November 24, 2021

By Nancy Plum

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra launched the second of its online fall performances last Wednesday night with a multi-media presentation of 19th-century music. Recorded last May at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and led by NJSO Music Director Xian Zhang, this concert focused on “A Woman’s Voice” in programmatic music, performance, and poetry. Although the Orchestra presented only three works, last Wednesday night’s performance was dense with text and backstories to the music, accompanied by poetry of local writers. Joining the Orchestra was one of opera’s great legends, soprano Renée Fleming.

French composer Georges Bizet’s four-movement suite L’Arlésienne (The Girl from Arles) originated as incidental music to a failed theatrical play.  New Jersey Symphony Orchestra performed the third movement “Adagietto,” scored for strings alone. Under Zhang’s direction, the strings of the Orchestra began the movement introspectively; with a smaller than usual ensemble of strings, the violins reached the heights of phrases well, with an especially lean melody from the first violins. The performance of this piece was preceded by a reading of the poem “Elizabeth, NJ” by New Jersey poet and artist Michelle Moncayo. 

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra introduced Richard Wagner’s romantic Siegfried Idyll with the poem “Convergence” by New Jersey native, poet and educator Jane Wong. Wagner, one of the towering composers of the 19th century, composed the one-movement Idyll as a “Symphonic Birthday Greeting” to his wife at the time. Zhang and the Orchestra began the piece with the same light touch heard in the Bizet work, with more strings and the addition of winds and brass. A solo line from flutist Bart Feller soared above the orchestral palette, complemented by pastoral solo playing from oboist Alexandra Knoll. Clarinetist Pascal Archer also provided expressive solo passages as the strings gracefully maneuvered repeated melodies and rhythmic patterns. A quartet of principal string players presented melodic lines well punctuated by solo horn player Christopher Komer, and conductor Zhang and concertmaster Eric Wyrick added a playful character to the music. Zhang brought the Idyll to a joyous close, aided by rich orchestration and playing of the German trumpets for which Wagner’s music is known.    more

“MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING”: Theatre Intime has staged a reimagined “Much Ado About Nothing,” presented November 12-21 at the Hamilton Murray Theater. Directed by Katie Bushman, Shakespeare’s romantic comedy is transplanted to the era of World War I. Benedick (Solomon Bergquist, center left) and Beatrice (Cassy James, center right) have a bickersome courtship, which is jeopardized by an action taken by Claudio (Harit Raghunathan, left) at his wedding to Hero (Lauren Owens, second from left). Onlookers: Leonato (Hank Ingham, second from right) and Don Pedro (Alex Conboy, right). (Photo by Elliot Lee)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

In Much Ado About Nothing Shakespeare has Balthasar, a musician, sing: “Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more; men were deceivers ever.” This world-weary comment, about the timelessness of dishonesty in relationships, would seem to offer directors latitude to reimagine the period in which this comedy is set.

Princeton University’s Theatre Intime has presented (from November 12-21) a production that takes advantage of this dramaturgical license. Director Katie Bushman transplants the play — first published in 1600 — to the end of the First World War.

This is clear as soon as the audience enters the theater. We hear popular songs of that period, including Irving Berlin’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and, more thematically relevant, George M. Cohan’s “Over There.”

Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon (portrayed by Alex Conboy) returns home from winning a battle. With him are two of his soldiers: Claudio (Harit Raghunathan) and Benedick (Solomon Bergquist). The play is set at the home of a noble, Leonato (Hank Ingham); he invites the soldiers to stay for a month.  more

November 17, 2021

By Nancy Plum

Westminster Choir, the flagship choral ensemble of Westminster Choir College of Rider University, returned to live performance this past weekend. Led by conductor Lynnel Joy Jenkins, the 35-voice mixed chorus presented a program centered on “Returning to Joy” in Rider University’s Gill Memorial Chapel on Sunday afternoon. The program of a cappella and lightly accompanied choral works featured music both past and present and took the audience at Gill Chapel from “mourning” through “singing and new song” and “comfort” to “celebration,” capturing the myriad of feelings and atmospheres over the past 18 months. As Jenkins explained, this concert musically depicted “a tumultuous journey of returning to our beloved choral singing after a storm of life.”

