NJSO Begins 100th Anniversary Celebrations with Concert at NJPAC
By Nancy Plum
Anything lasting 100 years deserves recognition. Centenaries are observed by individuals, civic organizations and even buildings, but in these times, a musical organization which has thrived for 100 years merits a particular reason to celebrate. On November 27, 1922, a new-formed orchestral ensemble of 19 string players gave a modest concert of Purcell, Saint-Saëns, and Victor Herbert at New Jersey’s Montclair Art Museum. Almost 100 years later to the day, what is now New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) presented a concert featuring a world-renowned cellist in a state-of-the-art concert hall to an audience of more than 2,500. Over the past century, NJSO has grown in tandem with the state of New Jersey to a full orchestra with five concert homes in the state, as well as a virtual presence. Currently under the musical leadership of conductor Xian Zhang, NJSO kicked off its 100th anniversary festivities this past Saturday night at Newark’s New Jersey Performing Arts Center with a sold-out gala and concert highlighting the orchestra players and guest cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
Saturday night’s performance at NJPAC included accolades from community and political leaders fitting for the occasion, as well as a contemporary work co-commissioned by NJSO from legendary jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. Premiered by the orchestra last January, Marsalis’ Herald, Holler and Hallelujah was scored for 19 brass and percussion players, paying tribute to the original members of the NJSO. Playing from boxes on one side of the hall and led by conductor Xian Zhang from the stage, the brass players were joined by five percussionists who added rhythmic drive and character to the music. Marsalis drew this work’s musical influence from marching band and big band styles, as well as his trademark mastery of jazz. With the brass ensemble on one side facing across the hall, the unorthodox harmonies of the piece were occasionally diffuse in the space, but the passages that captured the New Orleans “second line” funeral tradition worked particularly well.
While the Marsalis piece was rooted in truly American jazz and blues, the work which featured Ma with New Jersey Symphony was influenced by the composer’s time in New York City. Czech composer Antonín Dvorák spent several years in New York City in the 1890s, and although his Cello Concerto in B minor was completed when he had returned to Europe, the concept for the work was from Dvorák’s time in the United States. Ma’s career has been as much about collaboration as solo concertizing, and his performance of this concerto with NJSO was a true partnership from the opening rolling passages. Conductor Zhang led soloist and orchestra in a dramatic first movement, with Ma’s exquisite solo lines well punctuated by the winds. Fast moving solo passages spoke well in the hall, and Ma effectively handled shifts between lyrical and more frenetic styles. The first movement “Allegro” was also marked by a clean quartet of horns and clear solo wind lines, including from clarinetist Pascal Archer and flutist Bart Feller. Cello and flute were often in duet throughout the concerto, and despite the distance between the two players, Ma and Feller were in solid communication and dialog.
The second movement “Adagio” quoted from one of Dvorák’s own songs, played by Ma in the high cello register. This particular song was a favorite of Dvorák’s sister-in-law, and when she died prematurely, Dvorák coupled the treatment of this song with an elegiac coda later in the third movement. Ma dipped into the cello’s lower register in the second movement, gracefully answered by clarinetist Archer with a contrasting melody. Ma’s cadenza to the movement featured dramatic double stops as well as an elegant duet with flutist Feller. Concertmaster violinist Eric Wyrick was featured in a duet with Ma in the joyful closing movement, with Dvorák’s poignant musical tribute to his sister-in-law bracketed by emotional passages of triumph.
New Jersey Symphony Orchestra further cemented its identity as an artistic collaborator by featuring dancers from New Jersey Ballet in three excerpts from Alberto Ginastera’s Estancia Suite. The South American estancia, a large cattle ranch with a lifestyle of its own, has been a staple of Argentine rural life for centuries. Ginastera’s ballet dances depicted the life of the gauchos (cowboys), and in colorful costumes, the New Jersey Ballet dancers matched the energy and spirit of the NJSO players. NJSO closed the celebratory concert by showcasing the ensemble’s own Youth Orchestra, which draws from students from throughout the greater Newark area.
One hundredth anniversary commemorations are rare occurrences, and especially after the past few years in the performing arts, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra will hopefully revel in its accomplishments and achievements over the past century and continue to celebrate throughout the season.
New Jersey Symphony Orchestra 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 can be at njsymphony.org.