Xian Zhang: This Orchestra is very progressive, is very open-minded, forward-thinking, forward-looking. We want to keep doing this. [laughs]
Annie Bergen: That’s conductor and music director, Xian Zhang, talking about her orchestra, the New Jersey Symphony. Good evening. I’m Annie Bergen, and tonight, we're broadcasting live from the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, New Jersey. This is a very special evening for this orchestra. They are closing their 100th anniversary season with a concert featuring the music of Daniel Bernard Roumain, Igor Stravinsky, and a violin concerto by Max Bruch with the one and only Joshua Bell. I’m thrilled to have a co-host on this broadcast. Steve Smith from our sister station WNYC, is here with me at NJPAC. Hi, Steve.
Steve Smith: Hi, Annie. In that opening clip, Conductor Xian Zhang is referring to the history of this orchestra and the milestones they've made of hiring the first Black conductor, Henry Lewis in 1968. Zhang herself is the first full-time woman conductor this orchestra has had.
Annie Bergen: The New Jersey Symphony has been celebrating the 100th season this whole past year, bringing in special guest conductors including past music directors Hugh Wolff, George Manahan, and Neeme Jarvi.
Steve Smith: That's right. The orchestra is unique in that it actually has 7 homes throughout the Garden State. It really is a State orchestra. In addition to NJPAC here in Newark, the orchestra also performs regularly at concert halls in Englewood, Morristown, New Brunswick, Princeton, Red Bank, and Trenton, New Jersey. Their current music director, Xian Zhang, says that having so many places to call home gives this group of musicians an edge.
Xian Zhang: They are very flexible in changing in a split second. They will change the way they react to the conductor, the soloist, the hall. The flexibility is a great quality, not many orchestras can be that way. When I travel around to guest conduct other orchestras, I always, in a way, miss these musicians here because sometimes there could be things I have to explain or-- Here, they seem to catch it right there, so fast, and that’s something quite special about this orchestra really.
Annie Bergen: Conductor Xian Zhang. Now the first half of tonight’s concert includes two works, we mentioned the Max Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1 with Joshua Bell, but we are starting with a new work called Farah, which is the Arabic word for joy, composed by Daniel Bernard Roumain. This work features the vocalist Becky Bass and words by Marc Bamuthi Joseph. Daniel Bernard Roumain explains their collaboration.
Daniel Bernard Roumain: I thought it was important that we center the work of Black women. I thought it was important that we actually hear from a Black woman. This particular Black woman who I've been working with for probably about 10 years, the great Becky Bass. She's a trained singer, but she has a way of code switching in her vocal delivery. At times it's straight up operatic, at times it's soulful. I wrote it for her, her voice. I also wrote it for this orchestra. It's really chamber music. You hear a lot of times Becky says something and the violins answer, the brass are right behind her, even the bass section, even the bass drum has a role.
Yes it's wonderful. Mark wrote the words, and Mark did something really great. He talked to Black women. He tried to, from a Black man's perspective, understand their suffering. We did work with Becky very closely on the execution of the piece. I think we've come up with something that's wonderful for an 11 minute opener.
Steve Smith: That’s composer, violinist, and New Jersey symphony resident artist catalyst, Daniel Bernard Roumain. We’re about to hear the world premiere of his new work called Farah in just a moment here on the stage at the New Jersey Performing Art Center. As we heard, the vocalist is Becky Bass, who with roots in the Caribbean island of St Croix is also an acclaimed steel drum player. As we mentioned, the words in this piece were written by Marc Bathmuti Joseph who also has many talents. He’s a poet, dancer, playwright and actor, and vice president and artistic director of Social Impact at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC.
Really, like DBR with whom he's collaborated a number of times, Marc Bathmuti Joseph is someone who wears a whole lot of different kinds of hats. Here's somebody who made his Broadway debut at age 10. He was Savion Glover's understudy in the Tap Dance Kid, and only years later, he became a past champion of the National Poetry Slam competition. Definitely a guy with a diverse skillset, I'd say.
