New Jersey Symphony Orchestra Presents Concert Exploring “A Woman’s Voice”
By Nancy Plum
New Jersey Symphony Orchestra launched the second of its online fall performances last Wednesday night with a multi-media presentation of 19th-century music. Recorded last May at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and led by NJSO Music Director Xian Zhang, this concert focused on “A Woman’s Voice” in programmatic music, performance, and poetry. Although the Orchestra presented only three works, last Wednesday night’s performance was dense with text and backstories to the music, accompanied by poetry of local writers. Joining the Orchestra was one of opera’s great legends, soprano Renée Fleming.
French composer Georges Bizet’s four-movement suite L’Arlésienne (The Girl from Arles) originated as incidental music to a failed theatrical play. New Jersey Symphony Orchestra performed the third movement “Adagietto,” scored for strings alone. Under Zhang’s direction, the strings of the Orchestra began the movement introspectively; with a smaller than usual ensemble of strings, the violins reached the heights of phrases well, with an especially lean melody from the first violins. The performance of this piece was preceded by a reading of the poem “Elizabeth, NJ” by New Jersey poet and artist Michelle Moncayo.
New Jersey Symphony Orchestra introduced Richard Wagner’s romantic Siegfried Idyll with the poem “Convergence” by New Jersey native, poet and educator Jane Wong. Wagner, one of the towering composers of the 19th century, composed the one-movement Idyll as a “Symphonic Birthday Greeting” to his wife at the time. Zhang and the Orchestra began the piece with the same light touch heard in the Bizet work, with more strings and the addition of winds and brass. A solo line from flutist Bart Feller soared above the orchestral palette, complemented by pastoral solo playing from oboist Alexandra Knoll. Clarinetist Pascal Archer also provided expressive solo passages as the strings gracefully maneuvered repeated melodies and rhythmic patterns. A quartet of principal string players presented melodic lines well punctuated by solo horn player Christopher Komer, and conductor Zhang and concertmaster Eric Wyrick added a playful character to the music. Zhang brought the Idyll to a joyous close, aided by rich orchestration and playing of the German trumpets for which Wagner’s music is known.
Although one of the great sopranos of recent times, Renée Fleming has not been known for performing the music of Wagner in her career — the guest artist commented that until Wednesday night’s concert, her last performance of Wagner was many years before. It was not hard to see why this world-class singer was drawn to Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder, one of the composer’s great set of love songs. Composed in 1857, Wesendonck Lieder were settings of poems by Mathilde Wesendonck, with whom Wagner allegedly was having an affair while married to his first wife. Wagner purportedly saw himself in these poems — continually seeking the perfect love. The settings of these five poems represented the only vocal pieces of Wagner, for which he did not create his own text.
Throughout the five Lieder, Fleming emphasized the Romantic aspects of the 19th-century poems, written with a woman’s voice by a poet with whom Wagner was clearly infatuated. Accompanied by solo violin, Fleming opened the set expressively telling a story from the protagonist’s childhood. Fleming’s lush top register well matched Wyrick’s sensitive solo violin playing, all nicely punctuated by the winds. The second song, “Stehe still!” was performed with more urgency from Fleming and the instrumentalists, with Alexandra Knoll’s solo oboe lines adding a touch of gentility. Violist Frank Foerster’s solo viola playing was featured in the later songs, with the orchestral accompaniment becoming haunting through emphasis on the lower strings. Throughout the set, Fleming maintained the phrases well, and was always in control of the emotional mood. Zhang, Fleming, and the Orchestra ended the song cycle and concert serenely, with a tapered closing horn — no doubt leaving the online audience even more eager to hear the Orchestra in person again.
New Jersey Symphony returns live to Princeton University’s Richardson Auditorium on Friday, January 14, 2022 at 8 p.m. Led by conductor Andrey Boreyko, this concert will feature music of Grieg, Stravinsky, and Adès, and will include guest piano soloist Vladimir Feltsman. Ticket information can be obtained by visiting the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra website at njsymphony.org.