New Jersey Symphony Orchestra Marks Lunar New Year With Festival of Virtual Events
By Nancy Plum
New Jersey Symphony Orchestra celebrated the Year of the Ox last week by launching six days of performances and demonstrations leading up to a virtual concert on Saturday night. Led by NJSO Music Director Xian Zhang, Saturday’s concert premiere featured members of the Orchestra as well as guest artists performing both classical works and traditional Chinese songs.
Saturday night’s event was preceded by five days of short performances and demonstrations of Lunar New Year-related activities. Highlights of this series including NJSO violinist Ming Yang and her daughter Jade Lucia Nieczkowski performing an elegant arrangement of “Fisherman’s Song at Eventide” and New Jersey middle school student Harmony Zhu playing a fiery interpretation of Frédéric Chopin’s Ballade No. 4 in F Minor. Audiences tuning into this series cold also learn how to cook Tteokguk — a traditional Korean New Year’s soup made with sliced rice cakes taught by NJSO principal bassist Ha-Young Jung — as well as a variety of wontons, demonstrated by violinist Xin Zhao.
More than a year in the making, Saturday night’s concert was the third annual NJSO Lunar New Year celebration. Music Director Zhang and the Symphony have used this event over the past few years to collaborate with other artists and community organizations, attracting new audiences in the process. Expanding into a week-long celebration was a new innovation this year, and several of the artists who participated in demonstrations during the week were part of Saturday night’s performance.
NJSO opened the concert with the same piece which has opened all of its Lunar New Year celebrations — Spring Festival Overture by 20th-century Chinese composer Li Huanzhi. This piece was scored for full orchestra, which was not possible this year, and Saturday’s opening was a 2019 archival recording accompanied by visual images of the past two Lunar New Year concerts.
New Jersey Symphony turned back to its current roster with Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Andante Cantabile for Cello and Orchestra, featuring principal cellist Jonathan Spitz. Originally the second movement of a string quartet and a favorite of the composer, this piece was arranged by Tchaikovsky himself for solo cello and string orchestra. Conductor Zhang led Spitz and a string ensemble of just over 20 in a recording session in late January at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, spacing string players across the stage. Maintaining very subtle conducting gestures, Zhang guided the players through a work rooted in early 19th-century elegance while Spitz provided rich cello playing. Beginning right off with solo cello, Spitz played consistently with minimal vibrato but maximum refinement, allowing the opening Russian folk tune to unfold.
NJSO featured two outstanding soloists in this concert, including pianist George Li, who recently graduated from a joint Harvard University/New England Conservatory program. Li’s website shows an image of the pianist with his fingers on fire, and that certainly was the case in his performance of Franz Liszt’s arrangement of Franz Schubert’s art song “Der Erlkönig.” Liszt’s piano works are notoriously demonic, and the piano transcription of Schubert’s tale of a child’s death and the supernatural was full of frenzied technical requirements. In Li’s interpretation, the octaves in his left hand showed his strength, complemented by rapid-fire repeated octaves in his right hand. Li found dynamic contrast and drama throughout the music and maintained continuous suspense and drive, with each return to the refrain more intense.
Xuefei Yang is China’s leading classical guitarist, and is particularly known for transferring techniques of China’s more traditional instruments to the guitar. Yang gracefully conveyed a free-flowing melody of the traditional “Fisherman’s Song at Eventide,” with even arpeggios and cleanly-played repeated notes. Yang also joined NJSO cellist Na-Young Baek and the ensemble of strings for Astor Piazzolla’s Libertango. With a virtuosic guitar part which skipped all over the fretboard, Yang provided a percussive effect to Baek’s solid melodic playing. Guitar, cello and strings together created an atmosphere which was very intense, as tangos tend to be.
NJSO borrowed from the past and acknowledged the present in the choral works presented Saturday night. The Symphony has long-standing relationships with the Starry Arts Group Children’s Chorus, Peking University Philharmonic and Alumni Choruses and Montclair State University choruses, and all were part of this virtual concert. The Starry Arts Group Children’s Chorus performed virtually, with an animated and cleverly-edited rendition of Gu Jianfen’s “Spring Dawn” and “Singing and Smiling.” The young singers of this chorus demonstrated a solid ability to sing in two parts, even when far from one another. Don Besig’s “Flying Free” was performed by an ensemble of the Peking University Philharmonic Chorus remotely onstage, with members of the Alumni Chorus and singers from Montclair State University joining virtually. The singers were all accompanied by NJSO Conductor Zhang on the piano and NJSO principal flute Bart Feller, and the performance was brilliantly edited by NJSO violinist Darryl Kubian — no small feat with performers sending in their vocal parts from all over the world.
New Jersey Symphony Orchestra hopes to build on the past three years of its Lunar New Year celebrations to expand into representing more Asian countries in the coming years. This year’s Festival was an amalgamation of music and complicated technology. Plans are no doubt afoot for next year’s Festival, which hopefully can be presented with all its grandeur in a live space.
New Jersey Symphony continues its series of virtual concert events through the month of February, including a collaboration with Paper Mill Playhouse, a presentation of the music of Sir Edward Elgar and a performance from the Jersey Shore. Information about these events can be found on the NJSO website at njsymphony.org.