It’s a sunny and brisk Sunday, January 27, 2019 afternoon as we make our way inside Morristown, NJ’s MPAC for a concert by classical piano phenom Daniil Trifonov and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra!
This performance is the last of three Music Speaks Winter Festival concerts presented by the NJSO and the group’s conductor and music director, Xian Zhang. With a selection of pieces all based on “great stories, myths, and poems,” says Zhang about this year’s Winter Festival series, “Sometimes music can take words further and leave you space to think.”
Whereas the first Music Speaks concert featured veteran pianist Emanuel Ax, the second spotlighted soprano Dawn Upshaw. Today’s concert, however, stars Daniil Trifonov, 27, a Russian pianist and composer whom the Times of London has called “without question, the most astounding pianist of our age.”
Daniil Trifonov was born in the Soviet Union on March 5, 1991. His father was a composer and his mother worked as a music teacher. Daniil began studying the piano at the age of five and gave his first solo concert at seven. It is said that when he was eight years old, Daniil gave his first concert with an orchestra — a memorable performance of a Mozart concerto — and lost one of his baby teeth in the process!
In 2000, Trifanov’s family moved so that Daniil could study music in Moscow. There, he borrowed great piano recordings from his teacher and learned important lessons in technique and style by listening to the the work of such masters of the piano as Sergei Rachmaninoff and Vladimir Horowitz. In 2009, Trifonov came to the United States to study at the Cleveland Institute of Music.
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At the age of 17, Daniil won First Prize at the International Piano Competition of San Marion, where he also received a special prize for his performance of a Chick Corea composition. He followed up by becoming a medalist at the distinguished International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw.
In 2011, Trifonov won First Prize at the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition in Tel Aviv, and just a few weeks later, took First Prize at the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow.
Trifonov made his Carnegie Hall debut in February, 2013 in a concert recorded and released by Deutsche Grammophon. In 2016, he was the winner of Gramophone magazine’s Artist of the Year, and in 2018, he won a Grammy for Best Instrumental Solo Album for his recording, Transcendental, a double album of Liszt compositions.
As a soloist, Trifanov has performed with such orchestras as the Royal Philharmonic, the London Symphony, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, and the New York Philharmonic, but today he is the featured performer with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra led by Xian Zhang.
As we enter the beautiful MayoPAC auditorium and take our seats, we notice that the orchestra members are already tuning their instruments. Maestro Zhang enters and bows graciously before commencing the afternoon’s first piece, Also sprach Zarathustra, by Richard Strauss. Many in the audience immediately recognize the work from the soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Strauss based his symphonic tone poem on a novel by Friedrich Nietzsche. The premise of Nietzsche’s work centers on Zarathustra, a prophet, who descends from a mountain after many years of solitary meditation in order to impart his wisdom to mankind.
As the piece opens, we hear the sound of a rumbling organ and the booming of timpani as the brass play Strauss’ ubiquitous ascending C-G-C motive. As the brass call forth, a magnificent sunrise can be imagined as the instruments crescendo and then decrescendo before fiercely crescendoing again under Zhang’s able baton.
A melancholy section featuring the strings follows. Here, Zhang coaxes a magnificent wall of sound from the strings as the instrumentation builds and, with it, the voice of the orchestra resounds as the strings spin lilting melodies into musical gold.
The adding of winds changes the mood to one of mystery, passion, and power as Zhang’s baton dances while demanding complex interplay from the instruments.
Building to a climax in intensity before abruptly pausing and returning with fast runs, the piece shifts in feel, mood, and style throughout. Waltzing at times — sounding happy — Zhang and the NJSO musicians fill the theater with glorious rolling sound!
Her conducting flowing from inside her being, Zhang leads the piece to an ever softer place — the pianissimo section — filled with sweetness and, ultimately, a soft, gentle, and satisfying conclusion.
The packed house applauds and cheers as Zhang and company take bows!
During intermission, we take a moment to chat with several members of the audience, including Gerry from Pompton Plains, who exclaims, “That was very impressive! I really appreciate the quality of this orchestra.” Acknowledging, “It’s a full house today of listeners,” Gerry adds, “I like to experience the NJSO here at MayoPAC. For me, it’s so convenient — plus it’s a beautiful venue.”
Doris from Millburn agrees commenting, “I come to see the NJSO all the time. Xian Zhang is so vibrant to watch — she is so full of energy!” adding, “The violins were phenomenal today — there is so much camaraderie among all of the musicians,” before concluding, “I can’t wait to hear the Schumann piece!”
During intermission, a grand piano is moved to the front of the stage. The members of the NJSO take their seats, and the concertmaster strikes an A on the piano before the oboe takes it over and the musicians tune their instruments to it.
