October 12, 2016

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra Opens Season With Dazzling Grieg Concerto

With the appointment of Xian Zhang as music director, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) is entering a new era of musical accomplishment. Ms. Zhang will make her Princeton debut later this month, and this past Friday night, the NJSO invited an old friend back to the podium. Former Associate Conductor Gemma New led the orchestra in a concert paying tribute to her homeland and including an audience favorite from the piano concerto repertory. 

Friday night’s performance at Richardson Auditorium also included another old friend too familiar to concert-goers — New Jersey traffic, which delayed arrival of one busload of musicians, but gave the audience a chance to publicly meet NJSO’s new president and CEO Gabriel van Aalst. Once all musicians had arrived and were settled, the audience was taken on a journey through the rich Romantic musical tradition and the finest in solo piano performance.

Music history is replete with nationalistic works celebrating composers’ homelands, but one region not often heard from is New Zealand. Ms. New began the performance with a work of 20th-century composer Douglas Lilburn, considered the “father of New Zealand music.” His one-movement Aotearoa Overture (“Aotearoa” is the Maori word for New Zealand) musically brought to life the breathtaking New Zealand landscape, with the orchestra depicting waves crashing against a cragged seacoast.

As the piece opened with a pair of gentle flutes, Ms. New emphasized the flow of the music, allowing the work to unfold in an early 20th-century impressionistic style. She conducted with clear and unencumbered gestures, changing musical styles well and successfully bringing to life music which well deserved to be heard.

Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 16 was the last work Grieg composed in the 19th-century Romantic Austro-Germanic tradition before turning to a more nationalistic style focusing on his native Norway. From the powerful opening octaves on the piano to the lush orchestral writing, Grieg’s concerto reflected the drama of Schumann and the virtuosity of Liszt in a traditional Classical structure.

Piano soloist Stewart Goodyear has made a career of interpreting formidable 19th-century works, including recently playing all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas as a single concert experience. Mr. Goodyear opened the concerto with definitive octaves, taking his time on the piano’s solo theme and showing rapid-fire dexterity. The orchestral playing was quick and intense, with a clean sectional cello sound on a Romantic melody. Mr. Goodyear also took his time on the first movement cadenza, building intensity and drama to effectively close the movement.

In the second movement “Adagio,” Mr. Goodyear played the stately opening melody with an almost imperceptible left hand, as Ms. New’s conducting gestures matched the grandeur of the movement, accompanied by elegant instrumental solos from principal clarinetist Karl Herman and hornist Chris Komer. In the final movement, the piano seemed to tell a story, and Mr. Goodyear well emphasized the Norwegian halling folk dance which Grieg wove into the music. Mr. Goodyear found a wide range of dynamics in the solo passages, ending the concerto with the same conviction with which he began.

Finnish composer Jean Sibelius is also considered nationalistic, depicting snowscapes and expansive frozen backdrops in his orchestral music. New Jersey Symphony Orchestra opened Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 in D Major with stark natural beauty reflected in the lean violins, contrasted with a clean solo from oboist Robert Ingliss, and driving bowings from the lower strings. Ms. New brought out the ebb and flow of the music, that was aided by an extended passage of pizzicato traveling through the strings in the second movement. Ms. New found all the different embryonic ideas within the music, from the Russian-influenced pathos to the rhythmic strings of the symphony’s triumphant close.