The powerhouse that is the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra appeared at Richardson Auditorium in Princeton on November 2, with solo violinist Augustin Hadelich performing the rarely heard Violin Concerto opus 15 by Benjamin Britten.
Led by guest conductor Christoph Konig, the program also included Richard Strauss’ tone poem “Don Juan” and Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, “Rhenish.”
It was actually a return visit to Princeton for Hadelich, who opened the 2016-’17 Princeton University Concerts season. The hometown crowd loves him, and it’s easy to see why: Hadelich is astounding.
Strauss’s “Don Juan” kicked off with a heroic, effervescent sound that brought to mind a silver screen hero like Erroll Flynn in “Captain Blood.” Indeed, the piece has been described as a balance between swashbuckle and seduction.
The NJSO’s potent French horn section established its command right from the start, supported by rich, lush strings. Like Strauss’ “Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life),” there are love themes among the machismo, introduced poignantly by solo oboe, then wending throughout the wind section. The Strauss work tiptoed to a quiet close, a little surprise.
The Britten violin concerto began with the timpani establishing a rhythmic motif that would return throughout the composition. The discreet introduction was soon juxtaposed with Hadelich’s virtuosity, as the violinist explored emotional, melodic lines balanced with explosions of sheer brilliance.
Once again the NJSO’s French horns shined, matching the big percussion section for volume. The dynamic range in this piece is impressive, and the ensemble rose and fell with Britten’s orchestration and Hadelich’s rhapsodic playing.
The lengthy cadenza is filled with chromaticism, harmonics, glissandi, and more, and requires immense technical skill. Hadelich managed this with otherworldly precision and vigor.
At one point he was bowing and plucking his instrument at the same time: I’d never seen anything like this, and neither had my concert neighbor, a violinist. As the cadenza closed, Hadelich appeared as though he had just come out of a trance.
He was brought back to earth soon enough, as the third movement continued to test his technique. Britten certainly used great contrasts in this movement, placing the whirlwind of the strings and soloist against the stubborn solidarity of the bass viols and lower brass.
Schumann’s “Rhenish” symphony marks a period of light in the composer’s somewhat unhappy life. He and his wife, composer Clara Schumann, had just moved to the Rhineland, and he was energized by the new surroundings.
The piece began joyfully, with a familiar melody in the horn section. Schumann was obviously influenced by Beethoven, and the “Rhenish” evokes the same cascading waters and rural scenery as Beethoven’s “Pastoral” symphony.
The NJSO’s majestic rendition of Schumann’s music took us on an excursion through the German countryside, balancing light folk and peasant melodies with darker, spiritual themes.
New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, led by music director Xian Zhang, returns to Princeton on Friday, December 14, to perform Handel’s Messiah; Friday, January 18, 2019, with soprano Dawn Upshaw; Friday, March 22, for Brahms’ Fourth Symphony; Friday, May 17, with a program that includes “Four Iconoclastic Episodes” by Steven Mackey; Friday, June 7, with an All-Orchestral Season Finale. www.njsymphony.org
Before the concert Steven Mackey, guitarist, composer, Princeton University professor, and liaison with the NJSO, announced the return of the NJSO Edward T. Cone Composition Institute in July, 2019. Led by Mackey, the symposium will give up-and-coming composers a chance to brainstorm and workshop with members of the NJSO, culminating in a concert performance of new, original works.