The NJ Symphony Orchestra returns with a lively outdoor concert. A little thunder adds to the drama.
After a 466-day absence due to the coronavirus pandemic, members of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra performed to a live audience Wednesday night in Newark.
It was not a complete comeback. With luck – and improved vaccination rates and declining COVID-19 cases – the full orchestra will return to perform with music director Xian Zhang in its six indoor venues later this year. The hour-long outdoor concert Wednesday night in the Alice Ransom Dreyfuss Memorial Garden at the Newark Museum of Art was a small but clever first step back.
Chairs were out of the way and all 77 participants had to show proof of vaccination and wear masks. There was little mix-up between the participants and no intermission or concessions.
More importantly, the small concert featured eight members of the NJSO performing together in front of their subscribers and supporters. But it also marks the debut of Daniel Bernard Roumain in his new role as the orchestra’s resident artistic catalyst. Romanian made his virtual debut with the NJSO last fall, when Zhang and the orchestra recorded a five-minute piece with the full orchestra. (This socially distant concert, performed without an audience at NJPAC, can now be viewed online on the NJSO’s YouTube page.)
The concert in the garden, titled “Togetherness,” began with DBR leading the musicians at the world premiere of his six-minute composition, “Lift Every Voice And …” The chamber piece opened with the chorus catching up with the century-old hymn heard as a plaintive moan, the uplifting line “marchers en avant” played by the French horn as a dark cry. The cello then roared the verses, and this resulted in a reflective shimmer of sound suggesting that the lights were fading.
Romanian’s “Lift Every Voice And …” is clearly a response to the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 – and it’s subtle and musically interesting. He then passed the baton to another conductor, Raquel Acevedo Klein, who led the group in another world premiere: “Can You See? by Montclair composer Allison-Loggins Hull.
Just as DBR’s piece was a riff on a civil rights anthem, Hull’s five-minute chamber composition was a meditation on “The Star-Spangled Banner”. It started with a weird, Hans Zimmer-like buzz next to deep timpani hits. Flute notes then entered with more complex and clicky percussion textures. The horn then appeared with notes of the melody of the national anthem, but in a decidedly minor key. It’s a haunting work that effectively expresses the nation’s exhausted state of mind in 2021.
Like Caroline Shaw’s work, “Entr’acte,” which opened the New York Philharmonic’s return in concert in April (and beautifully captured the feeling of a society opening up after months of lockdown), ” Can You See? From Hull. is an example of contemporary art music that is as fair and immediate as anything in the folk art. Don’t be surprised to hear it again in future concerts or used in films and media to talk about the unease in a country rocked by protests, pandemic and insurgencies over the past 16 months.
After the Hull premiere, the concert reverted to a more standard fare with a six-minute viola solo by Bach, played with a rocket and propulsive drive by NJSO member Brett Deubner. He then returned to more modern sounds with a piece for string quartet by Gabriella Lena Frank. “Kanto Kechua No. 2” featured anxious chords and hits accompanied by anxious string pluckings. The four musicians of the NJSO brought it to life with precise playing and clever phrasing.
During these two tracks, thunder could be heard, and the blue sky over Newark began to fill with gray clouds. When the musicians started the next piece, Mozart’s Flute Quartet in D minor, it was like a warm summer evening. By the time Bart Feller was done with the twisted flute lines, the wind had picked up and the leaves were flying from the trees. Feller continued with the next piece, a flute solo by Paquito D’Rivera, joined by two dancers from Nimbus Dance Works in Jersey City. Mika Greene and Donterreo Culp danced fluid tango steps and playfully teamed up, then each performed a solo underlined by the playful but mysterious melodies of the flute.
Finally, DBR asked the audience to help them make time last to allow for one more play. The storm not having come, the public were treated to another of Roumain’s compositions, a movement of a string quintet of his name entitled “Klap Ur Handz”. It opens with the applause of the violist and the bassist playing a funk funk from the 1970s. The audience then joined in the applause, followed by a violin playing a strumming solo. The movement then really took off, evoking the sounds of Bach’s partitas and Motown melodies. A few scattered drops could be felt as the seven minute extract reached its slippery crescendo.
The audience cheered as the close of this relaxed concert marked the return of live classical music to Newark and New Jersey. Additionally, it marked the apparent commitment to vibrant new orchestral music in the Garden State as well. Well done NJSO for both.