NJSO and violinist ignite Brahms concerto

Sarah Chang
The Star-Ledger

The stage at the Bergen Performing Arts Center is surely too small for symphonic concerts, with even a mid-sized orchestra shoe-horned on to where it looks as if back-desk string players are in danger of falling off.

That said, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra has given some excellent concerts in the Englewood venue. One of the most thrilling NJSO performances in memory took place in this hall a couple of seasons ago -- with the building's heat broken in the depths of winter, both audience and artists in coats. Against the odds, violinist Gil Shaham, conductor Vassily Sinaisky and the orchestra raised the temperature with a blazing account of Dvorák's Violin Concerto.

The heat was fine at BergenPAC on Thursday, but the night's NJSO concert evoked those memories because violinist Sarah Chang, conductor Neeme Järvi and company gave a similarly fiery, fulfilling performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto.

The most symphonic -- and exciting -- of all 19th-century violin concertos, the Brahms demands that the orchestra pull its weight as much as the soloist. If a reduced NJSO seemed a bit light to start, Chang's intensity soon sparked a synergistic atmosphere.

Chang, a 25-year-old Philly native, is a world-class talent, known far and wide for her series of EMI recordings with top marquee partners. In Englewood, she seemed to play as much for Järvi as for the audience, leaning in so close to the conductor that it looked as if their arms would touch. It was the sort of symbiosis usually seen in chamber music.

With a sexy red dress to match her burning assurance, Chang dealt easily with the ensemble balance problems behind her initial entry. So confident and driving was she that mere prettiness was not on her agenda. Her in-your-face tone had real grit, the fingerboard popping as she dug in hard. In the first movement's initial climactic run, Chang spun the plangent notes out with dynamic precision, stamping a foot and whipping her bow to punctuate the drama.

From then on, the NJSO was fully attuned to the soloist. When Chang finished the Joachim cadenza -- every phrase concentrated, double-stops pure but tangy -- the orchestra came in behind her delicate high notes perfectly, beautifully. The Adagio began with an ideally blended wind choir, the solo oboe rising above with its heart-melting tune. By the work's bravura finish, the horsehair was flying off Chang's bow, the violinist and conductor barely able to contain their smiles.

Although a tentative spin through Weber's "Oberon" Overture had begun the program, the whisking delight of a few Brahms "Hungarian Dances" capped the night with the NJSO in fully warm form. In between, there was also Haydn's Symphony No. 93, the latest in the orchestra's survey of his career-crowning "London" Symphonies. Järvi's Haydn is in the Leonard Bernstein mold -- joyously buoyant but full-bodied, strong. No. 93 -- the first of the "London" 12 -- isn't played as often as some of the others (lacking a catchy nickname), but it pulses with that amazing imagination of the sexagenarian composer.

Järvi relished Haydn's wit, raising chuckles as he acted out the score's funky dynamics with deadpan gestures and cocked eyebrows. The conductor seemed to be composing the music on the fly, something Bernstein always held as the ideal. It was natural that the audience seemed to see (and appreciate) the humor of Haydn and the humor of Järvi as one and the same.