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

November 18, 2020

By Nancy Plum

Princeton Symphony Orchestra presented the sixth and final concert in its fall “indoor/outdoor” classical season this past Sunday afternoon by digitally launching a virtual performance led by the ensemble’s Assistant Conductor Nell Flanders. Flanders, recently named to this position with the Symphony, led members of the Symphony’s string sections in a performance also featuring noted violinist Elina Vähälä. With the orchestral portions filmed at Princeton’s Morven Education Center and Vähälä’s Bach solo recorded at the Church of St. Olaf in the southern Finnish town of Sysmä, Flanders and the 11 string players of the Symphony presented a concert which was a tribute to both the Baroque era and early 20th-century America.  

Born in America’s Deep South at the turn of the 20th century, composer Florence Price emerged from the violent racial atmosphere of the time to become a musical pioneer whose music has only recently begun to receive much-deserved attention. Much of Price’s repertory was lost after her death, but was rediscovered in an attic of an abandoned house in rural Illinois. Price composed her 1929 String Quartet only as a two-movement work, and it is thought that this piece was not heard between Price’s death in 1953 and a performance in 2015. In Sunday afternoon’s concert, Princeton Symphony presented the second movement andante moderato, rooted in the vocal spiritual tradition.

The string players of Princeton Symphony began Price’s String Quartet movement with a lush melody they could really sink their musical teeth into, as Flanders conducted with broad strokes without a baton to emphasize the richness of the melodic material. This was the kind of music in which the players could load up on vibrato, however the ensemble resisted this temptation and played with a lean yet rich sound, especially in a viola sectional solo from Stephanie Griffin and Emily Muller. Flanders milked the movement’s rubatos well, and although this work was composed in a turbulent time period, the broad melodic passages were full of hope and opportunity.  

Violinist Elina Vähälä was born in the United States, raised in Finland, and has appeared with orchestras worldwide while maintaining a strong commitment to music education in Finland. The Viuluakatemia Ry violin academy, which she founded in 2009 in Finland, serves as a master class-based educational initiative for talented young Finnish violinists. Vähälä was supposed to have appeared with Princeton Symphony this season in a performance of Jean Sibelius’ Violin Concerto, but instead presented a pre-recorded performance from a small church in the lake region of Finland. For this performance, Vähälä chose one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s most well-known works for unaccompanied violin, but one which included some of the most intricate music the composer wrote. Bach’s Partita for Violin #2 in D minor, BWV 1004 was structured in a five-movement dance format common in Bach’s time. The concluding chaconne is a four-bar melodic ground bass repeated 64 times over which the upper strings spin a continuous series of variations in a close to 15-minute movement.   more

October 21, 2020

“PANTHER HOLLOW”: Passage Theatre presented, to ticketed YouTube viewers, a prerecorded video of “Panther Hollow.” Written and performed by David Lee White (above), and directed by John Augustine, this candid and wry monologue describes the artist’s struggles with clinical depression at age 25. (Photo by Michael Goldstein)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Passage Theatre has presented a prerecorded video of Panther Hollow. Writer and performer David Lee White’s candid, darkly humorous monologue was originally presented in March 2016, as part of Passage’s Solo Flights Festival. John Augustine was the stage director; the video was produced and directed by Susan Ryan.

In an introduction, Managing Director Damion Parran acknowledges that the video was donated by White to Passage, for use as a fundraiser for the company’s upcoming season. Although the video was distributed via YouTube, its presentation was treated as a theatrical event; ticket buyers were emailed a link that entitled them to view the performance from October 17-20.

White’s work with Passage has included serving as its managing director, and subsequently, its associate artistic director and resident playwright. Previously the company has presented his plays Blood: A Comedy, If I Could, In My Hood, I Would… and Slippery as Sin. Currently White is collaborating (with Richard Bradford and the members of The OK Trenton Ensemble) on The Ok Trenton Project, which is “scheduled to premiere as a full production in October of 2021,” according to Passage’s website.

In a video interview for Passage, White was asked about the process of writing Panther Hollow. He credits previous Solo Flights productions with its inspiration. “A lot of people would come on and do these shows, and over the years I got really fascinated with them,” White says. “I thought, ‘I wonder if this is something I can do.’” Offering a taste of the humor that pervades his monologue, White adds, “I had always wanted to tell the story of my battle with clinical depression … because first of all, I thought, ‘that’s going to be a laugh riot!’” more

By Nancy Plum

Princeton University Concerts opened its 127th season last Thursday night with an old musical friend presenting a free live digital performance launched over YouTube. The Takács Quartet, which has appeared on the PU Concerts series 20 times in the past, broadcast a live performance from Chautauqua Auditorium on the campus of the University of Colorado, Boulder, where the string quartet is based. In Thursday night’s program, violinists Edward Dusinberre and Harumi Rhodes, violist Richard O’Neill, and cellist András Fejér presented an unusual concert spanning 250 years and including individual movements of some of the ensemble’s favorite works.