Annie Bergen: It's going to be an interesting piece. The house is full here for this celebratory night at NJPAC. This hall is really the core of their performance home, which opened in 1997, and it's also a cultural hub for the city of Newark and the surrounding areas. They also have a social mission here to revitalize and transform downtown Newark. NJPAC has two concert halls, a rehearsal room, restaurants, and offices. In addition to being one of the homes of the New Jersey Symphony, NJPAC hosts a wide variety of other events throughout the year. Dance, musical, theater, comedy, a lot going on here.
Steve Smith: Yes, it really is an extraordinary place. I was thinking about the number of times that I had been here before and who I had seen here, and I'm fairly certain that it was a jazz singer, but it's really where the New Jersey Symphony hangs its hat.
Annie Bergen: Concertmaster Eric Wyrick tuning the orchestra, getting set for our performance of Farah by Daniel Bernard Roumain, with Conductor Xian Zhang and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. Broadcast live on WQXR from NJPAC.
Vocalist, Becky Bass on stage now with Conductor Xian Zhang, acknowledging the concertmaster and taking the podium.
MUSIC - Daniel Bernard Roumain: Farah
Becky Bass: Look for me at the coast. When the sun crests, remember how my hips rose. When the day breaks think of a woman without the luxury to pause woman's work, and that's before the bill-paying jobs. Could you remember a woman like me and love her presently? Could you love her before she was a memory? Black woman in spirits, in body, love me like a joyful memory presently. Black woman in spirits, in body, remember me like a joyful memory presently.
MUSIC - Daniel Bernard Roumain: Farah
Annie Bergen: That is the world premiere of a piece called Farah, which is the Arabic word for joy by composer Daniel Bernard Roumain performed by The New Jersey Symphony with Conductor Xian Zhang. The vocalist was Becky Bass and the libretto was by Marc Bamuthi Joseph. I'm Annie Bergen and we are broadcasting live tonight from the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, New Jersey. Alongside me tonight is Steve Smith from the Culture Desk at our sister station WNYC. I thought that was so beautiful and powerful.
Steve Smith: I thought it was really, really just extraordinary. I think probably, Annie, you heard me moaning a little bit in the end when she was really taking that classical decorum and pivoting into that very soulful delivery at the end. DBR mentioned the term code-switching a few times, and you could really hear that in the way that Becky Bass delivered the words and also in the words that Marc Bamuthi Joseph gave her to sing.
Annie Bergen: The composer is on the stage now, Daniel Bernard Roumain, and accepting all the applause from the orchestra. DBR is interested in creating projects that speak to social injustice and he has said that his aim is to figure out how we're all going to live together. In this piece, he really wanted to write something about love, hope, and joy.
Steve Smith: That's absolutely true. I've been thinking about previous pieces that DBR wrote. We've been living in such charged times since the deaths of George Floyd and Sandra Bland, and so many of the pieces that he's had to create and felt compelled to create before came out of places of anger and sorrow and resistance and rage. I'm remembering the first piece of his that I-- Oh, well DBR has come back to talk to us a little bit now himself. He's back on stage with a microphone.
Daniel Bernard Roumain: My name is Daniel Bernard Roumain. I'm your resident artistic catalyst and I composed the first piece that you heard, which was Farah (Joy). Thank you. Thank you.
I just wanted to come out and first of all, say thank you for being here. I know we had some challenging smoky skies the last few days but we're here together and we're here in peace and in joy and harmony, and yes, in love. I wanted to just say, first of all, thank you to the incomparable Becky Bass, our vocalist.
This space right here is such a rarefied space, it's a place where magic happens and we're about to hear from our international treasure in Joshua Bell and the Bruch Violin Concerto.
After an intermission, we'll hear from Igor Stravinsky and his Le Sacre du Printemps or the Rite of Spring. Before all of that, I wanted to, as your composer in residence, say thank you for the power of your attention, listening to what is our collective imagination. I do think somewhere between the brutal and the beautiful, there is discovery, there is hope, there is freedom.
I've always said on this stage this is the last bastion of democracy where all voices can and should be heard presently. Yes.
As your New Jersey Symphony ends this season, and as we enter the summer, what a wonderful time for us to come together in a type of communion and listen and hear and see and believe in the power of our classical music. Please give a warm, loving applause to your New Jersey Symphony.