Conductor and music educator Lynnel Joy Jenkins has built a successful career on cultivating community in the choral classroom while inspiring artistry. Her local connections range from a Westminster Choir College degree to conducting the Resident Choir of The American Boychoir School to her current position as artistic director of the Westrick Music Academy and conductor of the Princeton Girlchoir Ensemble and Concert Choir. From her worldwide choral clinical experiences, Jenkins has brought to choral programming a multicultural approach well evident in Sunday afternoon’s concert.

Jenkins opened the performance with three choral pieces of grief from three different time periods. The text of 16th-century composer Tomás Luis de Victoria’s “O Vos Omnes” was derived from the biblical book of Lamentations, and Westminster Choir sang Victoria’s a cappella Latin motet with clear harmonies and a well-focused sound. Westminster Choir has been renowned for a number of choral strengths, including solid blend, impeccable tuning, and the ability to produce an endless stream of choral sound, all of which were in evidence throughout this concert.  more

KELLI O’HARA: Stage and screen star Kelli O’Hara (above) performed November 13 at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre, marking her debut there. For the concert, which included a selection of show tunes and standards, the Tony Award winner was accompanied by a quartet of instrumentalists. (Photo courtesy of McCarter Theatre)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Stage and screen star Kelli O’Hara performed at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre this past Saturday night. The concert featured a selection of classic and contemporary show tunes, as well as a few stand-alone songs, that have had special significance for the Tony and Drama League Award winner.

Her stage credits include numerous musical theater roles on Broadway, as well as Metropolitan Opera performances in The Merry Widow and Cosi fan tutte. Screen credits include the web series The Accidental Wolf, Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, and HBO’s upcoming The Gilded Age.

O’Hara made her McCarter debut with the November 13 concert. However, one of the musicians who accompanied her — percussionist Gene Lewin — is an alumnus of Princeton University and its Triangle Club.

Dan Lipton was the musical director and pianist. Guitarist Justin Goldner and bassist Alex Eckhardt completed the well-balanced quartet.  more

November 10, 2021

By Nancy Plum

Princeton Symphony Orchestra (PSO) presented the second of its live fall 2021 concerts this past Thursday night. Under the direction of Music Director Rossen Milanov, the Symphony performed a program centered on two Viennese masters at McCarter Theatre Center’s Matthews Theatre. Joined by guest piano soloist Shai Wosner, the ensemble performed music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Franz Schubert, as well as a 21st-century piece by American composer Evan Williams.

PSO opened Thursday night’s concert with Williams’ one-movement The Dream Deferred for string orchestra and harp. Williams’ 2017 piece draws attention to the school-to-prison pipeline of individuals whose dreams are deferred by a derailed education and subsequent prison experience. With melodies written by New York area youth incorporated into the music, The Dream Deferred was inspired by the poetry of American author Langston Hughes. 

The symphony began the work with a dark unison from the strings and sharp accented jabs against a dissonant palette. Principal violist Stephanie Griffin played agitated viola passages depicting conflict and harpist André Tarantiles added to the intensity with precision and a percussive effect. The overall musical impression was one of tragic lost lives, contrasted by a melodic duet between the two violin sections. Conductor Milanov led the orchestra well through this accessible piece, effectively conveying the musical question of a provocative social issue in today’s world. 

Israel-born pianist Shai Wosner has been known for pairing classical masterpieces with contemporary works, so it was no surprise to hear Williams’ piece followed by a standard from Mozart’s piano concerto repertory. Mozart composed his 1784 Piano Concerto No. 15 in B-flat Major in a concertante style, with wind solos complementing the solo keyboard playing. The wind sections of PSO spoke well in the McCarter acoustic, with principal oboist Roni Gal-Ed elegantly carrying a great deal of the secondary melodic material of the first movement. Wosner displayed a light touch on the piano from the outset, with crisp unisons in tandem with the orchestra. Wosner kept the ornamental figures clean (especially an extended trill and playful cadenza) and played in a detached style to match the resonance of the hall. more

“HOW TO RAISE A FREEMAN”: McCarter Theatre and Bard at the Gate are presenting a prerecorded video of Zakiyyah Alexander’s “How to Raise a Freeman.” Directed by Reginald L. Douglas, the video is available via McCarter’s website. Above: Keith (Malcolm Barrett, top), Dean (Jamie Lincoln Smith, middle left) and Greg (Francois Battiste, middle right) teach Marcus (Aric Floyd, bottom) some lessons he will not learn in school. (Digital image courtesy of ViDCo)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

McCarter is presenting How to Raise a Freeman online as of November 3. The theater’s website describes Zakiyyah Alexander’s play as a “dark comedy that asks how a middle-class, African American family can keep their son alive in a world where every 28 hours a Black man is killed by law enforcement.”

