The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra opened up their 96th season with style on Oct. 5 with a heavy-hitting repertoire highlighting the immense Beethoven Symphony No. 9, among other well-chosen works.
The stage at Prudential Hall at NJPAC in Newark was filled to capacity with not only the orchestra, but a large amalgamated chorus backed up to the rear wall, which was lit in a beautiful luminescent blue color highlighting the natural brick facing. There is no shortage of architectural beauty at NJPAC.
The most touching moment of the evening was the honoring of recently passed orchestra principal bass Paul Harris. NJSO music director and conductor Xian Zhang told the story of this gentlemanly musician being fully prepared and ready for the last rehearsal and concert in which he performed, despite not feeling very well. The three pieces of the evening were dedicated to him, according to orchestra president Gabriel van Aalst, who added that the “beautiful words of the first work, musically expressed in the second, and in the Beethoven were in memory of him; he loved poetry and literature, especially Shakespeare and Schiller, so we dedicated the concert to him.”
The opener, Kate Whitley’s Speak Out, was written to “promote education for every child” and included text such as “One child, one pen, one teacher, one book, can change our world.”
The second piece was the George Walker’s Lyric for Strings, a gorgeous anthem for stringed instruments that, in many ways, is similar to Samuel Barber’s Adagio for String. It displayed sonorous melody amongst rich orchestration, culminating in a cathartic climax — a very smooth and seamless orchestral performance by Zhang and the orchestra.
After these first two interesting and touching works, the main course of the evening was offered: the Beethoven 9th Symphony.
The explosive first movement highlighted perfectly driven yet flexible tempi, which allowed the orchestra to display the incredible tension between the extensive piano and forte writing of Beethoven’s introduction to the great work. The acoustic setup of the stage was not particularly helping, as much of the orchestra sound, which was at full power and volume, was getting lost due to the either dispersed placement or removal of many of the acoustic towers on the crowded stage. The dynamic control over the orchestra and sheer intensity, however, was truly excellent.
The second movement was exciting and highlighted the timpanist David Fein. Again, perfect and natural tempi were offered along with excellent flute solos by principal Bart Feller, always owning his parts. The timpani hits really gave a great impact in the hall, especially because they had been put on risers. However, the deep sound of the six basses sound was somewhat lost in the setup, being placed on the edge of the orchestra with no solid soundboard behind them — they were really difficult to hear in several places. If possible, increasing the bass section to eight musicians would really enhance the sound.
The second movement ends abruptly as well as loudly. This false flag triggered the audience: The applause between movements, pervasive nowadays at NJSO concerts, is somewhat bewildering in such a hallowed hall within such close proximity to New York City. The culturally and musically initiated understand that a symphony is a total work. The different movements are part of an overall work of art and are meant to flow together, undisturbed. Perhaps it should be mentioned before every concert that all applause should be held for the end. Even well-meaning applause between movements can throw the focus of the musicians and the initiated and most assuredly disturbs the introspection between movements required in these great works of art.
The third movement was somewhat uncomfortable due to a bit of an upbeat tempo, which made the piece sound rushed. The second violins had trouble keeping together with an even flow of melody with this rushed tempo and the first violin section appeared distressed. The overall product sounded mechanical, with no room for the musicians nor the muse to breath.
The fourth movement, however, again offered appropriately paced tempi — and when the baritone came in, one could almost forgive the angst of the previous one. Baritone Reginald Smith Jr. commanded the stage with his famous introduction “O Freunde, nicht diese Toene! …” With a full, sonorous and commanding call, he set the stage for the soloists and choral fantasia to come.
However, the quartet voices did not blend especially well and were not well matched nor balanced. Soprano Elizabeth Williams and mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop presented accomplished, but solo voices. The tenor voice Lorenzo Decaro, gave a solid performance with some sluggishness with the articulation of the German text. A central impediment here was Maestro Zhang’s evident refusal to relinquish control of her strictly guarded tempo, hampering the natural flow of the quartet.
The assembled chorus — consisting of The Montclair University Singers, the MSU Chorale, the Newark Voices and the New Jersey Youth Chorus — created an overall youthful and beautiful, distinctive sound. The collective chorus was well prepared and had good command of not only the attacks and releases but also the text sung in the German language.
The lack of finesse displayed at times throughout the work, however, did not take away from the big sound ending, which the audience received with great enthusiasm.