Acclaimed violinist Joshua Bell joined forces with the New Jersey Symphony for an unforgettable concert to close its ambitious 2022-23 centennial season. The landmark anniversary season — which kicked off in October with soloist Yefim Bronfman playing Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto — featured innovative programming, world-class musicians such as Yo-Yo Ma and Hilary Hahn, new commissions and special events.
The final shows took place June 9-11 at NJPAC in Newark and the Count Basie Center for the Arts in Red Bank. Conductor Xian Zhang led the orchestra and Bell in Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1, Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” and a commissioned world premiere by Daniel Bernard Roumain.
At the June 9 NJPAC concert I attended, Bell gave an energetic, breathtaking performance of Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in a fitting season finale.
The German composer is known almost exclusively for his violin masterwork from 1866, revised two years later by the Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim. The classically structured work of three movements in sonata form is full of strenuous virtuoso solo passages, dazzling rhythms and lush melodies.
Bell — who picked up the violin at age 4 and has engaged international stages in the five decades since — showed off his superior technique, sensitivity and graceful athleticism. He handled Bruch’s exceptional fingerwork with ease and meticulous poise, with boyish flicks of his trademark bangs here and there.
His opening Prelude was passionate, with rhapsodic bow strokes. He highlighted his violin’s richer tones with a resonant, luxurious Adagio. The Finale was buoyant with charming strains of the composer’s Hungarian folk music against the orchestra’s woodwind couplings.
Zhang balanced Bell’s bravado with cohesive accompaniment and decisive musical language. Even Bruch’s most temperamental outbursts were modulated into silken, sumptuous textures and luscious, legato phrasing.
These stunning beauties of the Romantic symphonic repertory play to the strengths of Zhang, who is now in her seventh season as music director of New Jersey’s statewide orchestra. As a custodian of the score, she is a resplendent colorist and a diligent polisher. She coaxes vibrant, high color from the musicians and shapes the unruliest passages into clear, clean, precious gems. She kept Stravinsky’s masterwork as visceral as ever, but less accosting.
Audiences famously rebelled at the 1913 premiere of “The Rite of Spring” at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. Riots ensued at the ballet’s risqué choreography, scenography, orchestral score and subject matter of a primitive pagan ritual in which a virgin is sacrificed to the god of spring. The work changed the course of Western classical music, ushering in modernity from the ultra-Romantic imprints of Mahler and Strauss.
For musicians, the two-part work is challenging, with time changes and constantly shifting beats. The orchestration is unusual. Instruments are used in unexpected arrangements of unmelodious pitches, or at their full registers, such as the high-pitched opening bassoon solo.
Zhang wrangled the most ferocious moments into controlled chaos, particularly in the “Sacrifice” second half. The orchestra never lost track of its momentum despite the work’s complex, disorienting rhythms. The thrilling pulse was driven by unrelenting percussion and the powerful downbows of the strings.
Like Stravinsky, Daniel Bernard Roumain creates extraordinary musical experiences through unexpected art forms, and that is exactly what he did with the premiere of his new work “Farah (Joy).” The NJ Symphony commission was one of four works written for the centennial season.
The composer is the symphony’s resident artistic catalyst, a role created in 2021 to double down on its long legacy of inclusion and equity through the engagement of diverse local artists.
Roumain’s broad compositions usually address political and social justice issues, but “Farah” was penned as a love letter to the symphony’s surrounding communities: Its title translates to “joy” in Arabic.
Librettist Marc Bamuthi Joseph wrote the passionate, intense words. (He also wrote Roumain’s first NJ Symphony commission from June 2022, a chamber opera work about protest set in Philadelphia.)
Roumain and Joseph are synergistic as arts activists and advocates, and the result was unexpected and fresh. The 12-minute work for solo vocalist and orchestra was robust with variations on musical words and rhythmic passages from the opening theme: “Remember me a Black girl named for Joy oriented forward toward an eastern star.” Instrumentation included unconventional percussion such as bongos and glockenspiel.
The most evocative section featured a spoken-word performance by vocalist Becky Bass, a singer of Caribbean soul music, who sang with a rich voice and an emotional intensity that brought out the dramatic nuances of the text.
The theme was presented through the lens of a realist: You can’t turn life into one long moment of joy because there always will be struggle. But between the struggle, there are moments of beauty and hope, so embrace those uplifting moments as they come.
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