New Jersey Symphony Orchestra’s (NJSO) Winter Festival has begun! Every year in January, NJSO gets to strut its stuff in a different way–themed programming! In the past, we’ve been regaled with music associated with the Elements, Shakespeare, and more and this year our treat is one we truly need right now–America, Inspiring. This series of programming highlights composers who traveled to the United States from many different places and these immigrants were inspired by what they found here. The first week, we enjoyed Ottorino Respighi and Sergei Prokofiev, with a bonus of a 21st Century NJSO premiere. Here’s what we enjoyed.
The first piece on the program was Chen Yi’s “Ge Xu” (Antiphony). This NJSO premiere takes us to China, where the young Chen Yi was sent from her home to do forced labor. While in the country, she learned about the folk songs of the people. When she returned to the city, she took the folk culture and the connection with the earth with her. She went on to a series of firsts–first Chinese woman to attain a master’s degree in Composition at the Beijing Central Conservatory, when it re-opened, when she was in her mid-20s. Yi brings us the immediacy and joy of the Chinese lunar New Year, which is in the autumn. The country people sing to one another in a call-and-response competition and the sounds are textured–slapstick percussiveness and hand drums, modal tone, tympani, and strings that thrill the heart.
Next, pianist George Li took the stage for Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto Number Three in C Major, Opus 26. The first soloist of 2018 took the Andante–Allegro first in a meditative manner, then at light speed, scintillating play with major dynamic color. In the Andantino movement, the Baroque feel had lightness reminiscent of sunshine on a summer afternoon with a beloved, but chaos and storms return, then a pause, and energy returns, heralding a more modern harmony, more modern verve. The Allegro ma non troppo had it all–grace, speed, and light, and here we heard Li’s playing burnished with emotion, technical skill, stamina, and focus to put a bow on Prokofiev’s masterful 1920s modern take on classical Romanticism. We weren’t quite ready to let Li go, however, and he gave us a true gift in Giovanni Sgambati’s piano transcription of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s flute Melody, the Dance of the Blessed Spirits, from “Orfeo ed Eurydice”–when a familiar melody is heard in a different instrument, we hear the magic anew—brilliant and satisfying close to the first act.
The second act was devoted entirely to Respighi’s Rome–first the NJSO Premiere of the “Fountains of Rome.” If you have not yet been to Rome, Respighi captures the light perfectly in his tone poem of each of the major fountains he’s selected, at the time of day when they are at their finest. If you have been to Rome, NJSO took you on vacation, where the light you remember and the visit you had makes you want to book the next flight to return. And the “Pines of Rome” was yet to come.
NJSO took us now on a broader tour of the environs of Rome–first to the Pines of the Villa Borghese, now a public park, where we hear the happy cacophonous affect of people playing, children’s activity, and more. From there, “Trees Near a Catacomb” has the appropriately somber air for an underground cemetery, ponderous and mysterious, with a dramatic energy. “Pines of the Janiculum” becomes gentle and bucolic and beautifully open, giving us a respite before the build and thrumming glory of the majestic “Pines of the Appian Way.” Roman trumpets and brass bracketed the stage from boxes on either side of the proscenium. I noticed them setting up during intermission, but I wonder how many people noted them first when the brilliant sound rang forth from overhead? It was a majestic and thrilling way to end an afternoon and we all marched out into the night humming our favorites.
Be sure when you visit to page through Laurie Shulman’s program notes. She gives us one-minute notes to give a quick flavor of the piece for the Twitter set, and more descriptive and musical depth in her full notes. Her work is always a delight for those who enjoy scholarship of high caliber.
What is next? Join me at Winter Festival, America, Inspiring Week II–get your tickets now at www.njsymphony.org