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“Beethoven and Friends!” The MidAtlantic Orchestra LIVE! at the Great Auditorium

By Spotlight Central. Photos by Love Imagery

It’s drizzling outside Ocean Grove, NJ’s Great Auditorium this Thursday, July 29, 2021 evening, a night on which the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association has slated a long-awaited Summer Stars Classical music program entitled “Beethoven and Friends.” The event, which features the MidAtlantic Orchestra under the baton of Jason Tramm, also spotlights such additional musical friends as violinist Byung Kook Kwak, soprano vocalist Michelle Johnson, and organist Gordon Turk.

After dodging the raindrops on our way inside the historic venue, we see members of the MidAtlantic Orchestra already on stage getting ready for tonight’s performance. As this talented cadre of musicians warms up and tunes their instruments, bowing sounds can be heard from the delicate violins and violas which are seated across from the larger, lower cellos and upright bass viols. Behind them, woodwind timbres float from clarinets, oboes, and mellow bassoons and are followed by the sounds of bright brass and rolling timpani drums.

While the auditorium fills with music lovers of all ages, from families with children to young adults to senior citizens, we take a moment to chat with a group of pre-med college students who are here tonight as part of a special educational program led by Dr. Arthur Topilow. Explains Topilow, a Monmouth County hematologist/oncologist who is also a jazz pianist, “These students are part of a program sponsored by the Axelrod Foundation where pre-med students do 40 hours a week of clinical research, but are also invited to attend various musical performances in the area.”

First, we chat with Alyssa from Tinton Falls, who is a pre-med student majoring in molecular biology, but who also takes voice lessons at Monmouth University. Although she usually listens to alternative music or pop artists like Olivia Rodrigo, Alyssa tells us that she also enjoys listening to classical instrumental music — mainly piano music — and jazz, while she studies. Exclaims Alyssa in anticipation of tonight’s performance, “I haven’t been to a show for a while, and I’ve never been to a classical concert, so I’m so excited to hear this type of music played live!”

Next, we chat with Kathrynna from Montclair who attends Seton Hall University and is a biology major who loves musical theatre and R&B. Recalling, “I sang my whole life — I performed as a kid in elementary school through high school, and I was in a couple of plays,” Kathrynna acknowledges, “I’ve never been to a classical concert before,” before noting, “I’m looking forward to hearing the soprano, Michelle Johnson, tonight, but I also look forward to listening to all of the orchestral instrumental music, as well.”

We also chat with Vincenzo from Hazlet, who is a neuroscience major at Assumption University in Worcester, MA. States Vincenzo, “I’ll listen to anything but country” — notably rappers including Rod Wave — “and I just started listening to classical music when I study, and it helps a lot.” Recalling, “I played the saxophone in fourth grade for about three weeks, but I wish I could play an instrument now — I wish I could play piano,” Vincenzo concludes by revealing, “I’ve never seen a classical concert.”

Additionally, we take a moment to chat with Dr. Topilow who tells us, “My wife and I have already attended several concerts here at the Great Auditorium this summer. It feels great to be back watching live performances! Tonight, I’m especially interested in hearing conductor Jason Tramm’s interpretation of Beethoven’s 5th.”

Topilow, who has played the piano for 60 years, discloses, “I’ve played classical piano since I was eight years old, and in high school I started playing jazz,” noting, “I just gave two concerts myself in May at Bell Works in Holmdel — each at 50% capacity — and I can tell you that without an audience, the music is nothing.”

Topilow’s wife Judith, a pediatrician, agrees, noting, “I’m so happy that the New Jersey Symphony and other orchestras are getting back to performing full programs. Since the start of this pandemic, we’ve really missed live music!”

The lights inside the Great Auditorium blink and Gordon Turk, artistic director for the 2021 Summer Stars Classical concert series, takes the stage to tell tonight’s audience, “We are so glad to be back together and have the experience of live music. There is nothing else like it!” bringing applause and cheers from the crowd.

As the members of the MidAtlantic Orchestra warm up their instruments, concertmaster and violin soloist Byung Kook Kwak takes the stage, followed by conductor Jason Tramm. The orchestra stands and bows before launching into tonight’s first piece, “Romance in F Major” by Beethoven.

On this piece, crafted especially for violin and orchestra, the sweet strains of Kwak’s violin are deftly accompanied by the string section. Bows glide across strings with grace on this stately composition. Kwak’s expert violin playing is underscored by the grand sounds of violins, violas, celli, and basses in addition to the reedy sounds of woodwinds as the piece builds in intensity and dynamics.

The music floats over the audience and colors the cool breeze that flows through the auditorium, punctuated by the occasional roll of thunder from an outside passing storm. At the conclusion, the crowd reacts with avid applause as the musicians smile and bow together.

Kwak takes his place as first chair of the violin section and re-tunes the orchestra while conductor Jason Gramm escorts soprano Michelle Johnson to the stage. The next piece, “Ah, Perfido” by Beethoven, has Michelle Johnson accompanied by full orchestra. This concert aria, which is sung in Italian, begins with a long recitative for Johnson that transforms into a lament full of fluctuating emotions accompanied by highly contrasting music.

Johnson’s expressive face and regal posture help her communicate her story, and her powerful voice fills the great hall with emotion. Her vocal range and versatility take the listening crowd on a musical journey as the MidAtlantic instrumentalists support her dynamic melody with skillful playing.

