the entire concert, despite the exhausting nature of their parts. Other brass sections didn’t fare as well: Trumpet sound was noticeably muffled and less than metallic and the lower brass would have their chance to underachieve later, in the Brahms. The orchestra as a whole did not convincingly convey this opening work.

Holding back and saving up is not an option for a great orchestra. The audience that afternoon did not offer excessive adulation for the work. To play without passion is inexcusable.

The second attempt was Mahler’s impressive vocal-orchestral work Songs of the Wayfarer, featuring mezzo-soprano Marianne Beate Kielland. She treated the audience to a wonderfully strong, rich and captivating interpretation through her careful phrasing, amazing tonal quality, excellent German pronunciation and riveting stage presence.

Maestro Bergmann is known around the world for his hallmark enthusiasm. This enthusiasm is sincere and contagious and one cannot help loving him. He addressed the audience before the Mahler to explain the work, which was a nice personal touch and worked well.

The Wayfarer is a work of introspection, melody and intensity. The four songs are a progressive story of lost love, ending in a tragic death: I. When My Sweetheart is Married; II. I Went This Morning Over the Field; III. I Have a Gleaming Knife; IV. The Two Blue Eyes of My Beloved. The morbid text included the lines “I wish I could lay down on my black (funeral) bier” and “Would that my eyes never open again.” Good grief — but that’s romanticism.

Kielland shaped the moribund prose with attention to detail and passion that added to the compelling and luscious performance. The orchestra performed responsively and gave the soloist their full attention. The second and fourth songs/movements of the work highlighted some superb orchestral solos including those by Concertmaster Eric Wyrick and Principal Flute Bart Feller, two beautiful bright lights in the orchestra, among others.

The audience showed their sincere appreciation, despite having to endure a crying baby in the gallery during one of the songs. Somewhere along the line, concert etiquette at the NJSO performances has become as unclear and degraded as general concert attire. Recent concerts have regularly featured such extra-program distractions such as crying babies, late seating, talking in the audience, errant cell phones and photographs, applause at inappropriate times and, best treat of all, candy wrapper ladies (who seem to think they are doing public good in trying to stave off possible coughing fits).

As with most things, education is our first line of defense. These wrinkles between NJSO and NJPAC should be ironed out. Perhaps by handing out, with the programs, sheets or flyers on concert etiquette.

The third and final heavy hitter of the evening came after the intermission: The Brahms First Symphony. The work is huge in scope, range, emotion and intensity.

Bergmann conducted without score and started with a seamless opening featuring the great tension created in the first strains of the work. The orchestra started strong and offered a full sound. They had finally settled in, and any stragglers decided to get serious for this piece. With their new sense of vigor, it became even more apparent that they truly hadn’t taken the Wagner seriously.

Tempi were completely appropriate, not too slow and not too fast. It was, in fact, intense forward motion, as is the nature of the Brahms symphony.

The second movement was passionate despite a few slight hiccups from the oboe. Wyrick’s solo and the horn solo were super strong, accurate and lyrical.

While the third movement was lyrical and interesting, the fourth movement opening was compelling, highlighting a superb brass chorale “morning theme.” Gorgeous French horns followed by Bart Feller’s flute playing was uplifting and inspirational.

Violas kicking in with the countermelodies deserve special note for their performance in the movement and in general throughout the evening. The Fourth movement was really pulling together and the orchestra was finally warmed up and totally in their groove.

It was also just great to see the trumpet section finally stepping up to the plate in this last movement. With things going so well, Brahms aficionados were expecting a glorious, fully stated recapitulation of the brass chorale in the climax of the piece to which the orchestra was rapidly approaching when, lo and behold, at the moment of truth, a trombone came in early on the attack, blowing the whole brass chorale effect.

Despite the finest musicians in the NJSO trying to hold the thing together, the orchestra, overall, was just not playing together. Unfocused individuals caused rifts in the flow. The bottom line is that while the NJSO section leaders and lead players are superb in their own right, when mixed with Sunday substitutes and non-regular musicians, the overall ensemble sound, articulation, tonality and, most importantly, life force, degrade noticeably.

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