Annie Bergen: That was Daniel Bernard Roumain, the composer of the new work, Farah. The next piece on our program is an audience favorite, the Violin Concerto No. 1 of Max Bruch. Our soloist is none other than Joshua Bell. Bell is no stranger to the New Jersey Symphony. He's performed with this orchestra a number of times and is in great demand in his career. He's performed with the New York Philharmonic this season, the Houston and San Francisco Symphonies, and the Pittsburgh and Baltimore Symphony Orchestras.
Steve Smith: He is also the conductor and music director of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, and he's taken that orchestra on tours of South America and Europe this past season. Having Bell here in Newark for the final concert of this special season is not lost on Conductor Xian Zhang or on any of us who are here in the hall. It's always a treat to hear a star of this magnitude getting to perform with our orchestra. Here he is, Joshua Bell coming to the stage now for Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1.
Annie Bergen: It's one of the most famous of Bruch’s pieces. Joseph Joachim who first performed the work called it the richest, the most seductive of the German violin concertos. Let's listen to Joshua Bell and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra with Xian Zhang. conducting.
[silence] MUSIC - Max Bruch: Violin Concerto No. 1 in G Minor [applause]
Annie Bergen: Music of Max Bruch, his Violin Concerto in G Minor, performed by the New Jersey Symphony conductor Xian Zhang and the one and only Joshua Bell. I'm Annie Bergen, and we're broadcasting live tonight from the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, New Jersey, a celebratory concert. Joining me tonight is my colleague from our sister station WNYC, Steve Smith. Wow, Steve, that is one of my favorite concertos. It really has something for everyone, so soulful and that dazzling finale.
Steve Smith: It really is a tremendous piece. If you are going to hear the Max Bruch Concerto, then Joshua Bell is absolutely the soloist you want to hear. We've been talking tonight about how this has been the centenary season for the New Jersey Symphony and whether by coincidence, or programmed with intention, apparently the orchestra in its original configuration as the Montclair Art Association Orchestra made its debut in November 1922 with a concert that included the Bruch Violin Concerto. We thank New York Times critic, Zachary Wolf for that little piece of information there.
Annie Bergen: Joshua Bell taking some bows. There's a standing ovation for this performance tonight. The orchestra members acknowledging him as well. What a terrific piece of music. The concerto became so popular that Max Bruch actually got annoyed after a time because he thought it overshadowed his other works, but so glad to have it in the repertoire. It's timeless.
Steve Smith: Yes, absolutely. I was thinking about this and perhaps we'll have more to say about it if-- Watching is Josh going to-- I was thinking about this, Bruch died in 1920 and here we are over 100 years later and this piece is certainly in good measure. A reason why we remember the name Max Bruch today, but as you said, he grew very annoyed by the way that this one concerto overshadowed the rest of his oeuvre. He wrote to his publisher at one point, "Go away and once and for all, play the other concertos which are just as good, if not better." History will be the judge of whether that was accurate or not.
An interesting thing about the concerto too, I just learned this actually, the autographed score of this piece is in the Morgan Library.
Annie Bergen: That's right, in Manhattan.
Steve Smith: It came through a circuitous route.
Annie Bergen: This is the first of three nights Joshua Bell is playing with the orchestra - tonight in Newark, tomorrow night in Red Bank in New Jersey. The last concert of the season for the New Jersey symphony is on Sunday afternoon back here at NJPAC. Then Joshua Bell is coming back to play with the orchestra for three nights next season in November and December with the Mendelssohn concerto.
Well, he clearly loves playing with this orchestra, and if we can corral him, we are going to talk to Joshua Bell in just a couple of minutes live here on WQXR. This is Classical New York, 105.9 FM and HD, WQXR Newark and 90.3 FM WQXW Ossining. While we wait for Joshua Bell, we have a bit of music that he performed with us in The Greene Space back in 2016. That's the performance space of our studios in lower Manhattan where we've had some of the great musicians come through for performance and conversation, including pianists Lang Lang, Angela Hewitt, violinist Anne Akiko Meyers, cellist Stephen Isserlis, and many others.
Steve Smith: It is a magical little place and Joshua Bell has come to our little performance space a number of times. In 2016, he came with his friend, the pianist Jeremy Denk. They performed works by Johannes Brahms, as well as Robert and Clara Schumann. While we wait for Joshua to find us in the labyrinthine halls of NJPAC, we're going to hear something from that performance. Here is a Romance by Robert Schumann from his Opus 94. Joshua Bell and pianist Jeremy Denk recorded live in the Greene Space.
