April 26, 2023

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra Continues 100th Anniversary Celebration with Imaginative Choral/Orchestral Program

By Nancy Plum

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra fused Mozart, Bruckner and the 21st century in a series of concerts this past weekend, including the premiere of a new work by Princeton University composer Steven Mackey. Led by Music Director Xian Zhang, the Orchestra combined Mackey’s large-scale symphonic work with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s spirited Symphony No. 25 and Anton Bruckner’s devout Te Deum. Joining the Orchestra in Friday night’s performance at Richardson Auditorium were a number of exceptional vocal soloists and the Princeton University Glee Club.

Zhang and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra began Friday night’s concert with an animated and energetic playing of Mozart’s Symphony No. 25 in G minor. This four-movement work was modeled on the symphonies of Franz Josef Haydn but broke tradition in its scoring for four horns and its somber key. The Orchestra began the opening “Allegro” in dramatic fashion, with fiery thematic “rockets,” a clean quartet of horns and an elegantly contrasting oboe solo played by Robert Ingliss. The graceful “Andante” showed dark but clean wind orchestration and a crisp dialog between the violins and the rest of the ensemble. Zhang kept the unusually forceful “Menuetto” decisive, juxtaposed by the “wind band” of oboes, horns and bassoons playing the lighter “Trio.” Throughout the Symphony, Zhang and the players maintained a clean orchestral texture, bringing out dynamic contrasts well.

Composer Steven Mackey’s music is well-known for its innovation, improvisation and roots in his own obsession with blues and rock, and the choral/orchestral RIOT was no exception. Commissioned by NJSO for the organization’s centenary, this work brought close to 200 people onstage among orchestra, chorus and mezzo-soprano soloist, and was described by Mackey as “one flowing river,” with each of the six movements resembling islands. Mackey collaborated with U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith, who created a text placing “race and resilience in the foreground” and which was presented by the Princeton University Glee Club and mezzo-soprano Alicia Olatuja. Prepared by director Gabriel Crouch, the Glee Club sang with a full sound—youthful but appropriate for the space at Richardson. Olatuja sang with a rich and appealing voice with a smooth vibrato, conveying the text well and maneuvering the lower register passages effectively. Mackey’s musical imagination used all of the Orchestra, adding his own contemporary rock color on electric guitar. Zhang cleanly led the players and singers through the jazz/rock instrumental atmosphere, with the third movement featuring a light vocal color from the chorus and refined English horn solo from Andrew Adelson. Despite the dark and personal nature of the text, Mackey’s work ended on a joyful note, with the affirming text “we live” re-emphasized by both soloist and chorus.

The Latin “Te Deum” hymn of praise has been musically set less frequently than other liturgical texts but has offered to composers over the centuries the same opportunities for intricate composition and word painting. Rather than the delicate and contrapuntal settings of the Baroque composers, Bruckner’s 1881 Te Deum was rooted in the fiercely intense choral/orchestral style of late Beethoven and the Romantic era. Composed in and around two of Bruckner’s rich and expressive symphonies, this work was more fire and brimstone than laudatory praise, demanding the most from orchestra, soloists and chorus. The vocal soloists featured in this concert were all well established in international operatic performance, but because Bruckner set some of the most devotional verses for tenor soloist, a natural stand-out Friday night was tenor Sean Panikkar. Panikkar easily took over the stage with a commanding voice, often accompanied by concertmaster Eric Wyrick playing solo violin in the most devout passages. The other three singers of the quartet, soprano Meigui Zhang, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano and bass Nathan Berg provided consistent affirmation and reassurance of Panikkar’s sung texts with solid operatic sound.

Composed with full 19th-century Romantic robustness, Bruckner’s Te Deum was set with choral passages equal to the orchestra in drama and religious passion. The Princeton University Glee Club demonstrated a well-blended and clean sound in sections with lighter orchestration, and block chords in fully-orchestrated passages. Although obscured at times in the very heavy orchestration, the Glee Club showed control over the particularly high passages in the score and the complex fugue which closed the work. Bruckner’s massive work is not for sissies, and in Friday night’s performance, instrumentalists, singers and vocal soloists showed they were well up to the task.

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra will present its next Princeton performance on Friday, June 2 at 8 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium. Conducted by Xian Zhang, this concert will feature violinist Randall Goosby and music of Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky, as well as the world premiere of a work by Chen Yi. Ticket information can be obtained by visiting the NJSO website at www.njsymphony.org.