The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of music director Xian Zhang, performed at NJPAC in Newark this past weekend, highlighting several interesting works including Starburst by Jessie Montgomery, three selections from Má vlast by Bedrich Smetana and the Beethoven Piano Concerto No.2 in B-flat Major, Op.19.
The recently named assistant conductor of the orchestra, Tong Chen, opened the evening with Starburst, by Jessie Montgomery. This short, modern piece is, in the composer’s words, a multidimensional musical landscape describing the “formation of large numbers of stars in the galaxy at a rate high enough to alter the structure of the galaxy significantly.” The work has a jittery opening and went on to become even more spastic and dissonant. It was met by mediocre audience reception.
This unmelodic concoction was followed by three selections from Smetana’s inspirational Má vlast, a work consisting of six symphonic poems lyrically describing the countryside, figures and history of the composer’s Bohemian homeland.
Three poems — The Moldau (Vltava), Sárka and Blaník — were chosen by Zhang, who also conducted the rest of the concert. The Moldau is a concert favorite and standard symphonic-poem study piece in every Music History 101 class; it musically articulates the course of the Vltava river from its formation high in the mountains to winding down the countryside, through various pastoral scenarios, and then past a great castle, eventually disappearing into the distance.
While Zhang conducted the Moldau at a slightly faster tempo, the opening flute solo of principal Bart Feller, which quickly turned into a flute duet with assistant principal Kathleen Nester, kept up their articulation, accuracy and intonation very well. The string section introduced the beautiful “river theme” with a luscious sound. Conductor Zhang had full control over the orchestra, exhibiting exciting dynamics. Her quick tempo did not abate through the “rapids” section; this did not seem to enhance the drama of the water crashing on the rocks but rather just made the whole experience feel rushed.
This interpretation of Moldau was tempo-driven, which gave it a rather emotionless, slightly stiff interpretation. A phrase-driven, more emotional — say, “nationalistic” — approach would have been a more far more appropriate and pleasing an experience. However, a short respite in the tempo during the “marsh” section, slowing down to a good pace, truly evoked the ethereal emotions of the moonlit, mysterious water-nymphs.
Zhang’s aggressive style worked very well in the other sections of Má vlast, including the Blaník movement, when the powerful opening phrases of the Hussite hymn Ye Who Are Warriors of God were announced boldly. This third section was super interesting, with the orchestra producing amazing color in the woodwind section, and the French horn section principal Chris Komer was flawless during the pastoral section. The aggressive tempo felt appropriate.
Somewhat problematic overall was a serious imbalance in orchestral sound for these three pieces. The trumpets and timpani were situated on the floor behind huge plexiglass barriers, which sublimated their parts so much that the trumpets, especially in the several fanfares, could hardly be heard at important moments of the piece. The timpani, located behind the trumpets (on the other side from the rest of the percussion instruments), were slightly muffled by the barrier; this made their emphasis strikes less immediate.
Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto was substituted for the Brahms Piano Concerto No.1 on the program by guest artist-in-residence Daniil Trifonov, due to a recent elbow injury. From the allegro con brio start, a perfect attack was followed by light, dynamic and articulate cohesive interpretation. The melodies of this first movement are almost Mozartian in form and sound. The cadenza of the first movement started as a fugue and morphed into a seemingly themed fantasy.
The adagio second movement highlighted a perfectly tight yet lyrical and beautiful melody. Principal oboe Robert Ingliss was shining through with beautiful tone.
Startlingly, an audience member’s cellphone went blaring in the balcony during the most precious, intimate part of the second movement. So disturbing was the cellphone that orchestra members actually looked up in distraction. Despite numerous warnings to shut off cellphones beforehand, concertgoers continually forget, ignore or disregard hall policies, to the detriment of the concert-going experience. While the loud ringing and answering machine voice distracted many away from the moment, the soloist and conductor soldiered on with poise.
The final presto movement highlighted bright, lyrical playing, which brought the concerto to a delightful conclusion. The audience was then treated to an encore performance of the Hess transcription of Bach’s Cantata BWV 147 Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring by the very well received Trifonov.
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