No one can argue that Princeton has had a rough time this past week. Numerous events in the community were cancelled, with future concerts and lectures in doubt. Princeton Symphony Orchestra put on a Herculean effort this past week to gather its musicians together, and with the cooperation of Princeton University, presented its November concert as scheduled this past Sunday afternoon at Richardson Auditorium. Where the orchestra rehearsed this program remains a mystery, with all the power outages in the area, but with a few adjustments to the repertoire and the tremendous commitment of the players, Princeton residents were offered a musical respite from sitting in dark unheated houses. Sunday afternoon’s concert was originally to include Aaron Jay Kernis’ cello concerto Colored Field, paired with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. Because of the limited rehearsal time, Music Director Rossen Milanov replaced the Kernis work with two smaller pieces reflecting the lush, Romantic, yet high-spirited mood of Scheherazade.
Scheherazade tells the story of a brave Persian queen and in keeping with music about women who can stand on their own, Mr. Milanov began the concert with a one-movement “Bacchanale” about one of the greatest women of the Bible. Camille Saint-Saëns “Bacchanale” from his 1877 opera Samson and Delilah suggests debauchery and sensuality and oboist Rita Mitsel opened the piece with a slinky exotic instrumental solo. Ms. Mitsel, English horn player Nathan Mills, clarinetist Alexander Bedenko, and flutist Jayn Rosenfeld provided a transformed opening theme full of such exotic flavor that one expected a snake charmer to appear. Especially light strings came into their own with the full and rich second theme, contrasted by harp. Mr. Milanov led the players through clean transitions among sections, building the complexity of the piece to a closing frenzy.
Refocusing the concert on 19th-century European music with Eastern influence, Mr. Milanov included a work with which he is thoroughly comfortable and which was probably relaxing for the musicians to play in a week full of stress. Alexander Borodin’s “Polovtsian Dances” from the opera Prince Igor began with gentler winds than the previous work, and the familiar “Stranger in Paradise” tune elegantly played by oboist Ms. Mitsel. This tune recurred in several solo instruments, including clarinet and English horn, with the orchestra moving smoothly from one dance to the next. Throughout this piece, and certainly in the subsequent Rimsky-Korsakov work, clarinetist Alexander Bedenko showed himself to be an understated yet very intent player, providing very quick phrases in the “Dances.” Percussion plays a large role in both this work and Scheherazade, and the six-member percussion and timpani section was precise with rhythms and exact in punctuating other instrumental playing.
Scheherazade is also full of great tunes, but scored in a much more forceful manner. The brass sections of the Princeton Symphony immediately set the tone of “The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship,” while the character of Scheherazade recurred as a violin solo, played by concertmistress Basia Danilow. Ms. Danilow’s mournful opening solo emerged elegantly out of the orchestral texture, accompanied by Andre Tarantiles on the harp. Throughout the piece, Ms. Danilow took all the time she needed for rubato and ends of phrases, becoming saucier as Scheherazade manipulated the Sultan to spare her own life. Mr. Tarantiles’s delicate harp accompaniment played a large role throughout the piece, and a number of instrumental soloists stepped up with very clean playing. One does not often hear bassoon solos, which Seth Baer provided in the second movement, and Ms. Mitsel and Mr. Bedenko continued their effective playing. An elegant second trombone solo (also unusual orchestration) was heard from Tom Hutchinson, and cellist Alistair MacRae provided very clean solo passages.
In the four movements of this work, Ms. Danilow played with character and style, including numerous double stops in the fourth movement around swirling winds. Mr. Milanov conducted this piece from memory, showing his comfort zone with the work. Getting this performance to the actual stage may have been a challenge, but once performers and audience were in place, everyone seemed to be very glad to be there.