May 12, 2021

By Nancy Plum

This month and next, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra is presenting an online concert film trilogy featuring recorded instrumental performances accompanied by visual meditations and dance sequences. Directed by New Jersey native filmmaker Yuri Alves and produced by DreamPlay Films, the three-episode Emerge features NJSO conductor Xian Zhang leading the Orchestra in performances recorded live in the Orchestra’s home base New Jersey Performing Arts Center in February and March, 2021. Most significant about the first episode of this series, launched Wednesday, April 28, was the return of brass and winds to the previously socially-distanced ensemble.

The first concert in the Emerge series presented three orchestral works, including an East Coast premiere, as well as a world-renowned pianist. Johann Sebastian Bach’s 18th-century keyboard Concerto in F Minor was one of seven complete concertos the composer wrote for harpsichord, and like many of Bach’s keyboard concertos, was a reworking of pre-existing music from compositions for other instruments. Featured in the NJSO performance was American pianist Simone Dinnerstein playing the three-movement work on piano.

Visually accompanied by street scenes of Newark, Dinnerstein brought out well the delicate ornamentation of Bach’s music. Conductor Zhang kept the chamber-sized string ensemble subtle, and both Orchestra and soloist executed graceful repetitions of phrases. The plucked accompaniment of the second movement “Largo” showed the music’s connection to the lute repertory, as Dinnerstein led the melodic material expressively. The third movement “Presto” clearly showed the work’s roots in Bach’s violin music, as Dinnerstein demonstrated a particularly light left hand racing lithely through quick-moving sequences and melodic passages.  more

May 5, 2021

By Nancy Plum

Princeton Symphony Orchestra launched its penultimate online concert collaboration with South Africa’s Buskaid Soweto String Ensemble this past Friday with a virtual program of music for strings, harp, and solo voices. In a performance entitled “Curious Creatures and a Heavenly Harp,” the Soweto string orchestra, led by conductor Rosemary Nalden, performed music featuring both their own soloists and a well-known South African harpist. 

Seventeenth-century Italian composer Carlo Farina studied with some of the Baroque era’s leading composers. Considered one of the earliest violin virtuosos, Farina contributed significantly to violin pedagogy, especially through such works as the 1627 Capriccio Stravagante. This multi-section work called upon violins, violas, and cellos to mimic other instruments, as well as animals. These types of humorous works were not uncommon in the 17th century, and the Buskaid ensemble approached Farina’s piece with a refreshing playing style and easily finding the humor. In a rebroadcast from a 2018 concert, the musicians played triple meter sections especially gracefully, and the musical imitations of chickens clucking and cats yowling were particularly effective. 

French composer Claude Debussy came to the musical forefront as France was emerging from the 19th-century dominant Austro-German school. French composers of this era drew from art and their own language to infuse music with a wide range of instrumental colors, sinuous harmonies, and phrasing that mimicked the cadences of the native tongue. Debussy’s 1904 Danse sacrée et danse profane for solo harp and strings was commissioned by a French harp-building firm to showcase a newly-designed instrument. The sacrée portion of this work reflected ancient religious beliefs, with the second half of the piece inspired by the improvisatory style of Spanish dances. Featured in this performance by the Buskaid ensemble was harpist Jude Harpstar, whose performing career has crossed genres ranging from classical to pop. In a rebroadcast from a 2016 performance, Harpstar played with elegance, even when the music called for sharp and decisive harp passages. Conductor Nalden consistently maintained a subtle string accompaniment, with the second section of the piece particularly evoking spring in Paris. As with all of these expertly-recorded concerts, one could easily see the supple fingering of the soloist on the harp, as well as Harpstar’s expressive playing.  more

April 21, 2021

By Nancy Plum

Boheme Opera NJ continued its virtual series of concerts at Monroe Township Library this past week with a program tracing the history of the “Pygmalion” theme through theater, opera, and musicals. In a program launched on Wednesday, April 14 entitled “I Could Have Danced 2,000 Years” and narrated by Boheme Opera President Jerrold Kalstein, four performers presented readings and musical selections dating back more than two centuries.  

Historically, the story which became the blockbuster musical My Fair Lady began in the first decade A.D. with a 15-book Latin narrative poem by the Roman writer Ovid. Chronicling the history of the world from creation to the deification of Julius Caesar, Ovid’s Metamorphoses included the Greek mythological story of Pygmalion, a king and sculptor who fell in love with a statue he had created. Boheme Opera began their broadcast with a reading by actress Virginia Barrie of Ovid’s poetry, translated into English. Throughout the broadcast, arias, and musical theater selections alternated with readings by Barrie, performed in costume to represent specific time periods.  

The first operatic treatment of Ovid’s story was Jean-Philippe Rameau’s 1748 one-movement “acte de ballet” Pigmalion, which used four characters to tell the tale of the sculptor who brought his statue to life. Soprano Eve Edwards, who has performed extensively throughout the region, including with Boheme Opera NJ in the past, sang Cupid’s aria from the fourth “Scène” of Rameau’s work. Accompanied by Boheme Opera managing director Sandra Milstein Pucciatti, Edwards sang expressively, holding her own in an aria which was extremely high in register and required a great deal of air to maneuver the long melodic lines.  more

April 7, 2021

“SURELY GOODNESS AND MERCY”: Passage Theatre has presented an online production of “Surely Goodness and Mercy.” Written by Chisa Hutchinson and directed by marcus d. harvey, the play depicts Tino (above, left) and a classmate, who try to help an irascible but caring school cafeteria worker. (Painting by Leon Rainbow, courtesy of Passage Theatre)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Passage Theatre has presented Surely Goodness and Mercy. Playwright Chisa Hutchinson’s inspirational coming-of-age drama follows Tino, an intelligent and caring 12-year-old boy. Tino and a classmate form an unlikely friendship with a school cafeteria worker, and seek a way to help her out of a crisis.

