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Concert Review: This is Why We Fight

By Superconductor @ppelkonen
The NJSO opens with an impassioned Beethoven's Ninth.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

Concert Review: This is Why We Fight

Conductor Xian Zhang makes her point. Photo © New Jersey Symphony Orchestra

The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra is at once in an enviable and difficult position, wedged next to New York City with its wealth of musical institutions. Based in downtown Newark, they  have a great venue in the New Jersey Performing Arts Center that not enough people want to visit. That situation makes Opening Night, held last Friday at NJPAC, all the more important. This year marked the third opener for their music director Xian Zhang (pronounced "she-YEN jhong"). To celebrate, this energetic conductor offered a challenging program: two works by important contemporary composers and as a capper, Beethoven's sprawling, challenging Symphony No. 9 in D minor.
This concert was preceded by a cocktail gala (with a very good jazz band of local Newark students) and a fancy donors' dinner afterwards. The first course was Speak Out, a tasty and complicated confection for mixed chorus by British composer Kate Whitley. Its message, drawn from an impassioned United Nations speech by Pakistani activist and Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai, may have been lost on the glittering crowd, but its idealism made it an ideal make-weight for the Beethoven to come.
The next work was the soaring and lamenting Lyric for Strings by composer George Walker, a great American voice silenced earlier this year. A Pulitzer prize winner, Mr. Walker (who was 96 at the time of his passing on Aug. 23) is a major African-American composer whose works remain largely neglected by major symphonies, and yet find play in the programs of the NJSO. His minor key writing and long, arching phrases showed the new tautness of the already exemplary NJSO strings: evidence of Ms. Zhang's influence.
That influence was proudly displayed in the first movement of the Beethoven Ninth. She used the many repetitions in this large-scale sonata form to their ultimate advantage, increasing the weight of the work with each climax, and using rubato to keep the orchestra light on its feet. This sense of clarity, flexibility and power continued into the second movement, the mighty and challenging Scherzo that can confound an unwary conductor.
The slow movement is where many trip and fall: a carefully thought out set of variations in the form of an adagio that rises to an impressive climax. There was no wandering or meandering here, with the brass rising to a mighty climax capped by timpani and trumpets. Even as the music dwindled in volume, the tautness and control remained. apparent, evidence of the hard work conductor and orchestra have put in to produce this exemplary string sound.
Like the chaotic, bitonal chords that open it, the fourth movement can easily dissolve into chaos. However, the impassioned dialog between low strings and the rest of the orchestra (who argue, in turn for a reprise of each of the first three movements) led to the launching of the great "Ode to Joy" theme, which arrived as a welcome visitor. The set of variations followed neatly as winds and brass joined the jubilation. And then, the chaos returned. And the first of the four soloists stood up.
This was baritone Reginald D. Smith and he did the recitative (the part written by Beethoven, the rest is by Schiller) proud. He was joined by soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams and mezzo Elizabeth Bishop, who found room to fly against the stormy chorus. Tenor Lorenzo Decaro also impressed, holding the big high notes in the "Turkish March" section, a passage that can be dangerous. The very large combined chorus showed their knowledge and thorough preparation in the stormy double fugue that brings this work to its penitimate clomax, and Ms. Zhang goaded her players to a stirring, high-speed finish.
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