It was a Schubert weekend. It was a Gershwin weekend. Taken all together, last weekend was a total pleasure for music lovers who attended concerts by the Baroque Orchestra of New Jersey.
As they usually do a few times during the year, on Saturday, the group presented an evening of chamber music performed by orchestra members and friends at Grace Episcopal Church in Madison. Then, on Sunday, they offered a full orchestral concert at Dolan Hall on the campus of the College of St. Elizabeth in Convent Station.
The music presented was, to say the least, varied, the composers ranging from the 17th century (Corelli) to the 20th (George Gershwin). And it also included a piece that is so rarely played that even one of the musicians playing it told us he had never heard it before.
Staying for a moment with that piece, the Suite in G minor by Moritz Moszkowski, it was a great treat. Played with animation and passion by violinists Aimee Briant and Jennifer Schuchman and pianist Robert Dowling, it was an energetic, colorful and emotion-filled work in four movements. Moszkowski was well-known in his lifetime as a pianist and teacher, and the suite overflowed with virtuoso passages, particularly for the piano. An unexpected delight!
The chamber music program began with the Arioso Consorte, four musicians dressed in late Renaissance costumes, playing music of the 17th and 18th centuries on reproductions of period instruments. The players were Margaret Walker and Laura Ferraro on flute, Liz Cabrera on the cello and viola de gamba, and Andrew Pecota on bassoon. Walker and Pecota are regular members of BONJ. The set consisted of four charming short pieces beginning with Corelli and ending with Haydn.
Following the Moszkowski suite and a short intermission, the featured performers of the evening appeared. Five extraordinary musicians, four of them who play with the New Jersey Symphony, gave a dazzling performance of Schubert’s Piano Quintet in A Major, “The Trout.”
Unlike most quintets that consist of a string quartet and a piano, this exceptionally beautiful work is scored for a violin, a viola, a cello and a double bass, along with the piano. The musicians were Judy Liu Wu, violin; Kathleen Foster, viola; Stephen Fang, cello; Joseph Campana, bass'; and Beatrice Long, piano.
The work is known as The Trout because the fourth movement is a set of variations on one of the composer’s most beloved art songs of the same name. Throughout the piece, the piano replicates the sounds (and the sensation) of clear water skipping over stones in the stream where the fish lives. The deft and graceful playing of Ms. Long, an artist with extraordinary insight and brilliance, unified the disparate elements of the piece. It was an exceptional performance of one of the greatest works in the chamber music repertoire.
Schubert was also on hand on Sunday, as Maestro Butts and the orchestra performed his Symphony No. 8, “The Unfinished,” so called because it only has two movements. Why it was not finished is a subject of much speculation. Though the composer died at 31, he actually was 25 when he composed the symphony and lived long enough to write a considerable amount of music, including another magnificent symphony.
The 8th is often seen as the herald of the German romantic movement that was to follow. It is melodic and lush, the interplay of the woodwinds with the strings fresh and sunny. No storm clouds on Schubert’s horizon in this lovely work.
The program, which had opened with the delightfully showy overture to Rossini’s La Gazza Ladra (The Thieving Magpie), ended with Gershwin. At the piano was guest artist Paul Ziegler, joining the orchestra for a superb performance of Rhapsody in Blue.
It is hard to imagine that this piece, so familiar and well-loved by audiences the world over, was so controversial when it was originally performed in 1924. An attempt to marry classical music to jazz, it was denounced and disparaged by “serious” music critics who thought that Gershwin, a Tin Pan Alley habitué, was totally out of his league.
Nevertheless, from that first moment when the wail of the clarinet rises like the sun at dawn, it is evident that attention must be paid. The music is riveting and the images it evokes are unavoidable. Is it classical? Is it jazz? In the words of another Gershwin piece, who cares? (It is noteworthy that Gershwin’s opera, Porgy and Bess, which has been equally disparaged, is now enjoying an extremely successful Broadway revival.)
Ziegler, a Madison resident, has played with BONJ and seems to have a synergetic relationship with Butts. He was as totally immersed in Gershwin’s aesthetic as he was in Beethoven’s when he joined BONJ to play that composer’s work a while back. The audience, rapt during the performance, responded with applause and cheering loud enough to have Ziegler and the orchestra play the last few minutes of the rhapsody again as an encore.
Of note is that BONJ will premiere Ziegler’s own piano concerto on May 5, 2013. Also, keep watch for BONJ’s annual summer festival, which will run Aug. 12-19. This will feature some fascinating offerings, including a premiere performance of a chamber opera by Butts and a concert version of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Check the orchestra’s website for details.