This online production was presented March 25-28; the run was extended for a second week (April 1-4). Surely Goodness and Mercy has been part of Passage’s Theatre for Families and Young Audiences series — which, according to the company’s website, is “geared towards students in elementary or middle school and focus on themes that affect the youth in our area.”

Hutchinson’s play is uplifting, but it also is grittily realistic. Set in Newark, Surely Goodness and Mercy attacks poverty (specifically the inability to afford health care), racism, and child abuse. Hutchinson also explores faith and its ability to empower people to change situations.

Tino (serenely portrayed by Layton E. Dickson) lives with his embittered aunt, Alneesa (played by Tamara Anderson, whose performance is characterized by bored, haughty glares and barbed line readings). When Tino tries to engage Alneesa in conversation, she pointedly fast-forwards through a commercial to avoid him.

Alneesa approves of Tino’s classmates teasing him for reading the Bible at school. She also rants about his generation when she learns that he discovered his church via Yelp. She tasks him with dusting, before abruptly reassigning him to scrubbing the bathtub. Later we learn that Tino’s mother died to save him from a gunshot. Alneesa’s resentment stems from the fact that she did not want children, but has been tasked with raising her late sister’s child. more

March 31, 2021

“SOMETHING WONDERFUL:” The Princeton Festival presented “Something Wonderful: An Evening of Musical Favorites.” The online concert featured soprano Amy Weintraub (right), accompanied by tenor and guitarist Shane Lonergan. (Photo courtesy of The Princeton Festival)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

The Princeton Festival presented Something Wonderful: An Evening of Musical Favorites on March 26. Actress, singer, and dancer Amy Weintraub performed an online recital of songs from classic and contemporary musicals. Actor, director, and musician Shane Lonergan accompanied Weintraub on guitar, and also sang with her on some of the selections. A press release emphasizes that the concert was a benefit whose ticket sales “help fund the Festival’s 2021 season.”

Weintraub and Lonergan previously performed together in The Princeton Festival’s 2020 Live Musical Theater Revue. Weintraub also starred in the Festival’s 2019 production of She Loves Me.

According to Weintraub, Something Wonderful was livestreamed from the living room of her parents’ house (which hosted a small “fully vaccinated” audience) in Fort Collins, Colorado. Acting Artistic Director Gregory Geehern said that he had asked the performers for an “NPR ‘Tiny Desk’ vibe.” It was an astute bit of direction; the intimate, relaxed mood echoed that of a concert in a coffee shop.

The concert was in two segments. The first largely favored selections from musicals that premiered during Broadway’s mid-20th century “Golden Age.” After an intermission, greater emphasis was placed on more recent shows and songs. Unifying themes were the emergence of love, the uncertainty that can accompany it, and the extent to which prior experience can leave one unprepared to process current feelings.  more

By Nancy Plum

Operas have been presented in unusual formats over the past year as companies think far outside the opera house, ranging from Zoomed recitals to a presentation of Wagner in a parking garage. Princeton University’s Department of Music joined the inventive performance arena this past month, with a virtual opera performance of 17th-century Italian composer Francesco Cavalli’s La Calisto. Most academic years in January, students in the Department of Music fall course on opera performance have presented the fruits of their labor in a public performance at Richardson Auditorium. Princeton University operated remotely the first half of this academic year, but the students enrolled in the fall 2020 virtual class refused to be cheated out of their public performance. With the combination of a conductor, director, videographer, dramaturg, and its own collective imagination, the class created a virtual three-act opera production presented by the Department of Music over three Saturdays this past month.  

The University production of La Calisto began its technological path as University Orchestra conductor Michael Pratt and voice faculty member Martha Elliott recorded the opera’s harpsichord accompaniment on piano. The videotape was then sent to harpsichordist Joyce Chen, who rerecorded the music on harpsichord to Pratt’s conducting. With the cast isolated all over the country, the University sent each singer state-of-the-art recording equipment and software to record their solo parts to Chen’s accompaniment. Students were allowed to submit as many “takes” as they wanted. The opera’s extensive recitatives were replaced with narration written by dramaturg (and Music Department chair) Wendy Heller and opera director Christopher Mattaliano and delivered throughout the opera by the cast members themselves.  

The University Department of Music presented the three-act production act by act beginning in early March, with Act I launched March 6, Act II March 13, and Act III on March 20.  The final broadcast reflected 17 singers and instrumentalists from the University student body using the spaces of their own homes, combined with the best technology the 21st century has to offer, to recreate a story from mythology set to music of the 17th century.   more

March 24, 2021

By Nancy Plum

One of the last musical events to take place in Princeton last March before the coronavirus shutdown was a performance by the Dryden Ensemble of Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. John Passion. The Baroque specialty orchestra had planned to present Bach’s monumental choral/orchestral work at Princeton’s All Saints’ Church on Saturday, March 14, 2020 to celebrate the organization’s 25thanniversary. With a state shutdown called for that day, the organization hurriedly turned its dress rehearsal the night before into an open performance to a limited audience. For those who missed the concert, the Dryden honored what would have been Bach’s 336th birthday this past Sunday with an online broadcast of the performance from last March. Conducted by Scott Metcalfe, musical and artistic director of the Boston-based vocal ensemble Blue Heron, this performance featured eight vocal soloists and an orchestra of 20 period instrumentalists to present a concert just as relevant and worthwhile now as it was a year ago.