The Takács Quartet began the concert with the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, whose string quartets are popular staples of chamber repertory. Mozart’s 1783 String Quartet No. 15 in D minor showed a strong influence of the composer’s mentor, Franz Josef Haydn, while allowing the four instrumentalists to explore their own musical personalities. The second of six string quartets Mozart dedicated to Haydn, this work moved away from Mozart’s chipper major keys to the key of D minor — a harmonic center Mozart reserved for such dark and ominous drama as Don Giovanni and the deathbed Requiem. The Takács players, performing the opening “allegro moderato,” began with a fierce dark character, as cellist Fejér led the ensemble through the opening passages. O’Neill’s viola playing spoke well in the all-wood Chautauqua Auditorium and the Quartet built musical intensity uniformly with dynamic swells well executed throughout the movement.

Like Mozart, the late 19th-century English composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor died prematurely in his mid-30s but was also prolific as a young composer. While a student at the Royal College of Music, Coleridge-Taylor composed five “character pieces” for string quartet — unusual in that most repertoire for the genre is comprised of larger works. Five Fantasiestücke for String Quartet showed the influence of the Romantic Robert Schumann, with a folk element also heard in the music of Dvorák and Bartók.   more

October 14, 2020

By Nancy Plum

Princeton Symphony Orchestra has found a way to make live music happen — on the grounds of Princeton’s Moven Museum and Garden. For the second time this fall, a small ensemble from the Symphony presented a concert from the porch of the Moven pool house, with an audience spaced out in 50 or so “pods” on the lawn as part of a “Chamber Music in the Garden” series. 

Despite a definite chill in the air last Thursday afternoon (and its effect on the wind instruments), the five principal wind players of Princeton Symphony were clearly delighted to be back in the performing arena — their first live performance in six months. As flutist Yevgeny Faniuk, oboist Lillian Copeland, clarinetist Pascal Archer, bassoonist Charlie Bailey and hornist Jonathan Clark played the hour-long program, Princeton Symphony made concertgoers comfortable on the grass with offers of blankets and plenty of room to see the concert.

Chamber ensembles of strings or brass bring together instruments with similar sound palettes, but a quintet of winds offers a wide variety of orchestral colors and ranges. Jacques Ibert, composing in Paris in the first half of the 20th century, wrote a number of short works for theatrical productions which often used for wind quintets because of space limitations. In 1930, Ibert pulled together three of these incidental pieces to create Trois pièces brèves, a concert triptych for wind quintet. The musicians of Princeton Symphony presented these three pieces as crisp music to match the fall air, with a uniformly chipper sound and clean melodies passed among the instruments. The five players demonstrated rhythmic precision, but that did not stop them from also exhibiting their own individual joie de vivre at being back on a concert stage.   more

“THEATRE AND CIVIC ENGAGEMENT”: In partnership with the New Jersey Historical Commission, New Jersey Theatre Alliance presented “Women in New Jersey Theatre: Theatre and Civic Engagement.” Among the panelists were McCarter Theatre’s Artistic Engagement Manager Paula T. Alekson (left) and Passage Theatre’s Artistic Director C. Ryanne Domingues. (Paula T. Alekson photo by Matt Pilsner; C. Ryanne Domingues photo by Claire Edmonds)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

In partnership with the New Jersey Historical Commission, New Jersey Theatre Alliance presented Women in New Jersey Theatre: Theatre and Civic Engagement on October 8. Among the panelists were Dr. Paula T. Alekson, McCarter Theatre’s artistic engagement manager, and C. Ryanne Domingues, Passage Theatre’s artistic director.

The panel also featured Dr. Jessica Brater, assistant professor of theater and dance at Montclair State University; and Amanda Espinoza, education and community engagement manager of Two River Theater Company in Red Bank. The Alliance’s deputy director, Erica Nagel, moderated the online discussion.

“Community engagement is happening every time an audience member connects with a theater,” Brater asserts, when asked by Nagel to define “community engagement” and  “civic engagement” as the terms pertain to theater. “It can also happen when a theater partners with a community organization.”

