January 23, 2019

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra Continues Winter Festival with Melding of Poetry and Music

By Nancy Plum

Since late November, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra has been presenting a Winter Festival throughout New Jersey, with performances depicting how “Music Speaks.” The Orchestra brought the Festival to Richardson Auditorium last Friday night with both a performance of contemporary poetry set to music and a towering 19th-century symphony featuring text drawn from an early 19th-century anthology. In this concert, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra Music Director Xian Zhang conducted a lean first half of chamber instrumental textures and a second half of lush Romantic orchestration tempered with Viennese buoyancy.  

Composer and Minnesota native Maria Schneider has been credited with revitalizing the big band sound in the 21st century, as well as fusing the jazz and classical worlds. Schneider’s 2013 Winter Morning Walks, a setting of nine poems by Iowa poet Ted Kooser, has received a Grammy for Best Classical Composition, and has been championed by soprano Dawn Upshaw, for whom it was composed.  In Friday night’s performance of this work, Schneider combined three musicians from her own jazz orchestra with strings from the NJSO to accompany Upshaw in conveying Kooser’s descriptive Americana poems. Upshaw and some of the instrumentalists were amplified, which took away a bit from the soprano’s acoustic resonance, but Upshaw used the amplification well to convey the text through the hall.

Schneider chose to set Winter Morning Walks from her lifelong interest in the poet Kooser, as well as the touching backstory of Kooser’s compilation of these poems as chronicling his own battle with cancer. Performing as a conductorless ensemble (although Upshaw led the musicians at times), Upshaw and the instrumentalists of the NJSO brought Kooser’s poetry to life with impeccable tuning and expressive singing from Upshaw and lush string accompaniment when called for. Schneider’s music proved to be accessible and appealing, pulling at the emotions of the audience.  

The role of the three guest jazz musicians in Friday night’s performance was very much improvisatory. Pianist Frank Kimbrough, clarinetist Scott Robinson, and bass player Jay Anderson added freely-played passages to the nine Kooser poems set by Schneider. Robinson in particular, alternating between alto and bass clarinets, added rich color to Schneider’s string writing accompanying Upshaw’s clear and warm singing. An especially effective depiction of the vernal equinox in the eighth poem, aided by a melodic violin solo from concertmaster Eric Wyrick, enabled the audience to well imagine spring emerging from winter’s clutches.  

Part of 19th-century Austrian composer Gustav Mahler’s revolutionary orchestral legacy was his intertwining of song and symphony. His Symphony No. 4 in G Major, composed between 1899 and 1901, was one of several of the composer’s symphonies incorporating the human voice. In Mahler’s compositional imagination, Symphony No. 4 was full of Viennese lightness and pastoral atmosphere, a journey toward innocence which culminated in an angelic scene in which heaven is “hung with violins.”  

NJSO presented this monumental work Friday night again featuring soprano Dawn Upshaw. From the opening precise winds, NJSO’s performance of this work emphasized Viennese clarity within a lush orchestral palette. A lean sectional cello melody was complemented by elegant solo playing from oboist Robert Ingliss, as well as English horn player Andrew Adelson. Zhang played with the tempi well, bringing out the multiple ideas which can always be found in Mahler’s works.  Most notable in this performance were violin solos from Eric Wyrick, played on a separate instrument at times to conform with Mahler’s requirement that a second solo violin be tuned a whole step higher than normal.

For the final movement, Mahler set poetry from the early 19th-century German anthology Das Knaben Wunderhorn, a source he returned to extensively; the poem used in this symphony, “Der Himmel hangt voll Geigen,” may have informed as many as five Mahler symphonic movements. Mahler set this poem initially for voice and piano in 1892, originally intending the setting as a final movement to Symphony No. 3, however through reworking the two pieces, Symphony No. 4 finished the story begun in No. 3. Accompanied by pizzicato harp and strings, Upshaw sang the poetry of the final movement with animation, bringing to life Mahler’s pastoral world of innocence where “angels bake bread” and “St. Peter fishes in a pond stocked daily by God,” as NJSO closed the concert with elegance and grace.

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra will present its next Princeton performance on Friday, March 22, 2019 at 8 p.m. at Richardson Auditorium. Xian Zhang will conduct music of Schubert, Schumann, and Dvorak. Ticket information can be obtained by calling 1-800 ALLEGRO or by visiting www.njsymphony.org.