Presenting the Passion narrative from the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John during Holy Week had been a liturgical tradition for centuries by the Baroque era. Initially read in church, the Biblical narrative was subsequently chanted and eventually set polyphonically as choral music evolved. By the 18thcentury, Passion settings were elaborate works with instruments and choruses, with vocal soloists taking on character parts. Bach may have composed as many as five Passion settings, with only two surviving in performable form. At the time Bach composed this work, he was in the early years of his position as cantor to four major Lutheran churches in Leipzig. It is hard to believe in these days of Bach reverence that he was somewhat down the list of choices for this position — following his hiring, one of the local council members complained that they would now have to “make do with mediocrity.”  Bach composed the multi-movement piece to be performed in two parts, separated by the Good Friday sermon.

Bach’s setting of the Passion as described in the Gospel of John is interspersed with commentary on the story in the form of arias or Lutheran chorales setting religious poems and other texts written specifically for this piece. Major choruses bookend the series of arias, recitatives, and chorales, with the drama conveyed by an Evangelist, Jesus, and Pilate. Two sopranos, two altos, and one tenor fill out the storyline, which begins at the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday and ends at the tomb provided by Joseph of Arimathea. In this performance, presented in German with English subtitles, the Ensemble recreated the piece with just eight singers handling all of the vocal material, bringing together an octet well-experienced in 18th-century performance practice. Leading the cast as the Evangelist was tenor Jason McStoots, who has a long history of specializing in Baroque opera. William Sharp, singing the role of Jesus, is no stranger to opera and choral works on Princeton stages; and baritone Brian Ming Chu, singing the role of Pilate, has made his professional career in the Philadelphia area. Although these three singers carried much of the dramatic action, the other five vocalists were no less busy.   more

March 10, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

It is shuddersome and sinister. About it hovers the grisly something which we all fear in the dark but dare not define.

—James Huneker on Chopin’s Prelude No. 2

When a film is called Night of the Living Dead, you know what to expect. Same with The Walking Dead. Given the Hitchcock brand and half a century of shower-slaughter word of mouth, you know where you’re headed with Psycho.

Carnival of Souls is another matter. The film’s title alone has intriguing possibilities, with room for whatever or whoever you want to bring to the dance, if you don’t mind fox-trotting or waltzing to sinister organ music reminiscent of NBC’s Inner Sanctum, the old time radio precursor to The Twilight Zone. The horror movie genre it has been consigned to is less interesting to me than the title’s suggestion of a gathering of souls. In my preferred vision of the carnival, the doors are open to great souls like Kafka and Chopin, whose 211th birthday was March 1.

Keeping in mind the rhetoric Chopin’s sometimes “shuddersome and sinister” music has attracted — the “affinities with the darkling conceptions” of Poe and Coleridge in the Scherzo in C-sharp minor that James Huneker likens to “some fantastic, sombre pile of disordered farouche architecture” about which “hovers perpetual night and the unspeakable and despairing things that live in the night” — I’ve been thinking a lot about Carnival of Souls and its protagonist, Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss). Having survived an accident in which two friends drowned, Mary moves from Lawrence, Kansas, to Salt Lake City, where she has a job as a church organist. She’s in a department store buying a new dress when suddenly the world goes silent, sales people and other customers no longer see her, she can’t hear them, they can’t hear her, and after escaping outside she’s still in the silent spell until a bird’s song brings the real world back to life for her. 

Going directly from that nightmare to the church organ,  she begins to rehearse, but the sounds she’s producing soon veer into dissonance and discord that she’s helpless to control, it’s as if her hands have taken on a spasmodic life of their own, crawling and creeping over the keys, and when two large hands reach out of nowhere to cover hers, you think at first they belong to the ghoulish figure that’s been stalking her. But no, it’s the appalled minister putting a stop to the profane uproar before pompously firing her on the spot. A day ago he’d praised her playing, telling her to put her soul into it, and so she has but it’s not her soul.

The sequence takes only four of the film’s 80 minutes, and I’ve seen it several times on YouTube, trying to imagine the impact on the minister had certain portions of Chopin’s B flat minor sonata been translated into the language of the pipe organ, a sonata that Schumann says “begins and ends … with dissonances, through dissonances, and in dissonances,” not to mention “the brief, astonishing finale, a coda to the famous marche funebre suggesting that the departing mourners were swept away by a tornado.”    Scarily akin to the sight of Mary’s hands is a fellow pianist and composer’s account of Chopin at the piano: “It was an astonishing sight to see one of his little hands reach out and cover a third of the key-board. It was like the mouth of a serpent about to swallow a rabbit. In reality, Chopin was made of rubber.”