“Civic engagement happens when a performance intersects with our role as citizens,” Brater continues, adding, “civic engagement asks artists, who are creating the performance, to move a step beyond community engagement, to a connection that prompts all involved to consider their role as citizens — and perhaps even to take civic action.” more

October 7, 2020

By Nancy Plum

For the fall portion of its 2020-2021 season, Princeton Symphony Orchestra has designed a hybrid concert schedule of virtual and live performances. The first live concert, featuring a small ensemble of brass players, took place the last week of September at Princeton’s Morven Museum and Garden. 

PSO presented its opening virtual performance this past Sunday at the ensemble’s usual concert time of 4 p.m., but instead of listening raptly in Princeton University’s Richardson Auditorium, this event’s “concertgoers” were at home gathered around desktop computers, laptops, iPads and iPhones in the Symphony’s first presentation of a “Virtual Concerts: Your Orchestra, Your Home” series. Princeton Symphony Orchestra Music Director Rossen Milanov has programmed three virtual concerts for October and November, mixing classical standards with works by contemporary composers.  

Sunday afternoon’s concert, featuring 11 string players led by Milanov, was recorded earlier this fall at Morven Museum, with instrumentalists well-spaced out in a wood-paneled room which Milanov called a “perfect” venue for these difficult performing times. Following introductory remarks by Milanov and Princeton Symphony Executive Director Marc Uys, the broadcast began with George Walker’s Lyric for Strings

American composer George Walker was a pioneer of African American musical performance in this country. The first African American graduate of the Curtis Institute, doctoral recipient from Eastman School of Music, and Pulitzer Prize winner for music, among other accolades, Walker composed a repertory of more than 90 works for orchestra, piano, strings, voice, organ, clarinet, guitar, brass, woodwinds, and chorus. He composed the one-movement Lyric for Strings at age 24, before he had achieved a number of these “firsts,” and this work has endured well over the decades. more

September 30, 2020

“THE AUTUMN SONGS PROJECT”: Singer Katie Welsh (above) has launched an online series, “Live From My Living Room: The Autumn Songs Project.” This series of performances debuted with “September in the Rain,” and will culminate with a live Zoom Q&A session on November 1. (Photo courtesy of Katie Welsh)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Singer and scholar Katie Welsh has launched a YouTube series, Live from My Living Room, which begins with the six-part The Autumn Songs Project. Pianist David Pearl is overseeing arrangements and accompanying Welsh (online). A press release describes the series as “a miniature ‘Informative Cabaret’ from Katie’s living room, to yours!”

“With my live performance schedule tentatively on hold during this time, I really wanted to find a way to share the music I love from home … and so Live from My Living Room was born,” Welsh elaborates in an email to this writer. “The series will consist of various ‘projects,’ and I’m starting with The Autumn Songs Project. So, every Friday for the next six weeks, I’ll upload a short YouTube video in which I sing one song about autumn and share a ‘fun fact’ about it — its original context in a musical, a backstory about its creation, [and/or] an insight into the lyrics or music.”

“Each video I upload will be relatively short (4-5 minutes), and while each video will of course be a complete experience on its own, I’m really thinking of each ‘project’ I do as being a cumulative experience,” Welsh adds. “In the case of The Autumn Songs Project I’m hoping that by the end of the six weeks, listeners have not only enjoyed listening to six gorgeous songs about fall, but have also learned a bit about how composers and lyricists have approached writing ‘autumn songs’ and gained some new knowledge about the songs themselves.” more

September 23, 2020

“BROADWAY ONLINE TRIVIA NIGHT”: Broadway performer Kathryn Boswell (above) hosted State Theatre New Jersey’s “Broadway Online Trivia Night.” Boswell read trivia questions, chatted with viewers, and performed a song. (Photo by Corinne Louie)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

State Theatre New Jersey presented Broadway Online Trivia Night on September 16. Kathryn Boswell, a member of the Broadway casts of Gigi and Anastasia, hosted the event.

Boswell performed at the State Theatre in November 2019, as songwriter Cynthia Weil, in the North American tour of Beautiful–The Carole King Musical. Boswell told Broadway Online Trivia Night viewers that the New Brunswick-based theater “was one of our favorite stops as a company. It was so wonderful to be so close to New York City; we felt like we were coming home. It’s just such a … beautiful, welcoming space.”

Broadway Online Trivia Night was hosted via Zoom. A donation, of $5 or higher, allowed viewers to participate in the contest, by using a smartphone-based game app (Kahoot!).

