October 25, 2023

New Jersey Symphony Opens Princeton Series with Evening of Romantic Music

By Nancy Plum

New Jersey Symphony has long provided a showcase for up-and-coming artists destined for the forefront of the performing arena. The Symphony’s opening concert of its Princeton series this past Friday night at Richardson Auditorium brought together a conductor and solo cellist currently relatively unknown, but not for long. Conductor Joseph Young, music director of the Berkeley Symphony and director of ensembles at Peabody Conservatory, led the Symphony musicians in a program of Robert Schumann, Edward Elgar, and the Princeton University-connected Jessie Montgomery, and featured in the Schumann Cello Concerto was a definite future star in cellist Sterling Elliott, currently pursuing an artist diploma at The Juilliard School. The three pieces performed in Friday night’s concert highlighted unique instrumentation, rich orchestral colors, and a touch of virtuosity.

American composer Jessie Montgomery has had a partnership with Princeton University as a graduate fellow in music composition and has been making a name for herself creating musical works for ensembles nationwide. Among her most recent commissions was Snapshots, co-commissioned by several orchestras, including New Jersey Symphony. Friday night’s performance represented the East Coast premiere of Montgomery’s four-movement work, which Montgomery has described as a set of vignettes of her time studying film music.

From the outset of Montgomery’s piece, conductor Young led the music cleanly, maintaining solid control. The two outer movements were dance-inspired, and the players retained a continually intense and dramatic sound. Despite the full symphonic palette, individual instruments could clearly be heard. In this work, Montgomery has created unusual instrumental combinations and effects, including pairing harp and celeste, accompanied by feathery strings. Chimes and a wide range of percussion marked the second movement, with Juan Esteban Martinez’s solo clarinet playing cutting through the thick texture well. A horn solo from Chris Komer added suspense to the third movement, while Montgomery’s orchestration provided unusual colors with bass clarinet, solo violin, and a very busy percussion section.

Young and New Jersey Symphony assembled a smaller ensemble for Schumann’s Cello Concerto in A Minor, a work which brought out both the expressive capabilities of the cello and the lush Romanticism of the mid-19th century. Schumann played cello as a youth and clearly had an affinity for the instrument, composing this work in a mere 15 days. Guest cello soloist Sterling Elliott has made a number of impressive debuts given his young age. He recently received a Medal of Excellence from the Sphinx Organization, with which Jessie Montgomery has been composer-in-residence, and proved himself well capable of handling the technical requirements of Schumann’s music.

In the opening movement, Elliott’s solo playing subtly emerged from the orchestral texture to an undulating accompaniment. Playing with a great deal of vibrato in the opening passages, Elliott easily found the intensity of the music as Young led the players to a full symphonic sound. Elliott concurrently found a sweetness in the melodic lines, and Young and the musicians changed musical moods smoothly. Elliott was joined in the second movement “Langsam” by principal cellist Jonthan Spitz playing an elegant solo countermelody against steady pizzicato from the string sections. The closing movement demanded the most from the solo cellist, with Elliott’s fingering racing from bottom to top of the instrument, especially taking his time in the cadenza. In describing his background to the audience, Elliott said that his roots are not just classical, but infused with jazz, hip hop, bluegrass, and a myriad of other styles, which was clear in his ability to handle this complex and demanding work.

New Jersey Symphony concluded Friday night’s concert with a spirited performance of an intricate and ingenious work. Sir Edward Elgar’s 1899 Variations on an Original Theme, known as the “Enigma” Variations, was, like Montgomery’s Snapshots, a set of vignettes, each referencing one of Elgar’s friends or family members. The 14 short movements varied greatly in style and orchestration, offering opportunities for instruments to individually shine. The musicians played the languid opening theme with a shade of mystery, as Young conducted with broad gestures. Very full brass marked the second variation (representing a pianist colleague) while rich strings depicted a viola student acquaintance in the sixth movement. Clarinetists Martinez and Andrew Lamy led crisp wind passages in the eighth movement, and Young effectively drew out the majestic lines of the familiar and regal “Nimrod” variation. Elgar saved the most significant use of percussion for the “Finale,” which aided in bringing the musical evening to a joyous close.

New Jersey Symphony will present its next Princeton concert on Friday, December 15 at 8 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium. Conducted by Nicholas McGegan and also including the Montclair State University Singers, this performance will feature G.F. Handel’s “Messiah.” Ticket information can be obtained by visiting njsymphony.org.