May 22, 2019

1690 Meets 2019 in New Jersey Symphony Orchestra Concert of Concerti

By Nancy Plum

The orchestral concerto was a musical development of the Baroque era which composers often took to the next level by composing for two or more solo instruments and orchestra. New Jersey Symphony Orchestra brought Johann Sebastian Bach’s double concerto for two violins into the 21st century this past weekend by pairing it with a contemporary work for orchestra, violin, and electric guitar — definitely not a Baroque instrument. Bracketing Friday night’s concert at Richardson Auditorium with 19th-century opera overtures, NJSO conductor Xian Zhang led the ensemble and soloists through the music of Baroque legend Bach and 21st-century musical inventor and Princeton University professor Steven Mackey.

An innovator in 19th-century German opera, Carl Maria von Weber was overshadowed by countryman Ludwig van Beethoven, as well as the explosion of Italian opera in the 1800s. Although his complete operas have not always been popular, almost all of Weber’s opera overtures have entered the orchestral repertory as stand-alone works. NJSO began Friday night’s concert with Weber’s 1826 “Overture” to Oberon, an opera which drew its inspiration from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Weber’s music often featured horn, and this “Overture” was no exception. The brass sections of the NJSO, and particularly French horn soloist Will de Vos, provided a solid foundation to scampering winds and strings. Zhang kept a light touch to the musical atmosphere, emphasizing the sprightly themes. A gracefully conducted middle section featured a poignant clarinet solo by Karl Herman while the nimbleness of the fairy themes was maintained in the string playing. There was a great deal of theatricality in this performance, with a bit of “puckish” humor and sauciness to the music.

NJSO concertmaster Eric Wyrick, one of the two soloists in Steven Mackey’s Four Iconoclastic Episodes for Solo Violin, Electric Guitar, and String Orchestra, experienced every musician’s worst nightmare Friday night when he opened his violin case at Richardson Auditorium and found it empty — he had left his instrument at home. Somehow, a 1690 Stradivarius was located in Princeton (although how Wyrick and Xian Zhang knew where to find this treasure may remain their secret). Wyrick’s own violin eventually arrived at the hall, giving the soloist an enviable choice of premium instruments. 

Mackey, known for exploring multiple musical genres in his compositions, cast himself as electric guitar soloist, a role with which he was clearly comfortable. As Mackey explained to the audience, each of the four Iconoclastic Episodes combined elements of varied musical styles, including jazz/rock/fusion, African popular music, and Chicago blues. Mackey also had the choice of two separate electric guitars tuned individually to create different harmonics and intonation. Accompanied by a small ensemble of strings, Wyrick and Mackey demonstrated how the 17th and 21st centuries are not that dissimilar for virtuoso instrumental capabilities. Where Wyrick’s playing ranged from lyrical melodic lines to fast-moving passages, Mackey found variety in instrumental colors and timbres from the electric guitar, aided by foot pedals electronically changing or adding musical effects. When the two soloists played in unison, the two instruments had a remarkably similar sonority. As conductor, Zhang brought out a jazz club style from the lower strings in the opening “Like an Animal” Episode, and well controlled the driving rhythms and rich orchestration throughout the four-movement work.

Rather than showcase the double concerto genre chronologically, NJSO presented the more contemporary work first, then played a work which has stood the test of time for centuries. Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor was in a three-movement format standard for the time it was written and featured two violin soloists in musical dialog with each other and the accompanying orchestra. Violinist Wyrick was joined by violinist Annelle K. Gregory, a competition winner who has extensively recorded Romantic-era Russian violin repertory. Throughout the Bach double concerto, both soloists were well able to execute the quickly-moving lines and sequential rhythms, often trading roles as musical questioner or answerer. A steady underpinning from the cello, double bass, and harpsichord continuo allowed the music almost to play itself.  Particularly in the second movement largo, Zhang built musical tension well, creating Romantic drama out of Baroque music.  Bach’s music asks a great deal of soloists, and both Wyrick and Gregory were well up to the task, as the New Jersey Symphony showed that maybe the 18th and 21st centuries are not so far apart after all.

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra will present its final concert of the Princeton series on Friday, June 7 at 8 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium. Conducted by Xian Zhang, the “Blockbuster All-Orchestral Season Finale” will feature music of Mendelssohn and Rachmaninoff. Ticket information can be obtained by calling 1-(800)-ALLEGRO or by visiting