October 26, 2022

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra Presents Unusual Piano Work with Fiery Soloist

By Nancy Plum

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra kicked off the Princeton leg of its 100th anniversary celebratory season this past Friday night with a concert in Richardson Auditorium. Led by Music Director Xian Zhang, the performance featured a rarely-heard 19th-century piano-orchestral work with a pianist who could easily take over the international stage. With a lean and succinct ensemble sound, the Orchestra welcomed fall in Princeton with powerful renditions of the music of Richard Strauss and Johannes Brahms.

Zhang and NJSO began the performance with a piece resulting from an unusual commission. American-born composer Dorothy Chang, currently on the faculty of the University of British Columbia, was asked in 2017 to write a segment of a symphonic ballet to celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary. Her one-movement Northern Star became the fourth movement of the ballet but has also been an intriguing orchestral work on its own. 

With Zhang showing her usual dynamic leadership on the podium, NJSO brought out the crisp icy atmosphere of a piece recalling both the northern lights rising and setting over the landscape and a journey from darkness to optimism. Throughout the work, the NJSO players provided both an expansive orchestral palette and whispers of the winds, aided by delicate wind solos from flutist Bart Feller and oboist Alexandra Knoll.

Nineteenth-century German composer Richard Strauss was known more for symphonic tone poems and vocal works than piano repertoire, but his Burleske in D minor for piano and orchestra was clearly in line with the virtuosic piano performance tradition begun by Franz Liszt. Initially conceived as a “Scherzo” for piano and orchestra, Burleske contained in one movement all the passion and drama of a full-length Strauss opera. 

To convey all this emotion, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra invited pianist Michelle Cann to share the stage. Cann has performed with major orchestras nationwide and is a member of the faculty of the Curtis Institute of Music and could spend her professional life mesmerizing audiences worldwide just as she did in Princeton. Cann played with great power, and at times it was hard to follow her very fast-moving hands. There were numerous extended passages for solo piano, ranging from elegantly lyrical to ferocious and lightning-quick octaves traveling the length of the keyboard, all of which Cann expertly executed. A playful duet was created between Cann and clarinetist Pascal Archer, with a subsequently elegant duet between Cann’s rolling piano lines answered by the viola section. Timpanist Gregory LaRosa was also key in maintaining rhythmic energy among the short spurts of melodic activity.

Cann continued to captivate the audience with an encore of the improvisatory keyboard work Troubled Water by American composer Margaret Bonds. Cann relished the free-style playing in this arrangement of the jubilee song “Wade in the Water,” leaving the Richardson house wondering where this soloist has been all these years and why Princeton has not heard more of her before. 

Zhang and New Jersey Symphony Orchestra followed up the rich Strauss work with Brahms’ monumental Symphony No. 4 in E minor. Brahms composed this last of his four symphonies late in his career and created a work embodying his life and musical reflections. The Orchestra began the first movement maintaining graceful and rocking passages with clean brass against strong pizzicato from the lower strings. Oboist Knoll, flutist Feller and bassoonist Robert Wagner added to the texture with precise instrumental solos as the Orchestra sustained an effective ebb and flow to the music. 

Clarinetist Archer played expressively against clean and forceful horns in the second movement “Andante.” Internal musical dialogs spoke well in the third movement, and contrasts between quiet and decisive sections were well brought out. The Orchestra brought the symphony to a stirring close maneuvering the 30 variations in the complex closing movement. Zhang kept melodic lines concise to bring out the drama, allowing phrases to settle well. Clarinetist Archer and oboist Knoll added refinement to the music with a duet against the clean horn playing of Chris Komer and Andrea Menousek. Combined with unleashing the full power of the brass sections, the players of New Jersey Symphony Orchestra well found the range of emotions within Brahms’ somewhat autobiographical work.

New Jersey Symphony will present its next Princeton performance on Friday, December 16 at 8 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium. Conducted by Xian Zhang, this concert will include G.F. Handel’s oratorio “Messiah,” featuring four vocal soloists and the Montclair State University Singers. Ticket information about this performance can be found at  njsymphony.org.