There was an assortment of musical moods to contemplate on the night of October 13 when the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra appeared at Richardson Auditorium in Princeton, opening its season of appearances in Princeton and the State Theater in New Brunswick.
Conducted by music director Xian Zhang, the NJSO presented an evening of music featuring Beethoven’s Symphony Number 6 in F Major, “Pastoral,” and Tchaikovsky’s “Variations on a Rococo Theme for Cello and Orchestra,” with cello soloist Alban Gerhardt.
There was also an NJSO premiere, the second movement of “Musica Celestis” by American composer (and Philadelphia native) Alan Jay Kernis, who arranged this adagio movement for string orchestra.
Zhang took the podium and guided the NJSO with joy and precision through “Musica Celestis,” conveying the ethereal quality Kernis intended. The composer writes that “‘Musica Celestis’ is inspired by the medieval concept of that phrase, which refers to the singing of the angels in heaven in praise of God without end.”
The piece rose and fell again and again in intensity, at times beatific in sound, and then agitated and vexing.
Yes, we could hear the angels in their devotion, but there were also passages that sounded quarrelsome, like a political TV talk show — and this was as Kernis intended. The darker musical humors remind listeners of the frenetic pace of mortal life. Whereas the return to the gentler tonalities of the piece bring us back to the heart and connection with spirit.
Cellist Alban Gerhardt then launched into the Tchaikovsky “Variations,” with a light touch to the opening, minuet-like melody.
Soon the musical gymnastics began as Gerhardt’s fingers traveled the length of the instrument, from the lowest to the very upper ranges. One songlike cadenza had the soloist touching the instrument with delicacy but utter precision, trading phrases with the oboe, clarinet, and flute.
The composition grew in volume and intensity, and now the work exhibited the kind of Romantic flamboyance we associate with Tchaikovsky. The final “allegro vivace” variation had Gerhardt playing feverishly, and the orchestra right alongside, matching his passion and pace.
After a round of applause, the virtuoso cellist returned to the stage to play a Prelude to one of Bach’s suites for solo cello — a delightful little encore.
Before its performance, Zhang spoke about the Beethoven “Pastoral” Symphony, musing on how a walk in the woods helped ease the composer’s famous anger.
The work opened with a familiar, soothing melody, which started in the strings, was picked up by the oboe, and then flowed through the entire orchestra. In the NJSO’s fine, rich sound, you could almost hear the rushing waters and whispering breezes.
The sound of birds in the wild especially alleviated Beethoven’s bilious moods, and he wrote them into the second movement — the clarinet as cuckoo, flute as nightingale, and oboe as quail. Most brilliant is the way Beethoven has them all “singing” together, as birds do of course.
The sonorities of the NJSO’s solo bassoon and French horn were also restful, the latter evoking an alpenhorn, and the blues skies, sunshine, and cool air of the mountains.
Then “thunder” rumbled as the brass, timpani, and full orchestra roused our tranquility. Joined by the bass viols and punctuated by the piccolo, we could hear clouds and rain rolling in. As the musical storm passed, we again heard a calming melody carried by the strings, accented by the French horn and pure, sweet, solo flute.
As the music ended, I for one was relaxed and felt unplugged from the daily dissonance of bad news and Twitter wars.
The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra conducted by Xian Zhang will return to Richardson Auditorium in Princeton, Friday, November 3, 8 p.m. Concert includes Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the overture to Beethoven’s “Coriolan,” and Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 3. 800-255-3476 or www.njsymphony.org.