Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 12
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
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PSO Presents Music That Complements University Art Museum’s Current Display

Nancy Plum

Princeton Symphony Orchestra gave its wind, brass and percussion sections the day off on Sunday afternoon in their latest concert in Richardson Auditorium. For this performance, rather than do the expected and focus on J.S. Bach, whose 325th birthday was Sunday, the Symphony allied itself with the Princeton University Art Museum to present music linked to the Museum’s current Architecture as Icon exhibit. Guest conductor Andrew Grams chose three works for string orchestra, one inspired by literature, one inextricably linked to film and one designed to open the audience’s imagination to the Byzantine exhibit at the Museum. Programming a concert just for strings not only allowed the players to really hear each other but also gave the audience the chance to observe different playing styles.

Arnold Schoenberg originally composed Verklärte Nacht for string sextet and later rescored the piece for string orchestra. It is the story of transfiguration — in the storyline between a man and a woman, in the night as it loses its desolation, and in the resolution of the work’s key from minor to major. Concertmistress Basia Danilow took great care in tuning the ensemble at the start of the concert, after which the symphony opened the piece with pulsating violas and lower strings. Schoenberg created the string sextet by adding a second violist and cellist, and in the Princeton Symphony, these two sections were subdivided.

Princeton Symphony Orchestra’s next concert will be on Sunday, May 16 at 4 p.m. under the direction of newly-appointed Music Director Rossen Milanov. Featured in this performance will be harp soloist Bridget Kibbey, and the music of Mendelssohn, Currier, and Elgar. For information call (609) 258-5000.

From the outset, the performance was well unified, and all sections of the ensemble could be heard clearly. Principal violist Sarah Sutton consistently demonstrated a smooth and velvety solo line, especially when paired with Ms. Danilow. These two soloists communicated well across the ensemble, and were joined in secure solo performance by cellist Jodi Beder and second violinist Deborah Buck. Schoenberg was very good to violas in this work, and the subdivided viola section demonstrated both delicate and luxuriant playing with a unified melodic sound within each half of the section.

Mr. Grams had the story in mind throughout the piece, and brought out a very different instrumental color in the almost hymn-like second section. This piece worked well for the Princeton Symphony, and it was difficult to imagine the scandalous reaction to its 1902 premiere (which was “hissed and caused riots and fist fights,” in Schoenberg’s words); this type of tonality and lushness has become ingrained in 21st century ears.

American composer Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, originally a movement from a string quartet, has been used in a number of film scores and has long been the go-to piece for circumstances of tragedy. This one-movement work can be drawn out in performance to the point of melodrama, but Mr. Grams, barely conducting the piece’s opening, gave the music a great deal of room to grow. The inner melodies emerged well, and each section was able to step aside for the melody in another section.

The piece that linked the concert to the Art Museum exhibit was John Tavener’s The Protecting Veil, an 8-movement work for solo cello and string orchestra. The Symphony called on one of its alumni as featured cello soloist; Qiang Tu was principal cellist of the ensemble in 1994 before joining the New York Philharmonic and launching a very successful international solo and chamber career. Mr. Tu played with a shimmering spin on his instrumental sound, playing on a very high side of the pitch. He began the Tavener work with an almost imperceptible opening, fitting in well with the ensemble when necessary or contrasting the characteristic Tavener drone-like effect from the lower strings with a portamento-laden melody.

Tavener’s works are often steeped in the Russian Orthodox tradition, and one could easily make a connection between this piece (which is inspired by the Feast of the Protecting Veil of the Mother of God) and the Byzantine icons currently on exhibit in the University Museum. Tavener sought to create an icon in sound, and the Princeton Symphony achieved very clear musical effects and key changes for a fitting musical atmosphere.

Sunday afternoon’s concert was a fitting companion to the exhibit at the Museum, currently on display through the spring. The artwork is striking, and any performance which raises the audience’s awareness of another art form does both musician and concert-goer a great service.

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