There’s a new Sheriff in town.
On April 7, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra’s (NJSO) first concert in the cycle of “Zhang Conducts Tchaikovsky 4” took place, but I’m here to tell you, Xian Zhang is no conductor. She’s a mage with a baton!
Perusing the program for the afternoon performance at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, I noted there was a brief overview by Zhang of the pieces presented, in addition to Laurie Schulman’s excellent program notes. The eloquent précis is exactly what you expect from a maestra of her renown, but it doesn’t prepare you for the atomic energy that thrums just beneath the surface of her skin.
The concert began with an introduction by Principal Flutist Bart Feller, who welcomed us to the performance and explained a bit of what went on behind the scenes as the selection process for a new Musical Director began. NJSO artists have a say in to whom they will next report and, though the selection was difficult, it was ultimately very rewarding when Xian Zhang was appointed. Ming Yang, a member of the selection committee hailing from the violins section was introduced to give, kindly, the audience a musical lesson in how to pronounce the name of the new Musical Director. Brilliantly, she said that, as a musician, she had to give us tone and tempo in addition to the basics. Under her expert tutelage, we were soon able to say “Xian Zhang” very well. This is a skill we’ll need a great deal in the time to come!
As Zhang and her players led off with Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Marche Slave,” Opus 31, two things became readily apparent–the first being we were far, far away from rainy, overcast Newark and deep in the heart of Serbia. And the second, that Zhang already has 110% of the orchestra’s attention and holds them in the palm of her hand.
Beginning with two Serbian folk song melodies interwoven, Tchaikovsky includes a very familiar melody for those who love the 1812 overture: “God Save the Tsar” features prominently, as you might expect. Zhang loves Tchaikovsky and it shows in phrasing, tempi and, when someone conducts a score from memory, you know it’s a cherished piece. Zhang “gets” what Tchaikovsky is laying down, Cats! There is energy, verve and grandeur and toward the end of the finale, there is a harbinger of modern, jazzy harmony amidst the emphatic expression of Tchaikovsky’s national fervor.
Next, Zhang took a moment to read a letter from the nine-year old Samuel Barber to his mother. It seems the lad had decided at this tender age to become a composer. He was committed to his path and, while he hoped his mother would not cry at his decision, he was resolute. Twenty years later, Zhang said, he produced his Violin Concerto, Opus 14. Featured soloist in this performance of Barber’s concerto, Jennifer Frautschi, is a force on her own. She walked to center stage in a stunning black sleeveless gown that flowed with her steps. Her gaze outward, and inward into the music, is laser-focused. The first movement, Allegro, saw her flowing with the phrases with great control, pathos, and swift, light technique. The Andante movement features an oboe solo, pastoral and contemplative, that sets the stage for what’s to come in the violin, and it was lush and beautiful. The final movement is Presto in moto perpetuo and it is aptly named! Frautschi had the self-possession of a warrior, and the movement is not only a test of a soloist’s artistry, it is lightning-speed endurance and a dazzling digital display–of the phalanges, that is. Quite honestly, between Frautschi’s solo and the orchestra’s derring-do, I had a smile on my face the entire time and didn’t realize it until their final notes. It was brilliant … had Frautschi worn sleeves, they would have vaporized!
Tchaikovsky’s Symphony Number Four in F Minor, Opus 36 is often called “Fate.” The first movement is Andante sostenuto, with bold brass in the beginning then shifting to modal, emphasizing the emotion, then the return in the brass to the earlier theme. Andantino in modo de canzone starts with the famous solo melody in the oboe, very romantic, and then moves into the human-voice of the cello, then to the strings. Scherzo: pizzicato ostinato is a bit disconcerting, if you’ll pardon the pun. The strings belay their bows and play the entire movement pizzicato. First, Mahler Elbow, and now Tchaikovsky Finger! I had a vision of all of the string players with no fingerprints remaining, with the shreds of the fingerprints littering the floor beneath them. Quel dommage! The music is a conversation, with the rise and fall of a discussion among passionate people. The Finale: Allegro con fuoco lets us know why percussion and brass got some time to rest! Fuoco—fire—indeed! There’s an Eastern-influenced passage that tintinnabulates, taking us from caravans to steppes and back again. It was a magical tour on a dark afternoon, and when we emerged from NJPAC, the sun glimmered through.
This program makes a great introduction to NJSO for the next generation of classical music lovers. Make your plans for next season, as you won’t want to miss a moment. Visit www.njsymphony.org