Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 14
Wednesday, April 4, 2007
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Trenton Symphony Celebrates 75th Year of War Memorial With Americana Concert

Nancy Plum

America seems to build structures in waves. Toward the end of the 19th century, the United States built concert halls along the routes of the country's burgeoning railroad system. In the years following World War I, cities and towns built monuments to the fallen. Rather than construct a statue or monument to honor the dead, the city of Trenton, New Jersey, decided to create a new community civic space to commemorate the dead through the activities of the living. The Trenton War Memorial opened in 1932 as a "living memorial," with a concert hall at the heart of its structure. Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, the War Memorial played host to the leading stars of music, dance and politics, as well as its resident Greater Trenton Symphony Orchestra. In the 1990s, the roughly 1900-seat hall was renovated, and the Symphony refined its sound to become a credible regional orchestra in the area.

This past weekend, the Trenton Symphony and War Memorial came together again, with a number of guests and friends, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the War Memorial. GTSO conductor John Holly led the ensemble through the Sunday afternoon program of orchestral and choral Americana, narrated and featuring vocal and instrumental soloists, as well as several local politicians with strong ties and commitments to the revitalization of Trenton.

One of the most recognizable names in music for American bands and orchestras is Morton Gould, whose American Ballads include six orchestral pieces based on American tunes. "Amber Waves," based on "America, the Beautiful," has a particular New Jersey connection in that the tune was written by New Jersey composer, Samuel Augustus Ward. The Orchestra presented this piece in a multi-media format, narrated by local Assemblyman William Baroni and accompanied by a photographic essay depicting the history of the War Memorial.

Gould's arrangement is full of musical representations, including "amber waves of grain" in the fluid bowings of the strings. Mr. Holly has trained the Symphony to be lean and precise, with an especially clean sound in the upper string.

The Trenton Symphony's connection to Samuel Barber goes back to a 1962 recording of Barber's Knoxville, Summer of 1915, a work commissioned by soprano Eleanor Steber, who also appeared on that original recording. Featured in Sunday's performance was soprano Rochelle Ellis, who performs regularly in the area and who is on the faculty of Westminster Choir College. Ms. Ellis was miked (which was probably not necessary) and sang with clean diction and animation to suit the story-telling nature of the text. The opening winds were clean, and the cello pizzicato spoke well in the hall. Short instrumental motives were effectively passed among the instruments, and Ms. Ellis was always well in control of the piece. The GTSO is planning a re-release of the 1962 recording, and it will be a welcome addition to the Orchestra's recording collection.

Westminster Choir College's 70-voice Schola Cantorum joined the Orchestra for Aaron Copland's operatic excerpt, "The Promise of Living." Although comprised of many more women than men, the chorus has been trained by Andrew Megill to be well blended and rhythmically clean. For both this work and the subsequent Michael Sammes setting of the text "For the Fallen," the chorus sang cleanly, although a bit overpowered by the Orchestra at times from being all the way at the back of the stage.

Copland's Lincoln Portrait, commissioned by the Cincinnati Symphony in 1942, draws on texts from the speeches of Abraham Lincoln, and was included in Sunday's program as a tribute to New Jersey soldiers. The piece was introduced by Senator Peter Inverso, and narrated by former radio personality John Anastasio. The musical rhythms of the piece seemed to mirror the rhythms of the declaimed text, and Mr. Holly well demonstrated the full sound of the Orchestra in the hall.

The second half of the program paid tribute to the myriad of soloists who have crossed the War Memorial stage in decades past. The most famous composer of these musical ghosts was no doubt Sergei Rachmaninoff, who played a recital in the hall in 1940. Pianists Clipper Erickson, a regular performer with the GTSO, paid homage to Rachmaninoff with a languid and precise performance of his "18th Variation" from Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Mr. Erickson was joined by concertmaster Herold Klein in a tribute to Fritz Kreisler, delicately performing Kreisler's "Liebesleid" for violin and piano. A tribute to Marian Anderson, introduced by soprano Deborah Ford and performed by Ms. Ellis, was followed by jazzy homage to Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong, and the Westminster Schola Cantorum returned to close the program with a selection from Randall Thompson's The Testament of Freedom.

Since its renovation, the Trenton War Memorial has come to life under the leadership of Molly Sword McDonough and an obviously committed Board of Directors and legislators. The City of Trenton made a wise decision in recognizing that a cultural anchor would help bring needed dollars into the area, and now the Patriots Theater series bring an impressive range of classical, jazz and folk music to the region. The Greater Trenton Symphony Orchestra has made good use of its home base, and the 75th Anniversary Celebration was well recognized and enjoyed by the audience which came on Sunday afternoon.

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