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NJSO offers a stirring study in contrasts at latest concert

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NJSO offers a stirring study in contrasts at latest concert

Xian Zhang conducting the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. Last week, Lukas Vondracek was the guest soloist (Fred Stucker)

Last month marked the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, which gave the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra a good excuse to play Prokofiev’s First Symphony this past weekend — a piece written as those events that shook the world were happening. 

If the old world was being dismantled around him in 1917, Prokofiev kept the spirit of the past alive with this 13-minute “classical” symphony. 

Music Director Xian Zhang opened the piece with the strings galloping through the Hadyn-esque theme, then she artfully brought in a stately flute melody. Zhang then ended first movement, the”Allegro con brio,” with plenty of brio — the brash musical equivalent of a big dollop of froth on a cup of Viennese coffee. 

In her remarks to the audience at NJPAC Thursday afternoon, Zhang said that Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1 is “one of the hardest symphonies an orchestra can play.” Indeed, watching the NJSO players in the final movement (the feverish “Molto vivace”) this was clear. Yet despite the difficulty of the frantic string passages, the wickedly fast and fluttering wind arpeggios, the band played beautifully and accurately. The old, 18th-century sounds that Prokofiev wrote a century ago came alive under Zhang’s baton.

Next on the program was Dimitri Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1, and here you could hear the sounds of the revolution. Written 15 years into the Soviet experiment, this 20-minute piece is a riotous blend of old and new; a mash up–and sometimes parody — of the old world music Prokofiev was evoking, all the while mixing in allusions to the cacophony of the 20th century, atonality and jazz.

This mix was best heard in the second movement. The “Lento” began with soloist Lukas Vondracek playing the beautiful notes of a slow waltz. Then Zhang expertly introduced the horn solo of NJSO principle trumpet player Garth Greenup. Greenup played this solo with quiet authority then handed the spotlight back to Vondracek, whose piano response was expertly calibrated. A call back of sorts to the horn continued this lovely moment, and then Zhang brought back in the whole band.  

The rest of the piece unfolded with the right mix of pomp and madcap fun that befits the work of a 27-year old wunderkind at the height of his Kremlin-approved fame. 

There are recordings of the composer himself playing the concerto (later in life, after his fall from favor) but they feel understated, if not reserved. Vondracek has a big tone and he tended to bang away when needed, while still bringing a refined, porcelain quality to quiet moments. The 30-year old Czech-born soloist (winner of last year’s prestigious International Queen Elisabeth Piano Competition in Belgium, as well as a minor award in the 2009 Van Cliburn competition) played with just enough precision, yet always with plenty of passion. 

It’s an odd piece, but its contrasts can work. Zhang and Vondracek were themselves contrasts at the curtain call: she petite and modest in her customary black slacks and Nehru jacket; he big and brawny, wearing a tux with no tie and a open collar. (He looked a bit like a Vegas crooner after a second set at 2 a.m.)  Luckily, the two embraced these contrasts and the results were stirring.

I wish I could say the same about the Beethoven’s mighty Seventh Symphony that closed the program after intermission. Did it have rhythm? Yes. Sweep? Sure. Did it sound like a faithful interpretation of a masterpiece? Absolutely.  

But while there were times when you heard the work’s greatness, and times when you even felt its greatness, too rarely did you experience both at the same time. For Beethoven to be appreciated as the revolutionary he truly was, you need both.

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra

Zhang Conducts Beethovens Seventh

March 23, New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark

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