MUSIC - Robert Schumann: Romance
Annie Bergen: A Romance by Robert Schumann, violinist Joshua Bell and pianist Jeremy Denk, recorded live in WQXR’s Jerome L Greene Performance Space. I'm Annie Bergen here at NJPAC in Newark with my colleague, Steve Smith, from WNYC. We are now joined by violinist Joshua Bell after that terrific performance of the Bruch Violin Concerto.
Joshua Bell: Oh, thank you.
Annie Bergen: You go way back with this work. How long have you been playing it?
Joshua Bell: Well, yes, it's true. This is one of those pieces you learn when you're young. I was probably 12 years old when I first played it. I was 18 years old when I first recorded it with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields and Sir Neville Marriner. That was a long time ago. I've since played it many times and I would not want to listen to my early recording anymore, but it's a piece I've lived with a lot. I just love the piece. I'm still not tired of it.
Annie Bergen: Obviously, it holds a special place in your whole life. You've played it for so long. How do you keep it fresh and what's your favorite part of playing?
Joshua Bell: Well, every time I approach the piece in the practice room, I go back to the drawing board to a certain degree and think, "What do I want to do with this? What is it doing to me now?" You have to keep searching for things in the piece that you may not have found before. Even tonight was very different from the rehearsal this morning. The orchestra was giving extra something which inspired me, and hopefully, vice versa. It's just never the same twice in a row. It just naturally stays fresh if you allow yourself to really still explore.
Steve Smith: Now, I'm not going to put you on the spot by saying, I listened to that early recording.
Joshua Bell: Oh boy.
Steve Smith: You have nothing to be embarrassed about.
Joshua Bell: Thank you.
Steve Smith: It's a gorgeous recording, it still holds up. What I wondered, watching you through this little window here and seeing you working without a score and making it seem very spontaneous, almost improvised, I wonder if the piece changes for you, not just depending on the way you prepare, as you just explained, but what's going on during a day? Whether the skies have turned yellow and smoky or you lost a bet or made a friend, does the piece change for you based on your own moods?
Joshua Bell: To a certain extent. Although when you get into the piece, the piece itself is setting the moods. All of these moods and feelings and emotions are human emotions that we all feel and the great pieces of music are wide range of these emotions, so yes. It's bound to hit on pretty much anything that I felt at some point during the day. I appreciate you saying it sounded improvised, because that's the way I think I'd like it to sound. Ironically, the better you know the piece and the more you've done that piece, the more you are actually allowed to feel safe enough to improvise.
To be clear, I'm not improvising new notes, but there's a feeling of improvisation in the same way that perhaps an actor on a Broadway stage that does eight shows a week. When it's in the blood, they can feel free to riff a little bit and play off of each other.
Steve Smith: Exactly, exactly.
Annie Bergen: You play a number of pieces in the canon that were written for or premiered by Joseph Joachim. Is he an important figure for you?
Joshua Bell: Well, certainly Joachim was one of the great figures of the 19th century in music. He inspired Brahms. He actually helped write the Brahms Violin Concerto, inspired this piece and so many others. I have a picture of him on my wall, along with Brahms, and with Ysaÿe, and with all my heroes, and Kreisler, and even Bruch.
A little quotation from Bruch. I collect these things. They inspire me when I'm practicing at home. Certainly, I wish I could have heard him play, really, someone like Brahms, unlike Joachim, because I think he was known as a musician's musician. At the same time, there was Sarasate, who was flashy, and I would love to hear him too, but Joachim somehow always favored the depth in the music over showmanship. I think it would have been amazing to be at one of those soirées or salons in their house, to hear him and Clara Schumann and Robert Schumann, and Brahms at the piano. I would give anything for a night like that.
Annie Bergen: Absolutely.
Steve Smith: What an extraordinary setting that would be. Now, we hear a lot about this orchestra, the New Jersey Symphony punching above its weight, and how it's between the two colossuses of the New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra, but let's talk about what this orchestra is instead of what it isn't. You've played here a number of times. You've got a history with them. You're coming up again in the next season with the Mendelssohn Concerto. What do you like about playing with this group of players?
