Take a German musical master inspired by time spent in the Austrian Alps, a famed Norwegian schooled in Europe, and a French composer whose family musically dominated the Baroque period.
Now mix these cultural ingredients with a Finnish piano soloist and a masterful German conductor, and you have a night of music with true international flair. Such was last Friday’s concert by the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, led by guest conductor Markus Stenz at Richardson Auditorium in Princeton.
The program included Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor, performed by virtuoso soloist Juho Pohjonen, Johannes Brahms’ Symphony Number 2 in D Major, and the NJSO’s premiere of Jean-Fery Rebel’s “Chaos” from his ballet “Les Elemens (1737).”
This composition was Rebel’s late Baroque contribution to the concept of the birth of the universe, from chaos into order. The NJSO tackled the piece with gusto and the skills needed to balance the serene moments with musical dissonance that was some 200 years before its time.
Beautiful work by the ensemble’s two flutes (one doubling on piccolo) gave brightness to the many dark passages of this unusual composition. The brief piece piqued my interest and left me wanting to learn more about the aptly named Rebel.
Then came Grieg’s piano concerto, played with bravura by Pohjonen, born in Helsinki in 1981.
You probably know the opening to this work, a flourish followed by a melody that might sound more like Rachmaninoff than Grieg to some. By the end of the piece the composer’s Scandinavian roots shine through, however.
I was impressed by the calm, fluent way Pohjonen’s hands traveled across the keyboard. A long cadenza, which revisited the main theme, rose with passion then fell to just a whisper, and the soloist played it all with grace and control. This wild ride of a first movement drew applause from the audience — unusual for the staid Richardson crowd — until the second movement put us in a more introspective place.
The melody was traded from the principal cellist, Jonathan Spitz, to the orchestra, then to the principal French horn. Bravo to hornist Chris Komer and his excellent playing during the Grieg: in fact, the entire French horn section was brilliant.
The third movement fires up the energy again. Driven and rhythmic, this section is actually a Norwegian folk dance called a “halling,” which evoked an all-night celebration of the solstice in the land of the midnight sun. A new mood arose in the second half of the movement, much more akin to Grieg’s gentler folk influences.
Then the storm returned, with powerful sound and dynamics. Pohjonen played with such intensity, the audience held its breath as he and the NJSO concluded the Grieg. The hall then erupted with applause and kept going so much so that the pianist had to make two curtain calls.
I was also fascinated with maestro Stenz, an emotive leader who seemed to connect personally with the individual musicians throughout all this swirling sound.
The Brahms Symphony in D Major was splendid, a “pastoral” that made ample use of a fine wind section, especially flutist Bart Feller and Karl Herman on clarinet.
Hornist Komer again shone with an exquisite solo amid the dreamy first section. The second slower movement was a little darker, with Brahms employing the lower brasses and even timpani. Featuring a lovely oboe solo, the third movement was like a palate cleanser before the spicy finale.
Here in the fourth movement, Brahms might have been playing with the listener but also showcasing his skills with counterpoint, as the vigorous melody passed around the orchestra from upper winds to lower brasses and strings.
By the end conductor Stenz was totally caught up in the music, actually jumping up and down on the podium, moving with the exuberance the composer intended and the NJSO delivered.
The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra returns to Richardson Auditorium on Friday, December 20, at 8 p.m. for a performance of Handel’s Messiah; then Friday, January 17, to performs works by Wagner and Liszt; also Fridays March 20, May 15 and June 5. www.njsymphony.org