The first piece I associated with Mary’s trauma was the Polonaise fantasie in A flat major that Franz Liszt described in an 1852 monograph as “an elegiac tristesse … punctuated by startled movements, melancholic smiles, unexpected jolts, pauses full of tremors, like those felt by somebody caught in an ambush, surrounded on all sides.” To a critic of the period, “the piano speaks here in a language not previously known.” When he was working on the Polonaise, Chopin himself admitted he didn’t know what to title it until the end, confessing, “I’d like to finish something that I don’t yet know what to call.” He completed it in August 1846, three years before his death. more

By Nancy Plum

Princeton Symphony Orchestra returned to its virtual classical concert series this past weekend with a performance highlighting music of the Italian masters for strings. Sunday afternoon’s program also featured Russian harpist Alexander Boldachev, who was scheduled to perform live in Princeton this season, in works of Bedrïch Smetana and Astor Piazzolla, as well as two of his own compositions.

Ottorino Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances was a set of three orchestral suites from the early 20th-century Italian composer, inspired by lute and guitar music of the 16th through 18th centuries. In a concert recorded last fall in Princeton’s Morven Museum and Garden, Princeton Symphony performed the third of these suites, which was comprised of four baroque musical dances and which was unusual in its scoring for strings alone. 

Led by Princeton Symphony Orchestra Music Director Rossen Milanov, the strings of the Orchestra began the opening dance of “Suite III” gracefully. The upper strings maintained a great deal of forward motion to the melodic lines, accompanied by delicate pizzicato playing from the lower strings. Throughout the “Suite,” one could easily hear the plucking of a 17th-century lute. The strings well handled the complex shifting of styles in the second movement “Aire di Corte,” well capturing a rustic dance atmosphere. An elegant lilt marked the third movement “Siciliana,” and the Orchestra closed the stylish work with a rich orchestral texture similar to a Baroque organ.   more

March 3, 2021

By Nancy Plum

Princeton Symphony Orchestra continued its musical partnership with the Buskaid Soweto String Ensemble of South Africa this past week with a concert entitled Soulful and Scintillating Solos, launched Friday and running through the weekend. The Buskaid concert included works of classical composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ernest Bloch, and Camille Saint-Saëns, along with American popular music and traditional South African selections. As with the first Soweto String Ensemble broadcast earlier this winter, the performance featured members of the Ensemble as instrumental and vocal soloists.

It is difficult to imagine that one of Mozart’s most iconic chamber works was composed as “background” music to an 18th-century social event, but that may well be the case with the popular Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Composed in 1787, this four-movement work was likely intended by the composer as a notturno, a chamber piece played late at night at a social gathering. Mozart appears to have given the piece its famous subtitle to differentiate it from a serenade, played earlier in the evening. Regardless of the work’s genesis, the musical themes of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik have remained among Mozart’s most recognizable.

Led by conductor Rosemary Nalden and playing from memory, the string players of the Buskaid Soweto String Ensemble played the first movement of Mozart’s Nachtmusik crisply and decisively, leaning into appoggiaturas and demonstrating graceful dynamic swells. Nalden provided effectively supple conducting gestures when required, and the players communicated well among themselves, showing that they had been playing together for a long time. This performance was taken from a 2019 archive, recorded (as were all the works on this program) in the Linder Auditorium of the Wits Education Campus in Johannesburg, South Africa.   more

February 24, 2021

“BABEL”: Passage Theatre has presented an online production of “Babel.” Written by Jacqueline Goldfinger and directed by Jill Harrison, the dark comedy is set in a future in which genetic testing may prevent a person from being welcome in mainstream society. Renee (Tai Verley, above) must make a painful decision, with unwanted help from a tough-talking stork. (Photo by Lauren Eliot Photography)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

In Jacqueline Goldfinger’s darkly comic play Babel, Renee (the main protagonist) exclaims, “What is this, an old episode of Star Trek?” She probably is thinking of a 1992 Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, “The Masterpiece Society.” In that story, the Enterprise crew encounters a colony that has been developed through genetic engineering and selective breeding.

Because most episodes of Star Trek take place on a fictional planet in the far-distant future, the concepts it examines tend to be comfortably abstract. Although Babel is set sometime in “the future,” Goldfinger strips away that cushion of remove. The play is set on Earth, much closer to our own time, with characters that are vividly relatable.

Babel’s page on the New Play Exchange’s website credits McCarter Theatre with a 2019 developmental reading. The play is the recipient of Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company’s Generations New Play Award, as well as the Smith Prize for Political Theatre.

Passage Theatre presented an online reading of Babel from February 18-21. Ticketed viewers were sent links that entitled them to watch the prerecorded video, skillfully directed by Jill Harrison.

Babel begins wordlessly; we hear controlled, rhythmic breathing. We then see that it is Renee (who is given an outstanding portrayal by Tai Verley). She anxiously consults a book, and continues her exercises. Her spouse Dani (infused with steely composure by Leah Walton) appears, and soothingly starts singing “Beyond the Sea.” Renee joins her, and it is clear that they often sing it together.

We learn that Renee finally has gotten pregnant after trying for eight years, and that an unspecified condition prevents Dani from being the one to give birth. Renee is apprehensive about a medical test that she must undergo the next day. In the play’s dystopian world, there is a “precertification law” that requires all embryos to be screened for physical, cognitive, and behavioral defects.

