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Vol. LXII, No. 2
Wednesday, January 9, 2008
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New Jersey Symphony Orchestra Celebrates “Coming to America” With Winter Festival

Nancy Plum

It may have been a coincidence that New Jersey Symphony Orchestra’s Winter Festival, built around the theme of “Coming to America,” began the night after the Iowa caucuses, but the opening concert on Friday night fully captured an energetic American spirit of both innovation and challenge. A number of the musicians in the orchestra, including Music Director Neeme Järvi, came to the United States in search of musical opportunity, and the works performed in this concert in Richardson Auditorium represented composers who had in some way found an enhanced musical experience in this country.

Friday night’s concert included two musical gumdrops — The Oceanides of Sibelius and Stravinsky’s Circus Polka. The one-movement work of Jan Sibelius was commissioned by an American patron in 1914 and was heavily influenced by both the quality of the orchestra provided to play The Oceanides and Sibelius’ whole experience of coming to the United States to conduct the piece. The work is replete with musical depictions of the ocean and sea nymphs living within it. Maestro Järvi kept the piece rolling along smoothly, aided by sensitive wind solos by oboist Robert Ingliss and English hornist Andrew Adelson. A pair of flutes effectively portrayed the nymphs, and the music, in Ravel-like impressionistic style, swelled efficiently to a sunrise effect. The other gumdrop of the concert, Stravinsky’s Circus Polka, was a quick frolic through one of Stravinsky’s more unusual ballets, composed for both dancers and dancing elephants.

The orchestra’s next Princeton concert will be on Friday, February 1. Conductor Lawrence Foster and guitarist Manuel Barrueco will perform music of Mozart, Sierra, and Strauss. For information call (609) 258-5000.

The NJSO winds had a second chance to shine in Paul Hindemith’s Symphony Metamorphosis on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber. Hindemith, formerly a professor at Yale, composed this work originally as a possible ballet, but the piece “morphed” into a free interpretation of Weber’s music. Carl Maria von Weber, one of the cornerstones of 19th century German opera, composed music full of melody and dramatic flair, and as one would expect, Hindemith’s rendition was heavy on brass. Mr. Ingliss again presented an effective oboe melody (smoothly passed along to the viola section) and the second movement, Turandot, was marked by a well-played flute solo by Bart Feller against an eerie bell effect. The three trombones played as one, and it was especially unique to hear the timpani with a small solo. Solo winds, including Mr. Feller, clarinetist Karl Herman and bassoonist Robert Wagner, marked the third movement Andantino.

The meat of the concert, Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto #3, was saved for last. Israeli pianist Yefim Bronfman and conductor Järvi have obviously worked together in the past, and conductor and pianist had no trouble keeping the flow of the concerto moving. Prokofiev’s solo piano part, composed as a showcase for himself, was by the composer’s own admission “devilishly difficult,” and the composer played its premiere in Chicago in 1921.

Huddled low to the keyboard, Mr. Bronfman enabled his fingers to glide over the keys in a continuously moving piano part. The scale passages were smooth and repeated patterns very steady. What was dramatic in the first movement became lyrical in the second, although the solo part became equally as fiendish in short order. Throughout the concerto, Mr. Järvi kept the orchestra perfectly in line with the piano. Although this concerto received a lukewarm reception at its premiere (in part prompting Prokofiev’s move from the U.S. to France), the audience at Richardson was on its feet Friday night, encouraging Mr. Bronfman to play a ripping Chopin piece as an encore. The orchestra answered with its own encore, the first movement of Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony, with Mr. Bronfman and Mr. Järvi providing some humorous interplay.

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra conceived the winter “Coming to America” Festival to celebrate “an experience that is common for all of us” — referring both to past generations of immigrants to U.S. shores as well as the “long history of artists” who have found artistic haven in the United States. The subsequent concerts in the festival, with performances in Newark, New Brunswick, and Trenton, feature music of Russian and former Eastern Bloc composers, but emphasize the same message of America’s influence on music worldwide.

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