“Proceeds raised support State Theatre’s Community Engagement programs,” states a press release. Director of Communications Kelly Blithe elaborates in an email, “The donations are going towards the general community engagement funds which include our Artist-in-Residence program, virtual school programs, the Milk & Cookies series [an interactive storytelling and music program for families], and Ticket Subsidies including free tickets for community partners, charities, and veterans.” more

September 16, 2020

“SUMMER 2020: EONS AT THE SAME TIME”: Fly Eyes Playwrights presented an online anthology of documentary-style monologues. Top row, from left: Sandy Kitain, Mimi Schwartz, Donna Clovis. Second row: Tri Duc Tran, Fulton C. Hodges, Aixa Kendrick. Third row: davidbdale, Joey Perillo, June Ballinger. Bottom row: Carol Simmons, Jill Hackett. (Photo montage courtesy of Fly Eyes Playwrights, and the participating actors)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Fly Eyes Playwrights offered a free online presentation of Summer 2020: Eons at the Same Time on September 10 and 12. The play is an anthology of monologues, derived from interviews in which people react to the convergence of the COVID-19 lockdown and the Black Lives Matter movement.

A press release reveals the project’s origins as an “online documentary theatre course at McCarter Theatre, under the direction of former Artistic Director Emily Mann. After the four-week program ended, the students decided to form Fly Eyes Playwrights and continue their work in documentary theatre, gathering monologues from diverse real-life voices of the moment.”

Summer 2020: Eons at the Same Time is the culmination of the playwrights’ coursework, combined with additional pieces to expand the show into a full-length play. The disparate monologues deftly have been woven together into a thematically unified larger show.

During a post-show discussion following Thursday’s performance, playwright and actor Donna Clovis emphasized that the monologues contain the words spoken by the interviewees. “They’re not our words; we just transcribe them,” Clovis said.  more

September 9, 2020

“SENECA”: Pegasus Theatre Company presented an online conversation featuring the film’s co-writer, co-producer, director, and editor Jason Chaet; and its composer, Robert Manganaro. Above: Actor David Seneca (Armando Riesco, left) struggles to be a good father to his daughter Annette (Claudia Morcate-Martin). The film is available on HBO and HBO Max. (Image Courtesy of Kosher Quenepa LLC)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Pegasus Theatre Company of West Windsor premiered its “Intimate Conversations Series” on September 3. The online discussion featured two of the artists behind the 2019 film Seneca: director and editor Jason Chaet, and Princeton-born composer Robert Manganaro. Pegasus board member John Paxton, a teacher and independent filmmaker, curated the conversation.

The event came about because Manganaro is a family friend of Managing Artistic Director Jennifer Nasta Zefutie. “I grew up with Jennifer’s husband, John. He and I have remained close friends for years,” Manganaro says in an email to this writer. “I was best man in his wedding, so it’s fun that this came full circle.”

As a songwriter and performer Manganaro has collaborated with Hamilton star Anthony Ramos on songs including “Ocean City,” “Take Me To The Middle,” and “Freedom.” He has performed the National Anthem at NBA and NCAA basketball games, in stadiums such as the Prudential Center and Barclay’s. He met Chaet through the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, where both are on staff. more

July 29, 2020

By Nancy Plum

Although unable to appear live in Princeton this summer as part of Princeton University Summer Chamber Concerts, Manhattan Chamber Players did not want to miss out on Beethoven’s 250th anniversary, and made the most of technology by presenting an online performance last Wednesday night in a continuation of  the Chamber Concerts “Chamber Music Wednesdays” series. 

A collective of 22 New York-based musicians, Manhattan Chamber Players performs in a variety of flexible combinations — in Wednesday night’s performance, as a string trio. A true family string ensemble, violist Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt; her husband, cellist Brook Speltz; and his brother, violinist Brendan Speltz, presented Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Trio in G Major, Opus 9, No. 1, recorded during the current pandemic in a private home in Philadelphia. In an online performance introduced by the ensemble’s Artistic Director Luke Fleming, van de Stadt and the Speltz brothers presented a clean and unified performance of this work, showing why Beethoven’s string trios can easily stand up against his more substantial and more well-known string quartets.

