November 25, 2020

New Jersey Symphony Presents World Premiere in Virtual Concert

By Nancy Plum

Since March, orchestras nationwide have been developing online concert series often presenting well-known works recorded either live or from archives. New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO), in its first online video concert broadcast of NJSO Virtual 20-21, marked this unusual year by performing a piece commissioned specifically to capture an unprecedented time period which certainly became more tumultuous during the course of the piece’s composition. 

NJSO commissioned Haitian-American composer Daniel Bernard Roumain to write a work which, in the words of the composer, was created “during a series of overlapping crises in our lives: a pandemic, a global fight for social justice, the effects and awareness of climate change, an array of economic collapses, and the tyranny of an electoral process under siege by a president and his party.”

NJSO Music Director Xian Zhang combined Roumain’s music with that of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, American composer Michael Abels, and symphonic titan Gustav Mahler to create a virtual experience blending musical nobility and joy, in a concert recorded at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in October and launched online last Thursday night. 

Roumain states that the titles of his works often reflect his feelings and political positions.  With his work i am a white person who           Black people, Roumain presented both an invitation and a choice in which people can fill in the blank in the title as a form of self-reflection. Scored for socially-distanced strings, timpani, and percussion, this work was both jarring and serene, exploring the textures of the instruments while incorporating present-day restrictions into the music. Gregory LaRosa’s timpani playing added particular dramatic intensity to the music. NJSO presented this concert as a multimedia performance, with accompanying visuals for this piece focusing on the stark emptiness of the Orchestra’s home city of Newark and its resident concert hall. 

Mahler’s 1904 Symphony  No. 5 was a departure from his previous four symphonies, which were inspired by either folk tales or the written word. The four-movement Symphony No. 5 represented a new focus on purely instrumental symphonic works, as Mahler gravitated toward the song medium to convey works of literature. The “Adagietto” presented by New Jersey Symphony was the introduction to the final movement of Mahler’s fifth symphony and was unusual in its scoring for strings alone over improvisatory harp accompaniment. An instrumental respite from the intensity of the surrounding movements, the “Adagietto” was selected by the NJSO for this concert as “a tribute to those within our communities who have been afflicted by COVID-19 in hopes that it provides some measure of consolation to the pain that they’ve endured.”

NJSO’s performance of Mahler’s “Adagietto” brought out the song’s close affinity to one of Mahler’s early songs. With the violins taking their time on the melodic lines and Zhang emphasizing the lush orchestration, the NJSO players performed this work poignantly, with accompanying visuals of falling autumn leaves. Harpist Stacey Shames provided elegant accompaniment to the strings, adding to the restful nature of the music. Zhang and the strings were particularly effective in holding out the final cadence as long as possible, while visuals showed hope in displaying a sunrise through the trees. 

The Orchestra contrasted Mahler’s emotional writing with Mozart’s bubbling and joyful Divertimento in D Major, K. 136, most recently heard locally in a Princeton Symphony online concert. With decisive lower strings and cleanly running passages in the violins, the players maintained a light delicate sound throughout the three-movement work. The upper strings consistently demonstrated crisp trills and ornaments, and Zhang wisely often allowed the music to play itself.

NJSO closed its virtual concert with a work by a second American composer. Arizona-born Michael Abels composed the 2007 Dances & Delights for the 10th anniversary of the New York-based Sphinx Organization, which is dedicated to transforming lives through the power of diversity in the arts. The quartet of string soloists performing with NJSO was from the Sphinx Organization, strengthening the ongoing partnership between Sphinx and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. Beginning with a cello solo from Thomas Mesa, Dances & Delights showcased expert playing from the quartet, placed in front of conductor Zhang and musically communicating among each other as if characters in a play. The solo quartet of violinists Rubén Rengel and Jannina Norpoth, violist Dana Kelley, and cellist Mesa performed in tandem with the Orchestra, even though separated by space. Both quartet and Orchestra effectively moved the music forward among the varied American musical styles within the piece, including jazz and bluegrass. Abels characterized Dances & Delights as a “celebration of virtuosity,” and the Sphinx players were up to the challenge, executing frequent double stops and maintaining a dialog with the Orchestra of pizzicato questions answered by graceful instrumental solos.

Thursday night’s virtual “opening gala” was only one of multiple online initiatives presented by New Jersey Symphony Orchestra over the past six months. This performance acknowledged the past, recognized an uncertain present, and hinted of a brighter future, taking what the Orchestra called a “baby step along a journey that culminates in the NJSO’s ultimate emergence in a new normal.”

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra is offering a wide range of online concerts throughout the month of December; the next virtual broadcast from the ensemble’s October recording sessions will launch Thursday, January 14, 2021. Conducted by Xian Zhang, this performance will feature NJSO concertmaster Eric Wyrick and music of William Grant Still, Giacomo Puccini, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and Antonin Dvořák. Information about NJSO’s virtual season can be found on