The pre-filmed production is a collaboration between McCarter and Bard at the Gate. Founded by Paula Vogel, Bard at the Gate is “designed to become a widely accessible platform for powerful, overlooked plays by BIPOC, women, LGBTQ, and disabled artists,” according to the series’ website.

How to Raise a Freeman opens Bard at the Gate’s second season. The curators are Vogel; McCarter’s Associate Artistic Director Nicole A. Watson; and the Bard at the Gate Advisory Council. Princeton Public Library is hosting a Bard at the Gate Watch Party Series, the first installment of which took place on November 4.

Alexander is an award-winning writer whose other works include the plays 10 Things to Do Before I Die, The Etymology of Bird, and the musical Girl Shakes Loose. Her television credits include 24: Legacy, Grey’s Anatomy, and Hunters. A graduate of the Yale School of Drama, Alexander is co-founder of the Killroys, an organization that focuses on parity in American theater. more

November 3, 2021

By Nancy Plum

After eighteen months, students at Westminster Choir College of Rider University were able to perform choral music live this past weekend. In a short but certainly welcome concert at Trinity Cathedral in Trenton on Saturday afternoon, the 75-voice Westminster Symphonic Choir performed a single work well representing the profoundness and solemnity of the past year and a half. Although usually directed by James Jordan, the Symphonic Choir concert his past weekend was led by guest conductor James Bagwell and accompanied by the Westminster Festival Chamber Orchestra. 

Composers have been creating works from the Mass for the Dead “Requiem” text for centuries. Settings by such composers as Verdi and Berlioz were full of apocalyptic terror, but the 1947 Requiem for chorus, soloist, orchestra and organ by French composer Maurice Duruflé has served as a musical standard for the opposite — full of forgiveness and comfort. Through this piece, conductor Bagwell led the chorus and chamber-sized orchestra to convey the devastation of this past year and offer peace and resolution for the coming season. Princeton, Duruflé and Trinity Cathedral have come together once before, when in 1972, Duruflé helped prepare the Princeton High School chorus for a performance of his Requiem at the Cathedral, with his wife, Marie-Madeleine as organist. 

Conductor Bagwell began the nine-movement Requiem in a quick-moving tempo, with the Symphonic Choir women singing ethereally as if angels were leading the dead on their journey. Bagwell maintained good control over the cadences, leading the ensemble to the high point of the movement on the text “et lux perpetua luceat eis.” This movement flowed effortlessly into a second movement showing a solid sound from the alto section leading the melodic material. Duruflé based much of the music in this work on Gregorian chant, and organist Clara Gerdes brought out well the chant lines through the registration combinations on Trinity’s four-manual organ.  more

October 27, 2021

By Nancy Plum

This season, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) has been putting its toes into the waters of live performance slowly, presenting concerts in select halls in the state while maintaining an online presence. The Orchestra will be returning live to Princeton after the first of the year, but area audiences were able to enjoy a high-quality digital performance by the Orchestra players last week. Led by Music Director Xian Zhang and joined by superstar violinist Joshua Bell and soprano Larisa Martínez, NJSO launched an online concert of three composer prodigies: Felix Mendelssohn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Henryk Wieniawski.

Violinist Bell was a prodigy himself, debuting with The Philadelphia Orchestra at age 14 and setting concert stages ablaze ever since with virtuosic technique and passionate musical expressionism. Bell and his wife, soprano Larisa Martínez, were a musical power couple during the last 18 months of the pandemic, exploring new arrangements of existing repertoire and creating imaginative digital content. In the NJSO concert, recorded at New Jersey Performing Arts Center in May 2021 and launched last Wednesday night, Bell and Martínez joined the Orchestra for two elegant concert arias by Mendelssohn and Mozart.

