January 22, 2020

New Jersey Symphony Presents Concert of Monumental 19th-Century Music

By Nancy Plum

Nothing says a dark winter’s night like the more sinister music of 19th-century German composer Richard Wagner, and New Jersey Symphony Orchestra took full advantage of Wagner’s rich orchestration and lush harmonies in a concert in Princeton this past weekend. Conducted by NJSO Music Director Xian Zhang, Friday night’s concert at Richardson Auditorium introduced the audience to both an innovative approach to the operatic Wagner and a virtuosic pianist from one of Europe’s more unknown regions. Zhang led the Orchestra in two principal works, which although significantly different in length were equal in impact. Lorin Maazel’s orchestral reduction of Wagner’s towering Ring cycle made up the entire second half, yet Franz Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2, even though a third as long as the Wagner piece, was just as mesmerizing for the audience.  

In 1987, former Cleveland Orchestra conductor Lorin Maazel created an hour-long “greatest hits” orchestral arrangement from Wagner’s four operas which make up Der Ring des Nibelungen, a musical tetralogy more than 20 years in the making. Based on Nordic legend and the medieval epic poem “Nibelungenlied,” Wagner’s Ring cycle has been renowned for its characters and their arias, but the dramatic motion is often carried by the orchestra. In The Ring Without Words, Maazel recreated nine musical scenes with a storyline drawing from all four operas. Beginning in the lowest of the strings, NJSO’s performance of Maazel’s Ring presented much of the most recognizable music, and Zhang kept the musical thread moving along with steady tempi and effective use of silences. Especially in leading up to the familiar “Ride of the Valkyries,” Zhang and the Orchestra set the drama well.  

As in the operas, brass played a large role in Maazel’s arrangement, with an extensive brass section including four Wagner tubas, an instrument developed specifically for use in the Ring operas. The brass players often doubled on multiple instruments, and the musicians of NJSO brought out well a wide variety of brass effects. Instrumental wind solos from flutist Bart Feller, oboist Robert Ingliss, clarinetist Andrew Lamy, and English horn player Andrew Adelson added an elegant flavor to the imposing brass passages.  

Zhang and the Orchestra preceded the Wagner work with Franz Liszt’s comparatively short Piano Concerto No. 2, one of only two full-scale piano concertos he wrote and one which also spanned more than 20 years in composition and revision. In this work, Liszt turned away from the standard three-movement concerto format to create a work of multiple continuously flowing movements. Featured as soloist in this performance was Macedonian pianist Simon Trpceski, who had won numerous awards and competition by the time of his formal debut in London in his early 20s.  

As a concerto by Liszt, one would expect this work to contain demonic and virtuosic piano solo requirements, but it was well into the movement that the most demanding passages appeared. Opening with a delicate wind sextet of one oboe and flute, two clarinets and two bassoons, the concerto featured a languid piano solo part played by Trpceski in relaxed fashion. The work grew in drama as the movements picked up speed, with the piano not necessarily playing a starring role until whirling dervish passages required Trpceski to play octaves at lightning speed. Accompanied by an elegant cello solo played by Jonathan Spitz and punctuated by decisive brass, Trpceski’s solo playing traversed styles ranging from fast and furious to light and gentle, with several slides up and down the keyboard. Throughout all, each note from the piano spoke well in the hall. Liszt seemed to throw everything but the kitchen sink into the piano solo, and Trpceski well managed it all. Graceful wind solos were heard from clarinetist Lamy and oboist Ingliss, and the series of short musical vignettes which made up this concerto achieved great variety in character.  

Throughout the performance, conductor Zhang demonstrated solid command of the scores and authoritative energy on the podium. Maazel’s musical condensation of Wagner’s four operas into an hour of entertaining yet technically demanding music, combined with Trpceski’s brilliant playing, allowed the audience at Richardson Auditorium to go off into the January night with familiar tunes in their heads and an appreciation for a previously unknown yet clearly significant pianist. 

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra will present its next Princeton performance on Friday, March 20 at 2 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium. Conducted by Music Director Xian Zhang, “Beethoven’s Birthday Bash” will feature the composer’s Piano Concertos No. 1 and No. 5, with Louis Lortie as soloist. Ticket information can be obtained by calling  (800) ALLEGRO or by visiting www.njsymphony.org.