Vol. LXI, No. 45
Wednesday, November 7, 2007
Every time a guest conductor stands before an orchestra, the ensemble is like a blank palette. Each conductor will draw something completely different from the music and from the players, and one might never imagine that an orchestra playing for different conductors is the same ensemble of players.
The Princeton Symphony Orchestra continued its “transition” season on Sunday afternoon in Richardson Auditorium with a second guest conductor for the Classical series. Like his predecessor who conducted the orchestra in September, Jens Georg Bachmann is a conductor with connections to the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Mr. Bachmann was Assistant Conductor of the Boston Symphony for several years, and his relationship with BSO Music Director James Levine extend back to an Assistantship with the Munich Philharmonic. Mr. Bachmann came to Princeton on Sunday to conduct the Princeton Symphony in a program focused on Russian music, including a U.S. premiere of a work by a contemporary female Russian composer.
To open the concert, Mr. Bachmann selected a light-hearted work by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, the only composer on the afternoon’s program not born in Russia. One did not need to know that he died in Hollywood to know Korngold was also a film composer; the lushness and Copland-esque broad musical strokes of his Theme and Variations, Op. 42 were a giveaway that Korngold in fact won two Oscars for his film scores.
Mr. Bachmann is a tall and lanky conductor, with solid command over the ensemble. Within Korngold’s work he focused on swells and accents, bringing out very smooth playing among the winds. The quick changes in tempo which one would expect from film-like music were handled well by the ensemble, and endings were crisp. Mr. Bachmann drew a lush sound from the orchestra, painting a grand musical landscape and enticing very expressive playing from the musicians.
The orchestras next concert is on Sunday, January 20. Mischa Santora will be conducting music of Princeton composer Edward Cone and Gustav Mahler. For ticket information call (609) 258-5000.
Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture Fantasy can be an old war horse, but in the hands of an opera conductor such as Mr. Bachmann (he made his Met debut last season), this overture can be well-nuanced and dramatic. Mr. Bachmann began the overture with a small conducting beat, and an obvious concept of the work in his mind. The winds together were especially well blended.
Emphasizing dynamics from the pizzicato strings was an especially nice effect, and the tension built well within the overture. While conducting, Mr. Bachmann maintains a relatively expressionless face, but he is clearly one musical mood ahead of the players.
In this overture, just when one thinks it is over, all the drama starts back up again, and the key to success in the piece is finding something different in the new rendition of the same music. Mr. Bachmann kept the phrases moving along, and offbeat accents were kept sharp and exact. Subtle playing by Adrienne Ostrander and a precise harp played by André Tarantiles kept the action exciting. The typical Tchaikovsky chorale, played in the winds, was also very clean.
Mr. Bachmann introduced a new composer to the audience on Sunday with a performance of Colours of Autumn for String Orchestra by Russian composer Victoria Borisova-Ollas. Ms. Borisova-Ollas is a Russian trained composer currently living in Sweden, and according to Mr. Bachmann’s introductory remarks, she draws a great deal of her inspiration for composing music from other art forms. In this case of Colours of Autumn (commissioned by a Swedish chamber orchestra), the inspiration was a quote from Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita describing the anticipation of autumn in the air. Ms. Borisova-Ollas has composed a work depicting various aspects of autumn leading into winter. Autumn means different things in different parts of the world, and in her world, there is clearly ice, interestingly depicted by the strings. Colours of Autumn was well played by the orchestra, but as a piece seemed to be individual colors disjointedly strung together without an overriding thread. There were lots of spaces for erroneous notes to fall into (which they did from time to time), and despite some interesting compositional effects (such as two violins upbowing sharply while the rest of the section was playing pizzicato), the piece was a little hard to get a hold of, but well appreciated by the audience.
A rousing performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9 closed the afternoon’s program. Shostakovich composed the symphony at the close of World War II, but given his nationalistic reputation, the piece was totally different than what the world likely expected. There is a great deal of humor in the piece, which could either have lifted the country’s spirit or commented on the absurdity of war, and the overall tone of the work is definitely quirky. In Sunday afternoon’s performance, Mr. Bachmann kept the symphony moving along, and it was nice to hear the flutes and piccolo — colors which had not been emphasized in the rest of the concert. A haunting clarinet solo by Pascal Archer, later joined by fellow clarinetist Sherry Hartman Apgar and flutist Jayn Rosenfeld, made the second movement especially effective. Bassoonist Roe Goodman held the fourth movement together with a full-bodied solo and led the way into the closing finale.
Mr. Bachmann was the second of five guest conductors who will be conducting the Princeton Symphony this year. So far the audience has responded well to the guests, and their collective interest is no doubt piqued for the next musical surprise.
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