Daniil Trifonov enters and takes a seat at the piano. Maestro Zhang follows and the pair, along with the NJSO, commence their performance of a highlight of today’s program — their interpretation of Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A Minor. A love song for Schumann’s wife, Clara, this piece epitomizes a solo concerto from the Romantic period of music.
Opening with the Allegro affettuoso, Trifonov bounces on his seat as he plays. Performing with precision, his runs appear effortless — a rapid fury of glistening notes! His technique and lustrous tone are impressive, his expressiveness and dexterity world class.
Drinking in the music while the orchestra plays and he waits for his next entrance, Trifanov soon jumps back into the merrymaking and masterfully accompanies the orchestra with rolling arpeggios — liquid, velvety, and flowing.
As Zhang conducts the orchestra, the music ascends over the audience, Trifonov ever at the ready to respond with nuanced dynamics and articulation. Mainly looking straight ahead as he plays from memory, his hands float over the keys, his sound fluid and lovely, creating a performance filled with expert musicianship, poetry, and passion.
The piece’s second movement, the Intermezzo: Andantino grazioso continues the dialogue between soloist and orchestra. Here, lush strings swell in contrast to the piano. As Trifonov continues to dazzle, the music sweeps and soars, the pianist bringing his listeners with him on his creative and magical journey.
An allusion to the theme from the first movement provides a smooth transition to the Schumann’s sparkling finale, the Allegro vivace. With music flowing from his body, Trifonov’s interpretation of the piece is skillful yet soulful. His touch, tone, and technique demonstrate the musical intelligence of a super virtuoso, and the audience members resound in kind, leaping to their feet and cheering for this young master of the keyboard!
Following lengthy applause, Trifonov returns to the piano to play a solo encore piece — an exquisite rendition of Rachmaninoff’s Vocalese. Orchestra members sit with their heads slightly bowed — some with their eyes closed — as they take in the breathtaking music emanating from the piano. Here, Daniil Trifonov mesmerizes the audience with his artful performance, telling a story with his playing, and demonstrating why many experts contend he is the world’s preeminent classical pianist.
The packed house reacts with delight and Trifonov takes a series of well-deserved bows!
As the piano is moved off of the stage, we take a moment to chat with Sylvia from Morristown who exclaims, “Daniil Trifonov was fabulous! He was mesmerizing — so emotional and artistic. I felt like I was in dream.”
Likewise, Lewis from Parsippany concurs adding, “The Schumann piece was magnificent. The fluency and flow of the sound was incredible — I let it just flow all over me!”
Act II continues with a performance of the final piece of the afternoon, Scriabin’s The Poem of Ecstasy, a philosophical exploration about the ascent of the human spirit into consciousness.
As the piece begins, the musicians of the NJSO follow the flow of Zhang’s baton as it dances and sweeps over the orchestra, coaxing layers of sound from the instrumentalists and creating both a sound poem and a picture of art. Every stroke of every bow adds to the motion and emotion of the piece, just as every stroke of Zhang’s baton does the same, the connection between conductor and players creating a powerful piece of art.
With double harps leading the way, the trumpets add their own bursts of energy, the music dramatically sweeping ever upwards. Ending with a grand coda which reminds audience members of the powerful beginning of the first piece of today’s program — Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra — Zhang and the NJSO end this afternoon’s performance with a beautiful symmetry, traveling full circle and powerfully demonstrating to the audience how Music Speaks!
The audience erupts into applause at the triumphant finale, with bravos, whistles, and cheers coming from all corners of the theater for Xian Zhang and the NJSO!
As we make our way out of the auditorium, we take a moment to chat with a family of four from Morristown, who share their opinions of today’s concert with us.
Whereas William, age 4, the youngest member of the family, exclaims, “I liked the violins!” his big sister, Elena, 7, declares, “I liked all of it, especially the piano.”
Mom Christin explains, “Although the kids have seen The Nutcracker, this was their first time seeing the symphony,” before commenting, “I just have to say the Schumann was brilliant. I was in tears.”
Dad Nathan agrees remarking, “Daniil Trifonov was just incredible — I was amazed how he was able to play everything completely from memory.”
We also chat with another concertgoer, Kate from Washington, who comments, “The Schumann piece was wonderful — just beautiful — and so expressive. I didn’t think you could get that depth of sound and texture from a piano, but Daniil Trifonov did it, and we enjoyed it so much!”
Lastly, we chat with Ernestine from Harding, who declares, “This entire concert was great! The highlight was Daniil Trifonov — and he is so young!” before concluding, “His music restores your faith in human nature.”
To learn more about the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, please go to njsymphony.org. To find out more about upcoming programs at Morristown’s MayoPAC — including NJSO: Zhang Conducts Schubert and Dvořák on March 24 and NJSO: Zhang Conducts Mozart on April 28 — please click on mayoarts.org.Photos by Love Imagery
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