October 7 marked New Jersey Symphony Orchestra’s 95th gala season opener, a bubbly affair with preconcert cocktails, for contributors who paid a sizable sum above ticket price, and a festive post-concert meal, for an even heftier sum. Music Director Xian Zhang led pianist Jeremy Denk in Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto, and the Orchestra in Hector Berlioz’s groundbreaking “Symphonie fantastique” (Fantasy Symphony). The program opened with Beethoven’s “Creatures of Prometheus” Overture, from his only ballet score.

Beethoven double dollop

Beethoven’s at-first somber and stately, then scurrying, scampering, sprightly “Overture to ‘The Creatures of Prometheus’” (1800) is a rousing five-minute audience favorite. His massive “Emperor” Concerto from nine years later alternates dramatically charged moments with passages of pure pianistic gossamer. American pianist Jeremy Denk contrasted both extremes and deftly conveyed stirring theatrics and ethereal beauty in the ample middle ground. Beethoven certainly upended piano concerto tradition by opening with the virtuoso cadenza and by morphing the requisite break between second and third movements into a take-’em-by-surprise continuous, through-composed structure.

Orchestra and soloist united to bring it all off as if it were second nature.

Berlioz’s Fantasy Symphony

Hector Berlioz fawns over Beethoven’s “muscular” musical style in his weird, wild 1830 “Symphonie fantastique” (Fantasy Symphony), clocking in at just under an hour. It’s the third movement, “A Scene in the Countryside,” where Berlioz most overtly imitates the Viennese master.

From its quiet opening English horn/oboe dialogue between shepherds through to its thunderous concluding orchestral storm, the French innovator showed his being much taken with Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, “Pastoral.” Memorable moments too many to mention, Maestra Xian Zhang led the work from memory, rendering it entirely wieldy under her baton.

Outstanding performers

Pianist Jeremy Denk, after all the keyboard athletics of the “Emperor” Concerto, regaled the audience with an encore: a tender, delicate reading of the “Andante” movement of Mozart’s “Piano Sonata No. 16 in C Major,” K. 545, complete with his own interpolated embellishments. The evening’s quietest piece, it was nevertheless clearly heard in the rafters because it induced pin-drop stillness in the audience, whose own “sound” of close listening nearly matched in beauty that of the soloist. Also deserving special mention is clarinet Andy Lamy, who excelled in his spooky solo of the contorted obsession motif in “Symphonie fantastique.”

Orchestra in peak form

Which is the more impressive: when the seventy or eighty onstage musicians reel-in all their collective power to utter a symphonic “whisper” or when they go at full throttle, blaring brasses blasting and all six percussionists hammering away?

Under Maestra Xian Zhang’s molten baton, the Orchestra played unerringly with crisp attack and superb dynamics. Especially eerie was the violin section’s evocation of rattling cadaveric bones in the finale of “Symphonie fantastique”—one of those how’d-they-do-that moments.

Utterly thrilling

Maestra Xian Zhang knows only one walking speed: presto. Swooping onstage she seems downright anxious to mount the podium and get to work. Her full-bodied signals and gestures eke sheer beauty and power from the Orchestra, and she expends enough energy as to be able to forego that day’s workout at the gym. Enthusiastic audience members applauded between movements throughout the performance, and, turning toward them after the first movement of the Berlioz, she gestured her keep-it-up approval.

Ending with a blazing bang, the audience thanked her and the magnificent ensemble with a well-deserved standing ovation.

Up next, more Beethoven

Oct. 12-15, in Newark, Princeton, and Red Bank, Xian Zhang leads NJSO and cellist Alban Gerhardt in Tchaikovsky’s “Variations on a Rococo Theme,” Aaron Jay Kernis’ “Musica celestis” in its NJSO premiere and Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, “Pastoral.” New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, New Jersey Performing Arts Center’s resident orchestra, Prudential Hall, One Center Street, Newark N.J.