Beethoven arrived in Vienna in 1792 to study with Franz Josef Haydn, quickly embracing the courtly Viennese chamber music style of Haydn and wunderkind Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. String Quartet in G Major was the first of three string trios comprising Beethoven’s Opus 9, composed between 1797 and 1798. String Trio No. 1 showed the clear influence of Mozart’s 1788 Divertimento in E-flat Major, a sizeable work considered the first piece in the string trio genre by any composer, but also demonstrated Beethoven’s forward-thinking Romantic musical ideas.   more

July 22, 2020

By Nancy Plum

Princeton Summer Chamber Concerts continued its series of “Chamber Music Wednesdays” this past week with a performance shared by the Argus and Craft string quartets of a notable chamber work by an underrated woman composer.

Based in New York City, the Argus Quartet is dedicated to encouraging the joys of human connection, community, and discovery by bringing wide-ranging repertoire to life. Since its founding in 2013, the ensemble has collaborated with a number of contemporary composers and has earned a number of awards and commissions nationwide. The Boston-based Craft Quartet has made its reputation pairing undiscovered works from the past with masterpieces from our time. In this era of focus on music of women composers, it was fitting that these two chambers shared performance responsibilities in presenting a work of the early 19th-century composer Fanny Mendelssohn, whose works were often overshadowed by those of her more renowned brother Felix. 

Fanny Mendelssohn composed an astounding amount of music in her short life of 42 years (she died of a stroke less than six months before Felix died in a similar manner). Her repertory numbers more than 450 pieces, including 250 lieder — a popular genre of the early 19th century and one in which Fanny’s works were often attributed to her brother. The battle to be a woman composer at this time was such that Fanny’s father wrote to her that while music may be the profession of her brother, for Fanny, it “can and must be only an ornament.” Fanny and Felix shared not the sibling rivalry usually found in families but a sibling artistry — influencing each other’s works and supporting each other’s careers. The truly extensive repertory of this lesser-known composer has been coming more to light in recent decades, and Princeton Summer Chamber Concerts’ “Chamber Music Wednesdays” presentation last week featured the Argus and Craft quartets playing Fanny Mendelssohn’s 1834 String Quartet in E-flat Major more

“GRUDGES”: Online performances are underway for “Grudges.” Presented by Knowledge Workings Theater and directed by Dora Endre, the production runs through July 24. The play is written by Princeton resident T.J. Elliott (above) and Joe Queenan. (Photo by Bill Wadman)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Robert Louis Stevenson writes, “Purge out of every heart the lurking grudge.” Late in Grudges a character adds, “Everybody in America today is the opposite of that. Let’s keep making these grudges bigger, every hour of the day!”

Grudges is presented online by Knowledge Workings Theater. T.J. Elliott, a Princeton resident, is one of the playwrights. His collaborator is author, Wall Street Journal columnist, and filmmaker Joe Queenan, whose books include If You’re Talking to Me, Your Career Must Be in Trouble. “It would be crazy for me to do anything other than write comedy with Joe, because he’s a great satirist,” Elliott remarks.

Elliott’s previous theatrical activities include writing, producing, and directing two off-off-Broadway runs of the Captive Audiences revues. Regionally he has acted, taking roles in plays including The Devil’s Disciple and The Dumb Waiter. more

July 8, 2020

By Nancy Plum

Despite the closing of performance halls in the area, Princeton Summer Chamber Concerts was not about to let its 53rd season go by. The long-standing presenting organization, which usually stages four chamber concerts in the month of July, has designed a series of “Chamber Music Wednesdays,” in which the performers scheduled for Richardson Auditorium this summer are featured in online mini-concerts. 

In the interest of giving area audiences something to look forward to each week, Chamber Concerts has created five Wednesday night offerings which include not only musical presentation, but also the additional elements of history, analysis, and demonstration. The first of these online performances took place last Wednesday night, featuring the young and innovative Diderot String Quartet.   

Founded in 2012, the Diderot String Quartet was named after 18th-century French philosopher Denis Diderot, also an enthusiast of the courtly and galante music of the Baroque Italian composer Luigi Boccherini. The ensemble prides itself on taking a “fresh approach to the works of the 18th and 19th centuries,” bringing a shared background for historically informed performance and a passion for the string quartet genre to every concert. For Wednesday evening’s online concert/demonstration, violinists Adriane Post and Johanna Novom, violist Kyle Miller, and cellist Paul Dwyer shared with listeners how the ensemble came together; Post, Novom, and Dwyer met at Oberlin Conservatory, later adding Miller to the Quartet via the Juilliard Historical Performance program. All four of these musicians were interested early on in period stringed instruments, historically informed performance, and whether music from any time period could be played on instruments made in the 18th century.   more

July 1, 2020

MCCARTER LIVE: McCarter Theatre presented an online conversation between outgoing artistic director and resident playwright Emily Mann; and composer Lucy Simon (above). (Photo by Jamie Levine)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

McCarter LIVE: In Conversation with Lucy Simon” was presented June 26. Artistic Engagement Manager Paula T. Alekson curated this final installment of McCarter’s series of discussions between Artistic Director and Resident Playwright Emily Mann, and some of her collaborators on past and current projects.

