Princeton Symphony Orchestra Presents Dynamic Piano Soloist in Works of Bach and Glass
By Nancy Plum
Princeton Symphony Orchestra’s concert on Sunday afternoon centered on guest pianist Simone Dinnerstein, but another subtler theme also ran through the performance. PSO Music Director Rossen Milanov programmed a concert with a narrative covering three hundred years of music history, featuring innovation and new musical ideas within well-known frameworks. The addition of dynamic and technically dazzling American pianist Simone Dinnerstein made the afternoon that much more exciting.
Sunday’s concert in Richardson Auditorium included four pieces either from the Baroque period, or works which were more contemporary but paid tribute to an era in music history rooted in structure and form. Milanov added a further tribute to the afternoon with a reverent performance of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings in honor of long-time Princeton philanthropist and PSO supporter George Pitcher. Following this reflective opening, Milanov jumped immediately to a piece composed within the past two years by America composer Mason Bates, whose mission is to bring classical music to new spaces and who has a unique side career as a club DJ. Bates’s 2016 Auditorium juxtaposed two orchestras — Princeton Symphony playing on modern instruments and a pre-recorded San Francisco Conservatory Baroque Ensemble playing on Baroque period instruments in a battle of musical tension between two ensembles which are tuned just slightly differently. Sharp ears in the audience could immediately hear the difference in instrumental character and tuning, especially when a Baroque oboe on tape was answered by live oboist Roni Gal-Ed. The disparity between the modern piano and harpsichord was also striking, but as the piece went on, the two sonorities blended to the point where it was sometimes hard to discern what was live and what was taped. Milanov maintained a jazzy feel to what were probably Baroque dances woven into a very contemporary orchestration, and with the help of Gal-Ed’s elegant playing, brought the work to a graceful close.
Pianist Simone Dinnerstein has had a long and distinguished history with the music of J.S. Bach, and bringing Bach’s Keyboard Concerto No. 7 in G Minor to a modern keyboard performance demonstrated why she is so renowned for Baroque interpretation. Bach would not have recognized the dynamic range achieved by the modern piano, nor would he have comprehended the iPad from which Dinnerstein played, but as the pages on the iPad flew by, Dinnerstein’s consistently even playing created a true partnership between soloist and orchestra. Especially in the upper register of the first movement, she kept the notes relatively dry and devoid of ornaments, with both hands close to the keyboard. Milanov built crescendi in dynamics well, and Dinnerstein was always right with the violins. A vibrant third movement showed how this concerto, derived from Bach’s own previously-composed music for the violin, was equally as virtuosic and complex as other Bach concerto solo lines.
Dinnerstein was also featured in a New Jersey premiere of a work by contemporary American composer Philip Glass. Piano Concerto No. 3 came about through a commissioning consortium of 12 orchestras; Sunday afternoon’s performance by Princeton Symphony was the fifth of the series and the first in New Jersey. Scored for piano and strings, this concerto was a three-movement dialog between keyboard and orchestra, based on a steady rhythmic pulse but always moving forward.
Glass is known for a minimalistic compositional style, which was evident in this concerto, but the fragments being repeated were good-sized melodic bits. Both Milanov and Dinnerstein found variety through intensity and emphasizing the ebb and flow of the music. Dinnerstein played with a great deal of feeling throughout the work, as her steady and even approach to the previous Bach concerto served her well in this piece.
Glass dedicated the third movement of his concerto to Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, whose smooth dissonance and palettes of musical colors are especially well known in the choral field. This movement in particular seemed to recall the roll of the sea as Dinnerstein wove in and out of an orchestral texture that often resembled an icy field. Both dramatic and intense, Dinnerstein kept the solo piano part continually moving.
Princeton Symphony closed the concert with another 20th-century look back to the Baroque era, in Maurice Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin, a set of four dance movements adding an early 20th-century impressionistic twist to 18th-century dance forms. Most notable about these four dances on Sunday afternoon were wind solos by flutist Catherine Gregory, oboist Roni Gal-Ed, clarinetist Pascal Archer, and English hornist Mitchell Kuhn as the Princeton Symphony Orchestra effectively infused the music from a bygone era with 20th-century innovation.