March 27, 2019

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra Features Horn Section in Concert of 19th-Century Music

By Nancy Plum

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra launched into spring this past weekend with a performance at Richardson Auditorium that was three-fold — presenting an audience favorite, a monumental cello concerto, and a work showing Music Director Xian Zhang’s development of the ensemble since taking the NJSO helm. Friday night’s concert of “Zhang Conducts Schubert and Dvorák” was heavy on concerto soloists, and their collective technical abilities were well appreciated by the Richardson audience. 

Ninteenth-century composer Robert Schumann’s Konzertstück for Four Horns in F Major had never been performed by the NJSO before this past weekend; this three-movement work placed the entire NJSO horn section front and center to showcase the capabilities and rich variety of colors available from the instrument. Horn players Chris Komer, Andrea Menousek, Lawrence DiBello, and Eric Reed played from the front of the stage, allowing the audience to hear Schumann’s motivic solo writing travel up and down the row of horns. Zhang began the first movement in a lively tempo, with a fanfare in well-tuned thirds from the horn soloists. Throughout the Konzertstück, Zhang kept the orchestral background clean, as horn solos were often answered by the Orchestra. Kathleen Nester’s piccolo playing added a sharply-defined color to the instrumental sound.

The darker second movement romanze was played in a more pensive style, with the four horn soloists providing a chorale-like texture.  Both Orchestra and soloists played uniform crescendi, and Zhang tapered the sections within the movement well. Komer, Menousek, DiBello, and Reed well handled the tricky fast-moving motives in the closing movement, emphasizing the hunting character of Schumann’s writing. The clean runs from the horns were complemented by lyrical melodies from the Orchestra, and the four players interacted well with each other. The trumpet section’s use of rotary trumpets enhanced the classical roots of this piece, adding a mellow color to the brass orchestration.

Zhang and the NJSO continued their early 19th-century journey with Franz Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 — his “unfinished” symphony, which has always been a crowd-pleaser. Beginning with rich lower strings, the ensemble maintained a Viennese lilt to the first movement, playing the iconic theme gracefully. Zhang took her time leading the Orchestra through the melodic sections, creating dramatic silences and bringing out the off-beat accents.  She built crescendi well to contrast with lyrical passages, with even the lower strings giving direction to pizzicato measures. Both movements of this work were marked by elegant solos from oboist Lillian Copeland and clarinetist Karl Herman. Particularly in the second movement, Zhang asked the first violins and solo clarinetist Herman to play so softly the sound was almost imperceptible. Delicate interplay between flutist Bart Feller and oboist Copeland contrasted well with the rich elegant melodies played by the full cello section.

Like a quartet of horns, the cello is an instrument which also does not often come to the forefront of an orchestra. German-Canadian cellist Johannes Moser has made an award-winning career expanding the cello range and repertory by commissioning new works for the instrument as well as performing blockbuster symphonic works. Moser and the NJSO joined forces to present Antonín Dvorák’s 1895 Cello Concerto in B minor, a three-movement work composed at a time when orchestral works ranged from large-scale to colossal.

The NJSO began the concerto in spirited anticipation, with a long orchestral introduction chock full of musical material. Moser immediately became immersed in a cello line which took off in quick fashion, as he communicated well with the conductor and Orchestra players. The first movement was particularly marked by a graceful duet between Moser and flutist Feller, as well as a trio of clean horns. Moser played the sweet song Dvorák incorporated into the second movement with great emotion, answered by a pair of clarinets in thirds. Moser was a very physical player, often rocking with the music yet still capable of executing extended double stops complete with trills. Moser also brought out well the Gypsy feel of the final movement, closing a concert which demonstrated well the hidden depth of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra from instruments not often featured.

The New Jersey Symphony will present the next concert in its Princeton series on Friday, May 17 at 8 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium. Conducted by Xian Zhang, this performance will feature NJSO concertmaster Eric Wyrick, violinist Annelle Gregory, and electric guitar player and composer Steven Mackey in music of Weber, Bach, Beethoven, and Mackey. Also that week, on Monday, May 13 at 8 p.m., the NJSO Chamber Players will perform a new work by Princeton composer Juri Seo in the Lee Performance Room at Princeton University’s Lewis Arts Complex. Information about both of these events can be obtained by calling 1 (800) ALLEGRO or by visiting