Singer, songwriter, and Broadway composer Lucy Simon is working with Mann and lyricist Susan Birkenhead on a musical adaptation of Kent Haruf’s 2015 novel Our Souls at Night.

Her sisters are singer and songwriter Carly Simon and opera singer Joanna Simon. “There was always music in our house,” Simon recalls, speaking from her home in Nyack, N.Y. “My father [the co-founder of Simon & Schuster] was a wonderful pianist. My mother was a beautiful singer. We would all sing together. Joanna would bring home three-part glee club songs.”

A setting of Eugene Field’s 1889 poem “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod” was Simon’s first composition. “I was in sixth or seventh grade,” she says. “We had to recite a poem to our class. I had difficulty remembering words; I didn’t have difficulty if I set them to music. Carly and I recorded it years later, and it became a big hit.” When Lucy was 16 she and Carly formed a duo, the Simon Sisters. “They were just a little bit older, and I wanted very much to be them!” Mann remembers. more

June 24, 2020

“LIVE MUSICAL THEATER REVUE”: The Princeton Festival organized an online concert of soloists performing songs from classic and recent musicals. Top row, from left: Erin Brittain, Michael Caizzi, Ronald Samm, Rachel Weishoff, and Billy Huyler. Middle row: Matt Flocco, Mekelia Miller, Paloma Friedhoff Bello, Jami Leonard, and James Conrad Smith. Bottom row: Amy Weintraub, Michael Motkowski, Natalie Rose Havens, Jordan Bunshaft, and Shannon Rakow. (Photo montage courtesy of the Princeton Festival)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Princeton Festival presented a Live Musical Theater Revue on June 20. The free concert was part of the Festival’s ongoing series of online events, “Virtually Yours.” Artistic Director Richard Tang Yuk hosted the livestream, which featured 14 soloists performing selections from Broadway or off-Broadway shows.

The soloists chose the songs they performed. The resulting selection was an eclectic but remarkably well-balanced mixture of numbers from mid-20th century “Golden Age” classics, and more recent material.

Online concerts present unique technical challenges. One soloist, Mekelia Miller, was unheard due to a lost connection. At times a few of the other performers’ voices were less audible than their instrumental tracks. On the whole, however, the evening proceeded smoothly, with little lag time between performances. Every soloist briefly chatted affably with their predecessor before starting their own song.

The opening soloist was mezzo-soprano Shannon Rakow. who confidently began the concert with a cheerful, sincere rendition of “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” singing to an orchestral track. Composer Jule Styne and lyricist Bob Merrill wrote the exuberant, uptempo number for Funny Girl. Isobel Lennart wrote the book of that 1964 musical, whose semi-biographical plot is based on the life and career of entertainer Fanny Brice (1891-1951). more

By Nancy Plum

Three months after the Princeton performing arts arena essentially shut down, it is clear the 2020-2021 season will require major adjustments from performers, administrators, audience members and donors alike.  Princeton Festival, whose month-long June season usually fills area halls with opera, recitals, chamber music, and lectures, quickly adjusted this year to create a “season” of virtual vocal showcases, podcasts, lectures, and archival performances.  The Festival’s third week of “Virtually Yours on Demand”  included a live online panel discussion last Tuesday afternoon with leaders from Princeton area music organizations discussing how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted performing ensembles and how organizations will fine-tune a summer traditionally jammed-packed with planning, but with no idea how and when live performances will be able to happen.

Hosted by Princeton Festival Artistic Director Richard Tang Yuk, the online conversation included Princeton Pro Musica Executive Director Mary Trigg; Trenton Children’s Chorus Executive Director Kate Mulligan; Princeton Singers Executive Director John Cloys; David Osenberg, development director of WWFM; Jerry Kalstein, chair of Boheme Opera NJ’s Board of Trustees; and Hilary Butler, executive director of Westrick Academy, the home of the Princeton Girlchoir and Boychoir. The discussion focused on the future of the performing arts in the Princeton area, including how ensembles are navigating the times ahead and what next season might look like.