Joshua Bell: Oh, I go way back with this orchestra, I'd say three decades. I think they're really sounding as great as ever. Right now, they have this beautiful hall that rivals anything in the big city. They really play with energy, and they're fantastic players. It's certainly a world-class orchestra, and I've many friends in the orchestra, so I've known them all from living in New York. I know them all, so it's a nice feeling getting up on stage with them.
The rehearsal process, even though it was a piece they all know very well, we went back to the drawing board and did a lot of little details in the rehearsal, and they were such great sports about doing that. I'm actually looking forward to the fall when I come back because I'll be directing as well, and so that will be nice to get to work with him even on a deeper level.
Annie Bergen: Well, speaking of directing, how is it working with Xian Zhang?
Joshua Bell: Oh, she's wonderful. I really like the way she sees the piece and the way it flows. I never have to feel like they're dragging behind, which often you get that with orchestras and conductors. She's really right there and very present. I really, really enjoy her music-making. Actually, it was a pleasure not to have to direct myself. This piece I've done a lot and recorded with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, it feels more recently, with me conducting and directing it. I enjoy that, but this is nice to be able to sit in the tuttis, and just catch my breath and listen to them, and not wave my arms around. I really enjoyed tonight.
Steve Smith: The flip side of that, though, now that you have been conducting for quite a number of years now, I wonder how that insight of being the conductor, of being the leader, how that has changed your embodiment of being a soloist. Has it changed your perspective on that relationship?
Joshua Bell: Certainly has. I annoy conductors more and more, I think you might say, [laughs] because when you do it yourself and you delve even deeper into the music and every instrument that's playing, when you're responsible for everything, you just want more and more out of it. Some conductors, I think most conductors are welcome that I get-- the older I get, actually the less I worry about being correct, because for me, getting it right is the most important thing.
Our wonderful maestra, she was a real collaborator in the rehearsal process, and it was wonderful. Certainly, the more I've done conducting, the more I've-- I've now conducted eight of the nine Beethoven symphonies, and going back to Beethoven sonatas or the Violin Concerto is a whole new thing after doing that.
Steve Smith: Amazing.
Joshua Bell: The important thing I think for any artist is just to keep expanding your repertoire and having new challenges. I wouldn't want to just do Bruch Concerto and Mendelssohn, even though I could make a living from it, I could do that all year long, it was really important for me to keep pushing the boundaries.
Steve Smith: Sure.
Annie Bergen: It's fabulous that you've been able to do that.
Joshua Bell: Yes, I'm lucky.
Annie Bergen: Yes. You're coming back for Mendelssohn in the fall. What other big projects do you have, concert dates, anything?
Joshua Bell: Oh.
Annie Bergen: Tons, I'm sure. [laughs]
Joshua Bell: I'm about to record the Paganini Concerto, which is another youth piece that I did when I was young, and now I've rediscovered and re-approached it, and finally recording it. I'm really excited about that. I wrote my new cadenza for it which I do for all concertos, so it's somehow fresh. So I'm doing that this summer.
I'm in the middle of a big commission of five composers in a piece that we're going to play with the New York Philharmonic called The Elements. It's going to be great. Kevin Puts, and Jake Heggie, and Jessie Montgomery, a whole bunch of composers, and Edgar Meyer, and Jennifer Higdon. Those are the five. It's probably five of the most amazing American composers alive today. They're all contributing part of this piece called The Elements. This is my big project right now, and that's going to premiere in September.
Steve Smith: I'll remember that. That's such an exciting project too, because as you were mentioning the composers, it was all coming back to me, that something that as disparate as they are, something that they all have in common is a capacity for song-like writing and this kind of cantabile quality that I associate with, frankly, with you and with the Bruch that we've just heard. So I'm glad you mentioned that. It's a very exciting process.
Joshua Bell: Well, it's not an accident that I chose these composers. When you're doing new music, you want to work with composers that you feel represent, on some level, the ideals that you stand for, and they all do and yet they're completely different, each of them, so that's why it's going to be fascinating to hear the piece as a whole.
Steve Smith: That's right.
Annie Bergen: Looking forward to it. Thank you so much, Joshua Bell, for coming by.
Joshua Bell: Well, thanks for talking to me.