As the music becomes more agitated and loud, a thunderstorm taking place outside grows in intensity, punctuating the music as if in agreement with this moody Beethoven piece. The sounds of a downpour of steady rain add to the drama of the music coming from the stage. As the composition ends, a roar of cheers and whistles erupts from the congregation and people rise clapping with their hands held high in the air.

Gordon Turk returns to the stage and takes a seat at the Great Auditorium’s pipe organ console. From the first downbeat of Handel’s “Organ Concerto in F Major,” the orchestra and organ are in perfect sync.

The echoing organ part trills along, accented and echoed by the orchestral parts, as musical counterparts play as one under the nimble baton of Jason Tramm.

The sound of the rhythmic organ fills the auditorium while the orchestra lulls the audience with its pianissimo playing before crescendoing into bright waves of powerful music. Whistles from the crowd express the approval of the audience as Turk bows.

Tramm and the orchestra also rise and bow to bursting applause.

During intermission, we chat with a few more of the pre-med students in the audience and ask them to share their thoughts about the evening’s program thus far. Comments Anagha from South Brunswick, “The first piece, ‘Romance in F Major,’ was my favorite — I really like Beethoven — but soprano Michelle Johnson’s singing was fantastic! I loved how she really put her personality into the piece.”

Samantha from Manalapan agrees, stating, “My favorite was the soprano, Michelle Johnson. She was really powerful, and I liked her expression.” Sherine from Ocean Township concurs, noting, “I like the way she carried herself, and her personality, too,” before adding, “And I especially liked Byung Kook Kwak on the violin, as well.”

As Act II commences, Turk returns to the stage to announce the next selection, “Pace, pace mio Dio” by Giuseppi Verdi. Cheers and applause ring out upon the return of singer Michelle Johnson and conductor Jason Tramm.

The piece begins with Johnson’s voice floating softly and sweetly over the audience. Using her expressive face and hand gestures to convey despair and a plea for peace, her rich soprano rings out as Turk’s organ and Tramm’s orchestra accompany this slow, melodious aria.

The rain outside teems as cell phones in the auditorium start to beep with news of a tornado warning which adds to the emotion in the room, yet no one leaves. The piece builds in intensity and Johnson lifts her eyes upward toward the heavens as her voice soars on this compelling aria which builds to a furious end with rolling timpani and a wall of orchestral sound. The crowd rises to its feet cheering and applauding for this impressive performance!

Before the final selection of the evening, Tramm addresses the crowd, telling them that after a year and a half of missing live performances, “It’s been very emotional for all of us to start that path back.” Tramm goes on to explain that Beethoven’s Symphony №5 is about the victory of light over darkness, disclosing, “Beethoven wrote it in the throws of depression, with his own doubts and pain,” before joking, “Tonight, perhaps, we’ll even have a little extra percussion from the storm!”

Symphony №5 opens with its world-famous four-note introduction. As the piece progresses, the strings bow furiously before the rich, round sound of the French horns call, and the musicians answer one another with grace and skill. Tramm’s conducting is animated, keeping more than time as his hands float though the air, coaxing lyrical sounds from the musicians before grabbing at the air to indicate to the instrumentalists how they should rhythmically punctuate the music.

Soon, the rain outside stops, and the regal and triumphant brass seem to reverberate even more within this resonant concert space before plucking pizzicato violins accentuate the low strings, woodwinds, and brass. Ultimately, music lovers recognize the sounds of instruments following one another, creating circles of melodies that prance together and separate again. The musicians watch and breathe as one, melding their instrumental creations into an explosion of powerful vibrations.

Tramm stands strong with forceful downbeats and sweeping motions that bring forth the precise dynamics and articulation he envisions.

At the stunning conclusion, there is huge applause for this energetic and emotional performance. The entire audience stands, cheers, and whistles for several moments as Tramm recognizes the evening’s featured performers who take their final bows and are followed by the members of the MidAtlantic Orchestra who stand as one for the appreciative crowd.

As we exit the Great Auditorium, we catch up with the three pre-med students we met before the performance and ask them what they thought about tonight’s concert — for all three, their first classical music experience.

Exclaims Alyssa from Tinton Falls, “It was so cool! I loved the soprano. She was such a good singer, and her range was insane! To watch her breathe — to have that much breath — was amazing!” Continuing, “The concert was so good, and it was just fantastic getting to hear it live,” Alyssia concludes by suggesting, “The orchestra was really very powerful, and it made for a very passionate performance!”

Vincenzo from Hazlet agrees, adding, “I liked it a lot — especially Beethoven’s 5th— but I liked hearing Gordon Turk’s organ the most,” before pointing out, “Plus, it was really interesting to see how all the musicians worked and played together.”

Lastly, we chat with Kathyrnna from Montclair, who calls tonight’s concert “Amazing!” Acknowledging, “It was interesting to see how everything complimented each other,” Kathyrnna explains, “It was like a conversation between the instruments! I loved watching the expression of the instrumentalists — you could see how much heart they were putting into it,” before concluding, “Now I want to go to even more classical performances!”

To learn more about conductor Jason Tramm, please go to jasontramm.net. For further information on soprano Michelle Johnson, click on michellejohnsonsoprano.com. For more on violinist Byong Kook Kwak, go to feenotes.com/kwak-byung-kook. For further info on organist Gordon Turk, please click on gordonturk.com.

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