Mendelssohn’s concert aria “Ah, ritorna, età dell’oro,” was part of a commission of Mendelssohn from the Philharmonic Society of London and was published after the composer’s death. Composed in the “scena and aria” form popular at the time, Mendelssohn’s work features a soprano conveying the text with violin obbligato. Mendelssohn often composed two melodic paths in the same piece, bringing them together toward the end, and this work was no exception. Against a subtle orchestral accompaniment, Bell began the violin part with grace and sensitivity. Singing from memory, Martínez performed expressively in a clear soprano tone, with an especially light and translucent top register well matched by the violin. The text, beginning with “Return, golden age, to the abandoned earth,” certainly has a connection to these times, and Martínez well captured both the words and Mendelssohn’s refined classical roots.  more

October 13, 2021

By Nancy Plum

After more than a year and a half, Princeton University Orchestra has resumed live performance in Richardson Auditorium, so one would think the musical world has returned to normal — but not quite. More than 100 strong, the University Orchestra performed two concerts this past weekend, but with players in masks (including the winds), no formal intermission, and ushers reminding audience members to keep their masks up and not congregate in the hallways, it was clear that things were slightly different than before the University shut down last spring. It was also evident that multi-page printed programs may be a thing of the past — audiences on Friday and Saturday night could refer to cards listing the program with a QR code to scan for more detailed information.

Some things never change, despite an 18-month “Luftpause” in the Orchestra’s performing life. The Richardson space on Friday night’s first of the Orchestra’s Peter Westergaard Memorial Concerts was full of students eagerly waiting to see their friends onstage and Princeton residents who turned out to hear the full orchestra resonate in the Richardson acoustics. Under the direction of conductors Michael Pratt and Mariana Corichi Gómez, the University Orchestra delivered a performance of both elegant and opulent symphonic music.

To celebrate the return to Richardson, Pratt opened the concert with a violin concerto by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart which brought out the composer’s playful side. The chamber-sized Orchestra was joined in Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3 in G Major by recent Princeton University graduate Hana Mundiya. A member of the class of 2020 who has an incredible number of performance credits for someone her age, Mundiya fit right into the light and refreshing orchestral texture which conductor Pratt elicited from the ensemble. Pairs of flutes and horns added color to the orchestral palette but were not overpowering, with the oboes demonstrating particularly well-tuned thirds throughout the work. Mundiya’s solo violin emerged elegantly from the musical texture in the first movement, with repetitions of phrases stylistically delicate. The ornamental figures in the solo line were clear, and Mundiya effectively took her time in the cadenza closing the first movement.  more

“EVE’S DIARY”: Theatre Intime has staged a reading of “Eve’s Diary,” presented October 10 at the Hamilton Murray Theater. Directed by Anna Allport ’23, the show dramatizes Mark Twain’s retelling of the Creation story. Adam (Ally Wonski, standing left) and Eve (Oriana Nelson, standing right) meet. Seated, from left, are Mel Hornyak, Jill Leung, Elliot Lee, Madeline Buswell, and Sheherzad Jamal. (Photo by Elliot Lee)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Eve’s Diary is a witty but poignant re-imagining of events in the Garden of Eden. Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) writes from the title character’s point of view, adding intermittent comments from Adam. First published in 1905, this anachronistic version of Genesis is strikingly relevant in its satire on conflicts in relationships between men and women, as well as its consideration of the search for one’s identity and purpose.

Twain’s story first appeared in the Christmas issue of Harper’s Bazaar, and subsequently in the anthology Their Husband’s Wives. In 1906 Harper and Brothers published it as a book. It is a successor to Extracts from Adam’s Diary (1893).

On October 10 Princeton University’s Theatre Intime presented a live, in-person staged reading of Eve’s Diary, at the Hamilton Murray Theater. Both the cast and the audience were masked.

Director Anna Allport reveals in a program note that she performed a monologue from the story in high school, and was enamored of the work’s “delightfulness and surprising complexity,” as well as Eve’s endless curiosity, headstrong spirit, and unshaken optimism.”

Because the presentation is a staged reading, the only production element is the lighting by Greyson Sapio. An apple, placed in the center at the edge of the stage, is the only prop. However, there is enough movement to provide visual interest. Allport keeps the pacing tight by avoiding pauses between monologues. Twain’s prose is divided among seven actors; four actors share Eve’s lines, and three read for Adam.

As Eve, Oriana Nelson opens the show. She stands up, and — with spring in her step — moves toward center stage. “Saturday — I am almost a day old,” she recites, gesturing expressively. Twain immediately imbues Eve with a mixture of self-confidence and philosophical introspection. “I feel like an experiment,” she muses early in the story, though she senses that her experiences will be “important to the historian some day.” Nelson accentuates Eve’s self-confidence.  more

October 6, 2021

By Nancy Plum

After a year of innovative and imaginative outdoor and online programming, Princeton Symphony Orchestra invited audiences back to hear the ensemble in person and indoors this past weekend at McCarter Theatre Center’s Matthews Theatre. Joined by solo violinist Simone Porter, Princeton Symphony, at full strength and led by Music Director Rossen Milanov, performed music of Beethoven and Mendelssohn, as well as a piece by contemporary American composer Jessie Montgomery. 

