Music Director Xian Zhang conducted a most delightful New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) program running from February 23 through 26, 2017 featuring a young pianist who will remain on your radar for some time to come, Kirill Gerstein. As it ranged from Giuseppe Verdi through Sergei Rachmaninoff to Edward Elgar, we got a range of expression and an international tour designed to delight.
Zhang was interviewed by NJSO Director of Artistic Planning Patrick Chamberlain in the pre-concert lecture, which is one of my favorite features of Sunday afternoon concerts. Zhang gave us tidbits for which to listen that greatly enriched the experience and we learned how a pianist sometimes has to be creative when one’s hands are so much smaller than Rachmaninoff’s.
The concert began with the “Nabucco” overture by Verdi, which was very political in its time. “Va pensiero,” the portion that quotes the chorus of the Hebrew slaves, could be an anthem for “she persisted,” and this was an interesting choice to lead off with
There are moments when you meet an artist who is destined to show you different aspects of familiar pieces. One of those artists is Kirill Gerstein. Gerstein’s skill and reach were amply evident in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto Number Two in C Minor, Opus 18. The opening Moderato movement, with its lush orchestration and florid passionate piano solo, is also jazzy, modern, and powerful. The entire piece, composed in the early days of the last century, foretells those to come, Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky, as well as movie scores of the 1930s and 1940s. The second movement, Adagio sostenuto, reflects the fine attunement of Zhang and Gerstein as Maestra and soloist, trading control as if from right hand to left and back. This movement included the basis of Eric Carmen’s “All By Myself” and the passion and sweep were superb. Perhaps my favorite part of this movement was the delicious hold on the penultimate note, pure rapture and drama! The final movement, Allegro scherzando, typifies everything we love about Russian composers. The energy returns with spectacle and sweep and Gerstein’s artistry comes to the fore–he’s painting not only in sound, but in nuance–the pedals get a full work out and we get a complete dynamic range from delicately soft to forcefully loud and every morsel in between. There is the exoticism that hearkens back to Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherezade,” which Rachmaninoff played, and to the beauty that assured Rachmaninoff’s popularity in his lifetime to today. Thoroughly satisfying and, had Elgar’s “Enigma Variations” not been the second act, many would have gone home then and there! Clearly, both Zhang and Gerstein are Rach Stars!
Ahhh, Elgar! Zhang clued us in to some of the delightful backstories of the friends limned in the “Enigma Variations” … and also related some of what makes them, well, enigmatic. Especially wonderful was to hear the backstory of XIII with the theme borrowed from Felix Mendelssohn. The final portion of this paean to pain left me breathless in its expression. From the opening movement, dedicated to Elgar’s wife, through the final movement for himself, there is drama in the English style that is so very different from the Russian drama that preceded it and what a satisfying cultural afternoon that only whets our appetite for what’s to come.
Xian Zhang is here! Now’s the time to book your season–the entirety or a special subscription—now at www.njsymphony.org