New Jersey Symphony opens centennial season with visionary concert

yefim bronfman nj symphony review

PHOTOS BY GRACE LIU ANDERSON

Yefim Bronfman performs with the New Jersey Symphony, conducted by Xian Zhang.

New Jersey Symphony rolled out its ambitious centennial season in a weekend of celebratory classical concerts featuring pianist Yefim Bronfman, Oct. 7 at NJPAC in Newark, Oct. 8 at the Count Basie Center for the Arts in Red Bank and Oct. 9 at the Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown.

I attended the NJPAC concert, and think it both reflected the symphony’s 100-year history of innovative programming and artistic excellence and offered a promising vision of what is to come.

Under music director Xian Zhang, New Jersey’s statewide orchestra has become a leader in the American orchestral field, with an emphasis on core values of equitable advancement and community engagement. The 2022-23 season is Zhang’s seventh, after joining the organization in 2016. Her contract continues through 2028.

President and CEO Gabriel van Aalst welcomed concertgoers from the stage and highlighted the season’s biggest, boldest initiatives: masterworks that haven’t been played in decades; a host of new commissions; superstar guest artists including a Yo-Yo Ma (for the centennial gala concert) and Joshua Bell (for the season finale); and the return of former music directors to the stage.

Zhang was the evening’s north star in a visionary program of composers Jessie Montgomery, Aaron Copland and Sergei Rachmaninoff. The orchestra was a study of exquisite contrasts under her clean, precise baton. The musicians have the grand luster, poise and discipline of a nationally leading orchestra, but beneath the veneer beats a warm regional heart.

Montgomery’s virtuosic rhapsody of strings, “Banner,” explored the thematic arc of the program’s first half, an upbeat examination of American identity. The short, clever piece was written in 2014 by the violinist-composer to commemorate the bicentennial of the national anthem. Blending musical genres and legacies, it deconstructs Francis Scott Key’s “Star-Spangled Banner” theme as an exploration of the national anthem’s meaning in today’s multicultural landscape.

Abstract strains of the national anthem came through Montgomery’s pastiche of Americana music, from ragtime to jazz to bluegrass. The strings-exclusive instrumentation wove all the brilliant, penetrating colors of the strings section into a cohesive framework. Quicksilver tempi, dexterous bowing and agile passagework gave thrilling tension throughout.

Members of Nimbus Dance perform with the New Jersey Symphony.

Nimbus Dance premiered its “Spring” dance by Samuel Pott, founder and artistic director of the Jersey City-based company. The choreography explored the hope and optimism of the American pioneering spirit scored by Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring Suite,” an orchestral work from 1945 from the folk ballet composed for Martha Graham.

Pott’s iconography carried indelible impressions from his years dancing with the Martha Graham Dance Company. His joyful, lighthearted movement was expressive and striking. Six barefooted soloists interpreted a young couple’s wedding celebration and their union through seasonal cycles of renewal and rebirth. Student dancers rushed down the aisles during the immersive finale, suggesting the company’s commitment to building the future generations of artists and musicians.

Erica Johnson’s bright costumes were evocative of Graham’s quintessential style — women in long jersey dresses and men in simple separates. Costumes were painted with vibrant abstractions by Jersey City-based visual artist Bryant Small, inspired by his 2020 alcohol ink painting “New York City.”

While Montgomery’s composition showed off the mastery of the strings section, Copland’s suite highlighted the rich woodwinds, burnished brass and tempered percussion of the orchestra. Zhang filled the inspiring work with vital tonalities and joyous expression, even in its more melancholy passages.

During intermission, concertgoers were invited to the stage apron where some musicians participated in Q&A sessions.

Yefim Bronfman with the New Jersey Symphony.

Bronfman’s gravitas balanced the program’s upbeat, exploratory first half. The acclaimed American-Israeli pianist is a triple threat of technique, strength and lyricism. He’s the perfect match for Rachmaninoff’s challenging Piano Concerto No. 3, a monumental showpiece of piano repertoire that demands airtight technique across its complex passagework and long cadenzas.

From the moment Bronfman set down the simple Allegro theme, his ironclad virtuosity and graceful lyricism were on display. His decorative passages and chordal complexities were enhanced by the Steinway & Sons concert grand’s rich, resonant tonalities. On the bench, he gave a little sway of his hips here and there, but the athleticism in his upper body powered the momentum and continuity of his supple finger work.

Zhang and her musicians arranged the Russian composer’s thematic challenges in intelligent, pensive phrases, delicate and subdued. The passionate Finale was tremendous, with the beautiful chaos of Bronfman’s rapid-fire octaves and colossal chords complemented by Zhang’s lyrical riots of color.

The centennial celebrations continue with the “Xian Zhang Conducts Brahms” concerts on Oct. 20-21 and 23. The refined program features historical repertoire from mid- and late-Romantic German composers. Dorothy Chang’s “Northern Star” opens the program followed by Brahms’ Fourth Symphony, and pianist Michelle Cann plays Strauss’ “Burleske.” For tickets and information, visit njsymphony.org.

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