Orchestras often begin the first concert of the new season with the “Star-Spangled Banner.” In this celebration of restarting indoor concerts with a live audience, Milanov chose to open Sunday afternoon’s performance with a contemporary setting of this country’s national anthem — one which represents the wide diversity of populations within this nation with musical inspirations drawn from a variety of American sources. 

New York native Jessie Montgomery is one of this country’s most prominent up-and-coming composers and one with strong local connections. Currently a graduate fellow in music composition at Princeton University, she has been commissioned extensively by musical organizations nationwide. Montgomery’s 2014 Banner was commissioned to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the American national anthem “The Star-Spangled Banner.”  In this piece, Montgomery created a rhapsody on the anthem, designed to capture what Montgomery describes as the “contradictions, leaps and bounds, and milestones that allow us to celebrate and maintain the tradition of our ideals.” 

Princeton Symphony Orchestra began Montgomery’s work with shimmering in the violins, contrasted with fragments of the familiar national anthem melody from other instruments. The violins were lean, and the lower winds well-blended, and the ensemble played cleanly in the acoustic of Matthews Theatre. A string quintet within the orchestra, comprised of the principal players of each string section, conveyed melodic material well, and an understated brass color was provided in some passages by hornist Jonathan Clark.  more

September 22, 2021

By Nancy Plum

For the second consecutive year, Princeton Symphony Orchestra began its concert season outdoors. With indoor halls in the area limited or closed to large audiences, the Orchestra presented its opening concert of the 2021-22 season at Princeton’s Morven Museum and Garden Pool House, featuring the Philadelphia-based Jasper String Quartet performing three chamber works to an outdoor audience. Violinists J Freivogel and Karen Kim, violist Andrew Gonzalez, and cellist Rachel Henderson Freivogel played a program of Florence Price and Maurice Ravel, as well as a work by a unique composer fusing classical and indigenous American music.  

The chamber music of early 20th-century American composer Florence Price has been popular in this past year of outdoor-only concerts, and the Jasper Quartet opened last Thursday night’s performance with Price’s String Quartet in G Major. Playing from a gazebo to an audience seated on Morven’s back lawn, the Jasper musicians were able to bring out the quirkiness of Price’s harmonic language as well as the rich melodies which mark this composer’s works. The Quartet played melodic themes with consistent forward motion, with teasing trills from the violins and an ensemble sound which became richer as the music progressed. The second movement’s free and open theme reflected Price’s extensive repertory of songs, contrasted by a fast-moving and playful section. Cellist Henderson Freivogel provided a particularly solid foundation to close the work under violist Gonzalez’s rich viola playing and the nimble fingering of the two violinists.  

Composer Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate is a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma and maintains a string commitment to the nurturing and development of American Indian classical composition. Frequently commissioned by musical organizations nationwide, Tate is particularly known for infusing classical music with American Indian nationalism. Tate’s chamber work Pisachi, Six Epitomes for String Quartet, was commissioned in 2013 by the avant-garde string quartet ETHEL, and was conceived as part of a multi-media presentation. Pisachi, whose title is the Chickasaw word for “reveal,” draws from Hopi and Pueblo Indian musical rhythms and forms for its musical language.  

The Jasper String Quartet players began Pisachi with an almost imperceptible violin, as a subtle viola solo barely won out in an auditory competition with an overhead airplane. Violinist Freivogel provided a very high violin part against the rumbling accompaniment of the other players, and the quartet opened the six “epitomes” with a consistently straight tone, emphasizing dynamic contrasts and effects. In the second movement, the Quartet played quick and agitated unison passages with dynamic intensity, suggesting horses galloping across a Western backdrop. Violist Gonzalez provided intricate double stops to the third movement and was also featured in the closing “epitome,” leading the ensemble through musical effects including undulating cello and viola passages which supported very delicate upper strings.   more

July 28, 2021

By Nancy Plum

Princeton University Summer Chamber Concerts presented the second of its digital series last week with a livestream performance of the New York City-based Horszowski Trio. In a concert broadcast from the Hillman Performance Hall on the campus of Westminster Conservatory last Monday night, violinist Jesse Mills, cellist Ole Akahoshi, and pianist Rieko Aizawa presented a program of 19th- and 20th-century chamber music.

