Trifonov triumphs, Roumain bids farewell at New Jersey Symphony’s high-spirited season-closer

TRIFONov review


Pianist Daniil Trifonov performs with New Jersey Symphony, conducted by Xian Zhang.

New Jersey Symphony wrapped its 101st season June 6-9 with an all-American program, “Daniil Trifonov Plays Gershwin,” that captured the grace and vitality of George Gershwin’s music and explored the legendary composer’s complex, hybrid nature.

Music director Xian Zhang brought out deep feelings and humanity with the grand, operatic “Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture” while “Concerto in F Major for Piano and Orchestra,” with pianist Daniil Trifonov, crossed into the joyfulness of Gershwin’s artistry.



The concerts (at The State Theatre in New Brunswick, Richardson Auditorium at Princeton University, The Count Basie Center for the Arts in Red Bank, and NJPAC in Newark) also bid a fond farewell to Daniel Bernard Roumain with the world premiere of “Autumn Days and Nights,” his final New Jersey Symphony commission as resident artistic catalyst.

It was a consolidated season, tailored to funding cuts intended to soften the blow of economic challenges and lagging attendance after volatile pandemic seasons. But if there were any doubts about the orchestra’s constitution, they can be put to rest. At the last of the four concerts, June 9 at NJPAC, the symphony broadcast loud and clear its wellbeing as it wrapped the first year of its second century of music making.

After opening in October with elite jazz pianist and composer Aaron Diehl, in William Grant Still’s “Out of the Silence” and Duke Ellington’s “New World a-Comin’,” the season’s musical journey came full circle with Gershwin, both programs blurring the line between jazz and classical repertoires.

There were plenty of highlights between the two concerts, including:

The East Coast premiere of Anna Clyne’s towering ATLAS, a symphony co-commission with guest artist Jeremy Denk on piano, in May.

Carl Orff’s sprawling Carmina Burana with guest vocalists and The Montclair State University Chorale, in March.

The holiday concert tradition of Handel’s “Messiah” masterwork at Newark’s Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart, in December.

The Gershwin finale was also among the standouts.

Despite a brief career (he died at age 38 from a brain tumor, in 1937), Gershwin redefined American music with his signature style that blends jazz and classical genres.

“Concerto in F” (1925) quickly followed the success of “Rhapsody in Blue” (1924), which took the world by storm.

Gershwin’s background in classical music was slim. He never studied at conservatory or an academic music academy. He began as a Tin Pan Alley song plugger and rose to success as a Broadway songwriter with his older brother, Ira, and kept to the realm of popular and commercial music like contemporaries Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern.

Composed in the Roaring Twenties, the score reflects Gershwin’s exuberance and eloquence. There were no dark nor brooding undercurrents to his personality, and he got on well with everyone. As a Brooklyn transplant in Hollywood, he sought out advice and endorsements from musical giants including Ravel, Stravinsky and Schoenberg, on the classical end, and jazz legends Fats Waller, Duke Ellington and Art Tatum.


Daniil Trifonov performs with New Jersey Symphony, conducted by Xian Zhang.

Zhang (now in her eighth season with New Jersey Symphony, with a contract extension through 2028) was clearly in her element with Gershwin’s blues and jazz idioms. Her stylish rubato captured his natural sense of harmony, melody and rhythm. Outer movements danced to the Charleston-inspired motifs.

She is unparallelled at drawing out brilliant color and vibrant hues from the musicians, particularly with the Austro-German Romantics and post-Romantics Strauss and Mahler. On Gershwin, the palette was dry, demure and sepia-stained, which evoked feelings of nostalgia, clean romance and sensuality (the suave and dapper bachelor was well known for his love of cocktails, parties and dalliances).

It was a triumphant return for Trifonov, who was the symphony’s 2021-22 Artist-in-Residence and has collaborated frequently since then, as a guest performer.