Renee is distraught at the test results. The physical and cognitive results are acceptable, but the doctor is “concerned about the baby’s behavioral genes” and refuses to issue a certificate. If Renee chooses not to “take the shot” and terminate the pregnancy, the child will be tested again at 18. Unacceptable results at that point banish a person from society. They are forced to live in an “underground village” with constant monitoring, and manual labor as their only career choice. Renee’s state of mind is worsened by a sense that “someone or something” is following her. more

February 17, 2021

“THE MANIC MONOLOGUES”: McCarter Theatre Center, in association with Princeton University Health Services, The 24 Hour Plays, and Innovations in Socially Distant Performance, is launching “The Manic Monologues.” Created by Zack Burton (left) and Elisa Hofmeister (center), the monologues form the core of a virtual experience conceived and directed by Elena Araoz (right). (Photos courtesy of the artists)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

McCarter Theatre will launch The Manic Monologues on February 18. The free interactive website is described by a press release as “a digital theatrical experience to disrupt stigma and spotlight a conversation about mental health.” McCarter is presenting the project in association with Princeton University Health Services; The 24 Hour Plays; and Innovations in Socially Distant Performance, a project of Princeton University’s Lewis Center for the Arts.

The monologues, and the panel discussions that complement them, concern “our moment,” says McCarter’s Resident Producer Debbie Bisno. Topics include the extent to which mental health is affected by social media, racial injustice, and COVID.

The Manic Monologues was created by Zack Burton and Elisa Hofmeister. It is a collection of true stories submitted by a range of people living with mental health challenges. The anthology of vignettes was inspired by Burton’s personal experience; in 2017 he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. (At the time he was completing his Ph.D. in geology at Stanford). Burton says that the play was conceived “about a year after my diagnosis.”

Burton and Hofmeister, who were dating at the time, aimed to improve the conversation about mental health. “We were struggling with this lack of hopeful, uplifting stories,” Burton explains. “Every one of us knows someone touched in some way by a mental health condition … this is a core component of the human experience. It’s a spectrum, and it’s also equal opportunity, so everyone’s affected. So we wanted to capture that diversity.” more

February 10, 2021

By Nancy Plum

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra celebrated the Year of the Ox last week by launching six days of performances and demonstrations leading up to a virtual concert on Saturday night. Led by NJSO Music Director Xian Zhang, Saturday’s concert premiere featured members of the Orchestra as well as guest artists performing both classical works and traditional Chinese songs.

Saturday night’s event was preceded by five days of short performances and demonstrations of Lunar New Year-related activities. Highlights of this series including NJSO violinist Ming Yang and her daughter Jade Lucia Nieczkowski performing an elegant arrangement of “Fisherman’s Song at Eventide” and New Jersey middle school student Harmony Zhu playing a fiery interpretation of Frédéric Chopin’s Ballade No. 4 in F Minor. Audiences tuning into this series cold also learn how to cook Tteokguk — a traditional Korean New Year’s soup made with sliced rice cakes taught by NJSO principal bassist Ha-Young Jung — as well as a variety of wontons, demonstrated by violinist Xin Zhao.  

More than a year in the making, Saturday night’s concert was the third annual NJSO Lunar New Year celebration. Music Director Zhang and the Symphony have used this event over the past few years to collaborate with other artists and community organizations, attracting new audiences in the process. Expanding into a week-long celebration was a new innovation this year, and several of the artists who participated in demonstrations during the week were part of Saturday night’s performance. more

February 3, 2021

By Nancy Plum

Since the weather has turned cold, it has become difficult for music ensembles to comfortably record concerts, yet audiences are hungry for performances. Princeton Symphony Orchestra found a way to brighten up the winter by partnering with South Africa’s Buskaid Soweto String Ensemble, which offers high-quality string teaching to underprivileged youth in the township of Soweto outside of Johannesburg. Princeton Symphony launched the first of its virtual five-concert on-demand series featuring the Buskaid String Ensemble this past weekend, presenting a wide range of classical and South African music. 

Buskaid: A Musical Miracle–Brilliant Baroque to Cool Kwela! was curated by Buskaid’s founder and music director Rosemary Nalden. This past weekend’s concert, launched Friday through Sunday, was comprised of Buskaid archival concert material filmed from 2014 to 2019 in the Linder Auditorium of the Wits Education Center in Johannesburg. In these performances, up to 35 string and percussion players, together with vocalists and led by conductor Nalden, presented works of the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as pieces from South Africa’s rich musical tradition. 

The Buskaid String Ensemble programmed this concert chronologically, beginning with several works by early 18th-century French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau. The Ensemble’s performance of Rameau’s “Overture” to the composer’s opera Naïs and two dance movements from the opera Dardanus immediately showed the versatility and skill of the musicians through effective dynamic contrasts, musical lines always moving forward and crisp playing from the lower strings. These three works contained a great deal of repetition in notes and phrasing, which the ensemble played with variety and attention to detail. In a nod to the String Ensemble’s South African roots, the “Overture” to Naïs was accompanied by a djembe — an African goblet drum played with bare hands which certainly would not have been part of Rameau’s original concept, but which added rhythmic snap to the performance. more

January 27, 2021

“UNBECOMING”: The Lewis Center for the Arts’ Program in Theater is presenting “Unbecoming.” Directed by Eliana Cohen-Orth, the video will be available online, to view for free, through January 31. Above: Lady Charlotte Guest (Paige Elizabeth Allen, center) is torn between Victorian societal expectations personified by the Wife of England (Eliana Cohen-Orth, left) and ambitions to complete a translation of the “Mabinogion,” which includes the tale of Blodeuwedd (Nora Aguiar, right). (Photo by Cathy Watkins, for the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton University)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

The Lewis Center for the Arts is presenting the first full production of Unbecoming, a new play by Princeton University alumna Emma Catherine Watkins. The play is inspired by the true story of Lady Charlotte Guest (1812-1895), the Victorian aristocrat who became the first person to translate the Mabinogion — a Medieval collection of Welsh stories that originated from oral traditions — into English.

