November 7, 2018

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra Opens Princeton Series with Stellar Violinist

By Nancy Plum

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra opened its 2018-19 Princeton concert series this past Friday night at Richardson Auditorium. Led by guest conductor Christoph König, the Orchestra launched a season focused on the theme Music Speaks! — performances inspired by poetry, stories, and fantasy. Friday night’s concert in particular presented an outstanding violin soloist in a work not often heard.

König and the New Jersey Symphony began the performance with a work based on a character-rich and swashbuckling theatrical drama. Nineteenth-century German composer Richard Strauss was the master of the tone poem — a single-movement symphonic work often conveying a story. Strauss’ 1888 Don Juan, Opus 20 tells the story of the fabled lothario, with all of his mistresses well represented in the orchestra.  

Christoph König’s youthful looks belie his vast conducting experience; a native of Germany, König is music director of the Solistes Européens Luxembourg and guest conducts ensembles worldwide. From the outset of Don Juan, König drew a full sound from the New Jersey Symphony players, and even though the volume level was high, the instrumentalists found variety and direction within the sound.  

Don Juan’s mistresses were musically represented by solo instruments, most notably by concertmaster Eric Wyrick on violin and principal oboist Robert Ingliss. A clean horn section presented Don Juan’s character solidly, and König kept the musical flow moving. König effectively used grand pauses in the music to build drama in the close of the story, ending Strauss’ tone poem in heroic fashion.

As the world closes in on the 100th anniversary of the end of the “war to end all wars” this month, New Jersey Symphony looked toward a work from World War II in Benjamin Britten’s Violin Concerto, Opus 15. Britten came to America from England on the cusp of the war, and although he eventually returned to England, he composed a number of significant works while in the United States, including the 1939 Violin Concerto. This three-movement concerto is not often performed, no doubt because of its technical demands on the soloist, but Italian-born guest violinist Augustin Hadelich had no trouble handling the virtuosic requirements and non-stop playing of this work.

Perhaps acknowledging the worldwide warlike conditions of the time, Britten opened the Violin Concerto with a martial five-note rhythmic figure from the timpani. Hadelich’s violin solo glided from note to note in continuous lines which built in intensity while punctuated by lower strings. Hadelich’s playing was rhythmic and driving in a solo line which never stopped, and the soloist easily switched back and forth between dramatic and lyrical sections, with the five-note motive always present.  

The second movement in particular displayed a violin solo line that seemed slightly demonic — not at all melodic, but cohesive as played by Hadelich, well accompanied by a pair of bassoons. Hadelich played the cadenza to this movement introspectively, well executing the technically difficult and unusual musical effects. Especially impressive was his playing pizzicato with his fingering hand while holding an extended note with the violin bow.

In another sign of the times, Britten’s closing movement to this Concerto as unsettling in harmonies and its heavy mood. Based on the Baroque passacaglia form, this movement’s nine variations captured Britten’s despair over both the Spanish Civil War taking place and the impending war in Europe at large. Hadelich’s solo line seemed to be asking a perpetual question of “why,” and when Hadelich and König brought the work to a close, the silence in the hall was deafening.

New Jersey Symphony closed this season-opener with a 19th-century orchestral work capturing a geographic region. Robert Schumann composed his 1850 Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major in tribute to Germany’s Rhine River, as the Rhineland played a significant role in Schumann’s too-short life. As played by the NJSO, the opening movement of Schumann’s “Rhenish” symphony became crisper as it went along, and König found graceful dynamic swells in keeping with the flowing Rhine River. Schumann marked the opening and closing movements “Lebhaft” — “full of life” — and the Orchestra played both movements on a grand scale, with the horns declaiming melodic themes in the first movement particularly well. König took a broad approach to the second movement scherzo, emphasizing the “very solid” atmosphere called for by Schumann’s markings. Throughout the Symphony, König allowed the Orchestra to play freely when appropriate, bringing out dynamic sforzandi that connected this work to Beethoven. The music effectively picked up speed in the final movement, as the Orchestra brought Schumann’s picturesque Symphony to a joyous close.