New Jersey Symphony Orchestra

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Music Director Designate Xian Zhang took New Jersey by storm this weekend. The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra booked the Tchaikovsky-Barber program long before Zhang’s selection to succeed Maestro Jacques Lacombe. So audiences got a taste of what awaits them in upcoming seasons.

The program opened with “Marche Slav,” one of classical music’s true war horses. In fact, it was written to be a war horse, as Tchaikovsky wanted to inspire patriotic fervor among his Russian listeners for the Serbs who were badly losing a war with Turkey. We forget that it could have erupted into a continental-scale war in 1876, decades before World War I. But we remember the stirring tunes, soaring orchestration, and grand finale.

At times, it seemed that Zhang was going to launch herself into the air to get just a little more out of the orchestra. Her short hair flying as she gestured moved the orchestra, and the audience, as much as her baton. The opening number does not often evoke a standing ovation – but this one did.

The program moved on to the Barber Violin Concerto, featuring Jennifer Frautschi as the soloist. Jennifer is the daughter of Caltech physics professor emeritus Steven Frautsch, himself an amateur musician and life-long music lover. She resembles her father: tall and lean, gentle and precise. Jennifer’s gentleness brought off the lyricism of the first two movements, which ironically were composed in Europe in the early days of World War II. Barber returned to the United States to finish the work with a vivace movement imbued with nervous energy and virtuoso flourishes, all of which showcased the soloist’s precision.

The evening finished with Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, with its epic struggle between suicidal depression and lyric joy. Or, perhaps, it was just a showcase for Tchaikovsky’s mastery of orchestration and Zhang’s easy command of the NJSO.

From the opening F-minor brass cry to the heavens, Zhang had the orchestra, and the audience, captivated. Tchaikovsky’s 4th has generous solo parts, particularly for the winds, including: Robert Wagner, bassoon; Karl Herman, clarinet; Robert Ingliss, oboe; Bart Feller, flute. The third movement’s extended pizzicato gave the strings a chance to show range, subtlety, and power.

The triumphal fourth movement may have resolved Tshcikovsky’s doubts about whether to go on living. But the audience had no doubts about Xian Zhang. We rose to our feet, even as the last strain of the coda lingered in the air.

Phil Neches

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