NJSO Concludes Princeton Series with Musical Breath of Fresh Air
By Nancy Plum
New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) wrapped up its 2021-22 Richardson Auditorium concert series with a program ranging from sublime to sprightly and highlighting three members of the Orchestra as soloists. Associate concertmaster and violinist Brennan Sweet, assistant principal violist Elzbieta Weyman, and assistant principal flute Kathleen Nester were featured in works by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Vivaldi, with performances that demonstrated their own soloistic talents and presented rarely-heard sides of these composers. Led by NJSO Music Director Xian Zhang, the musicians of New Jersey Symphony found the perfect musical vehicle to close the season and launch summer.
Friday night’s concert at Richardson Auditorium began with a nimble and humorous opera overture by a youthful Gioachino Rossini. Even at a young age, Rossini knew how to create an operatic showstopper, and his 1813 “Overture” to L’Italiana in Algeri contained all the elements necessary to energize a 19th-century audience. One of Rossini’s compositional signatures was a slowly rising crescendo to a full orchestral sound, and Zhang led the New Jersey Symphony well through these dynamic swells while allowing teasing wind solos to emerge from the texture. Like many opera overtures of this time period, Rossini’s “Overture” took off in tempo after a graceful start. Wind solos conveyed saucy melodic themes, including from oboist Robert Ingliss, clarinetist Andrew Lamy, and flutist Bart Feller. The three wind soloists had quick lines to maneuver, all of which were well executed.
One of the most appealing aspects of the Orchestra’s choice of soloists for the evening was the opportunity for these players to step out from their supporting roles within the ensemble to take center stage. With a scaled-down Classical orchestra, New Jersey Symphony presented violinist Brennan Sweet and violist Elzbieta Weyman in Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat Major for Violin, Viola and Orchestra. Prodigious on both violin and viola, Mozart gave equal weight and challenge to each solo instrument, almost displaying two contrasting sides of his own personality. When Weyman’s viola part was commanding and driven, Sweet’s violin lines showed the light and humorous side of Mozart, almost like a mischievous but equally as talented sibling. Sweet and Weyman held their own in dialogs with the Orchestra and each other, with Weyman’s viola sounding especially rich.
The openings of each movement were extended orchestral introductions — graceful and elegant but full of drama, nonetheless. Within the Orchestra, horns and oboes were well-tuned, and the divided viola section added to a uniquely-colored instrumental palette. With dual cadenzas to close the movements, Sweet and Weyman seemed lost in their own musical conversation, trying to outdo each other with the speed and ornamentation of Mozart’s writing. Throughout the Sinfonia, Zhang remained energetic on the podium, maintaining the spirit and buoyancy of this somewhat revolutionary work.
Eighteenth-century concerti had their roots in their Baroque counterparts of the previous century, and few composers developed the form more than Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi. A longtime music director at a school for orphaned and abandoned children, Vivaldi composed more than 500 concerti for solo instruments or combinations of players. Three of these were for “flautino” and orchestra, possibly a sopranino recorder or a flageolet. With the evolution of the flute, Vivaldi’s concerti were republished for piccolo and orchestra. Friday night’s concert included Vivaldi’s Piccolo Concerto in C Major featuring the Orchestra’s assistant principal flute and piccolo player, Kathleen Nester. Accompanied by only a handful of strings on each part and harpsichord, Nester took the audience on a ride with an instrument rarely heard above the orchestral sound, much less in a solo capacity.
In the fast-moving first and third movements, passages of full ensemble alternated with those of solo piccolo, accompanied by a continuo of cellist Jonathan Spitz and harpsichordist Benjamin Katz. Nester was effortless in ripping through quick sequences with seemingly endless air. Especially in the second movement, there was a great deal of tonal space between the solo piccolo and the ensemble, and it was apparent that Vivaldi showed no mercy in creating melodic lines with quick runs and ornamentation. Nester and the Orchestra showed exact timing throughout, as Zhang conveyed an overall feeling of elegance from the podium.
New Jersey Symphony Orchestra concluded Friday night’s concert with a work rooted in pure joy. Early 19th-century German composer Felix Mendelssohn composed a number of pieces inspired by his travels, and Symphony No. 4 in A Major aimed to capture the warmth and vitality of Italy through shimmering strings, lively melodies and quick tempi. In the Orchestra’s performance, fast tempi were definitely in place, as conductor Zhang allowed the instrumental palette to cut loose to a fully Romantic sound. Dotted rhythms were crisp throughout the work and the precise brass and driving wind sections well captured both the free spirit of Italy and the celebratory mood of closing another successful season.