The Morris County-based Baroque Orchestra of New Jersey celebrated the start of its 20th anniversary year on Nov. 1 with a festive and colorful concert in Dolan Hall at the College of St. Elizabeth.
Conducted by Dr. Robert Butts, the group’s musical director, the 35-member ensemble offered a program that resembled a fantastic dinner. The first half featured three different soloists performing short works by composers whose lives spanned more than 300 years. An array of delicious musical hors d’oeuvres.
The most modern was a Sonatine for Flute by 20th century composer Pierre Sancan, performed by John Ray, the youthful winner of the Cynthia Platt Scholarship. This award is part of the orchestra’s initiative to nurture young musicians, with both financial assistance and opportunities to perform.
The second canapé on the menu could hardly have been better, comfort food for the music lover’s soul: Mozart’s Overture to the Marriage of Figaro. Easily one of music’s Greatest Hits.
More substantial than musical finger food was the rarely-performed and stunningly beautiful motet by Antonio Vivaldi, Nulla in mundo pax sincera. The soloist was Maria Alu, a soprano with a tone like fine crystal and the ability, as the audience learned, to hit notes normally beyond the reach of the human voice.
Alu returned a few minutes later to perform a piece with which many BONJ devotees identify her: Der Holle Rache, one of the two memorable arias sung by The Queen of the Night in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Alu sang the role in a BONJ production of that opera a few years ago, her powerful performance stamped permanently on the memories of those who heard it. Did Mozart give the allegedly villainous Queen the best soprano arias anyone ever wrote? It could be argued. And Sunday’s performance was superb.
Perhaps the most unusual hors d’oeuvre on the menu was a selection of two pieces for solo guitar, performed by virtuoso Stanley Alexandrowicz on a unique ten-string guitar. These were Ouverture de la Grotte de Versailles, by Baroque composer Robert de Visee, and Andante and Allegro, by 19th century composer Napoleon Coste.
The association of Alexandrowicz with BONJ has afforded audiences the opportunity to hear this exceptional musician performing music that is too rarely played. The classical guitar projects an unusual intimacy between musician and sound, delicate, passionate and extraordinarily beautiful.
After an intermission came the main course. The second half of the concert featured a wonderful performance of another of music’s most popular works: The Four Seasons, by Antonio Vivaldi. The featured violinist in this group of four compact violin concertos was Miranda Liu, who currently is a student at the Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest. Her appearance with BONJ was part of a brief visit to the US, during which she also made her debut in Carnegie Hall last week.
Liu, who is 19 years old, has a resumé that is breathtaking. She has been studying and performing since early childhood, winning an amazing array of prizes, awards and scholarships and performing in concert halls all over the U.S. and Europe. She has been praised for her technique, her intensity and the passion with which she plays.
The Vivaldi work was written, as Butts explained, for an orchestra of young girls who lived in the Ospedale della Pieta in Venice. This was a home for abandoned girls where the composer, a Catholic priest, was employed.
The Four Seasons is program music, each piece reflecting in sound the time of year it describes. It was published in conjunction with a group of poems, possibly written by Vivaldi, and includes identification of musical sounds with natural phenomena: bird songs, a dog barking, wind rustling through grass, insects swarming and storms. It is music that is readily accessible to listeners, joyfully melodic and very entertaining.
Congratulations to Dr. Butts and the orchestra for twenty years of making music.