Tuesday, August 16, 2011


posted by Sheila Abrams, Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Sheila-current3By Sheila Abrams, NJ Art Maven’s New Music Critic

There’s a lot to love about the Baroque Orchestra of New Jersey. For one thing, the Madison-based ensemble is likely to give audiences the opportunity to hear music they have rarely or never heard before. And for another, conductor Robert Butts is fond of featuring orchestra members as soloists in performances.

Both of these traits were evident as the group kicked off its annual week-long summer music festival with a concert on Sunday, Aug. 14, in Dolan Hall on the campus of the College of St. Elizabeth in Convent Station. The program featured works by three little-know composers, along with an exquisite vocal piece by Johann Sebastian Bach and the dazzling Piano Concerto No. 1 by Felix Mendelssohn.

The variety of the program reflected Butts’s wide-ranging musical tastes—he once was a country and western singer—as well as his passion for teaching. He began with an overture to a ballet, L’Amant Anonyme, by Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint George, a composer who, during the second half of the 18th century, was one of the most influential musicians in Paris. The child of a black mother and a white father, Saint George was known as The Black Mozart as well, Butts said, as The Black Don Juan.

The overture was a delight, airy, melodic and beautifully structured. As with the all the best music of the classical period, the piece has an inevitability about it, as if it was meant to be in its exact form.

The second piece on the program featured the virtuosity of two stalwart members of the orchestra’s violin section: Allen Weakland and concertmaster Agnes Kwasniewska. The pair frequently perform together under the name Strings of Pearls. They joined the orchestra in the Concerto Concertant, a piece by Josef Reicha, a little-known Czech composer of the classical period.

Himself an accomplished violinist, Reicha’s composition featured virtuosic elements for the two soloists, who discovered the piece during a recent visit to Poland.

The first part of the program ended with a piece that, from a programming point of view, was surprising in the setting of an orchestral concert: the J.S. Bach cantata, “Jauchzett Gott in Allen Landen” (Praise God in All Lands), written for soprano and solo trumpet along with some orchestral instruments. The soloists were Maria Alu, soprano, and Michael Bassett, trumpet.

A stunning piece, giving the soprano a range of spectacular melismatic runs, it also allows for similar fireworks for the trumpet, that interacts with the voice in a way only a genius like Bach could have conceived. Alu, who performed Mozart’s Exultate Jubilate in the Baroque Orchestra’s spring concert a few months ago, is an artist whose joy in the music reaches her audiences.

The second half of the concert moved into the 19th century and once again with a little-known composer: Franz Doppler. And once more, two members of the orchestra were given the opportunity to shine: flautists Margaret Walker and Catherine Barlow Garrison were featured in Doppler’s Andante and Rondo.

The break from the classical music of the 18th century to the romantic music of the 19th was evident from the beginning. Doppler was himself a flute virtuoso. He and his younger brother frequently performed flute duets of his composition and it is likely the Andante and Rondo were composed for such a performance.

Lyrical and lushly romantic, the piece was a perfect way to demonstrate how music changed in the 19th century. Doppler was also known as a composer of operas and ballets.

While it would be misleading to say that the concert was leading up to a climax, the final piece was spectacular enough to suggest that. It featured Vincent Ip, a 19-year-old pianist from Montclair, who was this year’s first place winner of BONJ’s Pearl and Julius Young Rising Stars Music Composition. One of Ip’s prizes was the opportunity to play one movement of a concerto of his choice with the orchestra. Maestro Butts related that the pianist asked if he could instead play the Mendelssohn Piano Concerto No. 1 in its entirety.

The performance of this brilliantly melodic and virtuosic work brought the audience to its feet, as Ip’s youthful effervescence erupted spectacularly in the final presto movement. An outstanding ending to a wonderful concert! And congratulations to the orchestra for finishing among the top three community orchestras in the nation in the American Prize competition.

The BONJ’s summer music festival continues with daily organ and harpsichord recitals offered at 12:15 PM daily through Friday at Grace Church in Madison. Lunch is available for $6, but admission is free.

On Friday evening, Grace Church will be the scene of a chamber music evening featuring musicians from the orchestra, with works by several composers, including Haydn, Beethoven and Bartok. Saturday, Grace Church will be the scene of an evening of contemporary music, featuring a performance of “Gesualdo,” a play by Jewel Seehaus-Fisher, with music by several composers, Maestro Butts among them.

Next Sunday, Aug. 21, the festival will end in what promises to be a spectacular way. The orchestra and soloists will perform a semi-staged concert version of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.” This event will be at Dolan Hall, College of St. Elizabeth. Based on previous experience with BONJ performances of Mozart operas, we are looking forward to this event.