All of these organizations have adjusted to a “non-live” performance format which has gone on much longer than anyone imagined. Performances (including a Princeton Girlchoir tour to Spain and Portugal) were canceled or postponed to early fall, only to be postponed again when it was unclear if venues would be open.  All participants in the discussion have developed some sort of digital presence, ranging from music theory classes to online voice lessons, but it has become clear to choruses in particular that current technology allows neither ensemble accuracy in real time nor a sense of unity in performing. However, as Mulligan was quick to point out, the ability of Trenton Children’s Chorus members to connect to one another was in many cases more important to the young choristers than trying to sing simultaneously. Several ensembles have created “virtual choirs” by having individual singers record themselves with “click-tracks,” but all recognize the massive amount of work involved in editing numerous audio pieces and synching with video to create an acceptable finished product.   more

June 17, 2020

“IN CONVERSATION”: McCarter Theatre presented an online conversation between outgoing Artistic Director and Resident Playwright Emily Mann and playwright and librettist Nilo Cruz. (Emily Mann photo by Matt Pilsner; Nilo Cruz photo by Marc Richard Tousignant)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

McCarter LIVE: In Conversation with Nilo Cruz” was presented June 12. Artistic Engagement Manager Paula T. Alekson curated the discussion between playwright and librettist Cruz; and outgoing Artistic Director and Resident Playwright Emily Mann. McCarter’s productions of Cruz’s Anna in the Tropics and Bathing in Moonlight were directed by Mann.

The conversation begins on a somber note. “Given the events of the past two and a half weeks, I felt the need to not simply dive into the past, but to be in the present at the top of our time together,” Alekson says, adding that she felt a responsibility not to create a “structured absence of the outrage, pain, unrest, and division. I thought, as a memorial, we might mark the present moment first.”

Cruz recites “The Weight of a Knee,” a poem he has written in memory of George Floyd. The harrowing elegy is unsparing: “The knee in uniform, made of law, crushed the tendrils of an already buried throat, as it strangled the breath of history once again,” Cruz reads. “The knee, known to be used for the sacred ceremony of prayer, now profaned.”

Reflecting on the ensuing national dialogue about racial justice, Mann offers, “We are at a turning point in history. It’s a seismic shift that has great possibility — and of course great danger in it as well, as all great possibilities do.” She observes “people around the world feeling the need to walk together, and show … their need to see justice and change for their fellow human beings. This is something that artists know: the whole thing is to go deep inside yourselves and dream big, and see where you want to go, so that then you can go there together.” more

April 15, 2020

By Nancy Plum

This past January, singer Alicia Keys opened the Grammy awards telecast reminding the audience that “music changes the world.” What has changed the world since then is the coronavirus (COVID-19), and music has transformed how people are coping with the pandemic.

Across the board, Princeton area music-makers have canceled the balance of their 2019-20 seasons, and area universities have sent their students home to finish the semester by virtual instruction, canceling musical and theatrical productions. However, musicians are never ones to sit idle, and area performers have found creative ways to get their musical fix in these days of staying home.

Needless to say, area critics now have nothing to review; besides all the great concerts which were scheduled, here’s what this writer has missed this spring: I was scheduled to play in a national tennis tournament in Florida the first week in April, and when that was canceled, I was fortunate to “hop into” a series of performances of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 with The Philadelphia Orchestra and Westminster Symphonic Choir in Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center and New York’s Carnegie Hall. These performances were also canceled, as were church choir and a performance of John Rutter’s Gloria in South Jersey. My program notes for The Philadelphia Orchestra have gone unread by a non-existent audience, and summer performances remain in doubt throughout the area. more

March 11, 2020

By Nancy Plum

The Princeton University Music Department is understandably proud of the depth of talent within its “Orchestra family.” In these days when student activism often leads to political change, the University Orchestra staged a “Student Takeover” this past weekend by featuring an undergraduate conductor and graduate student composer, as well as two student instrumental soloists, in a pair of concerts at Richardson Auditorium. Friday night’s performance (the concert was repeated Saturday night) included two high-spirited concerti, a contemporary work by a University graduate student, and an opera overture conducted by a University senior.