Unbecoming, which employs a play-within-a-play format, has two protagonists: Guest, and Blodeuwedd, a central character in the last of the “Four Branches” of the Mabinogion. The legend of the “fairest, and most graceful” woman — whom the magician and warrior Lleu Llaw Gyffes conjures out of flowers to be his wife, but transforms into an owl as punishment for infidelity — is juxtaposed against a somewhat fictionalized depiction of Guest, whose husband tries to mold her to Victorian conceptions of an ideal wife.

Guest is given a strong portrayal by Paige Elizabeth Allen, who also is the production’s dramaturg. After Allen discovered Unbecoming through a development workshop hosted by Princeton University in January 2020, she and director (and cast member) Eliana Cohen-Orth proposed the project to the Program in Theater, as their senior theses. The production was developed in collaboration with Watkins. more

January 20, 2021

By Nancy Plum

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra launched the second of its series of virtual performances this season last Thursday night. Led by NJSO Music Director Xian Zhang (who was also showcased as piano soloist), the concert also featured NJSO concertmaster Eric Wyrick and music of William Grant Still, Giacomo Puccini, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and Antonin Dvorák. Recorded in Prudential Hall of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center last October and presented as a “concert film,” in collaboration with DreamPlay Films, the online performance combined the lush music of these four composers with scenes of New Jersey Symphony’s home base in Newark.  

Considered the “Dean of African American composers,” William Grant Still composed nearly 200 works during the first two-thirds of the 20th century. Still had a multi-faceted career as classical composer, while also arranging for popular band leaders and film scores. Mother and Child was initially the second movement of Still’s 1943 Suite for Violin and Piano, inspired by a lithograph of the same name by abstract figurative and modern artist Sargent Claude Johnson. Still arranged this movement in several orchestrations, including for strings alone, which was the version heard Thursday night.   more

January 13, 2021

“ETTA AND ELLA ON THE UPPER WEST SIDE:” Round House Theatre, in association with McCarter Theatre Center, is presenting the world premiere of Adrienne Kennedy’s “Etta and Ella on the Upper West Side.” Directed by Timothy Douglas, the prerecorded video will be available online through February 28. Above: Ella (Caroline Clay) describes a contentious relationship between two sisters, both of whom are authors. (Video still courtesy of Round House Theatre)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

McCarter is partnering with the Round House Theatre (in Bethesda, Maryland) to present an online festival, The Work of Adrienne Kennedy: Inspiration and Influence.

Kennedy’s many awards include an Obie for Lifetime Achievement, and in 2018 she was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame. A press release notes that her plays are “taught in colleges throughout the country, in Europe, India, and Africa.”

This series, which has been a fitting tribute to an underperformed playwright, consists of prerecorded performances produced by the Round House. All four productions have been conceived with a theatrical sensibility, while taking advantage of the visual — even cinematic — possibilities offered by video.

The festival opened with He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box, which depicted young lovers, separated by physical space as well as their racial backgrounds. Their letters to each other illuminate America’s history of racial injustice. The excruciatingly relevant second installment, Sleep Deprivation Chamber, is inspired by the treatment Kennedy’s own son (and co-author) experienced at the hands of police officers. Ohio State Murders was the third play presented. While not as overtly autobiographical, it examines the racial prejudice Kennedy experienced on a mid-20th century campus.

Elements from all three of these plays appear, to varying degrees, in the final installment: Etta and Ella on the Upper West Side, which is receiving its world premiere via this festival. The multilayered, deceptively stream-of-consciousness piece — which runs a little over a half an hour — is a monologue, though multiple characters speak.  more

By Nancy Plum

Princeton Symphony Orchestra continued its virtual concert series with a broadcast performance this past weekend of Classical-era chamber works and solo piano music. Led by Music Director Rossen Milanov, Sunday afternoon’s concert provided cozy music for a winter afternoon.

18th-century French composer Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, was almost as famous for his background as for his music. A contemporary of Mozart, Saint-Georges was born in the West Indies an illegitimate son of a wealthy French nobleman and his slave. Contrary to the customs of the time, Saint-Georges’ father took Joseph and his mother to Paris, where he was well educated in music and athletics. Saint-Georges simultaneously pursued careers in music and fencing, eventually serving in the court of Louis XV and becoming a music teacher of Marie Antoinette. Despite his support from the monarchy, Saint-Georges sided with the revolutionaries in the French Revolution and was later arrested as an enemy of the people. And like Mozart, despite his fame in music circles, Saint-Georges died poor and in obscurity.  

Although much of Saint-Georges’ music was lost in the French Revolution, orchestras have recently turned their attention to his symphonic works. Rooted in the compositional style of Haydn, Saint-Georges’ 1779 Symphony No. 1 in G Major captured the light and playful musical atmosphere of late 18th-century France. In a performance recorded earlier this year in the education center of Princeton’s Morven Museum and Garden, eleven members of Princeton Symphony Orchestra, led by Milanov, played the three-movement Symphony emphasizing the music’s simplicity and charm. In the first movement, subtle winds accompanied string sections busy with motivic melodic material and musical teasing. First violinists Basia Danilow, Margaret Banks and Ruotao Mao led a graceful dialog among the instruments in the second movement andante. Saint-Georges may have been a violin virtuoso, but he composed the violin parts of this Symphony with delicacy and elegance in mind.   more

December 23, 2020

By Nancy Plum

With the cancellation of its principal mainstage production of Verdi’s Rigoletto last spring, Boheme Opera NJ turned this fall to a season of four online concerts showcasing the company’s roster of singers. The Path from Opera to Broadway, launched in November, featured selections from Bizet’s Carmen and Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio, as well as excerpts from lighter opera and musical theater. A Night in Vienna, presented December 2, took Boheme Opera’s online audience on a voyage to Vienna, with the music of Johann Strauss, Sigmund Romberg, Rudolf Friml, and Kurt Weill. With singers performing from their homes in many cases, Boheme Opera NJ compiled comprehensive surveys of opera and musical theater, narrated by the company’s president and series co-creator Jerrold Kalstein.  

