The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra presented Brahms' First Symphony and Mahler's Songs of a Wayfarer February 22 in Englewood, at the Bergen PAC in an evening that featured guest performers: Grammy-nominated, Norwegian mezzo-soprano Marianne Beate Kielland, and guest conductor Rune Bergmann. The orchestra's relationship with Maestro Bergmann was nothing short of a love affair. The larger-than-life conductor literally skipped with delight through orchestra up to the podium to begin the concert. His style is grand and supremely expressive, and he drew forth some inspired playing from the orchestra.

After a brisk and lively take on the well-worn overture to "Die Meistersinger," the concert got started in earnest with the arrival of soloist Marianne Beate Kielland.


Ms. Kielland is an absolute diamond, and Maestro Bergmann gave her tender, loving support as she performed Mahler's early cycle: "Songs of a Wayfarer." Ms Kielland gave the songs a brooding quality and an ethereal loveliness without ever appearing aloof and never compromising the finely wrought line of the material. She appeared to treat the cycle not so much as a collection of individual, passionate texts, but rather as a tiny oratorio. She was at once introspective and contemplative without ever feeling detached. Her warm and honey-hued mezzo gently caressed the words with great care. Every word felt true and natural, and even as the narrator's words became increasingly mercurial, Kielland's subtly shaped and honest delivery of the text kept the message strikingly immediate.

Even in the slightly over the top third selection, where the narrator's cries of woe can be a bit much, Ms. Kielland's control kept the moments from ever becoming overwrought. She swelled to great fortes, then immediately faded to crestfallen silence with delicate mastery. If there appeared to be a slightly thin head tone in the high register, it was completely inconsequential in the big picture of the performance (and in all honesty, it could very easily have been the uneven and unforgiving acoustics of the Bergen PAC's auditorium). On balance, it was a virtuoso performance from start to finish.

The second half of the concert was dedicated to Brahms' Symphony #1. The Symphony No. 1 was composed over the course of two decades and remains one of Brahms (and the standard repertory's) greatest achievements. The opening section of tension-filled, syncopated rhythms was played briskly, and Maestro Bergmann drew forward the woodwinds and pizzicato strings in extremely exposed fashion, an unusual but ultimately highly successful choice.

The second movement highlights the more chamber music-like qualities of Brahms' orchestral writing and the violin section delivered the goods with some delightfully lyrical playing.

The symphony's third movement is a small symphony in itself concealed within the structure of scherzo, trio, scherzo reprise and final coda Maestro Bergmann navigated the rhythmic complexity and delicately interwoven lines with great precision and wonderful gusto.

The fourth movement began with a slow introduction, which Maestro Bergmann seemingly intended to stand in high contrast to the other sections of the movement. As the "Alpine Horn" theme started, they were rather forward in the blend rather than off in the distance (again, the acoustics of the theater may be the culprit) another interesting and unexpected choice.

The "Beethoven section" - for want of a better term - is certainly one of Brahm's loveliest creations and Maestro Bergmann looked like he would literally melt into its beautiful melody. He introduced it with great majesty and elegance and his orchestra responded with their most spirited playing of the evening. The triumphant final section was extraordinarily loud and explosive, and possibly the most passionate and expressive playing this listener has heard from the NJSO in quite a while.

Peter Danish

Classical Editor

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