Named after the pre-eminent 20th-century Polish American pianist Mieczysław Horszowski, the Horszowski Trio draws its inspiration from the pianist and pedagogue who lived to be nearly 101 and had one of the longest careers in performing arts history. Ensemble pianist Aizawa was Horszowski’s last student at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, creating a link to a golden age of piano performance stretching back more than a century. Also committed to contemporary music, the Trio has made significant inroads into the international chamber music arena in its 10-year history. more

July 14, 2021

“ORDINARY DAYS”: Performances are underway for “Ordinary Days.” Directed by Laurie Gougher, the musical runs through July 17 at the Kelsey Theatre. Claire (Jazmynn Perez, left) has suffered a loss that complicates her relationship with her boyfriend, Jason (Shane Tapley, right). Warren (Jackson Jules, second from left) forms an unlikely friendship with Deb (Karaline Rosen, second from right). The cast is accompanied by Michael Gilch (seated at the piano). (Photo by Evan Paine)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

In the musical Ordinary Days a character sings, “All of my most favorite places are places that I’ve never been.” For many theatergoers, a theater housing a live, in-person production is a place that they have never been — at least since March 2020.

Kelsey Theatre has resumed in-person performances. The Kelsey Forward Initiative’s production of Ordinary Days originally was to be presented outside, on the Mercer County Community College (MCCC) campus. However, severe heat and humidity, as well as updates in CDC and state guidelines, led to the production being moved into the auditorium.

The production is “using social distanced seating, and masks are requested during the show,” according to Kelsey’s website. Copies of the program are online rather than in print, and tickets for a livestream are available for viewers who prefer to watch the show online. But the in-person performance attended by this writer (Saturday, July 10) was sold out.

Ordinary Days is a sung-through musical that depicts four New Yorkers whose lives briefly intersect in an unexpected, poetic way. The unassuming, character-driven show is poignant and warmly humorous. It examines the tension between grand ambitions and an ability to treasure daily life; and a character’s need to confront a painful past, in order to welcome a happier future. more

July 7, 2021

By Nancy Plum

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra concluded its “Emerge” digital concert film series last week with a presentation of two towering orchestral works. Recorded in Prudential Hall at Newark’s New Jersey Performing Arts Center in March of this year, this final installment of the trilogy featured Russian pianist and composer Daniil Trifonov and trumpeter Anderson Romero performing Dmitri Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto #1, also known as Concerto in C Minor for Piano, Trumpet and String Orchestra. Led by JNSO Music Director Xian Zhang, last Wednesday night’s performance also included Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4, played by a reduced but no less effective roster of the Orchestra. The online concert was accompanied by visual images focusing on nature and wildlife, filmed throughout New Jersey in communities ranging from Newark to Cape May.

Shostakovich’s 1933 Concerto for piano, trumpet and string orchestra was an homage to the Baroque era through its use of two solo instruments against the accompanying ensemble. Unlike Shostakovich’s more somber and programmatic symphonic works, the Concerto has a lighter and more humorous feeling, diverging from the Russian Romantic compositional tradition of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff.

The soloists for NJSO’s performance of the Concerto were no strangers to New Jersey audiences; pianist Daniil Trifonov has performed in Princeton in recent seasons, and Anderson Romero is NJSO’s assistant principal trumpet. In Wednesday’s performance, Trifonov showed very quick hands on the keyboard, emphasizing well the percussive and slightly quirky nature of the Concerto. Trifonov and conductor Zhang were symbiotic in bending the tempi of the music, finding lyricism even in the more forceful passages. In the expressive sections of the first movement “Allegro,” Trifonov played with his hands lingering on the keys as much as possible, at times demonstrating a very light left hand. Playing from within the orchestral ensemble, Romero provided a joyful and martial trumpet solo throughout the first movement.  more

