The Princeton Symphony Orchestra has taken the concept of collaboration to new heights this year with its opening “Classical Series” concert this past weekend. With a musical program inspired by identifying what is uniquely “American” in music and centered on a work based on the Jacob Lawrence “Migration Series” set of paintings, the Princeton Symphony created an entire weekend of “Migration Project” activities, including discussions with the composer, a family festival, and art projects, all of which were achieved in partnership with a number of Princeton cultural and educational organizations. Princeton Symphony’s opening weekend culminated in a performance by the ensemble, on Sunday afternoon in Richardson Auditorium, of two American musical favorites and a New Jersey premiere, all commemorating the 150th anniversary of the emancipation proclamation.
With some new faces on the roster, the Princeton Symphony opened Sunday afternoon’s concert with Aaron Copland’s suite from Appalachian Spring, a work considered representative of the American spirit. Although not directly related to a visual work of art, Copland’s Appalachian Spring could easily be connected with the broad Pennsylvania landscapes of Andrew Wyeth. Princeton Symphony Orchestra conductor Rossen Milanov opened the suite with a broad musical palette, capturing the image of the sun rising on an open field, aided by clarinetist Alexander Bedenko’s opening solo. Mr. Milanov kept the orchestral texture muted, allowing the solo lines, including oboist Nick Masterson and flutist Mary Schmidt, to speak freely. A quick transition to the second section was handled well by the ensemble as the strings and a pair of flutes were well-timed with one another. Mr. Bedenko and Mr. Masterson had a great deal of musical interplay throughout the suite, and Mr. Bedenko in particular showed himself to be an understated yet expressive player. Especially effective in the close of the piece were a bassoon and oboe duet (played by Seth Baer and Mr. Masterson, respectively) and the graceful presentation of the “Simple Gifts” theme by the viola section against pizzicato strings and offbeat winds.
Considered equally as American as Copland but on another musical spectrum was George Gershwin, whose 1935 Porgy and Bess has been revered for its inventiveness and has generated a number of symphonic arrangements. Symphonic Picture, compiled and orchestrated by noted arranger Richard Rodney Bennett, took eleven of the opera’s great tunes and set them for an orchestra augmented by unique instrumentation, including a trio of saxophones and a banjo. Mr. Milanov began Symphonic Picture with bell-like effects, complemented by an elegant English horn solo played by Nathan Mills. With a bit of swing throughout the work, the Princeton Symphony drew out the teasing atmosphere of “Bess, You is my Woman Now” and the elements of big band style from the winds and brass. This was a very full orchestra, but one could hear such details as the banjo solo on “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin,” accompanied by flute and harp. This piece not only fit in well with the theme of the concert, but also was clearly fun for the musicians to play.
The defining piece of Sunday’s program was the New Jersey premiere of Migration Series, a five-movement work by award-winning American composer Derek Bermel, whose musical output crosses several genres. Mr. Bermel drew inspiration for this work from the Lawrence “Migration Series” set of 60 paintings (one of which was displayed in the Princeton University Art Museum for this performance). The Princeton Symphony was pared back to a small ensemble and was joined onstage by the Juilliard jazz orchestra, prepared by James Burton. The talented students of the jazz orchestra carried the bulk of the performing work in this piece, especially impressive were solos by trumpeter Joe Boga and trombonist Andy Clausen.
Mr. Milanov took a step back from conducting at times, allowing the jazz club atmosphere to prevail. The second movement of Migration Series, with its walking blues piano and gospel melodies, was especially accessible, but as might happen in a jazz club, there were times when there was an impression of musical chaos, which is not for everyone. The third movement seemed to be the most technically difficult, with the composer himself playing a mean clarinet accompanied by a combo of drums and bass. An amazing display of musical “banter” among three trombones marked a later section of the piece, as Mr. Bermel well captured the concept of “urban chatter” in musical form.
The Princeton Symphony Orchestra “Migration Series Project” was by no means limited to this past weekend; related events took place in September and will continue well into the fall at locations throughout the community. If each program of the symphony includes this in-depth a range of activities, there will surely be something for everyone as the Princeton Symphony Orchestra continues to make its mark on the region.