The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra opened its 95th concert season at NJPAC in Newark on Oct. 7, with music director Xian Zhang conducting. The audience was treated to a well-chosen, interesting repertoire: Beethoven’s Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus Op. 43, his Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major for Piano and Orchestra, “Emperor,” Op. 43 with guest pianist Jeremy Denk; and Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14.
The evening’s music began with a rousing rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” (with all in the audience standing); seemingly, the entire hall enthusiastically participated. This was followed by a brief introduction to the season by orchestra president and CEO Gabriel van Aalst, who highlighted future guest artists (including violinist Gil Shaham, who will perform Brahms’ violin concerto in June) and Pops concerts, and mentioned that the overall theme of the season will be “The Immigrant’s Journey.”
Zhang then offered an exciting and energetic overture opener, The Creatures of Prometheus. Immediately noticeable was a finely tuned and articulate violin section, along with sparkling solos by principal flutist Bart Feller.
The big Beethoven to follow was the great “Emperor” Piano Concerto No. 5, featuring Denk. From the first well-known chord under which the piano emerges, the work was driven by carefully managed, machine-like, driven tempi. So well managed in fact, that it left little place for interpretation and interaction between soloist and orchestra members at crucial points.
While the movement lacked natural flow, musical accuracy and precision at the expense of Beethoven-esque passion was the hallmark from the get-go. This relentless search to achieve driving tempo made it feel as if the piece was too tightly strung, leaving the pianist in something of a box. Denk wound up playing most of the time in front of the orchestra, rather than with them. French horns prominent in the first movement were noteworthy by being both forceful and pitch accurate in the forever-long Beethoven horn sustained notes.
While the slow, second movement of the concerto can bring respite to the listener, the greatest of interpretations leaving the listener with some of the most sublime of moments in all of music, this continual conductor-driven interpretation only highlighted the underlying tension between the now three distinct entities: conductor, orchestra and soloist. Missing was the spiritual release of a soloist-orchestra relationship. By the end of the movement, however, the dialogue between the three synched in to offer a fluid transition to the third movement.
This now clearly established triumvirate of tension eventually gave way to the conductor’s push for complete control of ensemble and soloist. Thus, the concerto ended in the same commanding way as it began. People were impressed, but soloist Denk was noticeably more at ease in full control of his most beautiful encore.
While perhaps total control did not suit the nature of the fiery Beethoven 5th Piano Concerto, Zhang’s vision for the Symphonie fantastique was not only riveting, but, in fact, complete interpretive and orchestral perfection. For all that was harried and somewhat unnatural between the three competing elements of the concerto, the unison of the Symphonie fantastique was spelled out with complete musical continuity, clarity of idea and execution.
There is no ambiguity in the conducting style of Zhang, who took over the orchestra last season. She demands music instantly and on the downbeat, with no delay. There is none of Bernstein’s “play as late as you dare” leeway given to the orchestra; she offers a straightforward and direct but masterful approach to the music. In a season, the NJSO has adopted to her style and seems very attentive to her musical will, which is as driven as her tempi.
In fact, Zhang is kinetic energy incarnate on the podium; she masterfully and clearly recognizes sound as the powerful energy it is. She is a harnesser, conductor and mover of energy. She knows how to use it.
The first movement of Fantastique was positively riveting, highlighting controlled and exciting dynamics and accurate and clear phrasing with perfect-pitch harmonies and dissonance, all so essential in delivering the haunting love theme and the mania surrounding it. The orchestra was both responsive and proactive with the aggressive score. The six bassoons certainly delivered a lot of rich and full sound — such orchestral color.
The second waltz movement was beautiful with its opening harp glissandos, charming melodies and countermelodies, contrapuntal voices, orchestral color and happy mood. Zhang’s methodical approach to phrasing and idea shaping worked really well here, to create a clear vision.
The pastoral sounds of the third movement added even more color and the tutti melody in the strings was sonorous, velvety and gorgeous. Every musician in the first violin section is working to produce a noticeably accurate, beautiful and strong tone. Ninth chair violin sound is impeccable. It’s clear that Zhang has been insisting on sustained breathing pitch and tone from her wind musicians, which succeeds in producing a beautiful bright and supported, “to the end of the phrase” sound.
Indeed, the orchestra setup really works well on the NJPAC stage to enhance the sound of the orchestra. Timpanists (three) were slightly offset center stage on the back riser with glockenspiel and percussion battery. French horns placed on riser in front of them also allowed for superior sound clarity from that section.
The fourth movement “To the Scaffold” witnessed Zhang moving and directing the heavy energy of the orchestra: timpani, trombones and bassoon sections were powerful, crystalline, flawless and exciting. Most astounding was that throughout the forté sections of the brass one could actually hear the string sections with absolute clarity. Further crashing triple forté’s (maybe quadruple) from the timpani exhibited the pitch control and phrasing of true professional musicians including acting principal David Fein and several other percussionists who were not mentioned in the program. Kudos to them.
Colorful flashes of silver light appeared from the likes of principal flutist Bart Feller, who is always on hand when elegant beauty, astounding tone and perfect pitch are required. With fine musicians like these, the audience has the assurance that there is never going to be a disaster.
The “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath” final movement is a study in orchestral color coordination. The haughty, shrill witches’ cackle — on E-flat clarinet by soloist Andrew Lamy — was thrilling to both watch and hear, and coupled with the chimes to create the hysterical nature of this movement against a spine-chilling brass chant that culminated in a crashing conclusion.
A complete success, the work saw no section favored over the other by Zhang. Everyone received equal attention to create an orchestral equality that resulted in a coherent, powerful ensemble of orchestral sound and beauty.
Zhang articulated her style quite clearly: precise, exacting, driving and energetic, with a clear vision of her musical intentions. She left us with nothing less than a wow performance. For as Toscanini, Solti and von Karajan were emperors, and Bernstein the timeless wizard, so is Zhang the field marshal of the orchestra.