December 9’s Unique Broadway broadcast explored composers and shows which were ground-breaking in their time, including composers and works out of the American musical theater mainstream or introducing unusual themes. Central to this survey was the music of American composer Leonard Bernstein, whom Boheme Opera NJ featured with a presentation of several clips from the company’s 2018 Bernstein Centennial performance. This concert, which took place in the College of New Jersey’s Kendall Theater and conducted by Boheme Opera music director Joseph Pucciatti, drew extensively from Bernstein’s opera Trouble in Tahiti. Leading these excerpts vocally was mezzo-soprano Amy Maude Helfer, who consistently maintained a saucy attitude onstage and good control over a disjunct vocal line. Other standouts from this concert were tenor Errin Brooks, one of the young talents encouraged by Boheme Opera NJ over the years, and baritone Joseph Lodato, who sang a selection from Les Miserables. This musical was produced at a time when the lines between opera and musical theater began to become blurred, and Lodato’s voice was well-suited for Inspector Javert’s signature song, “Stars.”   more

December 16, 2020

“CHRISTMAS 2.0”: Passage Theatre presented an online reading of “Christmas 2.0.” Written by Donna Hoke (above) and directed by Michelle Tattenbaum, the romantic comedy probes the extent to which social media can jeopardize interpersonal relationships. Online contact with a former classmate endangers the protagonist’s current relationship with her husband. (Photo by kc kratt)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

This is an era defined by Apple,” observes Angela, the protagonist of Christmas 2.0. Angela’s mother, in a critique of restaurant patrons she sees absorbed by their phones throughout their meals, remarks, “What’s more fascinating than the person right in front of you?”

That conversation could point to an expedient partnership between technology and live theater. Under normal circumstances, the allure of electronic devices and social media would seem to hamper theaters’ ability to attract audiences’ attention to a live show, where they (presumably) would be fascinated by the person in front of them — on stage. However, faced with the fact that live venues have been closed because of the pandemic, a growing number of theater companies are presenting shows online.

Passage Theatre has presented a reading of Christmas 2.0. Playwright Donna Hoke’s wry but charming romantic comedy, which probes the extent to which social media and overreliance on technology can jeopardize interpersonal relationships, is an example of a play that is well suited to online performances. (The New Play Exchange’s website notes that the piece was workshopped at the 2015 Hormel Festival of New Works at Phoenix Theatre, and it won third place in the Pickering Prize for Playwriting Excellence.)

Victoria Davidjohn reads the stage directions, which establish the play’s first setting as “Jeff and Angela’s middle class living room. Jeff is busy on his phone; Angela is on her computer.” Angela (whom Autumn Hurlbert infuses with down-to-earth, mild-mannered earnestness) turns away from her screen to examine the couple’s Christmas tree, which she is concerned might be crooked.  more

December 9, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.

—Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

John Lennon’s first solo album was released 50 years ago this week. No name appears on the cover image of a man and a woman stretched out under a massive tree, his head in her lap. The entire back cover consists of an enlarged photograph of a little boy’s face. The absence of information creates an impression of timelessness: the tree could be any tree anywhere, the couple any couple, and this most personal of recordings by one of the most famous people in the world could be by, for, or about anyone and everyone.

A few days ago when I played the half-century-old record for the first time in decades, the first sound I heard after the crackle and hiss and pop of the surface was of a bell tolling, four deeply resonant strokes. Big Ben, history, London, the Blitz, wartime, no narrator needed, the sound speaks for itself. As the fourth stroke fades, John Lennon belts out the primal word, “Mother,” and goes on to deliver a performance that does to this listener what poetry does to Emily Dickinson.

That said, the top of my head was never at risk the first time I heard John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band in mid-December 1970. As impressed I was by the power of Lennon’s long-awaited, much-hyped solo album, it wasn’t easy to hear it through the chaotic static of the Paul-and-Linda, John-and-Yoko Primal Therapy fall-out of the Great Beatles Break-Up. By the time I was listening to “God,” the track everyone was talking about, with its off-puttingly prosy opening line (“God is a concept by which we measure our pain”) and the statement it was leading up to (“I don’t believe in Beatles”), I’d begun to back out of it, especially after the line “I just believe in Yoko and me.”

