NJSO concert review: Venezuelan conductor makes a smashing debut

During the tenure of Jacques Lacombe, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra's Winter Festival was a chance for the orchestra to hunker down and work with its Artistic Director for intense weeks of music making. 

This year, however, given new Artistic Director's Xian Zhang's recent hire (and her numerous previous commitments), the NJSO is spending three weeks this month working with an old friend, conductor and violinist, Pinchas Zukerman.

On Friday night at Richardson Auditorium at Princeton, the 2017 Winter Festival continued with another strong collaboration between the NJSO and Zukerman, but it was perhaps most notable for the debut of conductor Christian Vasquez. The young, Venezuelan maestro impressed in his first piece with the New Jersey players: Samuel Barber's spry "The School of Scandal" overture from 1933.

The band goes big to open 2017 Winter Festival 

From the moody, spiky opening to the brassy finish. Vasquez led a taut account of the score. The warm, reverberant acoustics inside the Romanesque lecture hall only helped make Barber's plush, Neo-Romantic music sound vital. Robert Ingliss provided a lovely oboe solo, and Vasquez articulated Barber's melodies with skill.  The 9-minute overture was often performed in the 1950's but its more of a rarity today -- the NJSO has been dusting it off of late, and as this performance made clear, it's a good fit for them.

After intermission, Vasquez conducted Camille Saint-Saens' "Organ" Symphony #3. This 1886 work is big in size, if not in length. Vasquez didn't shy away from this, amping up both the volume and the intensity of the playing. The result was a big wall of sound, which was fun even if certain things -- like the piano effects, early in the piece -- got drowned out.  The overall result was like eating entire meal of French Fries. Yes, there were lots of great, delicious bites (the organ's big entrance; the piano tinkling an echo of the composer's "Carnival of the Animals") but the whole wasn't exactly nourishing.

The main event of the evening was Zukerman's account of Beethoven's Violin Concerto, which was played right before intermission. Zukerman came onstage with a long, loose-fitting, Nehru collar black shirt -- which contrasted with Vasquez's tux and white tie. The famous concerto in D-minor opens with timpani and winds. Vasquez brought in the strings smoothly and then Zukerman (playing without a score) meshed his violin with the whole band beautifully.

In his solo work, Zukerman brought the same relaxed, seemingly effortless style to Beethoven that he brought to Tchaikovsky in his concerts last weekend. His Guarneri violin sounded a touch steelier in this work, but then he evoked many different sounds, from sweet to astringent and from airy to earthy. 

Zukerman played the commonly used Fritz Kreisler cadenza -- and did so with panache, but his solo work never pulled the spotlight from Vasquez and the band.  If one had to find a quibble with Vasquez's take on the work, it would be that it sounded more Hadyn-esque and classical than robustly Romantic. 

Zukerman appeared to appreciate the young maestro's work in his debut; when the concerto was finished, the soloist immediately flashed him a big smile and began applauding. Vasquez earned a nice hand from the crowd, too.  Zukerman's curtain call prompted not only wild clapping, but also foot stomping by both the paying audience and members of the orchestra. 

Everyone on hand clearly wanted an encore from Zukerman. But after his final bow, he left the stage and didn't return. Those wanting more Pinchas will have to come and hear him play Bach at the third and final series of concerts in the Winter Festival this weekend -- or Mendelssohn at a special chamber concert in Summit on Friday night.

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra

2017 Winter Festival: Zukerman & Beethoven's Violin Concerto

Jan. 20, Richardson Auditorium, Princeton

James C. Taylor can be reached writejamesctaylor@gmail.com. Find NJ.com/Entertainment on Facebook.

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