A world premiere boosts N.J. Symphony Orchestra to dazzling heights: review

NJSO performed the world premiere of Richard Danielpour's "Carnival of the Ancients."

The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra billed this weekend’s concerts as: “Zhang Conducts Tchaikovsky.” On Friday night at NJPAC in Newark, Zhang indeed conducted Tchaikovsky–and conducted him well–but there was much, much more to the concert than that.

This was a program that was bursting at the seams, but the most significant thing was that the Jersey band was performing the world premiere of Richard Danielpour’s “Carnival of the Ancients.” This is the sixth time the NJSO has debuted a work of Danielpour’s and the 11th time they’ve played his music in the last 25 years.

Like his last premiere for the NJSO, “The Wounded Healer,” (from 2016) “Carnival of the Ancients,” is a modest, 22-minute work. In a pre-performance chat on stage, the composer described the piece as a “piano concerto in disguise,” and that it was a series of “Persian miniatures…based on the ‘Shahnameh,’ or Book of Kings, an ancient Persian book of fables.” He wrote this piece in part to explore his own Persian background, and also as a showcase for the soloist, Sara Danielpour (no relation). 

The piece begins austerely and ominously with low descending piano chords. About a minute in, the orchestra creeps in and there’s smattering of marimbas and bells that chime along with the now high piano notes. Eventually the horns and timpani enter, bringing some oriental color into the soundscape. The first movement ends with soothing strings.

The second movement is busy and bustling. It could easily be the underscore for chase scene through an eastern marketplace in a Hollywood film. Repetitious piano arpeggios and churning orchestral thrusts give the short music a likeable sense of motion.

In contrast, the third movement is slow and moody. Instead of propulsive, Prokofiev-esque rhythm, it’s brooding and at times atonal, as if Alban Berg were sitting in with a French band for a jam session at an old Tehran nightclub. The smoky orchestrations and spiky piano riffs are alluring and the movement resolves in a somber but elegant fashion.

The final movement, which Danielpour calls “The Poets Celebration,” is another flurry of motion. Calling to mind the famous whirling dervishes and chugging minimalism of the 1980’s, this rollicking movement, filled with barreling drum rolls and piano flourishes (played with skill by Ms. Danielpour) all leads up to an understated ending.

This maybe why the NJPAC audience gave the piece a less rapturous applause than “The Wounded Healer,” back when Jacques Lacombe debuted that piece. But both Danielpours as well as Zhang deserve credit for bringing off this new work with energy and skill. It’s an entertaining and colorful concerto that will hopefully get more performances in the future, with this band and others. 

Then after intermission, Zhang led the NJSO in Haydn’s Sinfonia concertante in B-flat major for Oboe, Bassoon, Violin, and Orchestra. This light, flowing work seemed mostly an occasion to let four NJSO principals perform as soloists–but there’s nothing wrong with that. Robert Wagner on bassoon, Robert Ingliss on the oboe, Jonathan Spitz on cello, and Concertmaster Eric Wyrick on violin were all in good sound. They delivered each of their solo parts with charm and skill. At times Zhang and the full orchestra felt like backup musicians as the chamber elements of the score took center stage. But this is a small quibble about an otherwise lithe, pleasing performance of this 1792 jewel box of a symphony.

Oh right, and then we should probably mention the Tchaikovsky. It’s no surprise to anyone following the NJSO that Xian Zhang is a fine interpreter of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky. This is, no doubt, why the concert was billed as such. And indeed, the opening piece–selections from the ballet “The Sleeping Beauty”–showed exactly why her reputation is so high in that regard.

The opening fanfare rang out goldenly in the introduction and the brass was in fine form–even the harp plucks sounded authoritative. The third movement waltz danced beautifully under Zhang’s baton and swept the ear up in its elegant rhythm. There was precision in the small details and Zhang even gracefully held up her hand to prevent the audience from applauding in between this movement and the finale. And wisely so, it would have broken the spell. Instead, the famous “adagio” from “Sleeping Beauty” could be heard springing naturally from the waltz. It was a lovely effect. Zhang herself chose these four passages to make the piece–and in doing so she gives the music the ultimate compliment: it doesn’t feel like underscore to a ballet, but rather a symphonic work that stands up on its own. 

The concert on Friday also ended with Tchaikovsky and his 1876 symphonic poem “Francesca da Rimini.” In the classical world, there are few pieces that are outright duds–but this is one of them. Tchaikovsky wrote it shortly after traveling to Bayreuth to hear the first Ring Cycle and whether he knew it or not, he was trying to be Wagner in this 24-minute piece. It’s a bombastic, wanna-be Teutonic mess, showing none of the Russian composer’s characteristic elegance or storytelling. Zhang and her band made this tedious work sound less ugly and murky than it usually sounds. This was no small feat.


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