Tuesday, August 14, 2012


Sheila-current3By Sheila Abrams

Youthful energy electrified the air last Sunday at the College of St. Elizabeth in Madison.

The annual weeklong summer festival of the Baroque Orchestra of New Jersey opened then, with a concert featuring the winners of the 2012 Pearl and Julius Young Music Competition. The four youthful winners got to solo with the orchestra, one of them performing the world premiere of a Guitar Concerto by Derwyn Holder.

It was a heartening event. Sometimes lovers of classical music can get discouraged by the dominance of gray hair in concert audiences. Mozart and Schubert were both in their 30s when they died, but I have occasionally found myself wondering whether there will be an audience for their music in 50 years.

This wonderful concert proved that at least there will be performers for the classics. And the Guitar Concerto encouraged the conviction that there will be new music that someone might want to listen to.

The Young Competition offers as a prize the opportunity for winners to play a concerto or a part thereof with the orchestra, quite an amazing opportunity for the youthful musicians. (The competition is for instrumental artists between the ages of 16 and 22.) And this year’s winners were a surprising group. As Maestro Robert Butts said, the entries were dominated by pianists and violinists. The winners, however, were a bassist, a guitarist and a clarinetist, along with a violinist who won an honorable mention.

The music choices were mostly in the classical repertoire: violin and clarinet concerti by Mozart and a unexpectedly beautiful bass concerto by Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf, a contemporary and friend of Mozart. All fell well within the audience’s classical comfort zone. Bassist Alex Bickard took the opportunity to demonstrate how the deep tones of the bass can make an arresting statement as a solo instrument with the orchestra.

Mozart was just 19 when he composed the transcendentally beautiful Violin Concerto #4, the allegro (first) movement of which was played with a dazzling youthful exuberance by NaYoung Yang. Mozart, we think, would have loved it, and we would love if Maestro Butts invited Ms. Yang to come back sometime and play the entire concerto with the orchestra.

The other Mozart piece on the program, the Clarinet Concerto, was one of the composer’s last works, one full of spirit and melodic invention, often performed and well-loved by audiences. Choosing such a familiar work to play was a daring one by clarinetist Jessica Smith. Her fresh approach vindicated the choice, and the interaction of the solo instrument with the orchestra was flawless.

The high point for me, to my own surprise, was the premiere (“on this planet,” as the composer told me) of the Guitar Concerto by Derwyn Holder, with a young virtuoso of classical guitar, Celil Refik Kaya, as soloist.

I will admit that I often find modern music hard to take. I find what is called minimalism repetitive and boring. And to my ears, atonal music is usually aggressively ugly. Thus I approached the Holder concerto with trepidation. I was very pleasantly surprised.

Maestro Butts pinned it down perfectly when he said it was about texture and color. The music, absent the formal structure of the classical concerti, had a feel of impressionism, the edges soft and subtle. Maybe it is inevitable that guitar music will always have a Spanish flavor for me (even when it’s by Bach). This did. But the clean precision of Kaya’s playing, against the rushing sea of the orchestra, was spectacular and beautiful. It was a privilege to have been there.

Almost as an hors d’oeuvre to the feast that was the concert, recorder soloist John Burkhalter played a short and charming Concerto for Recorder by Antonio Vivaldi, with a pared-down chamber orchestra. Burkhalter is a renowned artist and scholar in the field of early music and it was a rare treat to have him there to present the only piece of Baroque music on the program.

Earlier in the afternoon, the Next Stage Ensemble of the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey offered an al fresco performance of Beaumarchais’s The Marriage of Figaro, the play on which the Mozart opera is based. It was presented on the lawn behind Dolan Hall, where the concert was held.

There’s much more to come from BONJ in the next week: chamber music at Grace Church on Friday evening, a new opera by Maestro Butts called “Mark Twain and the General” at Grace Church on Saturday evening, and a semi-staged version of Mozart’s opera, The Magic Flute, at Dolan Hall next Sunday afternoon. Looking forward to it.