New Jersey Symphony celebrates a century of great music with Yo-Yo Ma

United StatesUnited States Various: Yo-Yo Ma (cello), New Jersey Ballet, New Jersey Symphony / Xian Zhang (conductor). New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Newark, 12.11.2022. (RP)

Yo-Yo Ma (cello) with New Jersey Symphony © Grace Liu Anderson

Marsalis – ‘Herald, Holler and Hallelujah!’
Dvořák – Cello Concerto in B minor Op.104
Ginastera – ‘Los Trabajadores agricolas’, ‘Danza del trigo’, ‘Danza final’ (from Four Dances from Estancia)

The New Jersey Symphony celebrated its hundredth birthday with a gala concert at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark. It wouldn’t be a celebration without a musical star, and cellist Yo-Yo Ma more than fit the bill. For this concert, however, the spotlight was on the symphony and its history.

The Montclair Arts Association Orchestra, as the group was initially known, played its first concert on 27 November 1922. Comprised of 19 string players, the concert was conducted by Philip James, who led the orchestra for its first seven years. By the mid-1930s the orchestra had expanded to over 100 players. A century later, the New Jersey Symphony has become the official orchestra of the State of New Jersey and performs in six venues across the state, as well as being the resident orchestra of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.

Innovation has been key to the orchestra’s survival, and it again rose to the challenge during the pandemic. When in-person performances were impossible, the orchestra launched ‘New Jersey Symphony Virtual’, featuring concert films, musicians performing in chamber ensembles and virtual education programs. Earlier this year, two of the films, EMERGE: An NJSO Concert Film and Mozart: Piano Concerto No.21, featuring pianist Terrence Wilson, received Mid-Atlantic Emmy Awards.

On the podium was Xian Zhang, who became the orchestra’s fourteenth and first female music director in 2016. (Henry Lewis had broken the race barrier in 1968 when he became music director of New Jersey’s Symphony Orchestra, as it was then known, as well as the first African-American to lead a major symphony orchestra in the US.) In March 2022, Zhang extended her contract through the 2027/28 season. Days prior to this concert, the orchestra announced that a five-year contract agreement had been sealed with the players.

Wynton Marsalis’s ‘Herald, Holler and Hallelujah!’ was a boisterous start to the celebration. A co-commission of the New Jersey Symphony, the work is scored for19 brass and percussion players, the same number of musicians as were on stage for the first concert in 1922. Zhang was center-stage, with the percussion in a back corner and the brass in a side box. The antiphonal effect was perfect for Marsalis’s six-minute fanfare which combines marching band, big band and jazz styles.

Anton Dvořák began work on the Cello Concerto in B minor in 1894, during his time in America, and finished it the next year. Besides being one of the most popular and frequently performed cello concertos in the repertoire, it also has a link to the early days of the symphony which made it particularly appropriate for this concert.

Dvořák was inspired to compose the concerto upon hearing Victor Herbert, best known today for his operettas, perform his own cello concerto. Herbert, after hearing a young Philip James lead the American Expeditionary Forces Headquarters Band, hired James to conduct the Victor Herbert Opera Company, a position James held from 1919 to 1922. Establishing an orchestra across the Hudson River in New Jersey would be his next job.

Zhang led a particularly lyrical reading of the concerto, which permitted Ma to spin out Dvořák’s melodies with his singular ability to fuse music with emotion. It is a work that Ma has performed countless times over his long career, but he made it fresh and spontaneous. The hallmarks of his playing – exquisite tone, eloquent phrasing, expressive depth – were present in this compelling performance.

Dvořák, however, made the orchestra an equal partner in the concerto, giving particular prominence to the woodwinds and horns. The New Jersey Symphony’s horns impressed throughout the concert, but never more so than in the concerto’s first movement. Its woodwinds also played with style and finesse.

New Jersey Ballet & New Jersey Symphony © Grace Liu Anderson

Three selections from Alberto Ginastera’s Four Dances from Estancia were the final works on the program. In the ballet, Ginastera sought to depict the life of the gauchos on the estancias (cattle ranches) of the Pampas, the low grasslands that cover central Argentina. Financial difficulties prevented the ballet from being performed until 1952, however, but the suite which Ginastera extracted from it has been popular since it was first performed in Buenos Aires in 1943.

The New Jersey Symphony’s brass began the rhythmically charged ‘Los Trabajadores agricolas’ with a blaze of energy, but the appearance of four male dancers electrified the atmosphere in the hall. The second piece, ‘Danza del trigo’, permitted the orchestra to indulge in the sweet melodies which accompanied a graceful pas de deux. ‘Danza final’ is a dance contest between the gauchos, which brought the audience to its feet as the final notes sounded.

The energy level increased still more with the appearance of the New Jersey Symphony Youth Orchestra, vocalist Abner Bonifacio and Daniel Bernard Roumain, the New Jersey Symphony’s Resident Artistic Catalyst. Actually, only 29 members, mostly string players, were on stage – an additional 15 were in the side boxes, adding volume and energy to the work with their energetic rhythmic clapping.

The massed forces performed Roumain’s ‘Stand by Me & Hip-Hop Etude in C-sharp minor’, which began with Bonifacio repeatedly singing the opening lines of the Ben E. King hit song, ‘Stand by Me’. What followed was a fantastic kaleidoscope of musical sounds that had everyone in the hall clapping their hands.

It was much more than a lively ending to the concert, however, as both Roumain’s music and the young people who performed it point to the future. Here’s hoping that the New Jersey Symphony’s next 100 years will be as evolutionary and revolutionary as its first century has been.

Rick Perdian

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