New Jersey Symphony Orchestra opened its 2016-2017 season living large. Former Board Chair Ruth Lipper introduced Bart Feller, Principle in Flute, as now the newly endowed Edda and James Gillen Chair of Flute. The Gillens were on hand and waved to the audience. Mr. Feller is a popular performer and speaker and it is always a happy occasion when great things happen to such excellent people.
Teddy Abrams, wunderkind conductor and composer, lead the opening weekend. A fresh face in classical music, he’s prodigiously gifted, having landed a spot in the prestigious Curtis Institute in Philadelphia when he was only 15. Opening, as is tradition for the season, with the “Star-Spangled Banner”—why don’t more people sing with us?—Abrams afterward gave an excellent précis of why each of the composers was included on the program. Each composer celebrated the music of his particular heritage, yet found when that aspect of self was combined with the love of classical music, each found his unique voice. This was especially meaningful, as we seemed to be surrounded by incidents that highlight who has a voice, and who does not.
Leonard Bernstein’s “On the Town: Three Dance Episodes” was the first featured piece. Not many people know that the famous musical began life as a suite of ballet music, including “The Great Lover,” which is predictably mid-century jazzy and energetic; “Lonely Town: Pas de Deux,” sweepingly full of pathos and passion, as well as deep longing for something more; and finally the iconic “Times Square, 1944,” including one of Bernstein’s most memorable interludes, which Microsoft may have “sampled” at some point.. From there, Act I segued into the sultry rhythms of Astor Piazzolla, the King of Tango, four of whose collected works were arranged by Leonid Desatyinov, at the urging of Gidon Kremer, who commissioned a special work for violin and orchestra, highlighting the connections to Antonio Vivaldi by changing the instrumentation from Piazzolla’s original, which featured the bandoneón, guitar, and piano, as well as the strings. Sarah Chang was the featured soloist on violin and it’s always a thrill to hear her perform. Her verve and energy make an excellent match for the dramatic virtuosity required of the soloist and these pieces show a sense of archness and musical mirth in the quotes from Vivaldi, as the Tango goes for Baroque.
Maurice Ravel’s “Tzigane,” written for virtuosa Jelly d’Arányi, who had her own original approach, is uniquely well suited to Chang. Utilizing the Phrygian Major mode, the rhythms and patterns take us across the steppes and through a flavor of other romantic composers. Ravel made something so special that Chang herself was transported, unable to keep from dancing her own gajda as she played. The orchestra and the audience were with her every step of the way.
The final piece on the ticket was Aaron Copland’s “Rodeo,” including the evocative “Buckaroo Holiday;” “Corral Nocturne,” where you can practically hear the stars come out; “Saturday Night Waltz,” in which Europe meets the Badlands; and “Hoe-down,” perhaps the most well-known piece. This broadly written bold and husky melody has become best associated with the “Beef, It’s What’s for Dinner” commercial campaign, and I admit that after such a show it certainly seemed we all had a “steak” in what’s to come.
This program had everything to appeal to the newest of NJSO devotees of classical music to the most seasoned music lovers. October brings Xian Xhang and, if you catch the wind just right, you may hear New Jersey hold her breath for Xhang’s arrival. Visit www.njsymphony.org