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N.J. Symphony performs Ukrainian national anthem before Russian program 3/14/2022 James C. Taylor,

The classical music world plans things years in advance.

So, when the New Jersey Symphony scheduled this past weekend’s concert series in Princeton featuring a Russian virtuoso, no doubt the focus was on music, not politics. However, when U.S.-Russian relations hit its lowest point in decades this week, the Symphony felt it need to address this issue.

Before each concert at Richardson Auditorium, on the Princeton University campus, this weekend, NJS President Gabriel van Aalst gave remarks dedicating the performances to the people of Ukraine who are fighting “an unjust war.” Then Zhang led her orchestra through a stirring symphonic version of the Ukrainian national anthem.

What followed was a program of mostly Russian music. Maestra Xian Zhang conducted the music of Tchaikovsky (born 1840 in Volga, Russia), whose pieces may feel in some ways more American than Russian. To hear the swelling themes from his “Swan Lake” or “Romeo and Juliet” Friday night, the melodies conjured as many sensations of American culture — countless films like “Black Swan,” “Clueless,” or “A Christmas Story” all have memorably used excerpts from these works — as they did the Imperial Russia of the 19th Century.

Even in life, Tchaikovsky was internationalist, not a nationalist. The first piece on the program was titled “Capriccio Italien,” written after the composer visited Rome. It’s a knock-out piece, filled with emotion, orchestral color and great tunes. As a Chinese-born conductor led the New Jersey musicians through this Italian-flavored piece, it was a great reminder that Tchaikovsky’s music now belongs to the world.

The “Capriccio” wasn’t perfect. The French Horns were slow to warm up and certain transitions bumped the ear, but overall, the Jersey players delivered this rollicking piece in grand, resplendent fashion. The “Romeo and Juliet” fantasy overture that followed was energetic and dreamy. The band made the big, famous love themes sound as over-the-top as they should.

The final piece on the program was the suite from “Swan Lake.” The piece is so familiar and much of the playing so polished — Zhang is a top Tchaikovsky interpreter — the Princeton crowd often applauded in between movements. In an attempt to keep them from doing this between the “Dance Espagnole” and the finale, the maestra flapped her hands (in almost swan-like fashion) to signal to the audience and her orchestra to get ready. Then, the NJ Symphony blasted out the swelling refrain and the crowd went wild. There were also smaller details to savor, like Robert Ingliss’ oboe solo and the cellos in the opening scene. It was a good night for fans of epic and romantic 19th Century music.

But the selling point of these concerts was not supposed to be Russia and Russian music, but rather a Russian-born pianist. “Trifonov Is Back!” was the title of the program. Daniil Trifonov is the NJ Symphony’s Artist-in-Residence and he’s dazzled Garden State audiences with his virtuosity in past concerts. The star soloist performed an impressive solo show the week before at Carnegie Hall. But here he was back, in New Jersey, playing a brand-new piano concerto by the young American composer Mason Bates.

The 25-minute composition just received its world premiere this January in Philadelphia. Under Zhang’s baton and with Trifonov as the soloist — Bates wrote it for him to debut — the piece was fascinating. In Philly, Bates’ concerto felt like it floated between genres and had many different mini-movements instead of the three listed (but not named) in the program.

With Zhang at the podium, the piece sounded more coherent, majestic and old-fashioned (a compliment). Trifonov again dazzled, especially in the many passages in the top octave of the piano. It was a rich new piece of American music and like Trifonov, New Jersey would be happy to have it back again.

James C. Taylor can be reached Find on Facebook.

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