Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXII, No. 12
 
Wednesday, March 19, 2008
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Music/Theater

Princeton Symphony Brings Conducting Legend to Lead Music and Art Collaboration

Nancy Plum

An orchestra seeking a new music director is often under a lot of pressure in each concert — deciding what worked and what did not with the potential candidate, and players constantly having to shift gears with each new personality and musical style. Occasionally, it is nice for an ensemble in this position to bring in someone who can remind the players what music making is all about without the stress of an “audition.” Gunther Schuller is a conducting legend, and although it was unclear how he came to conduct the Princeton Symphony on Sunday afternoon (and it is unlikely that he is a candidate to be the next Music Director), his attention to musical detail was evident throughout the concert and greatly appreciated by players and audience members alike. Princeton Symphony presented Sunday afternoon’s performance in Richardson Auditorium in collaboration with the Princeton University Art Museum to showcase diverse artistic and compositional styles.

Mr. Schuller opened the concert with music of a late 19th century composer who drew a great deal of inspiration from earlier periods of art. Ottorino Respighi’s Trittico Botticelliano was based on three paintings by 15th century Florentine painter Sandro Botticelli, with unique compositional devices dating from the same period. Mr. Schuller, unassumingly dressed in a suit and clearly all business with the orchestra opened the work by deriving a very bright sound out of the strings. Throughout the three movements (whose artistic inspirations were reproduced in a very nice “Art Companion” for the audience) Mr. Schuller brought out great dynamic contrasts in the music and created a very Italianate style. Winds in particular were very clean, especially a delicate trio in the first movement among bassoonist Roe Goodman, clarinetist David Hattner, and oboist Carolyn Park.

Respighi musically replicated Botticelli’s 15th century roots in the second movement with the medieval style updated by use of campanelli and celeste in the orchestration. Flutist Jayn Rosenfeld provided some very clean playing in this movement, and a bassoon solo captured a pastoral medieval atmosphere. The harp playing of Andre Tarantiles emphasized the vivid style of the final movement, based on Botticelli’s painting “The Birth of Venus.”

As a composer as well as conductor, Mr. Schuller would naturally have particular insight into the music he conducts. This was especially apparent in the case of Paul Hindemith, whose Mathis der Maler (inspired by the artwork of Matthias Grünewald) was also performed Sunday afternoon. Mr. Schuller had a connection with Hindemith as a fellow composition teacher and colleague at Yale. Throughout Hindemith’s three-movement symphonic work, Mr. Schuller elicited a full and clean sound from the orchestra, with an especially lean sound from the string sections. The melodies and “angel songs” of the programmatic work could easily be delineated by the listener, aided by very precise wind solos, especially from Ms. Park and Ms. Rosenfeld. The most effective brass sound of the evening also came during this work as the trumpets and trombones provided an instrumental “Alleluia” to close the piece.

Mr. Schuller preceded the Hindemith work with a composition of his own, also inspired by art, in this case seven paintings by the early 20th-century Swiss artist Paul Klee. The three paintings reproduced in the “Art Companion” showed an abstract style reflected in Mr. Schuller’s Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee. Mr. Schuller’s musical vignettes brought out decisive playing by the strings, and the angularity of the music matched the artwork. Ms. Rosenfeld and Ms. Park led the way through a movement replicating a Bedouin atmosphere and the third movement demonstrated Mr. Schuller’s interest in jazz, emphasized by the unique positioning of percussion on both sides of the stage.

The route of multi-media presentations is one many performing organizations are taking these days, both to build audiences and show that whatever the art form, it is more than just the colors of the painting or the notes in the score — art stems from its surroundings, which often include other art. Audience members on Sunday afternoon were following along with the music, not necessarily with their program notes, but with their “Art Companions,” showing that they were also making the connection between art forms.

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