From November 2 through 5, a brilliant series of concerts took place, combining the best of classical and modern music, when New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) presented a thrilling program that combined two powerhouse composers including a piece played by a third! Imagine combining Ludwig van Beethoven with Béla Bartók to begin, and then adding concert pianist and composer Conrad Tao to the mix–this combination made for a concert to remember!
Music Director Xian Zhang programs the most delightful combinations and starting with Beethoven’s brooding Overture to “Coriolan,” Opus 62, we got delicately nuanced dynamics that outlined phrasing demonstrative of the hero’s thoughts and lent a vocal quality to the dramatic turbulence therein. This was perfect music for such a changeable Autumn that similarly goes from sunny warmth to cloudy cool very quickly.
We next got a very un-Bartók-like Piano Concerto Number Three, which was written at the end of Bartók’s life. He knew he was gravely ill and wanted something that expressed his love for his wife Ditta, with whom he had frequently concertized. The Allegretto sparkles with love and swirling energy that is antic and playful, then sweepingly romantic. The Adagio religioso–Poco più mosso movement is beautifully heartfelt and slow with modern harmonies woven with an evocation of the majesty of Nature–sunbeams dancing through the woods, during a last and lasting walk, with the wife he loved. Bartók wrote this while at a rustic retreat. He died before completing the piece and orchestration were done by another from his sketches, making this an ultimate labor of love. The Allegro vivace returns to joyous energy and joie de vivre and throughout the piece, Conrad Tao appeared to be dancing–with the keyboard, with the thrumming energy of the piece, and in a pas de trois with both the orchestra and Maestra Zhang. My one regret was that the piano was open to its fullest extent, and while necessary, it denied the experience of watching the interaction with two great musical minds as they made something greater than the sum of the parts.
Tao gave us an encore, after three standing ovations, of Elliot Carter’s “Caténaires,” which was written when Carter was 93. It is a blazing bravura piece that is intricate and note dense, returning to a single note that bear’s out Les Paul’s notion that you may play that one note, as long as it’s the right one. And this was the right one.
Beethoven’s iconic Symphony Number 5 in C minor, Opus 67 is written in a key Beethoven reserved for his most dramatic music. Zhang conducted this piece without a score, which I consider a measure of her love of the piece. She paced the Allegro con brio at a slightly faster tempo, which made for greater energy and a different perspective on the classic motif. The Andante con moto had a graceful dance tempo that added to the majesty and the smoothness, alternating with a martial feel, gave substance to Beethoven’s genius in their juxtaposition. There is sweep and latitude alternating with fanfare, for there and back again. The Allegro was at times stealthy cat feet walking through to a legato continuo that builds in intensity to abundant and triumphal joy–the brooding intensity gives way to light and we are sent resoundingly into our whatever’s-next. And what send off–WOW!
There’s plenty more of the season to love and the Winter Festival is on its way so be sure to visit www.njsymphony.org
for best choice of seats and concerts! I’ll see you there!