Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 44
Wednesday, November 4, 2009
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Princeton Symphony Features One of Its Own in Music of John Harbison

Nancy Plum

The Princeton Symphony Orchestra turned to some long-term community connections in the ensemble’s second concert of the new season, presented Sunday afternoon at Richardson Auditorium. In the Orchestra’s annual Edward T. Cone Concert, David Alan Miller, conductor of the Albany Symphony Orchestra, took the Princeton Symphony podium to conduct a program of new and old works, but works which were linked by their classical roots. Composer John Harbison, a former resident of Princeton and a graduate of the University, also spent the weekend in town, discussing the two works in Princeton Symphony’s continuing series of popular pre-concert lectures.

John Harbison’s music has been characterized as imaginative, and his compositional output includes music in all concert genres. His Canonical American Songbook, composed in 2005, is based on a previous work incorporating traditional songs into a variety of orchestral fabrics. As Mr. Harbison explained in his remarks from the stage, some of these songs have faded from public memory, but his unique instrumentation made them instantly recognizable.

The Princeton Symphony Orchestra will present its next concert on Sunday, January 24, 2010 at 4:00 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium. Music Director Rossen Milanov will conduct music of Ravel, Haydn, Prokofiev and Ginastera. Ticket information can be obtained by calling the Princeton Symphony Orchestra at (609) 497-0020.

Mr. Harbison’s placement of “Careless Love” in the flute (in conjunction with the clarinet and harp) foreshadowed the flute concerto of his which appeared later in the program. The traditional American tune moved well through the horn, against a very American palette of bassoons and celli. Secondary melodic material was well played by English horn player Nick Masterson, as well as from the percussion section.

Each of the subsequent tunes used by Mr. Harbison — “Aura Lee,” “St. Louis Blues” and “We Shall Overcome”— reflected the character in which it was originally written. An especially unusual syncopated treatment of “We Shall Overcome” gave the impression of the tune as almost a Baroque French carol. Calling on the players to play just the mouthpieces or reeds of their instrument gave the closing “Anniversary Song” a childlike appeal, suitable to its intended purpose in honor of Mr. Harbison’s younger sister.

Like 20th century composer Paul Hindemith, Mr. Harbison seems to be making his way through the orchestra composing concerti for each different type of instrument, in the case of Sunday afternoon’s program, a Concerto for Flute. PSO Principal Flutist Jayn Rosenfeld has been a backbone of the ensemble since its founding, and has had her share of solos within pieces, but the audience had a chance to really hear her capabilities in this work. Mr. Harbison constructed the concerto as a journey, with the flute as a traveler through a somewhat aviary environment. The three movements of this concerto included a number of extended solo cadenzas, and Ms. Rosenfeld employed solid physical strength and natural musicianship to keep the demanding solo part moving forward. The Orchestra also had the piece well in hand, presenting an unusual contrast of colors with the solo flute. Ms. Rosenfeld’s fellow flutists, Mary Schmidt and Amy Wolfe, easily met the challenge of keeping the three instruments sounding together, especially during trills and given the distance between the ensemble players and the soloist. Throughout the concerto, Ms. Rosenfeld demonstrated great pose and command of the music, clearly enjoying her position in front of the orchestra.

Conductor Miller characterized Mr. Harbison’s flute concerto as in the Neoclassical tradition, and he returned to classical roots to close the concert with Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 in C minor. Mr. Miller made a specific point of getting away from an overwhelming 19th century interpretation of this piece, recognizing the work’s debt to the drama of Beethoven. The opening introduction and first movement were well built in its tension, leading to a lush and flowing second movement. Oboist Caroline Park provided eloquent solo work, answered by clarinetist William Amsel, who also provided a pastoral solo in the third movement against clean running pizzicatti in the celli. Throughout the work, Mr. Miller played with the tempi and suspense of the music, moving well through the familiar string theme and closing coda of the symphony.

Also apparent Sunday afternoon was Mr. Miller’s popularity with the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, and the players had no trouble following his musical intentions. This concert, as well as the Orchestra’s September performance which preceded it, served as a good set-up to the ensemble’s winter and spring concerts, which will introduce new Music Director Rossen Milanov to the community.

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