It takes a lot of courage to present an audience with a program of music they have never heard before.
Years ago, I went to a concert by Don MacLean. As he did song after song from his new album, the audience got restless. “Sing American Pie,” became a refrain from the audience, and finally MacLean sang his big hit. It wasn’t that they disliked the newer material. They were just happier with what they knew. American Pie was an old friend.
Robert Butts was not promoting a new cd when he presented a program of new pieces on Sunday. The occasion was the opening concert of the 2015 Summer Festival of the Baroque Orchestra of New Jersey. The place was Dolan Hall, on the campus of the College of St. Elizabeth in Convent Station.
It’s been a while since BONJ has literally been a Baroque orchestra. Its musical range is limitless as far as style is concerned. (Well, don’t anticipate rap!) Maestro Butts has often introduced new pieces, sometimes performed by their composers, as well as works by better-known modernist composers. Maybe that’s why the orchestra has survived while other similar groups have not. Next year is their twentieth season.
The first half of Sunday’s program offered works by four living composers, Butts among them. Three art songs, settings by Butts, of love poems by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, were presented by soprano Emily Thompson, accompanied by the full orchestra. These lyrical songs, which I would classify style-wise as late Romantic, were accompanied by the orchestra, often highlighting the flute.
Following was a piece by Marco Frisina, a Catholic priest who lives in the Vatican, who has had a distinguished career as a composer of music, liturgical and otherwise. Frisina, who was in attendance last summer, when BONJ played one of his works, is a composer whose work is lushly melodic. He has composed several movie scores. The piece presented Sunday was Il Piccolo Concerto (The Little Concerto) composed for and performed by Frisina’s friend, bassoonist Lee Doswell. (Explanation: a piccolo, which means “little” in Italian, is also the name of an instrument, a half-size, high-pitched flute that is a member of the woodwind family. In the name of the concerto, however, it is being used as an Italian adjective.)
Third was a very short, charming and atmospheric piece called NeverSummer, by Richard Russell, who was in the audience to introduce his piece.
Fourth, and adding a whimsical touch, was Concertino Morning, by Ting Ho, featuring Dan Segi on clarinet and BONJ’s bassoonist, Andrew Pecota, playing the only American example of a new instrument, the lupophone. The lupophone is a bass oboe which, Pecota explained, can play a low F. The concertino, which Pecota commissioned, is a lively piece with some unexpected sounds coming from the new instrument.
Following an intermission, the audience got the reward: a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major, Opus 35. You might say it was the classical music lover’s version of American Pie. Lushly romantic and melodic, it is familiar to many, not only because it is frequently performed by the world’s great violin virtuosos but because sections from it have made their way into film and television scores.
On Sunday, the concerto, considered one of the most difficult in the violin repertoire, was performed by a 21-year-old virtuoso, Ke Zhu, this year’s winner of the Pearl and Julius Young Music Competition. The opportunity to perform with the orchestra is one of the prizes the winner receives.
Despite his youth, Ke Zhu, who is Chinese, has a startling list of accomplishments. He is presently a student at the Manhattan School of Music. His performance of the Tchaikovsky work was astonishing. His technical virtuosity was matched or even outshone by the passion with which he immersed himself in the music. The standing ovation was well-earned.
The BONJ summer festival continues with events through the week, both at Dolan Hall and at Grace Church in Madison. Visit www.baroqueorchestra.org for more information.