The New Jersey Festival Orchestra, under the musical direction of David Wroe, opened its 2019-2020 concert season with “Invitation to the Waltz” at the First United Methodist Church in Westfield, Oct. 5, and The Concert Hall at Drew University in Madison, Oct. 2. The program included the Emperor Waltz by Johann Strauss II, Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme with guest cello soloist Jiapeng Nie, and the great Rosenkavalier Suite from the opera by Richard Strauss.
Wroe started the Drew University concert with the rousing “Emperor Waltz,” Op. 437. Immediately apparent was an extremely “live” hall — polished hardwood stage, cement floor and wood panels. This acoustical environment made the immediacy of orchestral sound abundantly apparent in the small- to average-sized hall. Fortunately, the acoustic dampening included a cloth covering the entire ceiling; this helped diffuse a direct and powerful sound from the full orchestra. The space was excellent for clarity from the solo instrument sections of the various waltzes and most certainly with the cello soloist.
A Wroe orchestra is usually a solid and high-performing musical machine, but this one displayed an immediate liability in the four-person cello section. Their important parts were not only immediately and completely stifled by the orchestra, but worse, they lacked sectional unity, vigor and intensity (this was possibly the reason their sound was obliterated). Other sections, however, including the percussion, stood out as exceptional; the snare drummer correctly practiced volume control in the live hall and executed precise attacks and releases.
Principal bassist Richard Sosinsky was carrying the mere two-man bass section with vigor, attentiveness and enthusiasm, and really should have been considered second concertmaster extraordinaire.
Three-quarters of the way through the opening piece, the orchestra seemed warmed up enough to start focusing on their ensemble sound. The excellent choice of melodic music covered this somewhat raw start, which, incidentally, also featured two children conversing in the audience right through the grand pause in the waltz. No fault of the orchestra, but perhaps the perceived less serious nature of a college music venue gave some parents the impression that it was okay to relax the normally high standards of the concert hall and shuffle in their undisciplined offspring?
Despite these faux pas, Wroe made it all better by addressing the audience after the opening piece with his hallmark enthusiasm, underscoring the exciting aspects of the waltz genre, noting that the musicians “enjoy playing the style immensely” and that “the Emperor is a favorite of musicians because it has so many beautiful melodies.” He went on the say that “Johann and Richard Strauss were different and unrelated persons” and that the heavier, romantic composer Richard Strauss “incorporated waltz-like features in his arguably most famous opera Rosenkavalier and that Tchaikovsky was one of the greatest of all the waltz composers, even though there are not any formal waltzes in the piece tonight, but it was included because of his definitive command of the three-beat, waltz-like lilts in this work.”
Jiapeng Nie highlighted beautiful tone on his cello during the Variations on a Rococo Theme. The many orchestra solo parts such as the horn solo were perfect and worked well with the lyrical, accurate and exciting cello. However, the orchestral cello section failed to “up their game” in the second piece and were weak in their lackluster and draggy responses to the soloist.
Opposed to this lethargy was a highly responsive, articulate and completely interested woodwind section that played with clarity and agility. Flute melodies accenting the solo lines were interesting, as was the on-tempo and pitch-perfect timpani from Eric Borghi.
Wroe performed his role as link between soloist and orchestra exquisitely. He was totally focused and responsive to the soloist, making sure the orchestra didn’t step on Jiang’s phrases. Jiang’s parted included a magnificent solo cadenza exemplifying depth, understanding and tonal beauty.
A grateful audience demanded encores from Jiang, which included The Swan by Saint-Saëns (a great romantic choice) and a piece called Juliette, an Appalachian-like back-country sounding piece with pizzicato switching to bow.
The third and final piece of the evening was the Rosenkavalier Suite, Op. 59, a great work of Germanic intensity and gravity. The first strings performed their soaring parts here with splendor and verve. Timpani excelled again with perfect pitch and forza.
At this point in the concert, while the cello section was barely putting along, having lost now any intensity and force, hardly even heard, the contrasting oboe and French horns excelled on their heavy duty parts with amazing impact, sensitivity, pitch and tone. The principal oboe was outstanding, as well as the rest of the woodwinds; oboe won woodwind of the evening.
Wroe’s musical phrasing was exceptional and nothing was rushed at all. He has the unique ability to clearly interpret a work’s main, secondary, underlying and insinuated ideas and is an articulate master artist with an orchestra, creating and releasing tension.
Rosenkavalier Suite offers some of the most sensuous music, and the finale never disappoints. Wroe coaxed the best possible sound out of the first strings. In addition to the oboe, principal flute gets admirable mention and the solos throughout the piece from the actual concertmaster were beautiful. The waltz section was perfectly executed in Austrian style, extending beat number two of three. The snare drummer at end of the piece exhibited exceptional roll control.
The final Trio section of Rosenkavalier highlighted a perfect tempo and magnificent, strong and complex composition. The wow ending was held very, very long, which created a powerful effect. In the end, the orchestra was attentive to Wroe. The Maestro knows what he wants.
For more on the orchestra, visit njfestivalorchestra.org.
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