NJSO music director Xian Zhang makes her subscription debut.
The changing of the guard at a symphony orchestra is a complicated process, often akin to the processional scenes from French and operas of the 19the century. For example, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra has a new President, a new artistic administrator and most importantly, a new music director, the Chinese-born conductor Xian Zhang.
Ms. Zhang made her debut with the orchestra last spring, but Thursday afternoon marked her first program in her official capacity as music director. The concert consisted of three pieces by Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, the Russian romantic whose best work continues to stir souls. For this debut, she picked three great works: the Polonaise from the opera Eugene Onegin, the First Piano Concerto and his most popular symphony: the Fifth.
Following a quick address to the audience, she turned on her podium and whipped her new troops to vivid life. The Polonaise sprung to attention, its quick crescendo leading to a display of rhythmic vitality and bright energy. Ms. Zhang’s operatic experience stood her well here, leading this lovely dance and making the music breathe and heave with contributions from strong winds and brass.
For the concerto, the orchestra was joined by pianist Simon Trpçeski. From the opening bars, Mr. Trpçeski demonstrated his understanding that the solo part in this piano is effectively a long monologue for his instrument, discoursing against a flowing and occasionally rushing stream of orchestral accompaniment. Whether submerging himself in the texture of the music or bursting forth in bright solo cadenzas, Mr. Trpçeski showed both technical skill and the ability to convey emotion in music, making the long first movement an involving and compelling narrative.
For her part, Mz. Zhang kept the orchestra involved in the proceedings even as the piano rolled rippling figures against sound of a single flute or a flood of horns. Balance was exact and maintained in the central slow movement, which had a reflective and mournful quality. Optimism returned in the stirring finale as Mr. Trpçeski's fingers cut loose with a stirring and very Russian dance before being answered by the orchestra’s own manic outbursts of rhythmic glee.
The Symphony No. 5 is an orchestral ‘greatest hit’, always welcomed by the most jaded concert-goer, if not necessarily by the music writer who hears this war-horse at least once if not twice per season. It is one of Tchaikovsky’s smartest creations, with an appealing structure built around a single idée fixe. A poor performance of this piece can sink the Fifth under its own melodramatic weight, especially if the conductor at the helm chooses to follow the hackneyed but audience-pleasing performance traditions that go along with this work like borscht and sour cream.
Here, Ms. Zhang indulged in four blissful movements of pure music-making. She chose to separate the NJSO horns from their brass brethren, exiling them to the left side of the stage in the interest of creating an antiphonal effect. She was careful with the pauses built in the two outer movements, taking the last full stop before the coda at just six orchestral beats and not allowing the audience to make the potentially performance-ruining mistake of clapping too early. And she showed her confidence in her players by having the orchestra encore the final two sections of the last movement, making sure the audience at her first subscription concert went home happy, and looking forward to more.