Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 45
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
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New Jersey Symphony Brings a Bit of Finland to Princeton

Nancy Plum

The classical music tradition in Finland is not as well known as other European musical practices, and the talented musicians of that region are even lesser known. New Jersey Symphony Orchestra worked to dispel some of that mystery on Friday night when the ensemble presented a concert featuring the music of Jean Sibelius in Richardson Auditorium. Finnish guest conductor Olli Mustonen paired two Sibelius works with a short overture by Robert Schumann and a substantial Mozart piano concert with the conductor doubling as soloist.

Mr. Mustonen approached the conducting podium from the standpoint of conductor, pianist and composer. He has been quoted as saying that “each performance must have the freshness of a first performance, so that audience and performer alike encounter the composer as a living contemporary.” Schumann’s Julius Caesar Overture was undoubtedly new to most of the audience in Richardson, providing an automatic “freshness,” and Mr. Mustonen brought out this Overture’s emphasis on the dark yet majestic side of Caesar’s character. Conducting without a baton, Mr. Mustonen exhibited a liquid directing style, conveying nuance and line with his hands. Although the Overture seemed a bit slow at times, emphatic horns enabled the piece to pick up speed and close in martial and regal style.

New Jersey Symphony will present its next performance in Princeton on Friday, January 22, 2010 at 8 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium. Conducting this performance will be Xian Zhang and music will include works by Berlioz Liszt and Respighi. Ticket information can be obtained by calling the NJSO at

Conducting piano concerti from the keyboard is well rooted in 18th century performance practice, and one of the tricks to a conductor’s success is bridging an imperceptible gap between the solo and orchestral passages. Mr. Mustonen approached Mozart’s Piano Concerto #24 in C Minor with a somewhat detached keyboard style, often playing as if he were not using any pedal. His playing was also marked by clean and easy runs, which became more lyrical as the first movement “Allegro” moved along. Mr. Mustonen was accompanied in this movement by graceful woodwinds and particularly elegant solo playing from oboist Robert Ingliss and flutist Kathleen Nester. Mr. Ingliss and Ms. Nester communicated especially well with each other during their frequent duet work.

Among Mozart’s concerti, #24 is unusual in its showcasing of the wind instruments, and the second movement “Larghetto” demonstrated continued solid playing from the NJSO winds. A pair of oboes, combined with a single flute and bassoon provided delicacy which was at times lacking in the piano solo, despite Mr. Mustonen’s dexterity on the runs. The third movement of this concerto is not as sprightly as finales to other Mozart concerti, but Mr. Mustonen played the solo variations in this movement with a very light touch. He ended solo phrases particularly well while simultaneously cuing various combinations of players. The second variation was especially elegant in an instrumentation of pairs of bassoons and oboes combined with solo clarinet and flute. A subsequent variation linked a clean solo clarinet, bassoons and horns with an echo by the solo pianist and strings.

Jean Sibelius’ Symphony #6 in D Minor has been referred to as reminding individuals of the scent of the very first snow. With unusual orchestration including lower strings only sporadically for emphasis it was clear to hear from the Orchestra’s clean first movement why this work would remind someone of snow. Mr. Mustonen exhibited a smooth conducting pattern while solo and sectional passages emerged from the orchestral fabric. The Symphony had a nice flow from the outset, and when the celli finally did play the melodic theme, the line was rich. As with the Mozart, solo winds were prevalent, including from bassoonist Robert Wagner and Ms. Nester.

Mr. Mustonen followed the Symphony with a spirited rendition of Sibelius’ tone poem Finlandia abounding in Finnish nationalism and 19th century lushness. In this piece, Mr. Mustonen was most successful in bringing the composer to life, using decisiveness to electrify a piece designed to unite an entire nation. The NJSO brass sections were particularly commendable in emphasizing the emotionalism of the music. Through both of these Sibelius works, Mr. Mustonen was able to transport the audience to a foreign and not as familiar musical tradition.

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