The New Jersey Festival Orchestra under the direction of David Wroe offered a Friday evening concert of high culture in the heart of Morristown. The collaboration with the Choir of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church (under music director Joshua Stafford) presented a sumptuous musical treat wrapped up in the warm and glowing hall of one of the most magnificent venues in the state, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church.
This combination of musical forces was apparently in the making for years and concertgoers in attendance were treated to a unique concert experience.
Music selection for a concert is akin to putting together an ensemble of clothing – it works or it doesn’t. This well-chosen choral-symphonic repertoire indeed worked particularly well in the venue and highlighted three beautiful works: Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music; the Violin Concerto No. 2 in B minor by Niccolò Paganini; and Mozart’s Symphony No. 39 in E flat Major.
Acoustics in the stone, brick, plaster and wood church hall were warm and the reverberation decay in the grand space worked well to enhance orchestra and vocal sounds. The warm lighting from the hand-worked chandeliers further enhanced the mood, immediately setting the stage even before the first note.
The opener, Serenade to Music, was an outstanding, luscious and sonorous piece set to text from the fifth act of The Merchant of Venice that describes a beautiful view by the water. Its Richard Straussian introduction feels akin to the opening of the Four Last Songs, characterized by broad strokes of orchestral sound and color. St. Peter’s choir soloist soprano Karen Lackey exhibited immediate tonal control and vocal beauty, followed by equally impressive tenor Esteban Vazquez, alto Debra Joyal and bass Jonathan Scott. In fact, the choir’s overall tonal and textural beauty fed the souls of the audience. The vocal ensemble had a clear, clean, fresh and vigorous but refined sound.
Furthermore, the overall dynamics of the piece were nothing less than thrilling, with both music directors working to create a breathtaking presentation of beauty. Immediately apparent was a perfect symbiotic relationship between ensembles and conductors. The ensembles breathed together; the choir sounding like an orchestra and the orchestra like a choir. The integration was so complete that at the release of the last chord, the audience sat almost stunned, literally having to catch their breath before erupting in a prolonged and sincere applause.
This long due collaboration between these two ensembles was well worth the wait. Indeed, more is needed, as soon as it can be arranged.
The concert continued with another well-chosen showpiece of the classical repertoire — the Violin Concerto No. 2 in B minor by Niccolò Paganini featuring guest violin soloist Stefan Milenkovich. The work lightened the mood of the concert, presenting a fun exercise in Italianate operatic solo instrument virtuosity: the piece was reminiscent of a dramatic, snappy, lyric Bellini opera.
The violin introduction by Milenkovich was accurate and melodic, highlighting superb phrasing and pitch control. Wroe was ever attentive to the soloist’s every breath and gesture while keeping a full awareness of his orchestra’s accompaniment. Being an Italian showpiece, the work was all about the soloist. That’s fine. Wroe exceeds in the operatic genre. He is in complete mastery of his ensemble, being both assertive and subservient when necessary — always in complete symbiosis with his orchestra, directing and coaxing adeptly with both hands, facial gestures and body language. Wroe and Milenkovich stood next to each other, resulting in intimate musical connection, communication and coordination between the two masters.
It should be noted that the orchestra’s string section of 12 violins, four violas, five cellos and two basses with the regular amount of winds and one timpani, sounded tenfold in that acoustically perfect hall. All musicians were working to full capacity.
The second Adagio movement was another study in violin as Italian opera soprano. Beautiful melodies, pizzicato bass throughout the score, counter harmony and contrapuntal scoring in the woodwinds — coupled with beautiful phrasing and typical Italianate rubato endings — offered the most sonorous of movements.
The more aggressive double stopping of the third Rondo movement, also including bells (actually a triangle played by Wroe), sounded hysterically jocular at times. The soloist paused at times to allow Wroe to ring his metal triangle suspended from his conductor’s podium. So playful was the banter between soloist and conductor-turned-musician that it seemed to offer a meringue topping to further lighten up the already free-flowing performance. All throughout, the violin-orchestra banter was enticing, accurate and exciting.
The three chords introducing the 6/8 section quickly led to further fun exchanges, including a plethora of virtuosic pizzicato, double stopping, arpeggios and glissandos devices.
After the intermission, Wroe chose the beloved and elegant Mozart Symphony No. 39, conducting without score. Wroe has gravitas onstage. He coaxes the best out of the ensemble, breathing with the orchestra, attacking with the orchestra, releasing with the orchestra, animating the music. But he also allows the music to speak for itself, at times even standing back to enjoy the parts being driven by the soloists and various sections of the orchestra.
The second Andante con Molto movement is a study of masterful musical phrases of simplicity and color. Again, Wroe is more coaxer than director — the type who truly lets the composer speak out clearly through the music. He enables the orchestra to bring the music to full fruition.
The third Menuetto (Allegretto) Trio movement might be perceived by some as a precursor to the allegretto of a Brückner symphony. This interesting section included a German dance known as a Ländler, a kind of waltz highlighting a folkish clarinet melody set against arpeggio chords by the second clarinet. Wroe encouraged careful attention to phrasing from the musicians. Indeed, there are no wallflowers in a David Wroe orchestra.
The closing fourth movement Allegro saw great color being coaxed out of the orchestra. The musicians soared, making the brilliant, fun passages look so easy. Again, Wroe encouraged the dialogue between the sections, highlighting Mozart’s witty and articulate musical passages. The movement was pure intellectual banter — Wroe just letting it all happen.
The New Jersey Festival Orchestra is not only a solid musical ensemble, but a highly polished and well led one. Congratulations on the first musical collaboration between the orchestra and the Choir of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. It left us highly satisfied and wanting more.
For more about upcoming New Jersey Festival Orchestra events, visit njfestivalorchestra.org.
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