Music Speaks is the theme for the 2019 Winter Festival, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra’s (NJSO) annual celebration of the most artistic works in music. With Week I featuring Emanuel Ax on piano, we were treated to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart back to back with Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky–a pairing that seems a bit unusual, until the grain of each of the works, the passion and the virtuosity, come to the fore. A brilliant and heart-stopping program, it accomplished the feat of only whetting the appetite, no surfeit to be found. Perfection abounds in Week I.
Emanuel Ax knows a fine way to treat that Steinway at New Brunswick’s State Theatre, where the Sunday afternoon, January 13 crowd knew exactly what to expect. Ax made his New York debut in the Young Concert Artist Series in 1974 and the only way has been up. Mozart’s Piano Concerto Number 22 in E-Flat Major, K. 482 is a masterful piece that flows organically from Mozart’s brain through Ax’s fingers. The scintillating melismatic portions of the Allegro have an almost vocal, fluid feel–the solo flows like water through wisteria, the droplets embellishing the beauty, as Ax’s genius gives each note its own character. Music Director Xian Zhang exhorts and encourages the orchestra, heightening the tension and resolution, as Ax’s solo and the orchestra interact like organic beings. The Andante that follows is a contrast of richness–it is complex, beautiful, contemplative, and dark. Laurie Shulman’s concert notes are a consistent delight and she lets us know to listen for the interaction of the woodwinds, as they play a larger role than is their wont and even in the thrilling Rondo: Allegro movement, Mozart interpolates what Shulman terms “a miniature woodwind serenade” that in itself is a jewel-like joy. We also learn that Ax has provided the cadenzas, as Mozart did before him, and none of Mozart’s solos were written out–they were all extempore. Ax’s lightness and verve, his velvet mastery of tone and dynamic range make the pianoforte live up to its name. Attentive and giving, Emanuel Ax, Xian Zhang and NJSO are truly a triple treat.
How does one follow the froth and brilliance of Mozart?—with the dynamic duo of Lord Byron and Tchaikovsky, in the full-on Romantic treatment of the Manfred Symphony after Byron, Opus 28. Byron’s tempestuous “Manfred” was a dramatic poem written some time after the storytelling experiences shared with Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley that led her to write “Frankenstein.” This fascination with the supernatural haunted many and Robert Schumann and even Friedrich Nietzsche composed works under its inspiration. This tale also includes forbidden love–Manfred’s incestuous attraction to his sister Astarte, whose Greek counterpart was associated with conflict, fertility and battle. Considering how both Byron and Manfred met their ends, this is oddly appropriate. This factor of being outside the lines would appeal to Tchaikovsky, who had some forbidden tastes of his own. Some consider Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality to have made him resonate with Byron’s work. And considering both men were known to have attractions to their same gender, there would definitely be a magnetic pull toward, at that time, tragedy and tragic themes.
Tchaikovsky’s passionate introduction of Manfred in the first movement, the Lento Lugubre, provides an exotic opening with dark, dramatic sweep. The Vivace con spirito is where Manfred meets the Alpine fairy in the rainbow from the waterfall and truly no one writes music for sprites and fairies like Tchaikovsky! Consider “The Nutcracker,” and the Alpine fairy’s wings are almost visible as we hear her approach. Maestra Zhang loves Tchaikovsky–she conducts this passionate amazing music as if it is a total body sport, and it is thrilling to watch her transported doing something that means so much to her. She sculpts the air into Tchaikovsky’s dreams with the orchestra. The Andante con moto seems light in comparison, as it provides a look at the bucolic people, whose simple lives seem like a different kind of dream. It is the final, and aptly named, Allegro con fuoco where so much of the transformation occurs–musically, I heard harbingers of the orchestral scores of the 1940s and 50s films that were yet to be. The music is full of longing and portent as shifts to modern harmonies begin to appear as they combine in the fugue that hearkens back to an almost Mozartian feel. This fugue roams the orchestra like Manfred, who is taking in all of the chaotic sights around him in the Underworld. The flourish of the two harps calls our attention, the glissandi giving us the form and feel of Astarte, as Manfred catches a final glimpse of his benighted love. The grounding notes of the organ in the final portion are deliciously frictive with the glory of the moving lines above, and the listener follows to a sublime end where Manfred again transcends the expected, his soul going to neither Heaven nor Hell, but entirely to Death.
Are you ready for YOUR Transformation? The 2019 Winter Festival, “Music Speaks” continues this weekend, with Dawn Upshaw and the final weekend of January, Daniil Trifonov makes the perfect classical hat trick for Week III. Time is fleeting! Get your tickets now at www.njsymphony.org