September 20, 2017

Princeton Symphony Orchestra Opens Season With Monumental Beethoven Symphony

By Nancy Plum

Princeton Symphony Orchestra (PSO) has never been an ensemble to sneak into the new concert season, but especially this year, when the orchestra is riding a wave of high attendance, Music Director Rossen Milanov chose to open the year with a musical tour de force. Joined by the Westminster Symphonic Choir (of Westminster Choir College) and four up-and-coming vocal soloists, Princeton Symphony filled both the stage and seats  this past weekend with a performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s towering Symphony No. 9, a work not often heard in Princeton for the understandable reasons of expense and musical demands. The expense portion of Saturday night’s performance (the concert was repeated Sunday afternoon) received a helping hand from the Edward T. Cone Foundation, and the musical difficulties of this work were well met by all involved.

Beethoven was the main course for this pair of concerts, but Milanov served a hefty musical appetizer in Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, Op. 49, in a 20th-century transcription for chorus and orchestra. Commissioned in 1880 to commemorate Russia’s victory over France, the 1812 Overture has been renowned for celebratory cannons and solemn bells, but behind the drama and spectacle is nationalistic pride, with musical themes and literary texts defining this very difficult period in Russian history.

Igor Buketoff’s 1971 transcription of the 1812 Overture incorporated the texts of a traditional Russian hymn as well as the Russian national anthem at the time, and it was in the opening a cappella hymn that the Westminster Symphonic Choir, prepared by Joe Miller, showed its best form. With a well-blended choral sound, clear diction, and smooth long lines of sacred prayer, the symphonic choir built a choral palette well with streams of shifting chords. Tchaikovsky’s orchestral overtures are often full of musical contrast, and Princeton Symphony’s performance of this piece never stayed still. Milanov created tension well as precise winds and dramatic lower strings contrasted with elegant oboe solo playing by Nathan Mills. A quartet of horns — Douglas Lundeen, Jonathan Clark, Roy Femenella and Eric Davis — were notably crisp throughout the piece, and lush playing from the violins showed Tchaikovsky more than capable of an opulent Romantic melody. Thanks to consistently precise brass sections, the continual struggle between the Russian themes and French La Marseillaise was well expressed.

Rossen Milanov is clearly very familiar with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, no doubt in part from his days with The Philadelphia Orchestra, with which he conducted the work numerous times.  Milanov immediately made a statement by conducting from memory, freeing himself to create nuances of dynamics and clarity in a musical texture in which every motive and phrase were important, no matter how small. Throughout the work, Milanov maintained solid command over the Classical drama, conveying a sense of urgency as musical themes moved around the stage among players. Like Tchaikovsky’s Overture, this symphony was a work of contrasts, capturing Beethoven’s struggle to both compose and communicate, as he was totally deaf when this piece was written. Milanov showed that he was not afraid of the silences in the music, especially in the multi-textured second movement Scherzo, marked by well-accented winds and well-constructed dynamics. Despite Beethoven’s internal struggles which run through the symphony, Milanov brought out the joy in the music, and allowed the harmonies to shift subtly. He especially took his time in the third movement Adagio, a movement which featured graceful clarinet paying from Pascal Archer.

Joining the Princeton Symphony and Westminster Symphonic Choir for this piece were four solo singers of a lighter vocal nature than one often hears in this piece. Because of the technical demands of the soloists, conductors often look for operatic voices, but Milanov chose to emphasize vocal translucence, especially in soprano Alexandra Batsios and tenor Francis Williams. Baritone Thomas Lynch presented the opening vocal recitative of the final movement from memory as if in an opera. Much like the cannons and “Tsar’s Hymn” dispels the French themes from Tchaikovsky’s Overture, Lynch emphatically brushed aside the previous motives of Beethoven’s Symphony with the text “O Freunde, nicht diese Töne” (“O friends, not these tones”), setting the stage for Beethoven’s simple plea for brotherhood through Schiller’s poetry and an elegant melody which grew in intensity throughout the movement.

Tenor Williams blended well with Lynch in the Schiller verses sung by quartet alone, as well as the closing passages in which the quartet has some of the most dramatic music to sing. Because of the thickness of the orchestral texture in this movement, it is often difficult to hear the mezzo-soprano, but Anne Marie Stanley was able to hold her own. Soprano Batsios seemed to float up to the extremely high passages, and Milanov led the quartet well through the vocally difficult passages on the text “Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt” (“Where your gentle wings abide”) by giving each soloist space to maneuver the coloratura yet intense lines.

The members of the Westminster Symphonic Choir also had this work well in hand (having performed the symphony last spring with the New York Philharmonic) and held up well through the Germanic block choruses and fugues. This was difficult music for the relatively young voices of the Symphonic Choir, and the sopranos in particular seemed to run out of reserve toward the closing measures, but the chorus was able to keep up well with the orchestra, closing the symphony with an emphatic declamation of joy.

Princeton Symphony Orchestra’s next performance will be on Sunday October 29, 2017 at 4 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium. Featured will be music of Respighi, Schulhoff, and Mendelssohn, and the PSO will be joined by the Lark String Quartet. For information call (609) 497-0020 or visit