January 11, 2023

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra Presents Monumental Brahms Piano Concerto

By Nancy Plum

Just barely 30 years old, Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov has been racking up awards, including a Grammy for one of his many innovative recordings. New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) has been lucky to call Trifonov a longtime friend; the acclaimed pianist spent a year-long tenure as NJSO artist-in-residence and has collaborated with NJSO music director Xian Zhang a number of times. Zhang, Trifonov, and NJSO brought their collective magic to Richardson Auditorium last weekend, presenting one of Johannes Brahms’ most towering works. Last Friday night’s performance of Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major demonstrated to a very full house not only Trifonov’s range of musical imagination, but also numerous expressive solos from NJSO players.

The first movement “Allegro” of Brahms’ concerto opened with an unaccompanied solo horn melody, richly played by principal hornist Chris Komer. As piano soloist, Trifonov delicately completed the musical sentence, leading into extended triumphant passages of solo keyboard. Trifonov played the diverse range of emotions and technical aspects of the music with ease, conveying the more majestic passages with reverence, with quick pedaling and a very light and fast right hand. From the podium, Zhang and New Jersey Symphony created a variety of dynamic effects within the graceful interplay between orchestra and solo pianist. Trifonov closed the movement with dreamy piano passages in the upper register of the instrument, leading to an elegant close.

The second movement was marked by a lean string sound and Trifonov’s nimble piano playing, punctuated by a pair of German trumpets. A refined duet between flutist Bart Feller and oboist Robert Ingliss helped sustain the ebb and flow of drama in the music. The third movement “Andante” belonged to Trifonov and principal cellist Jonathan Spitz, who opened the movement with a sweet cello solo accompanied by lower strings. Trifonov’s supple a cappella solo keyboard passages added to the song-like palette as Zhang kept the tempo and shimmering strings steady. The closing movement to this concerto was playful and full of Brahms musical humor, aided by fast piano work from Trifonov, a regal pair of clarinets and an appealing duet between oboist Ingliss and Bart Feller playing piccolo.

Instrumental soloists often add encores to their performances with orchestras to further entertain audiences, but in Friday night’s concert, Trifonov was joined by cellist Spitz as they continued the unusual sonorities between their instruments in a mesmerizing encore. The two soloists closed the first half of the program with the “Largo” movement from Frédéric Chopin’s Cello Sonata in G Minor, a work with all the grace and charm of Brahms’ mid-19th-century Vienna.

Conductor Zhang and New Jersey Symphony devoted the second half of the concert to musical storytelling by a 19th-century German composer who took symphonic music into the same theatrical world as opera. Richard Strauss expanded and refined the genre of the symphonic tone poem, a work which conveyed multi-character plots within a single movement. Strauss composed a number of tone poems based on literary sources of the times, and his 1888 Don Juan, Op. 20 put a new musical twist on a well-known story.

Characters were represented by specific instruments, with hornists Chris Komer and Andrea Menousek leading the way as the hero himself. Strauss orchestrated two of the opera’s mistresses into the music, personified by violinist and concertmaster Eric Wyrick and oboist Robert Ingliss, with Ingliss playing an especially gentle and expressive melodic line against light timpani. Clarinetist Pascal Archer and flutist Feller also provided effective solos to add to the cast of characters. The full brass section, including a quintet of horns, maintained the story’s drama through the work’s lush ending.

After concentrating on dramatic tone poems for much of his early career, it was perhaps a natural evolution for Strauss to turn his attention to opera. His 1911 comic opera Der Rosenkavalier was a tribute to Mozart, set in Vienna in the middle of the 18th-century. Despite a less than enthusiastic critical response, the opera was an instant audience hit, and arrangements and transcriptions of the music soon followed the premiere. Strauss created a Rosenkavalier suite in 1944, which was later revised, retaining the composer’s imaginative orchestration.

Horns once again played a pivotal role in NJSO’s performance of the Suite from Der Rosenkavalier, introducing the opera’s opening music. Zhang built the drama well throughout the work, complemented by Pascal Archer’s buoyant clarinet lines and wind colors which emerged well from the orchestral texture. Zhang and the NJSO players kept the opera’s trademark waltzes light with contrasts in dynamics, but always with a lively Viennese flavor. With this piece, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra closed the concert in a festival waltz atmosphere, capturing a bit of Vienna for a winter audience.

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra will present its next Princeton performance on Friday, March 17 at 8 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium. Conducted by Xian Zhang, “New Jersey Symphony Stars” will feature instrumental soloists from the ensemble in the music of Rossini, Bottesini, and Bizet, as well as a newly-commissioned piece from NJSO violinist Darryl Kubian. Ticket information about this performance can be obtained by visiting the NJSO website at njsymphony.org.