New Jersey Symphony Presents Piano Legend After Thirty Year Absence from Princeton Area
The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra has been good to women conductors this year. To add to its commitment to high quality performances and expanding New Jersey audiences, the orchestra has presented several women on the podium, a refreshing change in a field in which women often have trouble getting "the big break." The third of these, Keri-Lynn Wilson, led the orchestra Friday night at Richardson Auditorium in a rich program of Mendelssohn, Prokofiev, and Brahms.
The road is not often easy for women conductors, but Ms. Wilson has built a diverse career in both symphonic and operatic repertoire here and abroad. Her command of the ensemble on Friday night was decisive, as she set the mood for the piece with her gestures, while allowing the players to take care of the fine details themselves. Her upbeat to the opening of Mendelssohn's Overture, The Hebrides (also known as Fingal's Cave), immediately set the tone of the work, and despite Ms. Wilson not always being the most relaxed of conductors, the music flowed. Ms. Wilson's conducting style well suited the martial section of the overture, but the lighter sections of the piece could have paid more homage to their classical roots. Throughout, all instruments spoke cleanly and evenly, with especially crisp horns and trumpets. Clarinetist Karl Herman was also notable in his smooth solo playing.
Ms. Wilson studied conducting with a legend from Juilliard who is also at the Curtis Institute, Otto Werner Mueller, and Curtis has turned out numerous fine instrumentalists, some of whom are almost certainly in the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. Thus it was fitting that the orchestra's presentation of Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 4 for the left hand featured another Curtis legend, pianist Gary Graffman, who is also director of the school. Mr. Graffman had established a renowned career as a concert pianist before an injury to his right hand afforded him a second career in the concert piano repertoire for the left hand. Mr. Graffman had not performed with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra in almost 30 years, an unfortunate loss all these years to Princeton audiences.
By ear alone, one would never have known that there was anything unusual at all about Mr. Graffman's playing of this concerto. He played the opening vivace with the lightness of Mozart, and easily maneuvered within the range of this concerto which used the full stretch of the keyboard. Like an athlete, Mr. Graffman used his right hand for balance and strength, and used his more than 40 years of concert experience to balance his playing precisely in timbre and timing with the orchestra. Ms. Wilson kept meticulous track of all the players, and, even with the considerable distance between instruments, orchestral and pianistic effects were perfectly timed.
The Brahms Serenade No. 1, which closed the program, is unlike the serenades of his predecessors. With six movements, this work is more like a symphony, and Ms. Wilson took full advantage of all the possible orchestral colors. Dynamically, the sound never stayed still as Ms. Wilson brought out the pastoral effect. Winds came to the forefront in this work, especially the clarinets and bassoons, and the horns were precise in their opening calls as well as their agility in the closing rondo.
The NJSO seems to have incorporated a new feature into their performances, with various instrumentalists talking to the audience just as the concert is about to begin. Not a pre-concert lecture (which would be welcome in Princeton), the brief "chat" on Friday night from one of the cellists and Ms. Wilson, seemed to have no purpose other than to kill some time before late-comers arrived. There was little information conveyed that was not in the program, and once the concert began, the high quality of the instrumentalists' performance spoke for itself. If the orchestra was seeking to bridge the distance between performer and audience, a discussion with Mr. Graffman and Ms. Wilson on their careers (especially Mr. Graffman's experiences) would have been of much more interest to an audience which had gone too long without hearing this extraordinary pianist.