By James C. Taylor
May 15, 2017
There were many things trying to impede the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra on Saturday night in Red Bank: severe thunderstorms; an errant cellphone during the opening number; and the generally odd acoustics at the Count Basie Theatre.
Yet despite these adversities, the NJSO -- under maestro Xian Zhang -- delivered one of their best concerts of the season, and certainly the most impassioned performance of any one piece, thanks to their guest soloist, Jennifer Koh.
The concert began with a classic curtain raiser, the flittering and fluttering overture to "Cosi fan tutti," by Mozart. Zhang and the Jersey band performed a lithe and lively account of Mozart's score and (despite the aforementioned cell phone interruption) got the audience warmed up for what was to follow: a singular performance of Sibelius' Violin Concerto in D-minor.
Koh made her entrance on the Count Basie stage donning an elegant blue gown with a gold belt (NJSO Music Director Zhang wore her customary black Nehru pantsuit). The first movement Andante begins with Sibelius's icy, Nordic chords, and Koh played the haunting, opening solo notes with a graceful, silvery tone. Throughout the early passages, the NJSO string section brought a lovely, gossamer touch to their accompaniment.
Koh's playing throughout showed a range of colors and personalities, from sweet to downright earthy. What's more, she performed in a state of total focus, rarely looking up to the audience, but rather looking down intensely at her instrument, her cropped bob of black hair whipping around her as she played.
And in those moments when she wasn't playing, she intently listened to the orchestra, moving to the music, often striking poses that -- with her short hair, modern gown and gold belt -- called to mind a Klimt portrait.
The Andante came to a close with another swirl of sound, as a few strings of Koh's bow came loose and began waving around. Needless to say the audience burst into applause.
The shorter, second movement Adagio di Molto featured the woodwinds providing accomplished back-up to the more lilting, lyric notes of this section. Koh's playing of the high D-natural at the end of the act was so stirring, and she held it longer than the two measures the score calls for -- an effect that was sadly marred with a loud handbag dropping to the floor right in the middle of it. Despite this, Koh proceeded to dispatch the third movement Allegro (one of the most formidable in the entire violin repertoire) with ease.
The American-born violinist made her debut with the NJSO eleven years ago. Since then, she has recorded numerous CDs, toured as a soloist in Philip Glass' "Einstein on the Beach," and last year was named Musical America's "Instrumentalist of the Year." She's a dynamic artist, and credit goes to Zhang and the NJSO -- not just for booking her for these concerts, but for matching her talents. This was a performance that brimmed with passion and musical insight.
After intermission, Zhang and NJSO had a hard act to follow, but they did with forceful but polished account of Schubert's Symphony No. 9 in C-major. The piece is nicknamed "The Great" in part to differentiate it from his shorter 6th symphony (also in C-major), but also because of its neo-Wagnerian themes and overall majesty.
With Zhang conducting, the long symphony flew by with crisp, articulate phrasing and firm tempi. It's a masterfully written piece of music, and Zhang made the development and emergence of Schubert's themes clear, without ever sound stuffy or overthought. Indeed, after the first Andante, a few in the audience tentatively started to clap, and Zhang (perhaps feeling her oats after the Sibelius) turned to the crowd and waved her arms, in the old vaudeville manner, inviting them to break tradition and applaud between movements.
The three movements that followed were equally strong, showing plenty of thrust and expression. Yes, the horns sounded somewhat diminished -- as they did in the Sibelius -- but that was more due to the hall's tricky acoustics. Overall, this was also one of the NJSO's best efforts of the season. Not surprisingly it earned a big ovation from the audience who no doubt would have stayed for more music rather than face the stormy night outside.
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