The change occurs gradually in classical music, then suddenly.
This weekend, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra implemented a planned change: the debut of a new assistant conductor, Tong Chen. On Friday night, at the orchestra’s home at NJPAC in Newark, Maestra Chen conducted a new short work, “Starburst,” by young New York composer Jesse Montgomery. This five-minute piece for string orchestra sounded like a minimalist riff on the famous Bernard Herrmann theme for the film “Pyscho”. Lots of stabbing strings mingled with light, bouncy pizzicato notes – it was a light, yet vibrant and lively piece for the new assistant conductor on his debut.
After that, NJSO Music Director Xian Zhang stepped onto the podium and led the Garden State group through three selections of “Ma Vlast” by Czech composer Bedrich Smetana. This series of symphonic poems is a delicious piece of 19th century romantic music – it’s one of those classic chestnuts you’ve heard before but can never place or name.
The first selection, “La Moldau”, is the best known. It is a dancing evocation of the rivers of Bohemia in the Czech Republic. It’s melodic delight for the crowd, but in Zhang’s hands it was also dramatic and rich, bristling with dark, throaty detail in the bass sections. And the fast, soaring choruses had real, Wagnerian weight and impact. “My Vlast” is easy to listen to, but can often sound programmed; with Zhang it sounded special, an opportunity to show off the NJSO brass section in “Sarka” and the woodwinds in “Blanik”, the majestic finale.
After the intermission, it was time for the NJSO to make a sudden change.
For months, the plan was for soloist Daniil Trifonov to perform Brahms Piano Concerto No.1 with Zhang and the orchestra. I went to Massachusetts this summer to hear him perform this piece with the Boston Symphony at their summer festival in Tanglewood. It was an exciting performance, and I was delighted to hear him perform his wild version of Brahms with the NJSO. But a day before the first performance, on the advice of his doctor, Trifonov replaced the concerto with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2. (The concert series was always titled “Daniil Trifonov Plays Brahms” in the print programs, but added noting the exchange.)
The young Russian virtuoso explained that he suffered from a tennis elbow and that Beethoven’s piece would be less taxing for him. Written at the end of the 18th century, it is more of a chamber piece than the epic and romantic concerto Brahms wrote decades later. Hopefully New Jersey audiences will hear Trifonov perform Brahms’ piece in the future, but his performance of Beethoven’s first piano concerto was a good substitute.
The reality is that Trifonov and Zhang are collaborating on just about anything that would be interesting to hear. The two performed together early in their international careers – and they clearly have a strong artistic bond. Trifonov continues to return to perform in New Jersey (he returns again in January to begin a new commission), despite his growing fame and invitations from the best orchestras in the world.
He is known for his spirited and often free interpretations of the classical piano repertoire. In the first part of the opening movement “Allegro”, Trifonov kept things fairly conventional, producing crisp and clear notes on his Steinway. He and Zhang have created passages with warm sounds that flow together wonderfully.
Later, in a solo section, he started riffing and gave the notes a fuzzy, almost jazzy feel. But in the second movement “Adagio”, it was back to a classic sound of clear, glassy pings with rippling arpeggios that were beautifully articulated. The third movement “Rondo” was courteous, playful and fun – with Zhang, the NJSO and Trifonov all working together in unison.
You would never have suspected a last minute change of plan. Yes, it was not the concert that was planned; but great artists make difficulties easy, as if everything always had to be exactly as before.
James C. Taylor can be reached [email protected]. Find NJ.com/Facebook Entertainment.