While the piece encourages showmanship with its handfuls of scherzo and grandioso markings, Trifonov avoided excess and aligned himself with the cool ease of Gershwin’s pianistic lines. Limber and lithe, he never broke a sweat through the work’s peripatetic key changes and calisthenic chords, plucking playfully at the keys between octave runs. He finally came undone during an intense “tempestoso” encore of Prokofiev’s Sarcasm, Op. 17, No. 1, springing up from the bench before landing the final low F.

He showed off fantastic pianism, neat and delineated, with supple movement driven from the wrists. Perfectly weighted tones used a bare minimum of pedalwork. The Adagio highlighted brass and horn solos while seated strings played “alla chitarra,” holding their instruments in their laps and strumming them like guitars. Audience members were rapt, and broke out into applause between movements.


Xian Zhang conducts New Jersey Symphony.

Zhang’s sepia palette lent a wistful, tender atmosphere to the “Porgy and Bess” medley of famous tunes “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and “Summertime,” arranged in 1942 by Gershwin’s friend Robert Russell Bennett.

Gershwin’s grand folk opera was based on DuBose Heyward’s novel “Porgy” (as well as the adapted play by Heyward and his wife Dorothy), which is a stylized tale of the South Carolina Gullah culture in Charleston’s Catfish Row neighborhood.

Co-written with his brother Ira and the Heywards, the opera premiered in 1935 to mixed reviews and controversy. It was only through major revivals (including a production that ran on Broadway in 1953 and also toured worldwide on behalf of the U.S. State Department) that it became the most famous American opera of the 20th century.

Instrumentation is colorful and large, including saxophones and a banjo, which makes for expressive and dynamic solos. Zhang’s well-integrated, symphonic treatment gave great depth of feeling.

Roumain’s “Autumn Days and Nights” premiered under similarly warm sentiments. It was the second consecutive year he closed the season with a newly commissioned world premiere, and this marked his last performance as resident artistic catalyst, a role created in 2021.

The work draws on his musical identity as a Black, Haitian-American composer. There are strains of Haitian folk music (“Merci Bondye”), the Black national anthem (“Lift Every Voice and Sing”) and African-American spirituals (“Wade in the Water.”)

It opens with seated strings singing a “Hallelujah” chorus while simultaneously playing. It moves between various moods and themes, and is emotive and communicative with an introspective heart that is both somber and optimistic.

It is dedicated to Zhang, and the title alludes to last fall, when Roumain began composing it. The spicier scents and colors of fall are palpable in burnished shades and tonalities.

“I’ve often felt that the promise of winter, spring, and summer runs restless in the simmering smoke of autumn days and nights,” Roumain wrote in composer’s notes. “It’s the season of change and challenge, and this orchestral concerto does just that, inviting the musicians into sound collages …”

Roumain wanted the work to be a journey that allows all the musicians to contribute with solos; this reflects his collaborative, supportive personality. (Introductory remarks included accolades and best wishes for incoming resident artistic partner Allison Loggins-Hull, a Montclair-based flutist and composer who takes over the position in September.)

As a violinist, he has a natural fluency for strings and wrote them attentive and organic solos in the melancholy middle section, “For Sandra Bland,” which memorializes a young African-American woman who was found hanged in a Texas jail cell after being arrested during a routine traffic stop in 2015.

Principal cellist Jonathan Spitz set down the theme, which was picked up by principal viola Frank Foerster and followed by concertmaster Eric Wyrick. (Wyrick and second violinist Héctor Falcón are this year’s Terhune awardees, given to musicians who have served the orchestra for 25 years.) The effect was like chamber music, conversational and intimate.

The last section is highly thematic and presents a heroic idea with a victorious “Rise!” fanfare, developed with fierce passion and more-is-more maximalism. It ends with a key transposition and a bright and positive E-major chord, which made a nice metaphor for Roumain’s progressive and rewarding tenure.

At 101 years old, the orchestra is no spring chicken. But imaginative programming like the Gershwin finale keeps it young.


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