March 3, 2021

By Nancy Plum

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

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

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

February 24, 2021

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

By Donald H. Sanborn III

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 17, 2021

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

By Donald H. Sanborn III

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

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

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

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

February 10, 2021

By Nancy Plum

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

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

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

February 3, 2021

By Nancy Plum

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

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

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

January 27, 2021

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

By Donald H. Sanborn III

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

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

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

January 20, 2021

By Nancy Plum

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

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

January 13, 2021

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

By Donald H. Sanborn III

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

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

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

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

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

By Nancy Plum

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

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

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

December 23, 2020

By Nancy Plum

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

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

December 16, 2020

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

By Donald H. Sanborn III

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

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

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

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

December 9, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

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

—Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

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

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

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

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

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

By Donald H. Sanborn III

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

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

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

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

December 2, 2020

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

By Donald H. Sanborn III

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

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

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

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

November 25, 2020

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

By Donald H. Sanborn III

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

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

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

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

By Nancy Plum

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

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

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

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