Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXV, No. 19
Wednesday, May 18, 2011
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Music/Theater

Princeton Symphony Orchestra Ends Season With Opulent Works by Russian Composers

Nancy Plum

The period between 1850 and 1900 in Russia was marked by a growth in population and industrial activity, as well as the development of a Russian musical identity. Five pre-eminent composers emerged from a tradition rooted in European classical music to synthesize Russian folklore, literature, and musical techniques into a powerful new style of rich harmonies and lush orchestration. Princeton Symphony Orchestra returned to this luxuriant heritage in its final concert of the 2011 season with a performance of three works spanning a mere twenty years but containing a kaleidoscope of instrumental colors and musical effects. In Sunday afternoon’s concert in Richardson Auditorium, Music Director Rossen Milanov challenged the musicians to close their concert series with full out majestic and resplendent playing.

The great 19th century Russian orchestral tradition flourished through the “Mighty Handful” of composers, including Modest Mussorgsky, most well-known for piano and operatic works. Mussorgsky left a number of pieces unfinished, including Dawn on the Moskva River, a one-movement orchestral opera prelude, later finished by fellow Russian Rimsky-Korsakov. Mr. Milanov and the Princeton Symphony presented this set of five variations on a folk-like tune as a short musical vignette of the Russian countryside. The piece began languidly with the violas, with playful wind playing contrasting with pizzicato playing in the celli. Principal oboist Nicholas Masterson provided an elegant tune to portray birdcalls from the pastoral scene. Mussorgsky/Rimsky-Korsakov ended this work oddly, but Mr. Milanov and the players, especially flutist Jayn Rosenfeld, brought the piece to a pianissimo close.

Princeton Symphony Orchestra will open its 2011-12 Classical Series on Sunday, October 2 at Richardson Auditorium. Information can be obtained from the PSO website, www.princetonsymphony.org.

Nineteenth century Russian orchestral music may have begun with the “Mighty Handful” but reached its zenith with Sergei Rachmaninoff, who bridged the 19th and 20th centuries with a revolutionary musical style, especially when it came to the piano concerto. His Piano Concerto No. 2 in c minor is not only one of the most challenging works in the repertory, but with its music turning up in other media, the concerto is also one of the most recognizable. The Princeton Symphony was joined in this performance by pianist Di Wu, a soloist astounding in her strength of playing, as well as her educational choices. Most solo musicians would be content with a degree from the esteemed Curtis Institute, but Ms. Wu added a master’s degree and artist’s diploma from Juilliard to her credentials while building her performing resume.

Ms. Wu began the Rachmaninoff concerto with decisive chords, building in intensity and dynamics to the familiar orchestral theme accompanied by a rolling piano part. Ms. Wu is a strong and forceful player, with never a dull moment in her musical intention. She watched the orchestra carefully, eliciting perfect timing between the orchestra and cascading arpeggios in the piano. The orchestra provided a ferocious restatement of the theme, with the double bass pizzicato resounding like bells, closing the first movement with a clean horn solo from Douglas Lundeen.

Wind instruments were more prominent in the second movement, with Ms. Wu providing a steady accompaniment to Ms. Rosenfeld’s elegant flute solo, leading to a similarly graceful clarinet solo from William Amsel. The interplay among Ms. Wu and the two solo wind instruments gave the impression of an intimate chamber recital, as Mr. Milanov kept things serene. The orchestra transitioned to a quicker section well, and Mr. Milanov allowed Ms. Wu to close the adagio movement in her own time.

The virtuosity of the pianist came out in the third movement allegro, as Ms. Wu’s fierce playing was accompanied by crisp bowing from the strings. Rachmaninoff seemed to love the deep and intense sound of the violas, and the second was featured in sectional solos throughout the concert. Most impressive throughout the performance of this concerto was not only the mesmerizing abilities of the soloist (who no doubt made every audience member want to go home and practice piano) but also the range of dynamics from the orchestra which reaffirmed Rachmaninoff’s musical intentions for the work.

The Princeton Symphony closed the concert with another Russian work not as well known. Alexander Scriabin composed Symphony No. 2 in c minor the same year as Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concert No. 2, yet the two works are completely different in character. Scriabin was well ahead of his time in expressionism, with a musical style influenced by synesthesia, in which he assigned colors to various keys. Scriabin also liked the low registers of the strings, and Mr. Milanov conducted the opening movement broadly through the dark string playing and low clarinet solo by Mr. Amsel to a violin solo by concertmistress Basia Danilow which finally pulled the music to an upper register. Several of the five movements of this symphony were connected, and the orchestra made the transitions cleanly. Mr. Amsel was featured several times with mellow and smooth solos in the lower registers of the clarinet and the final movements flowed well into one another to create a symphonic palette of colors.

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