By Nancy Plum
May 17, 2017
New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) closed its 2016-17 Princeton series on Friday night with the best of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, as well as an old musical friend featured in a Romantic Sibelius violin concerto. NJSO Music Director Xian Zhang led the ensemble and violin soloist Jennifer Koh in a concert at Richardson Auditorium including music of Mozart, Sibelius, and Schubert.
Ms. Koh is an old friend to Princeton audiences; she has performed a number of times with area ensembles. Jean Sibelius’s Violin Concerto in D minor, Opus 47 is an expansive symphonic work, and even after its 1905 revision by the composer, still demands the highest in technical facility from the soloist. Ms. Koh delivered on all aspects of this complex and difficult piece, ranging from a reflective opening against icy orchestral accompaniment to extended fiery and virtuosic sections recurring throughout the concerto. The solo violin passages were melodic and expressive, with occasional harmonic twists to match the compositional trends of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Ms. Koh’s agile first movement cadenza contrasted well with both Sibelius’s rich melodies and the grandeur of the long passages for orchestra alone. Ms. Koh communicated well with Ms. Zhang, and seemed to lean into whichever string section was in dialog with the solo violin. The demanding solo part was particularly evident in a passage of double-stops combining a solo melody with an extended continuous trill, all from the same instrument. Ms. Koh especially showed strength of arm in the second movement Adagio, playing reflectively and thoughtfully, as if remembering something from long ago.
Throughout the Sibelius work, wind solos contrasted well with the lush orchestra, including from flutist Bart Feller, clarinetist Karl Herman, and oboist Robert Ingliss. A strong ostinato from the lower strings in the closing Allegro aided in conveying Sibelius’s intended gypsy effect in a movement considered one of the most formidable concerto movements written for violin. Ms. Koh was always precisely with the orchestra in a solo part which never stopped but was always under control. The orchestra was equally as effectively contained, with well-blended horns and sweet melodic runs from both soloist and instrumentalists.
In both the Sibelius Violin Concerto and the short Mozart opera overture which opened the concert, Ms. Zhang clearly packed a great deal of conducting punch into her direction of the orchestra, and her forceful leadership continued for Franz Schubert’s substantial Symphony No. 9 in C Major, subtitled “The Great.” Finished just two years before Schubert’s death, this symphony had all the hallmarks of the 18th-century compositional style perfected by Mozart and passed to Beethoven, infused with Schubert’s gift for melody and Viennese panache. More than 45 minutes long, Symphony No. 9 owes its considerable scale to Beethoven, but its charm and classical structure to Mozart and a tradition of Viennese musical grace.
NJSO opened the symphony with a clean pair of horns and smooth lower strings in a very elegant and march-like slow introduction. When the opening movement took off in a spirited Allegro, Ms. Zhang maintained an effective lilt to the music with well-executed sforzandi providing a touch of humor to the texture. Wind solos from oboist Mr. Ingliss and clarinetist Mr. Herman added a pastoral character to the performance and the ensemble brought out the counterpoint well. Ms. Zhang well emphasized the Ländler dance of the third movement, bringing out instrumental accents from different sections of the orchestra. Throughout the work, Ms. Zhang always seemed to know exactly where the sound should be coming from, creating playful sweeps in the music across the stage.
With this performance, the Princeton series of NJSO’s new era under Ms. Zhang’s leadership came to a close, and it was clear from audience response that Princeton awaits next year’s NJSO season with great anticipation.
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