Superstar instrumentalists rarely come to Princeton, and New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) presented a real treat to the community this past weekend with violinist Hilary Hahn. Playing Johannes Brahms’ demanding Violin Concerto in D Major, Ms. Hahn brought the audience at Richardson Auditorium down to pin drop level several times with her fiery playing, tempered with lyrical melodic lines.
Guest conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier, himself a violin prodigy as a child, seemed to be from the old school of conductors, taking command of the podium with little fanfare, but at the same time maintaining absolute control over the performance. Mr. Tortelier began Friday night’s performance of the concerto by immediately building drama with the horns in sync with the celli and violas, and winds nicely enmeshed in the orchestral texture. Ms. Hahn’s violin solo emerged from this palette with fire, and Ms. Hahn proved from the start that she is one fierce, intense, and powerful performer.
Ms. Hahn was able to create graceful cadences amidst continuous action for the soloist and mesmerized the audience with extended solo passages and a cadenza during which one could hear a pin drop in the audience. She used the full weight of her body while playing, while the musicians of the NJSO were perfectly timed with her. When not playing, Ms. Hahn often watched the orchestral players, showing that she was never for a moment disengaged from the music. Several players excelled at solo passages during the concerto, including oboist Robert Ingliss, bassoonist Robert Wagner, and concertmaster Eric Wyrick. Throughout the work, Mr. Tortelier wisely allowed Ms. Hahn to lead the way, with the musicians perfectly in tandem. Following the concerto, Ms. Hahn further delighted the audience with a solo encore of a “Loure” from J.S. Bach’s Partita No. 3 in E Major.
Mr. Tortelier paired the Brahms work with two smaller 20th-century works. Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, former music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, has turned his attention to composing in recent years. His 1981 Giro (which he revised in 1997) combined many small instrumental parts into a cohesive musical whole, with coloristic effects provided by solo instruments. The title of this symphonic poem can be translated as “turn,” and the work showed many twists and turns as the musicians seemed to be in their own worlds but clearly part of something larger. English hornist Andrew Adelson provided elegant solo lines, as did oboist Mr. Ingliss, bassoonist Mr. Wagner, E-flat clarinetist Andrew Lamy, and violist Frank Foerster. An unusual orchestral palette was added with the extensive use of harp and marimba.
Igor Stravinsky composed several versions of the Suite from the ballet The Firebird, the last of which was in 1945. The ten movements of the Suite flowed together well, as conducted from memory by Mr. Tortelier. Musical effects such as the “walking-like” ostinato from the celli and double basses reminded the audience that this music was originally composed for the dance, and the characters of the Russian Firebird folktale could be heard in the melodic wind fragments. Mr. Ingliss was kept very busy on Friday night, as he provided graceful solos in several movements. Flutists Bart Feller and Kathleen Nester played crisply against precise pizzicato writing in the strings, and clarinetists Karl Hermann and Mr. Lamy added a silky color to the “Pantomimes” which glued the movements together. Piano accompaniment, played by Elizabeth DeFelice, was well-timed with the winds, and hornist Lawrence DiBello provided a comforting melody following the chaos of the “Infernal Dance of King Kastchei.” Conducting this work from memory, Mr. Tortelier showed himself to be a very energetic conductor, tying the movements together well with effective builds of intensity.
Usually in the spring, the NJSO takes a moment to acknowledge the educational component of the orchestra’s activities. At the start of the concert, a string quartet of NJSO’s Greater Newark Youth Orchestra — violinists Rachel Seo and Winifred Waters, violist Melissa Holfelder, and cellist Danielle Lee — proved, with their performance of an excerpt from Antonin Dvorak’s American String Quartet, that they could hold the stage and the audience’s attention as well as the professional NJSO members behind them.