Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXV, No. 12
Wednesday, March 23, 2011
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Music/Theater

Violin Superstar Koh Returns to Richardson, Plays Masterfully With Princeton Symphony

Nancy Plum

All performers bring their own experience and background to the podium, which in the case of Princeton Symphony Music Director Rossen Milanov means drawing on the culture of his native Bulgaria and its indigenous folk life. The Princeton Symphony’s performance on Sunday afternoon in Richardson Auditorium was the annual concert to honor Princeton composer Edward T. Cone, so it was fitting that Mr. Milanov programmed three late 19th or early 20th century pieces, with a recurring theme through all three works of folk music of three central European regions.

American composer Derek Bermel has spent a considerable amount of time in the past decade studying the indigenous instrumental and vocal music of Thracia, a mountaintop region of Bulgaria. What has resulted is Bermel’s Thracian Echoes, a one-movement orchestral amalgamation of Bulgarian folk melodies and musical effects which Mr. Milanov used to open Sunday afternoon’s concert.

The Princeton Symphony’s closing concert of the season will be on Sunday, May 15 at 4 p.m. The concert will include music of Mussorgsky, Rachmaninoff, and Scriabin, and featuring pianist Di Wu. For information call the box office at (609) 258-5000 or visit www.princetonsymphony.org.

The key stylistic element of Mr. Bermel’s piece was echoes, both in the music and in the hall. Musicians placed in the balcony and playing through open doors, as well as Mr. Bermel’s compositional style, recreated a mountain echo as phrases moved among instruments and around the hall. The overall sound, especially from the strings, was forceful, with driving rhythms. Thracian Echoes was marked by very elegant instrumental duets, particularly from English horn player Youson Chung and bassoonist Roe Goodman.

Mr. Milanov followed this recently composed work with a concerto by another composer immersed in the folk culture of his native land. Antonin Dvorˇák integrated Bohemian folk tales into his symphonic works, and composed his significant Violin Concerto in A minor after hearing virtuoso Joseph Joachim play a concerto of Brahms. Dvorˇák wrote his concerto in extensive consultation with Joachim, and as a result, the solo violin part is fiendishly difficult at times. However, no contemporary violinist would be more up to the task of this concerto than Jennifer Koh, who has appeared in Princeton with the New Jersey Symphony, but was making her debut with the Princeton Symphony.

Ms. Koh captured the passion and flair of Bohemia in the music, leading the way in the first movement, paired with the winds. Ms. Koh handled well the cadenza-like writing in the non-stop solo part, and Mr. Milanov created a pastoral contrast with the orchestral accompaniment. The violin solo was often paired with winds, particularly well played by oboist Caroline Park and clarinetist Pascal Archer. The final movement featured playful interaction between violin and orchestra, as the violin seemed to chase its own tail against the winds. This movement appeared to be one that would be fun to play, and the audience stayed enraptured to the end with Ms. Koh’s very tough soloistic work-out.

Béla Bartók was also a folk tune collector, traveling extensively through his Hungarian homeland. His five-movement Concerto for Orchestra incorporated many of these folk tunes into its orchestral fabric, combined with intervallic writing ahead of its time. Mr. Milanov began the work with smooth lower string lines, as the orchestra played contrasting solo lines. The second movement featured the winds and brass subtly playing unusual combinations of intervals, which never sounded dissonant, despite their inherently strident nature. Mr. Milanov seemed to enjoy the precision of the rhythm, and derived a very relaxed sound from the brass chorale in the second movement.

The fourth movement showed a rich viola sectional sound against a pair of harps as Bartok told a poignant story of his homeland during World War II. Mr. Archer played a chipper clarinet solo as part of this musical parody, and Mr. Milanov kept the sections moving along to the end of the piece.

Princeton audiences are fortunate enough to hear someone of Jennifer Koh’s stature once in a few years’ time, and more than lucky to have heard her twice in recent years. Mr. Milanov has clearly used his Philadelphia connections to enhance his Princeton Symphony inaugural season, all to the benefit of the Princeton concert-going public.

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