New Jersey Symphony is celebrating the grand affinities between composers, guest artists and works with a “Schumann Cello Concerto” concert that teams quintessential, classical Romanticism with new American music.
The heartfelt program pairs cellist Sterling Elliott on Robert Schumann’s Cello Concerto with guest conductor Joseph Young. It also includes Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations and the East Coast debut of Jessie Montgomery’s Snapshots, an NJ Symphony co-commission.
Concerts have taken place at NJPAC in Newark on Oct. 19; Richardson Auditorium in Princeton on Oct. 20; and Count Basie Center for the Arts in Red Bank on Oct. 21. (I attended the Oct. 19 concert.) The remaining performance takes place at NJPAC, Oct. 22 at 3 p.m; visit njsymphony.org.
Soloist Elliott put a fresh, new statement on modern love with Schumann’s Concerto in A minor for Violin, Cello and Orchestra, Op. 129 from 1850. The young and gifted soloist is in his early 20s and pursuing an Artist Diploma at The Juilliard School in New York following his Master of Music degrees.
Schumann’s work isn’t a typical concerto. The three movements are more like a unified tone poem, played without a pause (similar to his landmark Fourth Symphony) and the cello soloist enters the piece from its inception, creating a seamless emotional arch.
The Romantic composer, a cellist himself, wrote some of the most beautiful works of the German Lied repertoire — song cycles set to poetry — and treated his cello concerto with the same lyrical sensitivity, poeticism and emotional vulnerability as found in his Lieder. It’s very much a minor key piece with an underlying sense of anxiety, but there is not much darkness, restlessness or poignancy within.
Both Elliott and Young played down the rhapsodic, lyrical elements and introspection in favor of the formal structure and clarity. The effect was aphoristic and modern. High romance and sentiment were refined into clean, bright phrasing and clear rubato.
A warm and gracious accord between the two artists meant tempos and rhythms developed freely. Young was both observant of Schumann’s markings and of Elliott’s projection and penetration, never overweighing the orchestral line.
Elliott played the middle “Langsam” movement with surehanded vigor, and his cello blazed with marvelous warmth, resonance and soulfulness. He plays the 1741 Gennaro Gagliano cello, on loan through the Robert F. Smith Fine String Patron Program, in partnership with the Sphinx Organization.
Like Schumann, Elgar was a canonic figure of Romanticism, though the two composers were not contemporaries. Elgar was born in 1857 in England, one year after the German composer’s death. Yet they had similar creative minds with striking parallels in melodies and harmonies, phrasing and textures.
Both loved wordplay and symbolism, and used anagrams and musical allusions with hidden themes in their works. This cryptography is integral to Elgar’s Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma) Op. 36, from 1899.
The work opens with the “Enigma” theme and follows with 14 variations that deconstruct and reconstruct the original melody into sketches devoted to Elgar’s close friends and colleagues, identifiable by monograms and nicknames within the titles.
It’s an intensely personal and expressive work, and it’s also mysterious. Elgar took the secret of the “Enigma” theme to his grave. He left clues in his copious letters, but they were cryptic and misleading. No one truly knows if the “Enigma” theme was inspired by a well-known melody found in another piece of music; if it was a tune only heard by the composer himself; or if it came about through a completely abstract and coincidental nature.
Like the Schumann piece, the minor key takes the spotlight. The “Enigma” theme is established in a minor key, and the music expresses a sense of melancholy beneath the surface, which culminates in the “Nimrod” theme, named after Elgar’s friend August Johannes Jaeger (whose last name means hunter in German, with Elgar’s reference being to Nimrod, the Biblical hunter).
Sometimes the work can devolve into a collection of British idiosyncrasies that sound too fussy and garish, with too much pageantry and romance. But Young handled it straightforwardly and concisely with exacting musical language on the podium.
A couple of liberties were taken on style with some accents (such as sforzando note attacks within the slurs) that felt more vigorous than ravishing, but others were incisive, including the sweeping and triumphant finale. The agile and lyric movements such as “R.B.T.” and the “Dorabella” intermezzo were handled with delicate color while, on the opposite end, “Troyte” was lush and expansive.
Montgomery’s Snapshots provided a thematic and musical departure from the Schumann-Elgar pairing, drawing fragments from Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy, two French composers who sat at the opposite ends of the musical language and style of German and English Romanticism.
The violinist and composer — currently the Mead Composer-in-Residence with the Chicago Symphony — shares a close relationship with the symphony. Two of her works were programmed for last year’s centennial — one of which, Banner, a virtuosic rhapsody of strings — officially opened the season.
Montgomery herself took the stage, introducing her work and applauding Young for his collaboration. Young is among the small percentage of Black conductors in the United States (6.7 percent, according to a 2023 League of American Orchestras report) and he is in high demand with a handful of leadership roles, including music director of the Berkeley Symphony.
Snapshots is still fresh out of the box, having premiered on Oct. 12 with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, one of its consortium co-commissioners. Its prosaic title downplays its splendor. Its artistic language is based on the big, visual landscape orchestrations found in film scores, full of panoramic vistas and lively rhythmic shifts packed into 18 minutes of storytelling. The effect is masterly and exhilarating, both minimalist and maximalist.
The mini-symphony of four vignettes is suffused with cinematic themes, and each movement presents a distinct mood, scene or effect. It revisits an earlier period in Montgomery’s career in which she took film scoring lessons that exposed her to big, beautiful cinematic composers and scores, as she explained from the stage in her introductory remarks.
The first two movements incorporated a colorful, expansive percussion complement, bright and burnished with brass, which gave way to playful, lighthearted melodies on chimes, each note struck like a glittering bell.
Dark and rich orchestration of the third movement was lashed by a French horn cutting through the darkness, which gave a suggestion of hope and light above the brooding mood. It served as a sensitive prelude to the “Con fuoco” finale with rich textures of the strings shot through with vibrant colors and fine-knit detail.
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