June 23, 2021

By Nancy Plum

Princeton Festival closed its 2021 season this past Sunday night with an “Opera by Twilight” live concert at Morven Museum and Garden. For this final concert, also livestreamed to listeners at home, the Festival presented a quartet of singers performing selections from opera, operetta and musical theater. Soprano Alexandra Batsios, mezzo-soprano Krysty Swann, tenor Michael Kuhn, and baritone Stephen Gaertner, accompanied by pianist Julia Pen Ying Hanna, brought vast collective experience to a stage outside Morven’s Stockton Education Center and entertained the “podded” audience with arias and duets from both well-known and rarely-heard works.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s operas are among the repertory’s most accessible, with melodic arias and appealing characters. Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio dates from the height of the composer’s operatic career, with the Act II defiance aria “Matern aller Arten” being a challenge for the soprano voice. Mozart seemed to like to torture sopranos in particular with large melodic skips and vocal lines racing up and down scales, but soprano Batsios, who opened the Festival concert with this bear of an aria, had no trouble with its technical difficulties. She had a second chance later in the concert to further demonstrate her command of coloratura singing in an aria from Mozart’s 1791 Singspiel The Magic Flute. “O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn” is the first aria performed by the Queen of the Night as she announces her power. Batsios well conveyed the grief of the opening recitative section, then expertly launched into running passages reaching up to “F” above high “C.” Batsios was joined in the third Mozart selection, a duet from the comedic Così fan tutte between the wealthy Fiordiligi and Ferrando (engaged to Fiordiligi’s sister) by tenor Michael Kuhn. “Fra gli amplessi” conveys the two characters proclaiming their mistaken love for each other, and Batsios and Kuhn blended their voices together well with clean intervals and the tenderness inherent in the music. Both singers demonstrated solid high registers, and Batsios in particular showed her ability to camp out on high notes for extended periods of time.  more

June 16, 2021

By Nancy Plum

Princeton Festival moved its season outdoors and in-person this past week with two concerts by the Princeton Festival Baroque Orchestra. The first concert, last Tuesday night, was not as live as the audience might have liked — with thunderstorms throughout the area, the five members of the Festival Baroque Orchestra relocated themselves to the Stockton Education Center at the Morven Museum and Garden, while the audience listened via livestream. The second concert on Thursday night was held outdoors (with a livestream option), with the players inside the Education Center and an audience in pods on the lawn. The two concerts, subtitled “Sacred and Profane,” created a comprehensive survey of European music and forms of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Tuesday night’s performance featured eight pieces divided into two groups — “sacred music in content” and “sacred music in context.” Violinists Chiara Fasani Stauffer and Manami Mizumoto (who also doubled on viola), cellist Morgan Little, and harpsichordist Caitlyn Koester were joined by Joshua Stauffer playing “plucked instruments,” which both nights featured the 17th-century theorbo. The four “sacred music in content” pieces were mostly from early 17th-century Italy. Three chamber works were played with quick and energetic spirit by the Festival Orchestra, with both violinists effectively conveying melodic material. A rarely-heard Trio Sonata in F Major by the under-rated but nonetheless influential German composer Johann Casper Kerll flowed well, as Stauffer and Mizumoto maintained a graceful violin conversation against steady continuo playing of the other three instruments.  more

June 9, 2021

By Nancy Plum

The Princeton Festival opened its 2021 season this past week with a series of events including a virtual performance by the Concordia Chamber Players — an ensemble which has traditionally kicked off the Festival each year with a live performance. This season, the Concordia musicians presented a video stream last Friday night of performances recorded in early May in various locations around Sand City, California. The four members of Concordia Chamber Players — violinists Tien-Hsin Cindy Wu and Alexi Kenney, violist Jonathan Moerschel, and cellist (and artistic director) Michelle Djokic — performed works from the late 19th through the 21st centuries, introducing the concert with quotes from singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone on the artist’s role in social responsibility.

Jessie Montgomery, currently a graduate fellow in music composition at Princeton University, is rapidly becoming one of this country’s most performed composers. Montgomery’s 2013 Source Code for string quartet fuses transcriptions of various sources from African American artists prominent during the civil rights era, with Montgomery re-interpreting the musical material in a contemporary way. Montgomery is known for capturing the sounds of our times in her music, and Source Code was no exception as played by the Concordia Chamber Players. Beginning with a concentrated unison from the four musicians, the one-movement work showed shades of 20th-century jazz, with particularly effective melodic playing from Kenney and Djokic. Montgomery’s piece was intensely continuous, with drone-like lines often heard from the lower strings and Djokic providing a percussive rhythm from the cello.

