When the New Jersey Symphony opened their season two months ago, music director Xian Zhang opted for the world premiere of Michael Abel's Emerge, Daniel Bernard Roumain’s Voodoo Violin Concerto, and Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. When Zhang conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic last week she conducted the world premiere of Julia Adolphe's Woven Loom, Silver Spindle, the first Los Angeles performance of Nokuthula Endo Ngwenyama's Primal Message, and again, Beethoven's Seventh. Preparing diverse programs like this are tours de force for both conductor and orchestra; in this case both Zhang and LA Phil rose to the task and energized a large and enthusiastic audience.

Xian Zhang
© Benjamin Ealovega

Inspired by the interstellar radio message carrying basic information about humanity and Earth that was sent to globular star cluster M13 in 1974, Primal Message reaches out to its literally universal audience with a delicately-scored fantasy that was beautifully written for the strings, as you'd expect from the winner of the Primrose Viola Competition (in 2016). It began with a series of overlapping layers, a cello sang a lovely tune, concertmaster Martin Chalifour entered against bells and strings with hints of fiddle tunes, the celesta imitating a toy piano played a children's song, and the appealing ten-minute piece ended in a soft pealing of bells. 

Chalifour rose from his concertmaster's seat to take on the formidable challenge of Julia Adolphe's relentlessly difficult concerto set against the full orchestra sporting a large percussion section including five timpani. Laid out in three sections, Woven Loom, Silver Spindle had mood more than pace, building impact and structure out of the instability caused by what the composer calls in her program note, “two contrasting images: the shining, agile, brightly spinning realm of the violin and the darker, heavier, all-encompassing framework of the larger orchestra.”

And indeed, a cello solo briefly recalled the thrilling menace of the opening of Sibelius' Fourth Symphony before the violin entered almost immediately with snatches of melody, pizzicatos, double-stopped chords, all against disquieting rustling in the percussion. There was another cello solo, the clattering of a piano, glowing sounds from the vibraphone, while Chalifour handled the impossible technical flourishes effortlessly and his tone, whatever was going on in the orchestra, cut through and dominated proceedings. 

The second section began where the first left off, with Chalifour stranded so near the bridge that all you could hear was the rosin dust on the string, then suddenly the orchestra erupted and made headway, if chunkily and briefly. The final section began with a lovely duo for the violin and piano joined in gradually by other instruments as the main theme emerged leading to lovely veiled passages overtaken by ominous sounds culminating in a brass chorale. Once again, the ending left the soloist suspended in mid-air. 

Zhang took Beethoven's Seventh very fast, 33 minutes. (Dudamel does it in about 36, Salonen 39.) The opening chords had tremendous punch, the woodwinds sang their tune under wonderful legato strings, the pipings in the poco sostenuto moved smoothly, almost in tempo into an overwhelmingly positive Vivace. She built the sound down from the brass and the woodwinds stood out more vividly for it; the oboe was exquisite in her first movement cadenza, the clarinets and bassoons rollicked with rustic tones, and the flute was almost too sweet. The timpani were loud. 

The Allegretto was surprisingly gentle in its quieter moments but vigorously sculpted in the various interruptions, with Zhang exhorting the troops into greater effort and more sound; however, the magical sense of actual dialog between the woodwinds and strings was lost in the effort, and the fugue proceeded inevitably rather than as a significant ratcheting up of tension. 

Zhang emphasized firepower and determination in the third movement, hammering home the repeating three-note sequences, and if the Trio was a little matter-of-fact she took all the repeats. After pushing the orchestra even faster at the end, she tumbled with them into a finale that was about as fast as they could go while the timpanist with tiny wooden mallets inexorably beat Beethoven's time.