Annie Bergen: Yes, thank you for-
Joshua Bell: I enjoyed it.
Annie Bergen: -playing. A beautiful piece.
Joshua Bell: All right. Take care.
Annie Bergen: Thank you. It is intermission here at NJPAC. Coming up, one more work, Igor Stravinsky's, The Rite of Spring, performed by the New Jersey Symphony. While we have a little time, let's hear some more music from violinist, Joshua Bell, and pianist, Jeremy Denk, now. This is the Violin Sonata No. 3 in D Minor by Brahms. Once again, a recording made live in WQXR's Jerome L Greene Performance Space in Lower Manhattan.
[MUSIC - Johannes Brahms - Violin Sonata No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 108]
Steve Smith: Music by Johannes Brahms, the Violin Sonata No. 3 in D Minor, performed by pianist, Jeremy Denk, and our guest just a moment ago, violinist, Joshua Bell, recorded live in WQXR's Greene Space in 2016. We are at intermission here at NJPAC, and we're celebrating the 100th season of the New Jersey Symphony with this live broadcast on WQXR.
We had a chance to catch up with music director, Xian Zhang, after one of the rehearsals this week, and she told us that even though they are 100 years old, their mission is ever-evolving.
Xian Zhang: I think this orchestra is, in a way, building itself was in a pretty rapid development stage, which is really exciting to see in terms of changing of the personnel, new members, and also new ideas. Programming-wise, we're certainly doing a lot more commissions, especially this centennial season. We've made a lot of commissions.
Programming, I think we've become much more diverse. We used to plan about, I think under 15% of the underrepresented backgrounds, composers, artists, since 2020 right now, like this season, it's above 30% of our performers and composers of very different, very diverse backgrounds. I think that's a really big growth.
Steve Smith: Conductor Xian Zhang, we have one more piece on this special, 100th anniversary concert by the New Jersey Symphony here at NJPAC. This work by Igor Stravinsky is famous for the reaction it received at its first performance in 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. The performance also included Sergei Diaghilev's Ballet Russes, and the conductor was Pierre Monteux. There are mixed reports on why the piece created such a controversy on the night it was premiered. Was it the unconventional choreography or the music itself that caused the famous riot?
Annie Bergen: Ah, yes. Stravinsky's score was definitely unusual for the time. The sounds were severe, and there was a fair amount of dissonance. The opening notes played by a solo bassoon at its highest range. The piece was loud with lots of percussion and brass. The poet, T S Elliot, called it a puzzling combination of the primitive and the modern. New Jersey Symphony music director and conductor, Xian Zhang, told us the orchestra had not played the piece in 10 years. She loves conducting this work.
Xian Zhang: I find the piece as precise as it can be composed. It's very clear. Stravinsky, it's like a building block. It's like doing, you know the jigsaw does have to be so precise. One piece here, the other piece connected to be a structure. In my mind, this piece is constructed so precisely. Now after 10 years or after the pandemic, I find this piece just so joyous. It's great fun to do. There's so much life to it.
Steve Smith: Indeed, there is. The piece is over 30 minutes long, and it takes a lot of rhythmic turns for the orchestra. Conductor Xian Zhang says her relationship with The Rite of Spring has evolved over the years.
Xian Zhang: But now when I look at it, I find so much actual energy inside that music. I used to think it's more Stravinsky's cold, but no, the music, it's very, very intense and very warm, very passionate. Even when it's written so rhythmically challenging the difficult rhythmic sections, although there's life into each little turn, it’s a great piece, really a masterpiece.
Annie Bergen: Certainly a terrific piece. What we are going to hear in this orchestra, let me just tell you a few things. 20 woodwinds, 8 French horns, 6 trombones, 2 tubas, 2 sets of timpani on left side. Also an alto flute, a bass trumpet, which is rarely heard. It's going to be an amazing performance of this work. The Rite of Spring was the third collaboration between Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes after Firebird and Petrushka. Again, it debuted in Paris in 1913, and is subtitled “Pictures of Pagan Russia” in two parts. The plot depicts pagan rituals associated with the onset of spring.
