Musical dream sequences often occur in opera, but symphonic works conveying dreams are less common. Princeton Symphony Orchestra (PSO) presented a concert of “Nights and Dreams” this past weekend, exploring three pieces which musically told stories of dreams and things that go bump in the night. The Princeton Symphony Orchestra Edward T. Cone Concert on Sunday afternoon in Richardson Auditorium showed the orchestra in more than fine form — tackling a very challenging and intriguing repertoire.
Princeton composer Julian Grant was described in the concert program as specializing in opera and “experimental music theater.” Commissioned by Princeton Symphony Orchestra for a new work, Mr. Grant looked back to his own 1998 opera to create Dances in the Dark, a four section work depicting scenarios one might run into after dark. Incorporating a musical potpourri, including classical piano works, jazz and instrumental impressionism, this work resembled speeding in a time warp through New York City after midnight. While conveying musical tidbits and sounds of hypothetical random recitals, Mr. Milanov always found direction in the music, and the overall orchestral effect in this world premiere was very clean. Intriguing scenarios were created from a solo English horn (elegantly played by Nathan Mills) with sectional cellos, and a bit of jazz cacophony from the trumpets. Principal flutist Chelsea Knox was kept busy with quick passages, but Mr. Milanov seemed to always be aware of where the piece was going.
Benjamin Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Opus 31 is a set of six poems preceded and followed by a solo horn. Britten drew poetry from four centuries for this setting, including both familiar and lesser-known writers. For this work the Princeton Symphony was joined by horn soloist Eric Ruske, professor of horn at Boston University; and tenor Dominic Armstrong, a soloist with a great deal of experience with the music of Britten. Mr. Ruske opened the work with a clear tone in the Fanfare and effectively matched the moods of the poetry throughout the piece, whether bugle calls, providing a distant effect, or calling forth from purgatory. Britten set the six poems with serenity, evoking the English countryside and the grand stature of castle architecture. Mr. Armstrong matched the quality of the poetry well, especially the relentlessness of the anonymous 15th-century Dirge.
All composers surely dream, but no one’s dreams were more beyond the edge of reality than those of 19th century French composer Hector Berlioz. His 1830 Symphonie Fantastique, (an “Episode in the Life of an Artist, in Five Parts”) was programmatic, like many symphonic works of that period, but Berlioz provided the story of a fantasy well contrasting with the 19th-century focus on romance and melodrama. Mr. Milanov began the complex orchestral work with clarity, painting a dreamy picture while allowing instrumental soloists to present the idée fixe of the heroine cleanly. Musical ideas took a long time to spin out in this work, but Mr. Milanov consistently maintained control over the dramatic tension. Melodies were kept chipper, especially from horn soloist Douglas Lundeen and oboist Nicholas Masterson.
Mr. Masterson and English horn player Mr. Mills played a poignant duet in the third movement Scene in the Country, as Berlioz’s story develops continually more anguish. Throughout this movement, Mr. Milanov never rushed the tempo, creating a musical study in intensity at the close as a high flute blended well with the upper strings. The eccentricity of the story culminated in the final movement, as Berlioz sees himself at his own funeral, musically depicted by quirky clarinets, oboes and bassoons. This was likely the most familiar movement to the audience, with the medieval Dies Irae theme punctuated by bells coming from the balcony. Raw sounding col legno (playing with the wooden part of the bow) from the strings added to the creepiness of Berlioz’s thinking, but precision from the orchestra closed the symphony in 19th-century clarity.