January 20, 2021

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra Presents Second of Virtual Concert Performances

By Nancy Plum

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra launched the second of its series of virtual performances this season last Thursday night. Led by NJSO Music Director Xian Zhang (who was also showcased as piano soloist), the concert also featured NJSO concertmaster Eric Wyrick and music of William Grant Still, Giacomo Puccini, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and Antonin Dvorák. Recorded in Prudential Hall of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center last October and presented as a “concert film,” in collaboration with DreamPlay Films, the online performance combined the lush music of these four composers with scenes of New Jersey Symphony’s home base in Newark.  

Considered the “Dean of African American composers,” William Grant Still composed nearly 200 works during the first two-thirds of the 20th century. Still had a multi-faceted career as classical composer, while also arranging for popular band leaders and film scores. Mother and Child was initially the second movement of Still’s 1943 Suite for Violin and Piano, inspired by a lithograph of the same name by abstract figurative and modern artist Sargent Claude Johnson. Still arranged this movement in several orchestrations, including for strings alone, which was the version heard Thursday night.  

Beginning with rich melodic passages from the violins, Mother and Child was based on a four-note musical motive expressed in a variety of different ways. The violin melody often floated above the rest of the strings, and the celli and double basses effectively played more percussively as the tension built. The one-movement work evoked a lullaby, but purposefully never resolved its harmony at the end, reflecting an ongoing lifelong journey between mother and child.  

19th-century Italian composer Giacomo Puccini is renowned for his lush and melodic operas, but, in his early thirties, composed a single-movement elegy for string quartet in response to the death of a friend. Named after Italy’s flower of mourning and heroism, I Cristantemi (The Chrysanthemums) was composed in one night and was presented by the string sections of NJSO on Thursday night. The players brought out well the bit of operatic drama in the music, while the visuals included street scenes of Newark and close-ups of the players’ instruments as they played. The violins articulated phrases particularly well, and Zhang effectively drew out cadences at the ends of musical sections.  

The spiritual “Deep River” was first published in an 1870s collection of songs of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, founded in the 1870s at Tennessee’s Fisk University and still performing today. English composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, who made a career of integrating traditional African music into the classical tradition, discovered this spiritual upon hearing the Fisk Jubilee Singers in England, and later published it as one of 24 Negro Melodies Transcribed for the Piano. Whereas choral arrangements of this tune stay centered on the original melody, Coleridge-Taylor’s version created a fantasy based on the first four measures of the song. 

For Thursday night’s performance, Xian Zhang took a step off the podium to demonstrate her piano accompaniment skills with New Jersey Symphony concertmaster Eric Wyrick playing solo violin. Coleridge-Taylor’s arrangement shared the tune between violin and piano, moving into different octaves throughout the piece with varying harmonic shifts. Wyrick’s bow seemed never to leave the strings of the violin in his presentation of the melody, and when the tune passed to the piano, Zhang provided a fluid interpretation while Wyrick played an elegant obbligato. This piece was the only work on the program with no accompanying visual scenes, with the virtual audience able to focus solely on the performers and the music.  

Czech composer Antonin Dvorák also sought to incorporate folksongs and traditions of his homeland into classical works. He composed the five-movement Serenade for Strings in less than two weeks while in his thirties, and the piece helped cement his reputation as a significant composer of the late 19th century. With the Serenade in the same key as Coleridge-Taylor’s Deep River, the transition between the two works onscreen was effortless. Dvorák’s work became lush very quickly in NJSO’s performance, with accompanying first movement visuals principally of trains and their passengers coming and going in Newark. Melodic material in the violins was well answered by the violas in the first movement, with the viola section providing a lean yet rich melody. 

The second movement waltz had a bit of a folk feel, and the Symphony played the third movement “Scherzo” crisply. Transitions among musical passages were smooth, especially a swirling transition to the closing coda. New Jersey Symphony Orchestra closed the concert with a celebratory “Finale” to the Serenade, evoking a festive day in a Bohemian village. Zhang brought out well the decisiveness of the rhythm, with running passages and accents in the violins providing a whirling dervish-like effect. The visual effects followed the tempi of the movement, with images of people moving in slow motion matching the closing measures of the piece.