The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra returned to live concerts this month under the musical direction of Xian Zhang, after more than a year and a half of COVID disruption. The program of the opening concert, Oct. 8 at NJPAC in Newark, included the world premiere of the NJSO special commission Emerge by Michael Abels, the Voodoo Violin Concerto by NJPAC’s resident artistic catalyst Daniel Bernard Roumain, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92.
Emerge addressed “our collective response to, and recovery from, the extended pandemic.” The opening highlighted the oboe to sound the tuning pitch for the orchestra as other instruments joined, quickly turning into choppy musical seas. The brass then chimed in with discord. It was clearly evident that the musicians were in good form and spirits.
This clever piece highlights a nice string melody taken up in fragments by trumpet and horn with a frustrating and antagonistic coda highlighted by the horns. Upon reflection, as opposed to a triumphal musical choice such as Shostakovich’s Festive Overture, Emerge was appropriate, considering the devastation of the past year and a half.
The second piece of the evening, the Voodoo Violin Concerto, began with an orchestral opening. Electric speakers for soloist-composer Bernard Roumain’s violin soon kicked in with various distortions. The violin was held and played as a guitar, at times playing excerpts from well-known popular music. The solo cadenza was an improvised series of distortions recalling Jimi Hendrix playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” and lines from the Israeli national anthem “Hatikvah,” among others. An interesting and pleasing folk-like melody eventually emerged.
A second cadenza included electronically synthesized cello sounds played on Roumain’s violin. Roumain both played and spoke and the orchestra repeated. There were a series of effects that sounded like a 1960s science fiction experiment interjected with commentary from Roumain such as “how ya feeling?” and “hallelujah!”
While a full orchestra seemed too large for this kind of “violin fantasy,” the piece does have interest. It was fun hearing Hendrix-like distortion. But with no thematic unison, the piece became more like a run-on sentence. And Roumain’s red sneakers were more distracting than entertaining.
Beethoven’s 7th Symphony was the powerhouse of the evening. The enthusiasm of the orchestra became immediately apparent and its expertise shined with amazing solo work by principal oboe Robert Ingliss, highlighting perfect pitch and phrasing, followed by principal flute Bart Feller. The orchestra played with a renewed vigor that was both refreshingly raw, and refined.
The First Violin section in particular deserves special mention for its accurate, full performance. The weaknesses we’ve experienced in rear seat positions in the violin section of the previous season seem to have been addressed.
The second movement’s allegretto melody and countermelody by the cellos and particularly the violas were very strong. There was a great blend within the string sections and overall orchestra. Interplay between first and second violins was well executed, highlighting beautiful intonation from the French horns. The third movement Presto showed further flawless execution by Ingliss on the oboe, which was clear and bright.
The symphony closed with the Allegro con Brio fourth movement, with horns on point and as vigorous a performance as I have seen from the NJSO. Keeping up the enthusiasm throughout the whole movement, the first violins drove the orchestra with vigor.
The orchestra’s next concert will be Oct. 30 at 2 p.m., when it will provide live music for a screening of the movie “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1” at NJPAC in Newark. Visit njsymphony.org or ticketmaster.com.
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