Conductor Daniel Spalding

The Capital Philharmonic of New Jersey always kicks off its season with an excellent program, but last weekend’s concert, the 2019-’20 season opener, was the best I’ve seen — so far anyway.

Led by maestro Daniel Spalding, with music by Wagner, Mozart, and Holst, and a guest appearance by the Women’s Choir from the College of New Jersey, it was a blockbuster.

The October 19 concert was audience “all-request” and began with Wagner’s Prelude to “Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg.” I was especially focused on the powerful lower brass section, and would like to applaud the trombones and tubas.

With the composer’s grand, Romantic themes and swirls of sound, the orchestra was in perpetual motion, with the lower brass as the anchor. These unsung heroes of the ensemble deserve special praise.

The CPNJ then welcomed piano soloist Maja Rajkovic to the stage for Mozart’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 21 in C Major. It’s sometimes called the “Elvira Madigan” concerto, since the theme from the second movement was used in this 1967 Swedish film.

Mozart’s music and Rajkovic’s spirited, sparkling playing brought a lighter atmosphere after the intensity of Wagner. The composer’s playfulness was brought to life by Rajkovic, who seemed to be smiling at Mozart’s musical mischief, in on his jokes.

The music itself was no joke, though, and is considered among the most technically demanding of all Mozart’s concerti. Rajkovic played it with virtuosity and great affection.

You know the melody of the second movement. The refined, pastoral air in triple meter was done handsomely by Rajkovic and the CPNJ. The frisky third movement especially showed how well the orchestra “got out of the soloist’s way,” as only the best musicians can. Rajkovic was a marvel and beautifully captured Mozart’s exuberance.

Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” is a difficult and fascinating piece, with movements like “Jupiter” that are so familiar to music lovers. The 1916 orchestral suite also possesses more obscure segments, however, as outstanding as its better-known passages.

“Mars” is one of those more famed movements and evoked martial sensibilities. The military beat of the drums and strings, the crashing gong and fiery lower brass gave a foreboding to the piece, sounding like an approaching army. This is where the CPNJ is at its best, filling their huge hall with splendid sound.

“Venus” was the opposite, a breather from menacing Mars. The two harpists, along with the delicate celeste and gorgeous French horn, painted the mystery of the legendary Venus. With the seldom-heard “Mercury” and “Uranus” we heard Holst’s eclectic use of the entire orchestra, from bass viol to piccolo.

Along with its lavish sound, the CPNJ is remarkably tight. The big group (84 musicians for the Holst piece) moved on a dime, especially throughout the trickiest passages of “The Planets.”

“Jupiter” rolled along jauntily, and it was a real a workout for the winds, as well as a playground for the percussion. I’ve heard this music many, many times, but it was exciting and fun to watch and hear it performed live.

The phrase “into the mystic” was in my head as the CPNJ played the final movement, “Neptune.” With the harpists stroking the very upper register of their instruments, and impressionistic musical lines moving through the ensemble, we felt a certain release.

Then, like music of the spheres, the voices of the Women’s Choir of TCNJ came drifting downward from both sides of the balcony. Surprise!

Their lovely, haunting voices were mesmerizing and, together with the orchestra’s elegant playing, took us to a state of bliss. It was an enchanting way to end the evening of music.

Capitol Philharmonic of New Jersey, Patriots Theater at the War Memorial, 1 Memorial Drive, Trenton. The 2019-2020 season continues Tuesday, December 31, with the gala New Year’s Eve concert. Saturday, February 22, features “Brothers on Broadway” featuring Keith Spencer. “The Coming of Spring” is the theme for Saturday, March 14, when the CPNJ performs in the War Memorial Ballroom. The season closes Saturday, May 18, with a spotlight on film music, especially “The Genius of John Williams.” 215-893-1999 or www.capitalphilharmonic.org

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