Princeton Symphony Orchestra Presents Eclectic and Virtuosic Violin Soloist
By Nancy Plum
Princeton Symphony Orchestra explored three unique composers this past weekend in a Sunday afternoon concert in Richardson Auditorium. Bookending Niccolò Paganini’s monumental Violin Concerto No. 1 in D Major, Op. 6 were two 20th-century works written only two years apart. In a concert featuring musical surprises and ear-catching effects, Princeton Symphony Orchestra, together with an exciting and very contemporary violin soloist, performed to a spellbound audience in Richardson.
Leoš Janáček’s 1926 Sinfonietta, as arranged by Erwin Stein, reflected the composer’s fascination with military bands and showed Janáček’s imagination in scoring each of the five movements for a different group of instruments. Led by Music Director Rossen Milanov, the musicians of Princeton Symphony played Janáček’s largest purely orchestral work cleanly and precisely. An effective pair of horns opened the first movement fanfare, together with exacting timpani and a quartet of trumpets. A Gypsy feel marked the second movement, which recalled Janáček’s hometown of Brno in what is now the Czech Republic, and elegant solos were heard form flutist Niles Watson, oboist Lillian Copeland, and later English horn player Lauren Williams. Throughout the five-movement work, Milanov kept the five musical vignettes flowing seamlessly, well capturing an atmosphere of Eastern Europe in the early part of the 20th century.
When considering Italian violinist and composer Niccolò Paganini, it is worth remembering that his name means “little pagan,” and urban legend holds that he learned the violin while serving time in prison for murdering his mistress (a rumor he made no effort to discourage). A 19th-century superstar, Paganini’s playing technique on the violin was such that audiences were convinced he had made a pact with the devil. It is no wonder that Paganini’s first violin concerto would appeal to a soloist equally at home in classical music, heavy metal, and the blues.
Chicago native Rachel Barton Pine began playing violin at age 3 and debuted with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at age 10. She is truly a musician of her time, excelling at the most demanding classical pieces, but also exploring folk, rock and jazz. Paganini’s Violin Concerto was a study in contrasts between a tribute to opera composer and Paganini contemporary Gioachino Rossini and Paganini’s own demonic playing capabilities — as if the devil kept poking his head into an opera overture.
Milanov had no trouble emphasizing the Rossini aspects of the Concerto’s opening movement, creating an operatic anticipatory atmosphere while Barton Pine waited for her turn at bat. The four-square music did not last long in the hands of Barton Pine; fiery double stops and lithe scales recalled Rossini’s most complex coloratura vocal writing. Paganini did not notate a closing cadenza to the first movement, but Barton Pine wrote one herself which stayed within the Rossini framework, rather than a late 19th-century style which other soloists have done with this piece. Barton Pine flawlessly executed Paganini’s technical demands, including left-handed pizzicato and demanding double stops, but easily conveyed the lyrical and lilting bel canto aria solo line of the second movement. Barton Pine plays a 1742 violin of Joseph Guarnerius del Gesu, which had a sharp and decisive sound, but which could also be rich in the lower registers. Barton Pine is truly a musician of the 21st century, with a foundation and commitment to performance excellence, contemporary music, and music education which goes far beyond the concert stage.
ilanov and Princeton Symphony Orchestra topped off the concert with a musical dessert in Igor Stravinsky’s divertimento suite from his ballet The Fairy’s Kiss. Stravinsky’s 1928 ballet of a story by Hans Christian Anderson was so successful he later excerpted music from the ballet into a four-movement suite. In Sunday afternoon’s performance, the texture of the divertimento was sparse compared to the Paganini Concerto, but no less rich in harmonies. Most notable in this performance were several oboe solos by Copeland, a melancholy flute solo by Watson, and horn solo work by Douglas Lundeen. Milanov brought out the quirkiness inherent in many Stravinsky works, and a third movement trio among principal cellist Alistair MacRae, harpist André Tarantiles, and clarinet Pascal Archer as particularly exquisite, both in orchestration and performance. The music of Stravinsky requires precision, and the brass sections of the Princeton Symphony Orchestra delivered, closing the afternoon concert on solid footing.