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New Jersey Symphony Returns to Classical Period With Anything-but-Mundane Soloist Markus Groh

Nancy Plum

The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, in a concert subtitled "Clowns and Kings," presented one of the current kings of the piano solo world as the ensemble looked back to the masters of the late Baroque and early Classical periods. Led Friday night in Richardson Auditorium by guest conductor Stefan Sanderling and joined by pianist Markus Groh, the orchestra almost never flinched in a concert of precision and classical elegance.

The ensemble demonstrated musical clarity right from the start with Stravinsky's suite from the ballet Pulcinella. Although Stravinsky lived in the 20th century, he drew his inspiration for this work (at the suggestion of Diaghilev) from the music of early 18th century composer Giovanni Pergolesi. In nine short movements, Stravinsky re-created, for chamber orchestra, the musical flow and courtly grace of the baroque era. Mr. Sanderling constructed a well-blended sound from the start, even if the violins and winds had some tuning issues in the beginning. Especially effective were the pianissimo strings, combined with refined playing from oboist Carolyn Pollak and flutist Kathleen Nester. The horns and bassoons also came together in a well-mixed sound, and solo playing from instruments not often heard on their own (such as double bassist Paul Harris) helped capture the character of the dance movements and translucent orchestration.

The leap from Stravinsky to Schubert's Symphony no. 3 in D major was made through continued well-balanced winds and brass and a delicacy of string playing that extended the concert's exercise in classicism. Schubert wrote this symphony at the age of eighteen for his friends, and Mr. Sanderling found the appropriate grace and congeniality in the style. Ms. Pollak and bassoonist Robert Wagner emphasized the Ländler quality of the Menuetto, and the orchestra, even at its loudest was never overwhelming.

The "Kings" in the subtitle of this concert no doubt referred to the "King" of the classical period, Ludwig van Beethoven, whose Piano Concerto no. 5 in E flat major was presented with a star from the newest generation of pianists. German Markus Groh approaches the keyboard as if it were a canvas on which to paint, with shades and colors of dynamics and touch to accentuate the drama in the music. This concerto was subtitled (although not by Beethoven) the Emperor concerto, and it was written during a time of great national and political stress in Austria. The concerto seems to characterize the military uneasiness of the times. From the stage, the orchestra could have used more bite, especially in the first parts of the concerto, but Mr. Groh never played two measures in a row in the same manner, varying his touch and effect to create fluidity and diversity in the sound. Mr. Groh wasted no time getting the concerto rolling from the opening Allegro, and his seemingly casual yet focused manner kept the audience hanging on every note.

This was one of the last concerts in Princeton by the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra in their "transition period," before welcoming their new music director Neeme Järvi later this spring and into the fall. The orchestra managed this transition with creative programming and never-failing high quality, and used Friday night's performance as an opportunity to present good old-fashioned classical music.

The New Jersey Symphony next Richardson Auditorium concert will be October 29, and will feature pieces by Bach, Beethoven, and Stravinsky. Information can be obtained by calling 1-800-ALLEGRO.

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