Although born in Switzerland, Arthur Honegger was considered one of the legendary “Les Six” French composers of the early 20thcentury. His 1932 Sonatine for Violin and Cello, possibly inspired by the birth of the composer’s child, was rooted in the 18th-century musical style of J.S. Bach. The three-movement work was premiered by Honegger himself on the violin and fellow “Les Six” composer Darius Milhaud playing cello. more

June 2, 2021

By Nancy Plum

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra continued its “Emerge” concert series this past week with an on-demand film of a live performance recorded this past February at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. The “Emerge” trilogy, directed by filmmaker Yuri Alves, has fused orchestral performances with visual meditations and dance sequences to create a multi-media online experience. The second performance of this trilogy, launched last Wednesday evening, featured pianist Inon Barnatan playing Florence Price’s Piano Concerto in One Movement; also included on the program was one of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s final symphonies. Accompanying these works was a New Jersey Symphony Orchestra seemingly up to full strength, led by Music Director Xian Zhang.

Price’s Piano Concerto in One Movement was premiered in Chicago in 1934 with the composer as soloist. The work appears to have fallen into obscurity following its premiere, with the orchestral score later reconstructed. The Concerto’s three continuous sections hark back to the Romantic style of Franz Liszt and Felix Mendelssohn, and in NJSO’s performance, the work showed plenty of Romantic and improvisatory flavor. With Zhang on the podium and Barnatan at the keyboard, the music of was very dramatic, with Barnatan’s left hand a constant swirl of flowing arpeggios. Zhang conducted with broad gestures, allowing repeated passages to become more intense with each recurrence. The second section of the movement was marked by an elegant oboe solo from Alexandra Knoll in duet with the piano, with a great deal of lushness from just these two instruments. Barnatan’s piano solo seemed to be in duet with various instruments, gradually speeding up toward a very jazzy third movement capturing a 1920s feel. Visually accompanying this piece, which was filmed in black and white, were dance sequences from guest dancers Cori Barnes and M.A. Taylor.  more

May 26, 2021

By Nancy Plum

The weather has been good to Princeton Symphony Orchestra (PSO) this spring. The Orchestra returned to presenting outdoor concerts this past month, and so far each performance evening has been a relaxed opportunity under a clear sky to enjoy high-quality chamber music. Last Thursday night at Morven Museum and Garden’s pool house, Princeton Symphony Orchestra presented the New York-based Momenta Quartet to an audience comfortably “podded” on the lawn. The four musicians of the Quartet — violinists Emilie-Anne Gendron and Alex Shiozaki, violist Stephanie Griffin, and cellist Michael Haas — performed four representative pieces of “Great Music from the Recent and Distant Past,” and interspersed with commentary and musical background, these works created a very entertaining evening under the stars.  

Sixteenth-century English composer William Byrd is most well-known for sacred choral music, but his large repertory of keyboard pieces brought English works of this genre to new heights. Byrd composed several keyboard collections, often pairing dance movements. The “pavane,” a stately and dignified dance, was frequently paired with the more lively and complex “galliard.” Momenta Quartet played one of these pavane and galliard pairings by Byrd with a somewhat straight tone, reaffirming the 16th-century sound. Violinists Gendron and Shiozaki were well matched in the opening pavane, and the Quartet consistently executed well measures of detached notes. The galliard was uniformly brisk, with the slightly off-beat rhythmic accents well played.   more

May 19, 2021

By Nancy Plum

Princeton Symphony Orchestra welcomed a live audience to Morven Museum & Garden for the first time in months last Thursday night with a presentation of “Boyd Meets Girl,” featuring guitarist Rupert Boyd and cellist Laura Metcalf.  The “pods” of audience members on the lawn of Morven’s pool house were clearly elated to be out on a warm night of music, complemented by overhead planes, chirping birds, and the occasional barking dog. 

Boyd and Metcalf, a married couple who have long been performing under the monikers “Boyd” and “Girl,” presented a program of music ranging from the 19th to 21stcenturies, crossing genres from Romantic masterpieces to contemporary classical to the Beatles. The combination of guitar and cello has not frequently been heard throughout music history, and most of the pieces they performed last Thursday night were “stolen,” in their words, from other instruments. These innovative arrangements not only showed the technical proficiency of the two artists, but also created a unique musical palette.  

Boyd and Metcalf began the concert with a piece suitable for a summer evening. Erik Satie’s Je Te Veux dated from a period in the composer’s life when he delved into lighter cabaret music in order to make a living.  As played by Boyd and Metcalf, the short waltz immediately evoked strolling along the Seine in Paris. The two instruments were well-balanced, with Metcalf keeping the cello melody light.  more

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