The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, seen here at a performance in January, performed works by Tan Dun, Ravel and Saint-Saens at its series of weekend concerts (Mark Brown | For NJ.com)
A mix of old and new, familiar and obscure marked this weekend’s light but diverting concerts given by the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra.
The program began with NJSO Music Director Xian Zhang leading the company premiere of Tan Dun’s “Internet Symphony #1.” Commissioned in 2008 by YouTube and Google, this four-movement piece (which under Zhang’s baton ran a fleet five minutes) was assembled, rehearsed and premiered online — but it works just fine in an old-fashioned concert hall.
It opens with a tremulous flutter of percussion — including four “break gongs” (commonly known as hubcaps, or rims) — and then hits its symphonic stride with a plaintive, Copland-esque horn melody. Allusions to famous classical works litter the score, like a riff on Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony and a wave towards Wagner’s Rhein motif from “The Ring.”
It tickles the ear, but no more — it often sounds like the theme music television networks play during Olympic Broadcasts. But as the NJSO showed last month (when they provided the full, live soundtrack to the first Harry Potter film) they can play this type of light fare quite well. This was certainly the case on Sunday afternoon at NJPAC.
Next up in the program was another piece performed for the first time by the NJSO, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ 1954 Concerto for Tuba and Orchestra. The soloist was NJSO’s own Principal Tuba player, Derek Fenstermacher, who was seated to Zhang’s right. The first movement began with Fenstermacher playing a smattering of low notes on his horn. It was pleasant but felt like the composer was having fun with a quirky instrument.
It was in the second movement, though where quirky sounds became expressive music — as if the class clown suddenly turned into a sincere suitor. Fenstermacher played the tuba in such a manner that you forgot the low notes that came before it (to say nothing of the instrument’s ungainly size) and just heard the sweet melodies; it almost sounded as if they were emanating from a jazz sax. In this movement, Zhang smoothly melded these sounds with the orchestral passages — and then whizzed through the third movement and its ascending and descending scales (and more super low notes that evoked a few chuckles in one tuba solo section.)
Fenstermacher followed the concerto with a solo encore: a tuba arrangement of a Bach flute partida that was more interesting than stirring. Still, he earned a nice hand at curtain call for his efforts.
After intermission the hubcaps and tubas were gone, and the stage was set for two familiar, orchestral crowd-pleasers, “The Carnival of the Animals” by Camille Saint-Saens and Ravel’s “Bolero.” Two young pianists from the Curtis institute, Ying Li and Zitong Wang, were featured in the Saint-Saens piece — and both played with accuracy and sparkling tones.
The famous “Aquarium” vignette featured both of them, and combined with Zhang’s effective conducting, the result was eerie and evocative. Other memorable moments were “The Elephant” section, which bassist Paul Harris played with aplomb, and “The Swan,” played lovingly by the two pianists and NJSO cellist Jonathan Spitz.
The finale was the can’t-miss “Bolero.” And yet, despite its inherent energy and verve — and a big ovation when it came to its crashing finale — it was the least inspiring performance of the show. Zhang whopped and whipped about on the podium (conducting without a score), but despite the big sounds created by the orchestra, the piece never clicked. An extended off-key run in the winds didn’t help either, but mainly what was wrong was a missing connection, a certain vitality that just wasn’t there.
One year into her run as Music Director, Zhang is still finding her voice and the orchestra’s voice. The carnal and corybantic “Bolero” is a piece that will be interesting to hear the NJSO play again a few years into her tenure.
New Jersey Symphony Orchestra
April 9, New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Newark