Superstar artists come out to play

NJPAC announces its 20th anniversary classical music season – with a surprise debut.


By Paul J. Pelkonen


New Jersey Performing Arts Center’s crown jewel is Prudential Hall, a vast yet intimate venue whose configurative design adapts to all kinds of music. A warm and crystalline acoustic, however, makes the hall an enticing stop for visiting orchestras – and an exciting slate of them has been released for the 2017-18 Bank of America Classical Series.


“Musicians know NJPAC’s reputation as one of the finest modern concert halls in the world,” says NJPAC President and CEO John Schreiber. “Prudential Hall has everything one would expect: the grandeur of a classical music venue combined with modern amenities.”


The first of the orchestras in line for NJPAC’s 20th anniversary season arrives on October 22, when the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra crosses the Hudson River to perform in Newark. Orpheus is familiar to New York music lovers, a collective chamber orchestra that plays all of its concerts without a conductor. They also lack traditional posts like music director or artistic administrator or librarian. The musicians handle all these duties themselves, and choose their leaders by democratic election.


This is the first time that they will step onstage at Prudential Hall.


“It's such a fantastic hall," says violinist Laura Frautschi, one of the orchestra’s three elected leaders. "It's great, both in terms of the size of the hall, the proximity of the audience and the acoustics. It seems pretty ideal for us. I took my family there to see my sister (violinist Jennifer Frautschi) play the Samuel Barber concerto.”


“Playing at NJPAC is something we've tried to do, wanted to do over the years,” she adds. “Some of our members have played here with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and that may have strengthened our case. It's a long time coming.”


For its debut, Orpheus will play the Cherubini Overture, Mozart’s “Jeunehomme” Concerto – with piano soloist, frequent collaborator and NJPAC favorite Andre Watts – and a new piece by the jazz-influenced composer Vijay Iyer. The concert will climax with Beethoven’s chipper Symphony No. 1.


"In most orchestras, like the NJSO or the New York Philharmonic, the players have their role clearly defined," Frautschi explains. "Orpheus musicians do a lot of different things; we wear different hats at different times. We have members who play with the Philharmonic or NJSO, but when we play in Orpheus we play as orchestral musicians, but we take the approach of chamber musicians. In our playing style there's an assumption that we're coming in to each concert with an individual voice. There's a lot more chances for individuality of sound and approach, even within a section of the orchestra."


Alan Kay plays clarinet and handles the orchestra's programming at the moment.


"One must be aware at all times of what everyone is doing. Every member needs to be well-prepared,” he says. “Unlike a more standard scenario we have to prepare our parts, but we all have a copy of the full score of every piece we do. That increases our awareness and enhances our experience overall. It enables us to hear more."


He offers some historical perspective. "The whole idea of the formation of Orpheus was to bring the idea of chamber music to the orchestral setting. It grew out of the Sixties. The temperament of the time was to create communal activity in the arts, and Orpheus came from that.


"All our members have experience playing concert music, and we all play in other orchestras or ensembles,” he notes. “It's an enhancement in all of our lives to bring this approach to music-making to the public."


The schedule continues to ring with beautiful noise. 


A collaborative tradition with the NJSO, Handel’s Messiah is back in all its holiday glory on December 17. The orchestra’s new Music Director, Xian Zhang, will conduct this masterwork for the first time here. Joining her will be members of the NJSO, an illustrious company of soloists and the Montclair State University Singers.


On January 20, violinist Pinchas Zukerman appears in his other job, as Principal Guest Conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. He will play the solo part in Beethoven's familiar but daunting Violin Concerto, with its heroic first movement, one of the longest openings in the standard concerto repertory. Zukerman will also conduct the overture to Weber's woodland fantasy Der Freischütz and the noble Symphony No. 7 by Antonín Dvořák.


On February 11, he joins his fellow world-famous Israeli violinist, Itzhak Perlman, on the Prudential Hall stage in a concert rescheduled from November 18. Perlman and Zukerman are both legends of their instrument, virtuoso violinists who have each built an international reputation as ambassadors of their art.


The next arriving violinist is Joshua Bell. On March 18, he will lead the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, the London ensemble whose collaborative approach to playing as a chamber orchestra makes them the British parallel to Orpheus. He takes the solo part in the Second Violin Concerto by 19th century Polish composer Henryk Wieniawski, a Romantic work and a relative rarity. It will be flanked by familiar works of Mendelssohn (the Midsummer Night's Dream Overture) and Beethoven, whose Symphony No. 6 (the "Pastorale") is a harbinger of the coming spring.


The next two concerts have an international flavor. On March 23, the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba pays its first visit here under the baton of Enrique Pérez-Mesa. They will play two Suites from Manuel de Falla's The Three-Cornered Hat, the modern Serenade for Strings by Cuba's own Harold Gramatges, and the ballet score La Rebambaramba, the best-known work of the Paris-born, Cuban-blooded Amadeo Roldán. The concert winds up with an audience favorite: the steady, throbbing pulse of Ravel's Boléro.


Like a great caravan of yore, the Silk Road Ensemble arrives on April 8. Founded by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Silk Road explores the connection between European and Asian music with peak-energy concerts that feature unusual percussion, exotic Chinese wind instruments like the sheng and even the high, reedy sound of bagpipes. All this is mixed into a well-seasoned musical stew that breaks down barriers between cultures even as it breaks new musical ground.


NJPAC is saving the big one for last. That's the London Symphony Orchestra in its first tour with the renowned Sir Simon Rattle as its music director. For the May 5 concert, Sir Simon has chosen the Symphony No. 9 by Gustav Mahler. The composer's last completed symphony, the Ninth is a sprawling, four-movement meditation on life and death, starting with a slow, faltering rhythm that may be an evocation of the heart defect that ultimately killed the composer. After two fast movements, the finale is a slow fade-out, a serene farewell to life that gets softer and softer, ultimately diminishing into the infinity of silence.


To subscribe to NJPAC’s 2017-18 Bank of America Classical Series, call 1-888-MY-NJPAC (696-5722). Full-season, six-concert subscribers are eligible to purchase tickets to the Silk Road Ensemble and Handel’s Messiah before the general public. Single ticket sales will be announced in the Spring.


Paul J. Pelkonen is a classical music critic and writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. He is the author of the classical music and opera blog Superconductor.


Feb. 5, 2017