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Friday, April 8, 2016

Concert Review: Meet the New Boss

New music director Xian Zhang conducts the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Conductor Xian Zhang kicks back.
Photo by Benjamin Ealovega © 2016 the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra.
The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra is currently ensemble in transition. Specifically, that transition is from the leadership of outgoing music director Jacques Lacombe to incoming Maestra Xian Zhang. On Thursday afternoon at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, this award-winning conductor led her first subscription concert since the announcement that she would succeed Mr. Lacombe as the orchestra's latest music director.

The program was chosen two years ago, long before Ms. Zhang was on the orchestra's radar. However, the program of Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto between a pair of durable Tchaikovsky bookends was suited to her talents. Before the performance started, flautist Bart Feller and violinist Ming Yang addressed the audience briefly, introducing Ms. Zhang to the crowd gathered in Prudential Hall. Ms. Yang also educated the assembled on how to pronounce the new conductor's name. (zhiYEN Shaang.)

The concert proper started with the Marche slave a  from 1876. The piece was written in the patriotic fervor following the start of the Serbo-Turkish War, in which the Serbs were backed by Russia in their struggle against the Ottoman Empire. The work uses Serbian folk tunes building in a slow, repetitive crescendo. Rat-a-tat snare drums and the roar of the Russian theme "God Save the Tsar" from the heavy brass contributed to the sense of excitement, although the brass drowned out everything else and the rhythmic playing of the strings wanted more crispness.

Ms. Zhang and her new allies were joined by violinist Jennifer Frautschi for the Barber concerto. This three-movement work is one of the most durable 20th century works by an American composer. Ms. Frautschi played the solo part with a rich and golden tone, supported expertly by an expanded orchestra including an obbligato piano. In her accompaniment of the soloist, Ms. Zhang achieved a light texture in woodwinds and strings, with the delicate oboe solo of the central movement having an especially poignant quality.

The last movement of this concerto is murderously difficult, so much so that the violinist who originally planned to play its premiere chose to substitute a work by Dvořák at the last minute, postponing the premiere by some four years. The work held no such terrors for the soloist. Ms. Frautschi leapt into the challenge of this rapidly flowing perpetuum mobile with gusto and artistic flash. Ms. Zhang kept pace urging the orchestra forward in a tight race to a flying finish.

More about Ms. Zhang's conducting was revealed in the second half, a performance of the sturdy and much-loved Tchaikovsky Fourth. The stirring, tragic opening theme erupted with force from the brass, with trumpets and horns sounding forth on the internal struggle that is this work's subject. It was answered with a longing melody from the strings and winds. The conflict between the two themes persisted throughout the opening movement. While the brassy utterances were crisp and bright, it was the subtle, almost impressionistic colors in the flute, oboe and bassoon that provided the most compelling listening here.

The slow second movement continued in this vein, with the cellos taking the lead with a dark, flowing theme. The dance movement recalls the wit of Haydn, with pizzicato strings driving the dance forward. The transition into the finale was played attaca, as the resurgence of the brass signaled the start of the finale. Ms. Zhang led a gripping account of this work, in which the demons of the opening theme are conqured by a bright major coda. Unfortunately for this composer, those demons would not rest for long.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.