WESTIELD – On Saturday night, the New Jersey Festival Orchestra (NJFO), under the direction of David Wroe, presented a feast for one’s ears with “The Good, The Better and the Best” concert at The Presbyterian Church in Westfield. The delightful evening featured soprano Maureen Francis, the Westfield Intermediate Schools’ elite choruses, Sam Boutris guest clarinetist, and the orchestra’s forty-five instrumentalists.
Usually, an audience doesn’t prepare itself before going to a concert. People just show up and expect to be entertained. For the most part, it seems that NJFO audience members are seasoned viewers; some have been attending the concerts produced by the New Jersey Festival Orchestra for years. After all, this august body has been in operation for 39 seasons with this being its 245th concert. Let me suggest to all, however, “seasoned” one feels he is, the next time a pre-concert lecture is offered, go to it. It will not only open your eyes to the period of the composer (s). Still, it will also give you a deeper appreciation and understanding in anticipation of what you will hear. Not too much preparation was needed, however, for the first composition.
Elite, auditioned choruses from Westfield’s Roosevelt Middle School’s “Sharps and Flats”, and Edison Intermediate School’s “Broadway Singers” added a fun accompaniment to the first piece of the night. “The Good, Bad, and the Ugly Suite” by composer Ennio Morricone was immediately recognizable. Parents and loved ones in attendance had a ball watching and listening to the pre-teens sing “wah-wah-wah-wah” and whistling in the requisite places with coloratura-range obligato by guest artist soprano Maureen Francis. The soprano followed that with another familiar piece, the theme from the classic movie, “The Godfather.” Singing with the Italian lyrics, her flawless, exquisite voice earned her a well-deserved standing ovation, and what a treat for the students from Edison Intermediate School (EIS) to hear their vocal performance teacher share her well-honed talent.
The second guest performer, clarinetist Sam Boutris, spoke before his presentation of “Fantasy on Themes from La Traviata.” He explained to the school children that pre-Instagram and Twitter, advertisements of upcoming operas were in the form of short compositions that took snippets and variations of the composer’s music to play to the townspeople to pique their interest. The composer Lovreglio paraphrased the opera melodies of Giuseppe Verdi after the opera premiered. For this lovely piece, the clarinetist’s body language echoed his being one with the music. His generous, colorful phrasing was amplified by the orchestra’s delicate strings. The audience again rose to its feet in appreciation for his artistry. After intermission, Mr. Boutris and the orchestra played Ennio Morricone’s lush love theme from Cinema Paradiso. That Academy-award-winning film has been hailed as one of the greatest films ever made and their outstanding performance of the music won many a fan.
The final piece of the night, “Pines of Rome” by Ottorino Respighi is a tone poem comprised of four movements. Now here is where the bonus of hearing the lecture paid off. For the audience members who attended that forty-minute lecture, they were told by Yifei Xu to listen for the children playing in the first movement and for the “ring-around-the-Rosie” strain. Then came the tramping feet of the soldiers. In the second movement, there were no children at the pine trees outside the Roman catacombs, but a trumpet is heard in the distance. Music Director David Wroe, ever the dramatic figure himself, pretended to peer around to see where the hidden trumpeter could be in the back of the venue. The third movement depicted the pines in the light of a full moon where nightingales sing. Ms. Xu explained in the pre-concert lecture that when the piece was first written a gramophone recording of actual bird calls and melodies was used in every performance. In the Saturday night performance, a stunning recording of bird sounds was played from a computer with the orchestra’s melodies punctuated by a haunting harp that added dimension.
The final movement was spectacular in volume and intensity. It reflected the “Pines of the Appian Way” where the army was descending. With timpani pounding and brass at fortissimo, it was a thrilling conclusion to a night of magical music.