What a superb weekend of music was April 7 to 9, when the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) featured several wonders at once–we had a Spring Fling with Tan Dun, Big Carl and Maurice Ravel—and WOW!
Tan Dun’s brief and powerful amuse bouche–Internet Symphony Number One “Eroica”—was the first order of the day. This work was commissioned by Google and YouTube and musicians sent videos of themselves performing the work in order to be selected for the original performance that happened on April 15, 2009 in Carnegie Hall. It is an amazing work where Tan Dun features drum brakes and alloy wheels, in the percussion section, and a French horn technique that is truly indescribable. It is interwoven with a theme from the first movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s third Symphony, “Eroica,” that has such exuberance there is absolutely no doubt that Spring has sprung.
Coupled with this early 21st century piece was Ralph Vaughn Williams’ Tuba Concerto, featuring NJSO Principal Tuba, Derek Fenstermacher. This mid-century modern work is rare, as the tuba is rarely considered a solo instrument, yet the solo passages are pure delight. The Prelude: Allegro moderato has arpeggiated pentatonic passages with sweep and motion. The voice that Vaughn Williams writes in the Romanza: Andante sostenuto is Lauren Bacall singing a jazz arrangement of an English folk song. The Finale–Rondo alla tedesca: Allegro—is a bird of Paradise, where the lyrical quality of the tuba, the alacrity of the soloist’s technique, and the tonal and dynamic range that we commonly associate with other instruments, is displayed. This was followed by a special encore of Fenstermacher’s arrangement of the last movement of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Flute Partita, which he dedicated to his wife, her parents, and his own parents, who were in the audience.
How does one follow such first act wonder? Why, with Camille Saint-Saëns and “The Carnival of the Animals!” This work featured two dazzling soloists from Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute, Ying Li and Zitong Wang, on piano. We will see a great deal more from these young ladies, whose hands made light work of very involved passages. I look forward to hear the works they take on in the years to come. These evocative portraits started as a jocular response to a challenge, with the composer writing the fourteen vignettes in just a matter of days. Special favorites of this performance included the Harry Potter-esque “Aquarium,” the “Cuckoo in the Depths of the Forest” and—the ne plus ultra for me–Jonathan Spitz on solo cello in “The Swan.” I’m not sure which I enjoyed more–Spitz’s virtuosity or Concertmaster Eric Wyrick’s joyful expression, as he watched Spitz’s solo.
The finale for the afternoon truly delivered a coup de grace–Xian Zhang conducting Ravel’s “Bolero,” sans score. The sotto voce rata-tata of the drum, which is almost sub-vocal in its whispered timbre, is felt more than heard, rather like a heartbeat in the moment before a kiss. As the slow build and burn happens, a piece like this could devolve, but in the hands of the NJSO, there was a slow burn that ignited, caught fire, and smoldered, before raging to the dynamic climax of the piece. Maestra Zhang exhorted the orchestra, urging here and restraining there, until we were all as one with the crashing dénouement and the delicious negative space immediately thereafter–a pregnant pause and a collective exhale. Wow, indeed!
There was an accent event in the foyer following the concert where our new friend Fenstermacher introduced us to Big Carl–Carl Fischer Music’s giant promotional tuba, standing nearly eight feet tall and weighing in at 100 pounds. Big Carl was made in the times of PT Barnum, when everyone was fascinated by the large and wondrous. Technically, according to Steve Dillon of Dillon Music, who restored Big Carl to playable condition, Big Carl is not a tuba but rather the world’s largest bugle, due to the actual mechanism of the pipes. Fenstermacher was the first to play the giant instrument after its restoration and the YouTube video has more than a million hits, making Fenstermacher the most widely seen tuba soloist in the world. Special drawing winners, who are tuba players, got to give Big Carl a whirl and the result was red-faced tuba-hugging joy. Seeing Big Carl is something I’ll always remember!
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