New Jersey Festival Orchestra paired modern American and British composers in a concert of inventive folk music and art songs by Frederick Delius, Aaron Copland and George Gershwin — 20th century symphonic composers who established new vernaculars and schools of music based on the folk genre.
“Summertime Folk Fantasies,” which closed out NJ Festival Orchestra’s 2022-23 season, featured guest vocalist Stephen Gaertner with the orchestra under the baton of conductor and emcee David Wroe.
The weekend series wrapped on Aug. 20 with an outdoor concert in the gardens of the Westfield home of Keith Hertell, the president of the orchestra’s board of trustees. I attended the first concert on Aug. 18 in the more traditional indoor setting of the Sieminski Theater in Basking Ridge.
Stacked up against American icons Copland and Gershwin, Delius was the least known.
“Among us Brits, we champion Delius as the ‘English Debussy,’ ” Wroe said to the audience while introducing the work. Wroe’s interest in Delius is personal: the British conductor has lived in New Jersey and raised a family since becoming music director of the Westfield-based orchestra 25 years ago.
Delius’ music has been sporadically popular through the ages, though his impact on British composers is indelible. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he led the Pastoral School, a movement that sought to revive English song after it sharply declined in popularity following the death of English Baroque composer Henry Purcell. The movement coincided with the rise of grand concert halls that pushed sprawling symphonic works and oratorios to the forefront.
Delius’ “Brigg Fair, An English Rhapsody,” which was performed at this concert, is full of the Pastoral School’s intimate, idyllic beauty cultivated from its Purcellian roots. It was inspired by Delius’ friend, the composer Percy Grainger, who had recorded a performance of the folksong while visiting the small town in Lincolnshire (the same county that Wroe hails from, he said). Grainger composed a new setting of the melody and Delius was so impressed, he created his own orchestral themes and variations.
The work is pretty but melancholy with emotive, seductive lyricism. Delius deployed chromatic harmony in sensuous mood painting with impressionistic and thick textures. You’ll find no clean lines, purity, efficient construction or formal balance here.
Wroe concluded his introduction by singing the traditional English folk song at the heart of the composition, accompanied by pianist Michael Fennelly. Afterwards, he joked in self-deprecating British humor that The Metropolitan Opera was his next stop.
With concise and spirited podium gestures, he fine-tuned Delius’ lush textures, condensing the harmonic sweetness into petite beauties. Harp and flute solos in the development were notably agile.
For this concert, the symphonic ensemble was reduced to about 35 musicians, roughly half of its largest accommodation of 70 players. The smaller scale of the orchestra effectively stripped away the more glossy and polished tonalities of a larger symphonic ensemble, which gave the music a vital and intense freshness. In this setting, Delius’ work was distilled with a sort of stimulating edginess found in avant-garde works by Stravinsky and Ravel.
Magnificent color and dynamics were dialed up for Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess Fantasy” in an arrangement for orchestra by Iain Farrington, an English violinist and composer.
Farrington’s one-movement work is a medley of the most beloved songs and orchestral scenes from Gershwin’s folk opera, which was composed between 1934 and 1935 and based on DuBose Heyward’s novel “Porgy.” Jazz melodies are at the heart of the work. Gershwin called the genre “American folk music” and sought out the advice of jazz legends Fats Waller and Duke Ellington to teach him techniques and tricks.
The musicians alternated in solos of Gershwin’s catchy melodies that included “Summertime,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’ ” and “My Man’s Gone Now.”
Concertmaster Jorge Ávila led a handful of emotive solos with agile fingerwork while the rest of the seated strings explored thrilling ornaments. Fennelly’s piano solos added bright elegance and the percussion section made enthusiastic use of an expansive drum kit. Peppy rhythms were carried by the brass, cellos and basses, and the trumpets added jazzy character with expressive mutes.
Gershwin was an enormously talented artist who stuck mostly to popular, accessible music. He wasn’t interested in composing traditional, classical works like his contemporaries Dvořák or Rachmaninoff, despite his compositional gifts and talents.
Copland, too, was invested in the populist music of his era, and he purposely simplified his style to make it more accessible and appealing to wider audiences.
As a young artist, Copland was grouped among the experimental modernists such as Boulez, Messiaen and Stockhausen. As his style matured through the ’30s and ’40s, he singlehandedly created a new genre of American folk music with the incorporation of hoedown rhythms, jazz beats and spiritual hymns.
His music exhibits grace, tenderness and gravitas, exemplified in “Old American Songs” written for voice and piano in two sets of five. The first set was composed in 1950 after a commission by Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears for the Aldeburgh Festival, and following its popularity, the second was composed in 1952.
The work’s diverse, folkish themes are drawn from 19th-century Americana songs, a far cry from the Italianate roles guest soloist Gaertner sings routinely on international opera stages. Fittingly, he shelved his rich, lustrous Verdian timbres for a creamier tonality with lyricism bubbling at the top.
Clean diction and simple phrasing kept the performance naturalistic, with an interpretive style that felt more aligned with the art songs of German Lieder. The approach was particularly effective in keeping “Ching-a-Ring Chaw” and “Long Time Ago” — both based on minstrel tunes and ballads — grounded and tasteful.
Other standouts included “The Little Horses,” a children’s lullaby from the South, which brought out a delicate and sensitive lyricism. In “Zion’s Walls”— a Revivalist song that Copland reused in his opera “The Tender Land” — Gaertner used a ringing vibrato to reflect the deeply spiritual themes.
The orchestra used painterly textures and colors to narrate Copland’s unique Americana, well balanced with Gaertner even in his most delicate treatments.
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