May 1, 2023

Rave review for Gemma New’s return to the New Jersey Symphony

A conductor’s homecoming and a virtuoso’s visit make for a dazzling night with N.J. Symphony | Review
By James C. Taylor
May 1, 2023

“Strange how potent cheap music is.”

This is one of Noel Coward’s most famous quotations — largely because it continues to ring true. Coward knew the power of music more than most authors because he was also an excellent songwriter. It was impossible not to think of this quote (from his 1930 comedy “Private Lives”) during the New Jersey Symphony’s performance this weekend of Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.”

Rachmaninoff, like Coward, was a virtuoso performer, who also knew a good tune. His “Rhapsody” is one of the most famous melodies of the 20th century — you’ve heard it in movies, video games, TV commercials. It’s one of classical music’s monster hits.

It’s so well-known — and so over-the-top romantic — that it is easy for people to dismiss it as cheap. So, credit conductor Gemma New (a former associate conductor here in the Garden State) and her soloist Thursday at NJPAC for taking on this well-worn megahit and making it sound vital and well, new.

George Li was the virtuoso seated at the Steinway in Prudential Hall, and the 27-year-old pianist won over the Newark audience with his commanding phrasing and ringing tone. The best thing was Li didn’t make the stirring melodies seem sappy or old-fashioned — nor did he (or New and the orchestra) shy away from the Rhapsody’s emotional pull, instead playing it with a robust clarity that was as refreshing as it was dazzling.

If that weren’t enough, the electrical system at NJPAC seemed to be plugged into the piano: At one point the lights high up in the hall’s rafters started blinking on and off in the middle of the performance.

As otherworldly as that fluke made the Rachmaninoff feel, it just set the stage for Li’s thrilling encore — a wild, whirlwind performance of Liszt’s “La campanella.” It was a nice choice as an encore, because it too riffs off another Paganini violin piece. Li artfully articulated that melody with his left hand, while his right hand ripped through an ethereal string of arpeggios.

Back in 2019, Li performed another Rachmaninoff concerto (and another Liszt encore) in a performance with NJS Music Director Xian Zhang — so this weekend confirms the potential shown in that electrifying turn. Zhang clearly believes in this young artist, which means he’ll likely be back in New Jersey again soon. And if so, don’t miss him.

It was hard to follow Li, but after intermission New and the Jersey Band were back to perform the main selection on this week’s program, Hector Berlioz’s epic “Symphony fantastique.” It’s a wonderful piece of Romantic, 19th century music. Each of its five sections contains riches — and New brought out the color and passion of the varied elements in the score. (The fifth movement also contains a melody that Rachmaninoff riffed off of in the “Rhapsody.” If this was a long program, it was at least smartly put together.)

The opening number was the one non-Romantic standard, a new work by a living composer.

Sarah Gibson’s “warp & weft” is a 15-minute piece, premiered by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra just a few years back. It is a tense, fluttering work, and New and the Jersey players gave it both authority and bounce. New hasn’t conducted the New Jersey Symphony since the 2016-17 season, but she still has a natural rapport with its players.

Let’s hope it won’t be that long before she returns to the NJPAC podium again.

Read the full article here.