New Jersey Symphony Presents First of Concert Film Trilogy
By Nancy Plum
This month and next, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra is presenting an online concert film trilogy featuring recorded instrumental performances accompanied by visual meditations and dance sequences. Directed by New Jersey native filmmaker Yuri Alves and produced by DreamPlay Films, the three-episode Emerge features NJSO conductor Xian Zhang leading the Orchestra in performances recorded live in the Orchestra’s home base New Jersey Performing Arts Center in February and March, 2021. Most significant about the first episode of this series, launched Wednesday, April 28, was the return of brass and winds to the previously socially-distanced ensemble.
The first concert in the Emerge series presented three orchestral works, including an East Coast premiere, as well as a world-renowned pianist. Johann Sebastian Bach’s 18th-century keyboard Concerto in F Minor was one of seven complete concertos the composer wrote for harpsichord, and like many of Bach’s keyboard concertos, was a reworking of pre-existing music from compositions for other instruments. Featured in the NJSO performance was American pianist Simone Dinnerstein playing the three-movement work on piano.
Visually accompanied by street scenes of Newark, Dinnerstein brought out well the delicate ornamentation of Bach’s music. Conductor Zhang kept the chamber-sized string ensemble subtle, and both Orchestra and soloist executed graceful repetitions of phrases. The plucked accompaniment of the second movement “Largo” showed the music’s connection to the lute repertory, as Dinnerstein led the melodic material expressively. The third movement “Presto” clearly showed the work’s roots in Bach’s violin music, as Dinnerstein demonstrated a particularly light left hand racing lithely through quick-moving sequences and melodic passages.
American composer Nokuthula Ngwenyama has gained international acclaim as both a violist and composer since the age of 16. Often rooted in contemporary social issues, her music is being performed nationwide by both individual artists and ensemble, and she has combined her performing and compositional careers with work as educator and advocate for the arts. Ngwenyama’s orchestral piece Primal Message was originally commissioned as a viola quintet, then re-orchestrated for full orchestra and premiered by the Detroit Symphony, with Zhang conducting. Described as a meditation on communication in the space age, Primal Message received its East Coast premiere in the orchestral version in NJSO’s April 28 Emerge concert.
With Zhang conducting an ensemble of strings and light percussion, Primal Message opened with a spacious melody played by the cellos against light piano accompaniment. Cellist Na-Young Baek played elegant solo passages throughout the work, with Stacy Shames adding a sparkling harp touch. Ngwenyama’s lush and accessible music was visually accompanied by dance sequences and city street scenes, as the Orchestra brought the work to a spirited close.
For the first time this season, winds and brass players joined the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Robert Schumann’s 1853 Symphony No. 4 in D minor. As Zhang conducted from memory, the musicians played the principal theme of the first movement quickly, with especially clean brass. Accompanying visual scenes brought out the “Lebhaft” (“lively”) character of the music. The Orchestra kept rhythms crisp, with graceful solos from oboist Alexandra Knoll and concertmaster violinist Eric Wyrick adding elegance. Throughout the work, the Orchestra consistently emphasized both decisive chords and delicate endings of phrases, and closed the Symphony with full orchestral strength and an exultant message of a return closer to a musical normal — a message no doubt well received by the listening audience.
New Jersey Symphony will present the second in the virtual “Emerge” concert trilogy on Wednesday, May 26 at 7:30 p.m. This program will include Mozart’s Symphony No. 39 and Florence Price’s Piano Concerto in One Movement, featuring Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan. NJSO’s “Emerge — Part I” concert is currently available on demand. Information about the May 26 concert and other virtual NJSO performances can be found on the Orchestra’s website at njsymphony.org.