May 10, 2017

Princeton Symphony Orchestra Closes Its 2017 Season With a U.S. Premiere

Programmatic coincidences do not happen often in Princeton; there is so much music out there that local ensembles usually do not program the same works for the same season. Such a coincidence occurred this past weekend when Princeton Symphony Orchestra performed the same Paul Hindemith piece as the Princeton University Orchestra did last weekend. Audiences rarely have the opportunity to hear the same work twice, compare performances, and perhaps hear something new the second time around. Princeton Symphony Orchestra closed its classical series this past Sunday afternoon at Richardson Auditorium with a concert entitled “Metamorphosis,” that not only could refer to the Hindemith work performed, but also the orchestra’s journey from the beginning of the 2016-17 season until now — a season jam-packed with concerts, educational programs, and community outreach activities. PSO Music Director Rossen Milanov led the ensemble in a performance that was both rooted in impressionistic musical style and full of precision and elegance of playing.

Before venturing into the world of the early 20th century, the Princeton Symphony Orchestra continued its commitment to contemporary music with a United States premiere of Chinese composer Zhou Tian’s five-movement Broken Ink. A native of Hangzhou, China (whose Federation of Literary and Art Circles and city government commissioned Broken Ink), Tian was educated at leading musical institutions in the United States, and has achieved a remarkable career as a composer in a short amount of time. Broken Ink was inspired by the poetry of the 10th to 13th-century Song dynasty, and its five movements were descriptively titled to achieve Tian’s goal of bringing Chinese musical flavor to an orchestral piece.

Broken Ink began with high violins and flute, punctuated with single notes from harpist André Tarantiles. The music was lush, much like a flowing river, and it was clear from the outset that Tian has a good ear for the orchestral palette. Throughout the piece, there were numerous instances of raindrop effects, often from the harp, which were contrasted by melodic solos from clarinetist Pascal Archer, English hornist Mitchell Kuhn, oboist Nathan Mills, and violinist Basia Danilow. The quartet of horns were consistently clean, and the cello section often had expansive melodies of their own which were well played. The five-member percussion section was kept busy in the two movements which were more forceful (depicting powerful rivers and tidal waves), and the sharp and jagged chords and accents from the orchestra were always together. Principal cellist Alistair MacRae’s graceful solo aided the orchestra in bringing the work to a close in an instrumental sunrise.

Music of early 20th-century France was also often marked by orchestral sunrises, with Claude Debussy as one of the legendary composers of the impressionistic period. In Debussy’s La Mer, the Princeton Symphony Orchestra found similar lush effects as in the Tian work, with undulating strings contrasted by clean horns and precise solo melodic fragments from the winds. Mr. Milanov used the programmatic waves of sound and subtle driving rhythms of La Mer to set up Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber, the same piece which Michael Pratt and the Princeton University Orchestra presented so well last weekend. Mr. Milanov took a quick approach to the four-movement work from the start, with a brisk tempo kept in line by steady timpani and saucy solos from oboist Mr. Mills and bassoonist Seth Baer. The second movement especially featured flutist Patrick Williams, who took his time in the solo passages, and syncopation among the horns was very clean. As with Mr. Tian’s work, the five percussionists were kept very busy throughout this piece, with timpanist Jeremy Levine showing a very light touch when needed.

The  orchestra emphasized the recurring melodic triad in the third movement Andantino with elegant dialogs among the wind solos, and Mr. Williams again proved his mettle by taking his time in closing the movement. Mr. Milanov continued the brisk approach to the work in the closing movement, ending the piece in a joyful celebration of a concert and season well done.