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Princeton Symphony Orchestra's 25th Season Opens With Rousing Performance of Beethoven

Nancy Plum

In the final movement of his Ninth Symphony, Beethoven recalls several themes from earlier in the symphony, after which the bass soloist sings "Nicht diese Töne" ("Not these tones") and the lower strings of the orchestra launch into the "Ode to Joy" theme. Musicologists often identify this point in the symphony as the keystone in music's transition from the 18th to the 19th centuries, leaving behind the classical period of Mozart and early Beethoven. On a more political level, the beginning of the 19th century ushered in the era of Napoleon, against Beethoven's call that "all men shall be brothers." The Princeton Symphony Orchestra, celebrating its 25th anniversary, is also leaving its past behind and entering a new era, and so Mark Laycock's choice of this symphony to open this commemorative season on Sunday afternoon was fitting, not only as a towering musical work but as a symbol of what the ensemble has become over the past 25 years. Not content to keep this celebration to themselves, Mr. Laycock and his orchestra invited their friends of a 230-voice chorus, four soloists and a sold-out house at Richardson Auditorium to join them.

One of the major changes in the Princeton Symphony this year is the loss of one of its violinists and long-time program annotator-Dr. Laurence Taylor – so it was appropriate that the Anniversary Overture which opened the concert was by English composer Malcolm Arnold, whom Dr. Taylor probably knew. This one-movement overture showed off all the instruments of the orchestra at their lushest, especially matching the clarinets with the cleanness of the strings.

Mozart's Symphony Number 25 in G minor was obviously selected for its catalog number, but it is also one of Mozart's most recognizable works. Mr. Laycock's very quick tempo showed off the violins' clean figures in the first movement and created a joyous mood reminiscent of Vienna at the end of the 18th century. The first theme especially took off like the compositional Mannheim "rocket" popular in Mozart's time. The violins played particularly well in the second movement "Andante" and the interplay between strings and winds was well balanced with a touch of brass. In the last movement, Mr. Laycock whipped the orchestra up into an "Allegro" fury, but always within a classical framework.

Since its premiere in 1824, Beethoven's Symphony Number 9 in D minor has been used to mark many celebrations and anniversary seasons, including in Princeton over the past few years. Mr. Laycock has established a solid collaborative relationship with Alan Harler's Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia (which seems to be performing Beethoven's Ninth almost weekly these days) and the two ensembles were a good combination for presenting this work. The symphony opens with shimmering strings arising out of nothing, an effect always hard to achieve, especially in a hall such as Richardson, where the acoustics tell no lies. Mr. Laycock took a stately approach to the first movement, with a tempo a bit slower than other conductors, which may have come back to haunt him at the end of the first movement, when the string riffs could have been a little faster to be most effective. The first theme was nicely subdued, yet lyrical, and the drawing out of internal cadences actually moved the symphony forward a few decades into the Romantic period.

Tempi picked up as the symphony went on, and what was also clear in the second and third movements was a new cleanness to the winds and brass, especially the horns. The opening of the third movement "Adagio" is another very difficult entrance to keep tuned, and Mr. Laycock maintained a nice Viennese lilt through the movement.

Orchestra and chorus were joined in the fourth movement by four vocal soloists: soprano Jamie Baer, mezzo Jane Bunnell, tenor William Burden, and bass Marc Embree. Mr. Embree announced Goethe's text with solid declamation, reaffirming that this was indeed a German work, accompanied by refined oboe playing from James Button. This quartet was definitely a 19th century operatic quartet that worked together well. Mr. Burden's lyrical tenor was easy to listen to as he was accompanied by the "Turkish" effects in the piece, and Ms. Bunnell and Ms. Baer handled their lines well, especially in the extremely fast close to the symphony.

The Mendelssohn Club, although large in number, maneuvered through the sudden dynamic shifts like a quartet of soloists; subito pianos were accomplished with ease, and the dynamics were exactly as the composer intended. Mr. Harler wisely left one devilishly high alto line to the second sopranos, making the tuning very clean, and the chorus was always able to present a solid block of choral sound. Mr. Laycock took many subtle liberties with tempi in the choral section of the last movement, eventually closing the work in a breakneck speed leaving one to wonder if Napoleon was outside the door ready to invade. Fortunately, his chorus and orchestra were able to keep up, with the soloists close to being left in the dust (although the women were able to articulate at that speed better than the men).

Oboist James Button may have been a hidden hero on Sunday afternoon, playing consistently with refinement and elegance, especially in some very high register playing in the Beethoven. Fellow oboist Nobuo Kitagawa, bassoonists Roe Goodman and Seth Baer, and the five horn players of the Symphony also provided very graceful inner wind combinations during all three works on the program.

Over the past twenty-five years, the Princeton Symphony has emerged from a homegrown orchestra to one of the steadiest and most stable arts organizations in the state. Their houses are consistently sold out and their level of support from the community seems to be solid. The Symphony is now offering several series in its performance activities, and it has grown and augmented its performances wisely, without overexpanding to too little financial support (the downfall of many an over-enthusiastic ensemble). One thing was clear on Sunday afternoon at the end of Beethoven's symphony: the new era for the Princeton Symphony Orchestra has begun.


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