But then came the message of the tender, beautifully sung farewell coda: “I was the dream weaver … but now I’m John … and so, dear friends, you just have to carry on …” because “the dream is over,” — except that something deeper than a dream was in play when he sang “but now I’m John,” sealing a personal first-name connection that was still alive ten years later in the grieving crowds that gathered worldwide after his death.  more

“OHIO STATE MURDERS”: Round House Theatre and McCarter Theatre Center are presenting “Ohio State Murders.” Directed by Valerie Curtis-Newton, the video will be available online through February 28, 2021. Above, writer Suzanne Alexander (Lynda Gravatt) returns to her alma mater to give a lecture, whose subject matter includes her turbulent experiences as a student. (Video still courtesy of Round House Theatre)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

McCarter is partnering with the Round House Theatre (in Bethesda, Maryland) to present an online festival, The Work of Adrienne Kennedy: Inspiration and Influence. Kennedy is an African American playwright whose accolades include multiple Obie Awards, including Lifetime Achievement. As a press release notes, her plays are “taught in colleges throughout the country, in Europe, India, and Africa.”

This four-part festival, consisting of videos filmed by the Round House, opened with He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box, in which a multi-racial couple’s letters reveal disturbing family histories; and continued with Sleep Deprivation Chamber, in which a writer seeks justice for her son when he becomes a victim of police brutality. 

Ohio State Murders is the current installmentwhich became available as of December 5Following the drama’s 1992 premiere by the Great Lakes Theater Festival, which commissioned the piece, it was included in a Signature Theatre Company season (1995-96) devoted to Kennedy’s work. Theatre for a New Audience gave the play its New York debut in 2007.

The protagonist of Ohio State Murders also is that of Sleep Deprivation Chamber: African American writer Suzanne Alexander, a partially fictionalized version of Kennedy. In both dramas, Suzanne confronts a series of incidents that has a devastating impact on her family.  more

December 2, 2020

“SLEEP DEPRIVATION CHAMBER”: Round House Theatre and McCarter Theatre Center are presenting “Sleep Deprivation Chamber.” Produced in partnership with the Department of Theatre Arts at Howard University, and directed by Raymond O. Caldwell, the video will be available online through February 28, 2021. Suzanne Alexander (Kim James Bey, left) and her son Teddy (Deimoni Brewington) discuss Suzanne’s efforts to ensure justice for Teddy. (Video still courtesy of Round House Theatre)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

McCarter is partnering with the Round House Theatre (based in Bethesda, Maryland) to present an online festival, The Work of Adrienne Kennedy: Inspiration and Influence. The four-part series continues with a Round House video of Sleep Deprivation Chamber, which became available to view as of November 22.

The edgy production is directed by Raymond O. Caldwell. Maboud Ebrahimzadeh is the director of photography, returning from the festival’s production of He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box.

In a press release, McCarter’s Artistic Director Sarah Rasmussen praises Kennedy — an African American playwright whose accolades include Obie Awards and an induction into the Theater Hall of Fame — for breaking “convention in the face of traditional barriers that prevented a much-deserved spotlight.” Round House Theatre’s Artistic Director Ryan Rilette adds that Kennedy’s plays are “beautiful, poetic conversations on race and power that are just as necessary now as they were 50 years ago.”

Sleep Deprivation Chamber premiered in 1996, presented by the Signature Theatre Company at the Public Theater. That year it won an Obie Award for Best New American Play (which it shared with another Adrienne Kennedy play, June and Jean in Concert). more

November 25, 2020

“WELCOME TO MATTESON!”: Passage Theatre presented, to ticketed viewers, an online reading of “Welcome to Matteson!” Written by Inda Craig-Galván (above), and directed by Andrew Binger, the dark comedy depicts the class tensions that erupt when a couple is forcibly relocated from a housing project to a more affluent suburb. (Photo by Julián Juaquín)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Passage Theatre has presented a live online reading of Welcome to Matteson! Inda Craig-Galván’s poignant comedy portrays “a suburban couple that hosts a welcome-to-the-neighborhood dinner party for their new neighbors, a couple recently (forcibly) relocated from Chicago’s roughest housing project,” notes a press release, which adds that the dinner turns out to be “anything but welcoming.”

“The play, at heart, is about how we relate to each other, how we value things over people,” Craig-Galván says. “It’s taken on sort of a different feel, now that we are in our own bubbles, and our own seclusion.”

As with Passage’s presentation of the prerecorded Panther Hollow last month, the reading was treated as a theatrical event. The purchase of a ticket entitled audiences to watch the livestream via Zoom on November 21, or the recording on YouTube through November 25.

Craig-Galván is developing new works with theater companies such as Primary Stages and Company One. She has received awards such as the Jeffry Melnick New Playwright Award, Blue Ink Playwriting Prize, and Stage Raw Best Playwright Award. She is a writer on the CBS All Access series Happy Face, and previously was a writer for How to Get Away with Murder and The Rookie, both for ABC. The reading of Welcome to Matteson! is her first collaboration with Passage. more

By Nancy Plum

Since March, orchestras nationwide have been developing online concert series often presenting well-known works recorded either live or from archives. New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO), in its first online video concert broadcast of NJSO Virtual 20-21, marked this unusual year by performing a piece commissioned specifically to capture an unprecedented time period which certainly became more tumultuous during the course of the piece’s composition. 

NJSO commissioned Haitian-American composer Daniel Bernard Roumain to write a work which, in the words of the composer, was created “during a series of overlapping crises in our lives: a pandemic, a global fight for social justice, the effects and awareness of climate change, an array of economic collapses, and the tyranny of an electoral process under siege by a president and his party.”

NJSO Music Director Xian Zhang combined Roumain’s music with that of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, American composer Michael Abels, and symphonic titan Gustav Mahler to create a virtual experience blending musical nobility and joy, in a concert recorded at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in October and launched online last Thursday night.  more