New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, arguably at the performing season’s apex, offered a rare delight at this week’s series of four concerts: all six Brandenburg Concerti by Johann Sebastian Bach. Oh, an individual concerto or two frequently appears on concert programs, but with relative rarity do we have the chance to experience them all in the same performance. When we do—as in The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s admirable annual tradition—invariably, for some reason, it is during the winter holiday season. Dispensing with a conductor this week, NJSO’s distinguished musicians obeyed Concertmaster Eric Wyrick and at times other principal section leaders.

An enthusiastic 95-percent-capacity crowd attended the Thursday, May 17, matinée.

Common denominator

Harpsichordist Paolo Bordignon was the only musician to appear in all six Brandenburgs. His role is mostly as accompanist, playing “filler” music as underpinning to each concerto. Not so in the case of Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, where he trios with Brennan Sweet on violin and Bart Feller on traverse flute (the modern, silver, horizontal kind that Bach specified for this work), while seven string instruments provide accompaniment. To Mr. Bordignon fell the colossal, three-minute cadenza at the first movement’s peak—all eyes and ears were on him as he played so many notes that it’s a wonder no smoke billowed from the instrument.

The second movement, marked “Affettuoso” (Tender), is the only true chamber-music piece in the series, with the trio of soloists playing completely unaccompanied. The elegant flute-violin interplay tosses the melody back and forth between the two musicians like delicate conversation.

Smallest to largest combos

The Fourth Concerto boasts the smallest ensemble: eight players, including solo violin (Eric Wyrick) and Kathleen Nester and Andrew Lamy playing Baroque flutes—wood recorders in this case. Five string players provide accompaniment. Concerto No. 6 is totally devoid of violins, employing two cellos, a contrabass and harpsichord to support the featured soloists: Violists Frank Foerster and David Blinn. They coupled with cellist Jonathan Spitz in the second movement, “Adagio” (Unhurriedly) [VIDEO], playing an expansive, achingly beautiful melody that you wish would never end.

Fully 31 strings and four soloists crowded the stage for Concerto No. 2, which closed the program. In this, perhaps the most memorably recognizable of the six concerti, Garth Greenup deftly deployed a sonically glistening trumpet, lofting intricate, quicksilver scales and floating lengthy trills above the other three soloists—Eric Wyrick (violin), Bart Feller (flute) and Robert Ingliss (oboe).

Cohesive togetherness

Both halves of the concert program were well-balanced, due in part to the order in which the Orchestra performed the six works. Instead of strict numerical order, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra sandwiched the smaller-scale, more intimate pieces between ones for large ensemble. This had the same psychological effect as a Baroque aria that follows the A-B-A pattern, where the outer sections are practically mirror images, disrupted in tempo or thought by the middle passage. The musicians played with such togetherness that it at times seemed like one large instrument.

Truly New Jersey’s symphony orchestra

The Orchestra took the program to three other venues: Princeton’s Richardson Auditorium, Red Bank’s Count Basie Theatre, and New Brunswick’s State Theatre of New Jersey. Other programs are regularly performed also in Englewood and Morristown. This outreach and the Company’s laudable work in schools statewide make it truly New Jersey’s own symphony orchestra.

Up next

Music Director Xian Zhang leads New Jersey Symphony Orchestra June 7-10 in four performances of Leonard Bernstein’s Overture to "Candide" and Gustav Mahler’s massive Symphony No. 1, “Titan.” Joining them, as soloist, is Gil Shaham in Johannes Brahms’ towering "Violin Concerto."

  • June 22–July 1: A free program of Broadway songs and opera overtures travels to parks in seven counties.
  • July 14: The season officially ends when David Robertson conducts the Orchestra in four new works by Jonathan Cziner, Natalie Ditterich, Aaron Hendrix and Brian Shank in its annual Scores: New Orchestral Works series.