June 12, 2024

New Jersey Symphony Closes Season with Musical Old Friends

By Nancy Plum

New Jersey Symphony ended its 2023-24 Princeton series with a concert of American works featuring two longtime collaborators. Led by Music Director Xian Zhang, Friday night’s performance in Richardson Auditorium included George Gershwin’s immortal Porgy and Bess, as encapsulated into a symphonic suite by noted arranger Robert Russell Bennett, along with Gershwin’s towering Concerto in F Major for Piano and Orchestra with guest piano soloist Daniil Trifonov. Complementing these two American classics was a world premiere of Daniel Bernard Roumain’s orchestral concerto Autumn Days and Nights, which Roumain, the Symphony’s resident artistic catalyst, had dedicated to Zhang.

Gershwin’s landmark 1925 Porgy and Bess established the composer’s gift for melodic writing and its still-popular tunes have been excerpted to other performing genres. Robert Russell Bennett’s Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture dates from 1942 and incorporates some of the best-known tunes in the opera, as well as material from other Gershwin compositions. New Jersey Symphony opened Bennett’s Symphonic Picture with swirling winds and strings depicting a busy city street, with precise brass providing the car horns. Oboist Robert Ingliss played a languid “Summertime” melody against subtle violins, and conductor Zhang elicited effortless dynamic swells from the orchestra. Ingliss’ refined solo lines were well balanced by the flute playing of Bart Feller. Bennett’s imaginative orchestration included pairing a trombone solo from Levi Boylan with Kathleen Nester’s delicate piccolo on the tune “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’.” Bennett’s Symphonic Picture paid tribute to some of the “greatest hits” of Gershwin’s opera, with Zhang taking her time on the sultry melodies and saxophones and trumpets bringing sauciness to the music.

New Jersey Symphony’s performance of Autumn Days and Nights was a continuation of the ensemble’s commissioning history with Daniel Bernard Roumain. His one-movement work drew influences from Haitian folk music, African American musical traditions, and the composer’s own ingenuity to create a sound collage showing off the musicians of New Jersey Symphony. In Friday night’s performance, such spirituals as “Wade in the Water” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing” were well heard within the rich orchestral texture, especially as conveyed by bassoonist Joshua Hodge, English horn player Julia DeRosa, cellist Jonathan Spitz, and trombonist Levi Boylan. Snippets of instrumental solos were clear from throughout the orchestra, and repeating rhythms built power within the music. Roumain incorporated traditional forms into the complex counterpoint, such as a baroque passacaglia providing a foundation from the double basses which was well punctuated by clean horns. The intensity of the piece successfully created a feeling of autumn days marching toward winter.

Pianist Trifonov has been an artist-in-residence and a longtime friend of New Jersey Symphony, persevering with the ensemble through the bleak pandemic months to help create imaginative programs. Trifonov has performed a number of piano concertos with the Symphony in the past, and this performance of Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F Major demonstrated the very comfortable partnership he has with Zhang and the Symphony musicians. The players began the work percussively, with bassoonist Hodge providing contrasting solo lines and leading up to a solo piano opening emphasizing the Charleston jazz elements in the music. Trifonov took his time throughout the introductory passages, with the unusual orchestral accompaniment of the viola section, and when the first movement took off, he was ready with decisive and crisp playing. Lush string writing was complemented by DeRosa’s graceful English horn playing.

The second movement “Adagio” was characterized by Gershwin as the “blues,” brought out in Friday’s performance by a walking pizzicato accompaniment in the strings against Trifonov’s unhurried piano lines. Clarinetist Juan Martinez and oboist Ingliss played slinky solo lines, and the musky jazz club atmosphere of the music was cemented by Anderson Romero’s smooth muted trumpet playing. The third movement was marked by rhythmic drive, as Trifonov led the way through the fast-paced music with exact rhythms between pianist and orchestra. Rich unison string lines provided a counter-melody, and shifts in musical style were well handled by both ensemble and soloist. Trifonov and New Jersey Symphony ended this concert tribute to Americana and the season in a jubilant manner, as the Symphony celebrated its long relationships with both composer Roumain and pianist Trifonov.