WESTFIELD – What could be more fulfilling than being in person at a concert with music by the New Jersey Festival Orchestra, three august tenors, a special guest soprano, topped off with angelic voices of elementary school children? The 1728 Presbyterian Church in Westfield, dressed up royally with wreaths, electric candles, and poinsettias galore housed the December 18 event, sponsored by the PNC Bank. It was the first indoor concert the New Jersey Festival Orchestra has been able to hold since the pandemic began almost two years ago.
The visual and auditory feast saw a packed house of audience members who were masked and showed proof of vaccination to enter.
The orchestra began with a lush arrangement of Christmas favorites to open the concert with Nigel Hess’s “A Christmas Festival Overture” which featured a resounding brass and exciting timpani. Under the guidance of Director/Conductor David Wroe, the three tenors – Jonathan Boyd, Brent Reilly Turner, and Dane Suarez offered Verdi’s familiar “Brindisi” (“The Drinking Song”) from the opera “La Traviata”. Then each tenor had a chance to shine individually: Dane Suarez thrilled with “Comfort Ye /Every Valley from Handel’s Messiah; Jonathan Boyd brilliantly sang “O Holy Night,” the Arthur Harris arrangement of Adolphe Adam classic. The audience seemed to be enthralled with “Grenada” sung by all three men. The less familiar light operetta number of “Freunde, das Leben ist lebenswert” translated as “Life is Great” was passionately presented by Brent Reilly Turner. From Germany, we traveled musically to Russia with Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Song of the Indian Guest” presented tenderly yet movingly by Mr. Boyd.
Special guest Quon Chen’s glorious soprano voice soared with the Pietro Mascagni rendition of “Ave Maria.” Maestro Wroe said the song was chosen as a tribute to the memory of Vince Carano, a longtime member of the orchestra who died last spring. The end of the first half of the night was closed with a rousing version of Johann Strauss’ “Radetzky March” that Mr. Wroe said was an “Irish sendoff” for Mr. Carano. The maestro conducted the audience’s clapping in time to the music as well as volume intensity. The multi-generational audience enjoyed the interaction of being directed to go from pianissimo or forte.
After intermission, a good-natured rivalry among the tenors broke out with each singing a verse of the Italian classic “Mamma” by Cesare Andrea Bizio. Mr. Boyd claimed the winner’s bragging rights since his mother was there in the audience. Each tenor had a distinct, unique aspect to his voice, so there was no competition as to who was the best.
A song that was familiar in melody had people whispering, “What’s that from?” It was the theme from the iconic movie, “The Godfather.” Classical Neapolitan songs gave way to music from the Franklin Elementary School students, under the training of the school’s musical director Brent Geyer. They performed the Peanuts Christmas Special number “Christmas Time is Here.” Parents and grandparents scrambled to pull out their phones to record the angelic soprano voices singing with the famed orchestra.
“Sleigh Ride” was a crowd favorite with the obligatory crack of the whip that transitioned to a chorus of “I want to Wish You a Merry Christmas”/ “Feliz Navidad.” A surprise but inspirational number from the musical Carousel, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” was followed by “It’s a Wonderful Life” by all singers.