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NJSO review: Winter Festival continues, Sarah Chang wows in Bernstein

Sarah Chang

By Richard Carter

Beautiful downtown Princeton’s characterful Richardson Auditorium in Alexander Hall saw the official start of violinist Sarah Chang’s two-week residency with New Jersey Symphony Orchestra as the second week of its Winter Festival got underway Friday, Jan. 16. Music DirectorJacques Lacombe led the second of three varied programs of works inspired by Shakespeare’s peerless output that transcends all borders. The composers represented were Czech Antonín Dvorák, Russian Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky, English Frederick Delius, and Americans Samuel Barber andLeonard Bernstein. Three vocal soloists interpreted scenes from two operas, and featured guest Sarah Chang made magic with the violin.

The program opened with Dvorák’s “Othello Overture,” Op. 93 (1892), a gentle, steadily building work with a flashy, brilliant conclusion. Dvorák’s signature flute and woodwinds combined and interwove with shimmering string passages in this mostly quiet piece. Likewise, opening the concert’s second half, another calm orchestral interlude, “The Walk to the Paradise Garden,” from Frederick Delius’ 1907 opra, “A Village Romeo and Juliet,” started quietly but ended in a hushed cantilena that simply faded into nothingness. Maestro Lacombe guided a gorgeous reading of each work.

Lebanese-American tenor Roy Hage and Australian soprano Elena Perroni took the stage during Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet: Love Duet,” Op. Posth., based on themes from his “Romeo and Juliet: Fantasy-Overture” (completed and orchestrated by Sergei Taneyev). They brandished pure voices, which soared over the orchestra in more ardent moments and delicately cooed in more reflective passages. Both currently Master’s students at the Curtis Institute of Music, they each already have impressive stage experience and show promise of future greatness.

Samuel Barber’s “Antony and Cleopatra” concluded the concert’s first half. The opera disappointed when it premiered in 1966 to inaugurate the Metropolitan Opera Theater in New York’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. The composer revised it and, in 1968, excerpted two scenes for the title heroine: “Give Me Some Music” and “The Death of Cleopatra,” Op. 40 (1968). American soprano Heather Stebbins’ vibrant voice competed with the huge, voluptuous orchestra, which deployed seven percussionists playing 25 instruments, adding a Middle Eastern character to the music. Powerful stuff.

Finally the moment arrived for Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story: Suite,” which updates “Romeo and Juliet” for Tony and Maria, who inhabit Hell’s Kitchen, a Manhattan neighborhood. David Newman prepared a new arrangement specially for Sarah Chang, who in an interview described the piece as “iconic music from an iconic American film,” among her five all-time favorite movies. Though scarcely completed two weeks before, the soloist already has assimilated the score, making it her own. At one with the practically pulsating orchestra, she looked just twice to Maestro Lacombe for entry cues.

Watching Sarah Chang perform is to observe a veritable dance. Indeed she did dance a few steps now and then in brief orchestral tutti, some written to specific dance rhythms. But while standing “still,” she reminds one of the ballet, elegantly swaying from side to side, at times leaning backwards with back fully arched, deploying her bow with sweeping muscular athleticism. Emotions clearly flashed across her face, particularly during the delicate “Somewhere (There’s a Place for Us)” passage. She obviously felt what she played, and this came through in her incredible sound.

Richardson Auditorium in Alexander Hall, dating from 1894, is quite an eyeful. Its Romanesque design ensures plenty of curves, from double sandstone columns and corkscrew stairways to the horseshoe-shaped seating area. A three-section Tiffany Glass tile mural covers the back of the stage. Latin inscriptions, carvings and bas relief portraits abound almost everywhere. Even if the concert had been a dud—and this concert wasn’t even in the same multiverse as a dud—audience members would still have enough to entertain the eyes. It’s great that NJSO regularly visits this venue.