Each of the four works on Friday night’s program was equally significant in showcasing the University’s talented musicians. Senior Reilly Bova, a conductor as well as principal timpanist for the University Orchestra, led the ensemble in Carl Maria von Weber’s 1821 “Overture” to the opera Der Freischütz. Revolutionary in its roots in German folklore and orchestral effects, this “Overture” provided Bova with the opportunity to maintain firm control over the ensemble and the dramatic changes in mood. Conducting from memory, Bova brought out a gentle pastoral nature from a quintet of horns and built suspense well throughout the piece. Throughout the “Overture,” Bova demonstrated solid capabilities from the podium, showing the training from his numerous music department activities during his Princeton career. more

March 4, 2020

By Nancy Plum

Before coming to Princeton University as director of choral activities, conductor Gabriel Crouch enjoyed an international career as a professional choral artist. Since assuming leadership of the Princeton University Glee Club, Crouch has used his worldwide reach to bring visiting choral ensembles to Princeton to collaborate with the University music department in an annual “Glee Club Presents” series. These collaborations include mini-residencies in which the guest chorus works together with University Glee Club singers and the two ensembles present a joint concert.

This year’s “Glee Club Presents” choral experience featured the New York-based Antioch Chamber Ensemble, a professional chorus which has been performing worldwide and recording for more than 20 years. The joint collaboration between the Antioch Ensemble and University Glee Club had a special focus on undergraduate composers within the Glee Club, and the culminating performance featured several newly-composed works by current and past Glee Club members.

Saturday night’s concert at Richardson Auditorium also paid homage to one of choral music’s most challenging pieces — Thomas Tallis’ 40-voice motet Spem in alium. Glee Club conductor Gabriel Crouch bracketed the performance with Tallis’ work to close and another 40-voice 16th-century motet to open, one which may have served as an inspiration for Tallis. Italian instrumentalist Alessandro Striggio served as composer to the renowned Medici family, and his five-choir, 40-voice Ecce beatam lucem was acoustically well suited for Italy’s expansive multi-dome cathedrals. Placing the five choirs both onstage and throughout the Richardson balcony, Crouch led the Glee Club (with the Antioch singers intermingled) from the stage, allowing the sound to travel around and through the hall. Crouch elicited effective dynamic contrasts from the more than 100 singers, finding variety in the homophonic choral writing. At the close of the piece, the last chord echoed well in the hall. more

February 26, 2020

By Nancy Plum

Like many performing arts organizations this year, Princeton University Concerts has joined the worldwide celebration of the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven. Last week, Princeton University Concerts presented the New York-based Calidore String Quartet in a concert linking Beethoven with the 21st century with a performance of a newly-commissioned piece and one of Beethoven’s most monumental chamber works.

Celebrating its 10th season, the Calidore Quartet has received significant international acclaim, especially after winning the inaugural M-Prize Chamber Arts Competition in 2016. Violinists Jeffrey Myers and Ryan Meehan, violist Jeremy Berry, and cellist Estelle Choi brought their technical virtuosity to Richardson Auditorium last Thursday night to pay tribute to Beethoven, contemporary interpretation of his music, and the Baroque form of the fugue. Featured in this program was the world premiere of a string quartet commissioned by Princeton University Concerts through Music Accord — a partnership among U.S. presenters dedicated to not only commissioning new works, but also ensuring the very necessary repeat performances of these pieces. more

February 19, 2020

By Nancy Plum

Princeton Symphony Orchestra combined two of its outreach missions in one concert last week with a presentation at the Princeton University Art Museum of the New York-based chamber ensemble Music From China. Princeton Symphony has a long history of partnering with the University Art Museum, and last Wednesday’s concerts continued this tradition of pairing music with the art in the exhibits. Presented in conjunction with the exhibition “The Eternal Feast:  Banqueting in Chinese Art from the 10th to the 14th Century,” Wednesday’s concerts provided Music From China with the opportunity to introduce the audience to traditional Chinese instruments and repertoire stretching back centuries.

Wednesday afternoon’s concert (the performance was repeated that evening) featured three musicians playing the Chinese erhu, pipa, and zheng. The erhu, a spike fiddle with two silk strings and a small hexagonal sound box covered with snakeskin, is played with a bow threaded between the strings as the player stops the strings with finger pressure to change the pitch. Music From China Artistic Director Wang Guowei has made a career performing on this instrument worldwide and currently conducts the Westminster Choir College Chinese Music Ensemble. The pipa, a pear-shaped fretted lute, has four strings and up to 24 frets, and is plucked or strummed with fingernails to produce a variety of musical effects. Player Sun Li studied the pipa at the Shenyang Music Conservatory and has appeared with U.S. orchestras nationwide. The foundation of the Music From China ensemble sound was the zheng, a zither with 16 metal strings tuned to three pentatonic octaves. Wang Junling learned the instrument in her family, subsequently founding a Zheng Music School in Flushing, New York, to carry on its tradition. more