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Not exactly a poor cousin from across the river

New Jersey
Newark (New Jersey Performing Arts Center)
01/14/2022 -  & January 15, 16*, 2022
Thomas Adès: Shanty – Over the Sea (US premiere)
Edvard Grieg: Piano Concerto in A Minor, op.16
Igor Stravinsky: Petrushka (1947 version)

Vladimir Feltsman (piano)
New Jersey Symphony, Andrey Boreyko (conductor)

V. Feltsman, A. Boryeko (© Grace Liu Anderson)

For the readers – hopefully, very few – who might feel confused about to which orchestra I refer, it is an ensemble formerly known as the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra which, after serious consultations with high-paid consultants and considerable expenses, was renamed to New Jersey Symphony (NJS). Aren’t we already feeling better?

Their last concert was led by Andrey Boreyko, the Polish-Russian conductor with an extensive international career. In the past, he conducted nearly all the major symphony orchestras in the United States and Europe. For the last eight seasons, he has held the position of Music Director of the Naples Philharmonic (in Florida) and in September started his third season as the Music Director of the preeminent Polish ensemble, the Warsaw Philharmonic. It was there that I saw him last October when he lead Filharmonia Narodowa (the Polish name of the ensemble) in the finals of the International Frederic Chopin Piano Competition. I observed with admiration how during those three days of finals he offered his young finalists fine-tailored collaborations to the Chopin piano concertos and how carefully he tried to match their interpretations. Here in Newark’s NJPAC (New Jersey Performing Arts Center), he was again a fine collaborator for the Russian-born pianist Vladimir Feltsman, who offered a mannered and somewhat self-indulgent interpretation of the ubiquitous Piano Concerto by Edvard Grieg. We’ll get back to that momentarily.

The concert started with the American premiere of Thomas Adès’ Shanty – Over the Sea, which was commissioned by “a consortium of nine international orchestras on four continents”, of which our NJS was the only American ensemble. This barely 7 minute long work is scored for strings only and the composer is quite specific in regard to the number of players in each section. In the words of its creator, the work is about tapping into English folk tradition and reconfiguring a song of many verses sung by sailors at work. The melody, repeated many times, is supposedly never sung the same way and has “a strong rhythmic pulse but not necessarily literal unanimity”. It starts with a lilting, triple meter figure with regular, rhythmic plucking of the low strings on top of which the violin melody floats. Its regularity creates an underlying hypnotic feeling, after which dissonant melodic strands appear, creating a further intensity of “mechanical routine”. Yet we could almost imagine clouding of the skies as the implied vessel arrives and is brought to a standstill. Then we hear far in the background the last threads of the melody dying out in the distance. It is a very evocative piece, possesses an instant appeal and one could hardly find a better opener for this or any other program. The NJS has an impressive string section and it was a good idea to let them shine alone if only for a few minutes. The composer refers to a similarity between a shanty and a slave spiritual (a thinly veiled and perhaps unnecessary euphemism). He concludes his description of the work with a shattering statement: Shanty is written for the musicians of the orchestra who play it. Now, who’d ever guessed that? Not even a little for the audience who listens to it? Maybe it should be performed only in an empty hall...

Unlike Mr. Adès, I was not able to detect, at least not in the Shanty, much of the “yearning for liberation, freedom from the false, arbitrary regime of the petty masters”, but I have no doubt more sensitive listeners will have no trouble doing so and perhaps more. If not the fact that Mr. Adès, at this point, is already one of the most popular composers before the public and needs no further fame, that last statement alone would nowadays bring him countless further performances of this inconsequential, though pleasant and likable composition. Maestro Boreyko was able to delineate nicely each strand of the ever-thickening web, creating the proper character for the work and coaxing a burnished sound out of the string section.

In the Grieg Piano Concerto, we have a work that can claim about the greatest popularity in the piano repertory and often serves as the first “major” concerto for a young pianist who can’t yet tackle the Rachmaninov 3rd but wants to show off his chops: the chords, the octaves, the arpeggios rolling up-and-down, the famous cadenza that easily can bring down the house! The soloist in that performance was the esteemed Moscow-born Mr. Feltsman, who from the time he arrived on these shores in 1987, with active and well-publicized assistance from the White House, developed a major career as a concerto performer, soloist, and not least as an in-demand piano pedagogue. Based on this performance, it seems like the days of barn-storming virtuoso scaling, without apparent difficulty, of the most difficult piano concertos of Rachmaninov or Prokofiev are over. The last time I saw Mr. Feltsman, his hair was very short-cropped, whilst now he sports a white-haired ponytail.

Accordingly, in his original and deeply personal interpretation, Mr. Feltsman went in the opposite direction, presenting the musical position that the Grieg concerto is not only about speed and virtuosity and need not sound bombastic. Regarding the slower than usual tempi, he might have had his point, because in many places the score indeed does not call for the excessive tempi often utilized by the virtuosos, yet Mr. Feltsman might have exaggerated in his intent to sound like a “musical thinker”. Thus, after the most alluring, delicate, and lyrical opening phrases, the further, dancing sections sounded labored and lacked tension. In a way, I was pleased not to hear the former Feltsman with a rather percussive, often unloving playing and this time delivering beautifully sung piano lines: in those lyrical, tender moments he indeed excelled. There were many personal touches and interesting details, showing the inspired and expressive side of this concerto and those will linger in memory, most notably in the cadenza where Mr. Feltsman was able, by controlling the tempo and dynamics, to build a welcome tension. Still, his insistence – or dare I say a deficiency in his once-formidable pianistic abilities – on stretching the tempo and pulse of the music turned his interpretation dangerously close to pretentious, affected, and pompous. Save for some minimal lapses in coordination between the orchestra and piano, Maestro Boreyko gamely followed the somewhat willful playing of the soloist and at the same time drew a rich, warm sound out of the strings, which are the strongest section of this orchestra. There were also, in the development of the first movement, numerous moments of a nice dialogue between winds and piano.

For the orchestra, the situation improved dramatically in Stravinsky’s Petrushka: in this performance Mr. Boreyko used the composer’s version from 1946 (and because it was published in 1947 it is known as such), which utilizes a somewhat smaller and more manageable orchestra size, retaining all the timbres and mastery of tone painting of the full version. Boreyko’s conducting was visceral, dynamic, and almost theatrical as if he tried to embody the main characters of the colorful ballet. There was no doubt that he knew the score intimately and was able to offer many original details. In certain parts he allowed for a minimally slower pace, probably remembering that it is after all a ballet score, in other places he softened the edges of the piercing woodwinds, but that might have been also a matter of the acoustics. There were some masterful episodes all nicely delineated such as the overlapping waltzes with organ grinder and boys dancing. Still, Petrushka remain so-called “virtuoso score” and often demands virtuoso playing: the NJS, as good as it is, still doesn’t represent the level of the Big Six (counting among them the great Met Opera Orchestra created by the oft-maligned James Levine). So, whereas the wind section by and large is adequate, the brass could use improvement. After all, isn’t it the trumpet solo from Petrushka that orchestras use as an examination piece, to determine if you deserve a six-digit salary?

So here we a have well-trained, well-disciplined, and prepared ensemble that gave their best and offered a mostly satisfactory performance, just a shade below the standards that we encounter across the river. An auspicious NJS debut for Maestro Boreyko. I would single out one more detail, as I am always interested in the conductor-orchestra relation: on Sunday, it impressed me when there came time to take final bows that our conductor chose to take his bows together with his musicians, standing barely out of the wings: perhaps a small but telling detail.

Roman Markowicz



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