Music aficionados in this area tend to think of New York City when venturing out of home range for high-quality performances, however, equally high level (and often less expensive) ensembles can be found an hour south in Philadelphia. One of the most venerable of these organizations decided that if Princeton would not come to them, they would come to Princeton. The Curtis Institute of Music presented its symphony orchestra in Richardson Auditorium last Friday night in a concert which filled the downstairs of the hall but could easily fill the entire space once the community realizes how extraordinary this orchestra is.
Most colleges and universities have orchestral ensembles to provide training and performing opportunities to their students, some of whom go on to careers in music, and then there is Curtis. It is understood at Curtis that every student in the orchestra will go on to play professionally (many as first chairs nationally and internationally) and the collective discipline, dedication, and commitment to music was clear from the stage, through to the last chairs of the more than thirty violins who played Friday night. Friday night was the Curtis Symphony Orchestra’s first foray into the Princeton area, made stronger by the choice of guest conductor — Carlos Miguel Prieto, who graduated in the class of ’87 and was clearly pleased to share his feelings about being back on the Richardson stage.
Curtis’s first mission is to train “extraordinary gifted young musicians,” and the symphony orchestra wasted no time introducing a young conducting student to the musical community. Kensho Watanabe holds two degrees from Yale and has already several premiere performances under his belt as a conductor. It was clear even from the “Star-Spangled Banner” arrangement which opened the program that Mr. Watanabe is a thoughtful and meticulous conductor, leading the orchestra with easy flowing strokes. It was also clear from the outset that the Curtis Orchestra has a young fresh sound, especially from the brass.
This concert was a collaborative effort with the Curtis Opera Theatre, and Mr. Watanabe led the orchestra in a Tchaikovsky duet based on his orchestral fantasy Romeo and Juliet featuring soprano Sarah Shafer and tenor Christopher Tiesi. Ms. Shafer possessed a lovely presence onstage, conveying a certain frailty as she bid her lover farewell. She communicated well with Mr. Tiesi, who showed intense command of his role and moved through the vocal registers well. The two singers blended particularly well, especially in the unison passages toward the close of the piece, with vibratos that were well matched. Mr. Watanabe varied conducting styles with the different moods of the music, building intensity slowly and bringing out the lighter side of Tchaikovsky when appropriate.
This concert appeared to reflect three of the best assets of Curtis: its singers, instrumentalists, and musical education. Singing was well represented by Ms. Shafer and Mr. Tiesi, the instrumental playing by the orchestra musicians themselves, and music education by the orchestra’s presentation of one of the great pedagogical pieces of the 20th century. Conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto joined the orchestra for a spirited performance of Benjamin Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, narrated by Philadelphia actor John de Lancie. The son of a former Curtis director, Mr. de Lancie has strong ties to Philadelphia music organizations to go with his impressive acting credits, and provided a lively narration to a piece which might be geared toward children but still must be played accurately.
Mr. Prieto led the orchestra in a quick and decisive presentation of the Henry Purcell theme on which the works is based, and each family of instruments stepped up to demonstrate clarity and precision. The winds played with direction and transparency to the melodic line, with the clarinet theme particularly clean and saucy. A solo bassoon played a sultry melody, followed by a rich viola solo. With the number of strings onstage, it was easy for the orchestra to present the final theme with power, setting up the compelling Richard Strauss work which closed the program.
Strauss’s tone poem Ein Heldenleben was in part the composer’s answer to Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, and was designed for lush orchestral playing. Under Mr. Prieto’s direction, the piece started off with rich celli and double bass sound, joined by clean brass. Mr. Prieto kept the music churning with a full and lavish sound, contrasted by elegant solos from a number of players, including solo clarinet and English horn. Concertmaster Nigel Armstrong played several solos throughout the piece, providing intense double stops and taperings to phrases often ending at the height of the melodic line. Key to Mr. Armstrong’s solo success in this piece was his duet playing with a solo French horn, superbly played by Levi Varga. A clean offstage trio of trumpets added to the flow of a battlefield scene, punctuated by snare drums effectively placed in the corners of the back of the stage.
The Curtis Symphony Orchestra may have been new to the Princeton audience, but they are certainly well-known in the orchestral field. Hopefully, the ensemble will be back again soon, to continue introducing the Princeton community to some of the future in great orchestral playing.