October 27, 2021

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra Presents Digital Concert of “Prodigies”

By Nancy Plum

This season, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) has been putting its toes into the waters of live performance slowly, presenting concerts in select halls in the state while maintaining an online presence. The Orchestra will be returning live to Princeton after the first of the year, but area audiences were able to enjoy a high-quality digital performance by the Orchestra players last week. Led by Music Director Xian Zhang and joined by superstar violinist Joshua Bell and soprano Larisa Martínez, NJSO launched an online concert of three composer prodigies: Felix Mendelssohn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Henryk Wieniawski.

Violinist Bell was a prodigy himself, debuting with The Philadelphia Orchestra at age 14 and setting concert stages ablaze ever since with virtuosic technique and passionate musical expressionism. Bell and his wife, soprano Larisa Martínez, were a musical power couple during the last 18 months of the pandemic, exploring new arrangements of existing repertoire and creating imaginative digital content. In the NJSO concert, recorded at New Jersey Performing Arts Center in May 2021 and launched last Wednesday night, Bell and Martínez joined the Orchestra for two elegant concert arias by Mendelssohn and Mozart.

Mendelssohn’s concert aria “Ah, ritorna, età dell’oro,” was part of a commission of Mendelssohn from the Philharmonic Society of London and was published after the composer’s death. Composed in the “scena and aria” form popular at the time, Mendelssohn’s work features a soprano conveying the text with violin obbligato. Mendelssohn often composed two melodic paths in the same piece, bringing them together toward the end, and this work was no exception. Against a subtle orchestral accompaniment, Bell began the violin part with grace and sensitivity. Singing from memory, Martínez performed expressively in a clear soprano tone, with an especially light and translucent top register well matched by the violin. The text, beginning with “Return, golden age, to the abandoned earth,” certainly has a connection to these times, and Martínez well captured both the words and Mendelssohn’s refined classical roots.

As with Mendelssohn’s concert aria, Mozart’s orchestrally accompanied “Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio!” was composed for soprano voice and obbligato instrument, with the oboe featured as contrasting musical color. Mozart wrote this aria for his sister-in-law and as an interpolation into another composer’s opera in which she was performing. In the NJSO performance, Martínez was gracefully joined by oboist Alexandra Knoll to convey a text expressing a bride’s veiled love for another.

Knoll began the work elegantly against delicate pizzicato strings while Martínez sang with an expressive Mozartian quality, drawing out the emotional pathos and confusion of the opening text. Knoll often echoed Martínez with short oboe segments, recalling a compositional technique held over from the Baroque era. Mozart often launched sopranos into the vocal stratosphere in his concert arias, and Martínez maneuvered the second section coloratura fireworks effortlessly. The pairing of concert arias by Mendelssohn and Mozart not only showed a connection between these two child prodigy composers, but also gave Martínez the opportunity to demonstrate both lyrical and coloratura singing.

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra followed the arias by two classical powerhouses with a third child prodigy — 19th century Polish composer Henryk Wieniawski. Trained in St. Petersburg and named violinist to the czar in his mid-twenties, Wieniawski was considered one of the great 19th century masters of the violin, and the tradition of violin playing which he established at St. Petersburg Conservatory influenced violin thinking and playing well into current times. Wieniawski’s 1862 Violin Concerto No. 2 shows the influence of classical forms, bel canto melodic contour and Hungarian folk tradition.

This Concerto has long held a strong personal connection for Bell, who was clearly very familiar with the work from the outset. Conductor Zhang kept the music under wraps in the opening movement, supported by solos from oboist Knoll and flutist Bart Feller. Bell’s Romantic solo melody was well complemented by solo winds, as Bell effectively executed quick-moving passages, dramatic cadences and technically difficult double-stops. Within the piece, Bell led the shifts in musical style, while Zhang kept the Orchestra in steady accompaniment. A graceful clarinet solo by Pascal Archer led the ensemble to the second movement “Romanze,” in which Bell showed particularly sensitive playing. Throughout the Concerto, Bell and Zhang worked together to build musical drama, and Bell raced through particularly demonic passages in an improvisatory and virtuosic style to close the work in a high-spirited and joyful fashion.

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra will present its next digital concert on Wednesday, November 17 at 7:30 p.m. Joining the Orchestra in this performance will be soprano Renée Fleming in music of Georges Bizet and Richard Wagner. The concert is free, but advance registration is required; information can be obtained by visiting the NJSO website at njsymphony.org.