Steve Smith: Right. The second part of the piece, the great sacrifice, a virgin of the tribe is selected as the chosen one, and she sacrifices herself to the God of Spring before the elders of her tribe. Famously, a riot broke out at the premiere of the piece. I think we've come a long way since then. Nowadays, it has become a staple of the repertory and a piece that just thrills audiences to no end.
Speaking as a timpanist, it's a piece that I coveted all of my formative career. It's the piece that instrumentalists can really sink their teeth into. Both as individual players in the spotlight and as an ensemble, it's just a chance for the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra to shine in ways that you don't hear every day.
Annie Bergen: It's true. And we are about to hear Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. Xian Zhang entering the stage to the podium for the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra broadcast live on WQXR from NJPAC in Newark.
[MUSIC - Igor Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring]
Annie Bergen: A piece that revolutionized 20th-century music, Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring performed by the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and their music director, Xian Zhang, live from the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark. Part of a final set of concerts this season for the Symphony, which is celebrating 100 years of performing in the Garden State. I'm Annie Bergen with Steve Smith.
Steve, oh my gosh, unlike the 1913 premiere, I don't see any riots out there.
Steve Smith: I don't see any riots breaking out, but certainly the riots were written into the rhythms of that piece. Just trying to count those rhythms coming into the final stretches, it's really remarkable. Right now we're seeing Xian Zhang identifying and acknowledging various soloists from the orchestra, beginning, of course, with Bassoonist Robert Wagner. We're seeing her have entire sections of the orchestra standup, principal strings, and now the full orchestra on its feet, and the audience as well, I dare say, at this celebratory centennial concert by the New Jersey Symphony.
Annie Bergen: The orchestra all standing, and the audience acknowledging the applause from the audience. What a terrific night here at NJPAC.
Steve Smith: Absolutely, a showcase of what this orchestra does best. We covered a lot of ground. A brand new piece commissioned from the Resident Artist Catalyst, Daniel Bernard Roumain. We heard Farah just a song of joy to get us started. We heard a star soloist, Joshua Bell, performing and treating this orchestra really as equal partners in a beautiful performance of Max Bruch's Violin Concerto. Finally, this showcase for every single section and member of the orchestra, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, a full menu from this orchestra "punching above its weight", as Zach Wolff from The New York Times said in a recent article.
Annie Bergen: The applause continues as Xian Zhang, again, reenters this stage to acknowledge the ovation, and also, again, pointing out the individual members of the different sections of the orchestra. Such an incredible rhythmic piece. The trombonist now. The flutist, and bassoonist.
Steve Smith: There's our Bassoonist, again, Robert Wagner.
Annie Bergen: The tuba players.
Steve Smith: There you go.
Annie Bergen: Let’s not forget them.
Steve Smith: You can't forget them in this piece. I have to say, I mentioned my timpani background. I was watching Gregory LaRosa with real gusto, the principal timpani player, but this is a piece that involves two timpani players, and the fact that you can actually distinguish what they're doing. But let us not forget one thing, which is that if you're following the music that this orchestra is doing, you can see every bit of it communicated through the body language of Xian Zhang, our amazing conductor.
Annie Bergen: It's true. And her current contract, she is going to be here for a while. It goes through the 2027-28 season making her the longest-term Music Director with the New Jersey Symphony. Now, there are two more concerts this weekend of the same program. One tomorrow night at the Count Basie Center for the Arts in Red Bank, and then back here again on Sunday afternoon. Then while the official season is over, the Symphony will perform in a series of summer concerts around the state. Most of them are going to be outdoors. You can find a listing at njsymphony.org.
Steve Smith: And we would like to thank a number of folks who helped make this broadcast possible. The staff of the New Jersey Symphony and the folks at NJPAC, especially Music Producer Jennifer Nulsen. Our WQXR engineers, Edward Haber, and Irene Trudel. Production staff includes Eileen Delahunty, Laura Boyman, and Max Fine.
Annie Bergen: Also, big thanks to my co-host tonight, Steve Smith, from WNYC's Culture Desk. Thanks so much, Steve, for being here tonight.
Steve Smith: Thank you, Annie. It is such a pleasure and an honor to crash the party.
Annie Bergen: I'm Annie Bergen. This is Classical New York, 105.9 FM, and HD WQXR Newark, and 90.3 FM WQXW Ossining.
[END OF AUDIO]
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