The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and cello soloist Alban Gerhardt offered an enjoyable concert Oct. 14 at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, with music director Xian Zhang conducting. The well chosen, interesting program included a modern piece written in 1990, the Musica celestis by Philadelphia native Aaron J. Kernis; and two standards of the Romantic era, Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme for Cello and Orchestra (1876), highlighting Gerhardt, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, “Pastoral” (1808).
The opener was a sumptuous musical description of angels singing in heaven, intended to bring the listener closer to an understanding of a celestial serenity. Interestingly, to create this effect Kernis begins the piece in the same place Richard Wagner began his opera “Lohengrin,” high in the upper strings and in a place not on this earth. A gorgeous solo was offered by associate concertmaster Brennan Sweet.
As the work unfolded and intensified, one could best describe it as an ode to Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, a passionate string anthem to human suffering and dignity — luscious and tragic.
While the piece started like Wagner and met Barber somewhere along the way, its ending moved into the house where Armenian-American composer Alan Hovhaness lived. The ending was a rehash of his 1955 Mysterious Mountain. Overall, Musica celestis was a gorgeous cover tune of the heavenly realms.
The next piece offered a nice shift from the ethereal world to the solidity of Tchaikovsky craftsmanship and orchestration. Gerhardt showed immediate prowess with his beautiful and strong main theme, played in a lyrical way that highlighted a magnificent instrument.
The second variation was exciting and accurate, but even more enjoyable was the immediate cohesion between soloist and orchestra. Zhang worked to integrate the cellist into the orchestra, placing him practically within the orchestra — perhaps a function of the size of the stage. This seating arrangement, however, worked particularly well for a soloist on a stringed instrument. Acoustics in the classic theater showed immediate promise but that would change after the intermission.
There was perfect coordination between conductor and soloist and it was wonderful to watch Gerhardt playing through his passages, and even getting a little frisky, musically speaking, at times with Zhang, who missed the soloist’s gestures, being wholly focused on the orchestra.
Gerhardt played happily on to offer a cadenza that highlighted the sweet, responsive sound of his instrument. Gerhardt’s vibrato sings to the ear.
The soloist concluded the piece with vigor and mastery. After the applause, he proved to be highly personable by sincerely thanking the orchestra for accompanying him, and giving Zhang a warm hug.
After the intermission, Zhang returned with the orchestra to offer Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, which was subtitled Pastoral, as it was Beethoven’s sincere and great ode to nature. Zhang gave an educational introduction from the stage, describing the piece, and had the orchestra exemplify key motifs of the piece including the “in the country” theme, the various birds, and the lightning and thunder from the storm movement.
Tempos were exciting and the orchestra sounded clear at first. However, during the pauses in the music it became apparent that the air conditioning in the old hall was droning on and interfering with the performance by offering a constant static. Despite this, later in the movement heads in the audience turned in recognition and appreciation of the “bird section,” highlighted earlier for the audience by Zhang.
While being one of Beethoven’s more “lighthearted” works, the Symphony No. 6 still requires serious listening. As the movement progressed, the constant low-level noise created by the A/C and the open nature of the side of the stage made it more difficult to focus on the music. The four string basses’ sound volume, for example, was somewhat noticeably swallowed up. This liability in the acoustic environment had its effect on other instruments of the orchestra as well.
Zhang started the third movement in 6/8 time, deliberately slow, working up to an absolutely thrilling 6/8 tempo with superb oboe by principal Robert Ingliss, a wonderfully woody clarinet by principal Karl Herman, and an accurate and pitch-perfect horn solo by principal Chris Komer. Interesting and beautiful countermelodies on the flute were played by principal Bart Feller.
But audience members were starting to develop pneumonia now that the continually droning A/C was, in fact, in full swing, and the temperature was dropping slowly. It just wouldn’t stop.
Transition into the Fourth Movement was flawless as the “storm” from the stage, not the A/C, was soon to worsen. Principal timpanist David Fein was aggressive with his breathtaking thunderclaps, which resounded throughout the theater. The French horn section tried to stand out as aggressive, but their impact was impeded: They sounded muffled not only because they were seated on the floor in the back of the orchestra, horn bells facing into the oblivion of the empty side of the stage, but also because they were not seated on risers. Indeed, risers for the entire wind section are needed in this hall.
The first violin section and the cello section, who were sitting on the front of the stage, almost on the audience, were superb and offered clear and resounding articulation along with sensitive phrasing, when called upon.
Zhang offered solid conducting throughout the remainder of the symphony and concluded the performance with a high degree of attention to detail. Her intricate phrasing at the end of the movement was both carefully and beautifully shaped.
She chose the march from “Figaro” to play as an encore. It was magnificent and melodic Mozart. There must have been an officer of the Coldstream Guards in the audience.