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New Jersey Symphony Opens Series With a Smart and Sassy Program

Nancy Plum

Even though the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra has hired Estonian conductor Neeme Järvi as Music Director, the musicians of the orchestra opened their Princeton Series at Richardson Auditorium with a conductorless concert on Friday night. Subtitled "Bach to Beethoven," the concert also included an exquisitely played Octet by Stravinsky to complement the refined playing of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto and a piano concerto of Beethoven. Two days before election day and in the shadow of contract bickering by some of the major orchestras around the country, it was refreshing to hear an ensemble working democratically together toward presenting a polished musical product.

The concept of playing without a conductor was explained to the audience by a member of the orchestra as a way for the players to take responsibility for their own music making and work creatively together. A concert that is musician-driven rather than conductor-driven places a greater burden on the players to keep track of one another and maintain their own precision, and the nineteen players who performed Bach's Brandenburg Concerto Number 5 were clearly thoroughly in sync with the piece and their collective musicianship. Guest pianist John Kimura Parker led the concerto from the piano (rather than the harpsichord) with flutist Kathleen Nester and violinist Brennan Sweet. The piano as we know it did not exist at the time this work was composed, and Mr. Parker kept the piano's usually percussive character subdued to match the solo flute and violin. The sound of the solo trio was especially clean in the second movement, in which Mr. Parker was able to derive a surprisingly great deal of legato from the instrument.

The timbre of a harpsichord would have more closely matched the upper registers of the flute and violin, but Mr. Parker was able to effectively punctuate the music on the piano and lead the soloists in very effective dynamic builds leading back to the ritornellos. Mr. Parker also played an especially elegant closing cadenza to the first movement.

Mr. Parker returned later in the concert for a dynamic performance of Beethoven's piano concerto number 3 in C minor, a work composed for an instrument more closely resembling the piano of today. The orchestra for this work was larger than for the Bach, but no less precise. Mr. Parker's piano playing perfectly matched the orchestra, and it was clear that his interest in the music went beyond what was on the printed page, turning the cadenza of the first movement into a piano concerto in itself. He took a languorous approach to the nocturne quality of the second movement and, with the orchestra, brought the concerto to a rousing finale.

Most impressive about the performance of this concerto was the orchestra's ability to work precisely together, especially the winds and percussion. The first chairs of the strings led their respective sections, and the winds played as a single unit. Timpanist Randall Hicks was especially effective in keeping the orchestra ahead of the beat.

Friday night's performance was rounded out with the Stravinsky Octet, played by an ensemble of eight which brought out the rarely-emphasized humor in the piece, and Beethoven's overture to The Creatures of Prometheus, played in a quick and sprightly tempo. Bassoonists Robert Wagner and Mark Timmerman were kept especially busy in the Stravinsky, playing with a sassiness reflecting 1920s Europe.

Mr. Järvi returns later in November to continue his inaugural season with the orchestra. No doubt he has already noticed that this is an ensemble that plays well together and is open to new and fresh musical ideas.

The orchestra will present its next concert on Friday, November 26 and will include music of Arensky, Mozart, and Beethoven. Information can be obtained by calling 1-800-ALLEGRO.


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