Maestra Xian Zhang led a spectacular debut concert as Music Director of New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) Thursday afternoon, Oct. 27. She and upwards of 70 musicians, including Macedonian pianist Simon Trpčeski, gave rapturous readings of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto and Fifth Symphony. But the program opened with a splendid, rousing “Polonaise” from Act II of his opera “Eugene Onegin.”

Pronunciation key

Xian Zhang leads a total of seven concert programs throughout the state this season, so we’d better learn how to pronounce her name: she-YEN jhong.

Her brief podium comments engaged the audience in pronouncing the piano soloist’s name: Simon (no trouble here) Trpčeski (roll the “r” in “Trp” then add chesskey). Got it? Let’s go.

Podium dynamo

Xian Zhang exudes abundant dynamic energy. She uses her body powerfully to extract from the players the precise sound she seeks. And what a sound! The Orchestra played with precision and majesty and sweep. Tchaikovsky’s passionate works repeatedly energized the audience. Only in the final movement of the Fifth Symphony did it seem at times that the strings did not always produce enough “slash” on the numerous chords marked to be played using force—sudden, marked emphasis.

‘Polonaise’ from ‘Eugene Onegin’

Often called Tchaikovsky’s most-famous opera outside his native Russia, “Eugene Onegin” portrays a spoiled titular antihero’s unrequited love. “Too late,” tuts Tatiana. “You should have accepted me as a naïve girl when I threw myself at you, instead of lecturing me. I’ll keep my husband, the prince.” Very satisfying … to everyone but Onegin. The “Polonaise,” a rousing, rhythmic dance that opens Act II, thrilled and got everything off to a fantastic start.

‘Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-Flat Minor’

Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto came four years before “Onegin,” in 1875. Simon Trpčeski, king of trills—both the two-fingered and the two-handed varieties—wowed in this impassioned piece, with its trademark 42, two-handed opening chords. The composer kept up the chordal keyboard progressions concept for nearly half the lengthy first movement, buoyed by the orchestra’s sweeping melodies and culminating with a bang, which prompted spontaneous applause.

The quiet middle movement gives the impression of orchestra and piano wanting to tiptoe away, with all the plucked strings and piano passages played very softly. Mr. Tripčeski dashed off the final movement, continually intensifying tension between piano and orchestra to a dazzling finale with—you guessed it—a dizzying flurry of ascending two-handed chords and orchestral tutti.

‘Symphony No. 5 in E Minor’

Tchaikovsky ingeniously alternated waltz and march rhythms for this four-movement masterpiece. The march starts as moody plodding, barely trudging, and mutates into other attitudes with each recurrence throughout the remainder.

Though we can get ourselves into trouble trying to pin a program to a non-programmatic symphony, it effectively conveys utter hopelessness that ever-so-gradually quickens, eventually brightening, as if a blaring cavalry call summons rescue. The march ends victorious, finally modulating to a major key.

Art in silence

Legendary Artur Schnabel once said: “The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes—ah, that is where the art resides!” In the Fifth Symphony score, Tchaikovsky wrote “grand pause” three times. These three moments—in the midst of incredibly melodic tumult—create heightened dramatic effect, as the entire orchestra goes from full-throttle sonority, inexorably intensified by exploding kettle drums, to absolute silence in a split second.

Judging how many seconds to pause is tricky, but each time Xian Zhang and NJSO’s masterly musicians pulled it off to spine-tingling effect.

Up next

Next week Xian Zhang leads atypical Haydn, Beethoven and Richard Strauss. New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, New Jersey Performing Arts Center’s resident orchestra, Prudential Hall, One Center Street, Newark N.J.

Don't miss our page on Facebook!