November 20, 2019

“SORTA RICAN”: Passage Theatre has continued its Solo Flights series with “Sorta Rican.” Written and performed by Miss Angelina (above) and directed by Laura Grey, the musical monologue depicts the performer’s search for her cultural identity. (Photo by Rachel Kenaston)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Passage Theatre has continued its Solo Flights series with Sorta Rican, which was presented November 15-17. Written and performed by actor and recording artist Miss Angelina, this autobiographical monologue is a musical odyssey that humorously follows the singer’s quest to connect with her identity as a Latina.

Miss Angelina is a rapper who has released two albums, and has costarred in a music web series that has been featured on the television series American Latino. She has been touring with Sorta Rican since 2015, presenting it at venues such as the Hard Rock Café (San Juan), Broadway Comedy Club (NYC), and Improv Olympic Theater (LA).

The show itself is a tour. The journey starts with the monologist’s upbringing as part of an immigrant family in Little Silver, New Jersey. From there we follow her to New York City (where she lives in Washington Heights), Miami, and San Juan. These all are places that Miss Angelina visits in the course of a search for her cultural heritage. Along the way she encounters disparate preconceptions about what it means to be a Puerto Rican and/or a Latina. more

November 13, 2019

By Nancy Plum

On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Westminster Choir, the renowned ensemble took the opportunity this past weekend to remind the Princeton community of its raison d’etre. Taking a line from the poetry of W.H. Auden, the 40-voice elite chorus of Westminster Choir College presented a concert of music to “Appear and Inspire” in Bristol Chapel on Sunday afternoon, reaffirming the Choir’s rich history and its connection to American musical culture.

The cornerstone piece of the concert was Benjamin Britten’s Hymn to St. Cecilia, composed to commemorate the patron saint of music and from whose text the title of the concert was derived. Setting poetry by Auden, Britten composed the three-movement work while living in America as war was breaking out throughout Europe. Westminster Choir conductor Joe Miller took the three movements of Britten’s tribute to music and interspersed them throughout the first part of the concert, surrounding Britten’s music with standard works from the Westminster Choir repertory, in many cases featured on Westminster Choir recordings or composed by individuals connected to the Choir College. more

November 6, 2019

By Nancy Plum

Despite the vast amount and popularity of liturgical music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, sacred music was not the composer’s principal interest. One would have a hard time convincing the choral field of this — two works in almost every symphonic chorus’ repertory are Mozart’s deathbed Requiem and his monumental, yet incomplete, Great Mass in C minor. The 100-voice Princeton Pro Musica opened its 2019-2020 season with the Mass this past Sunday night at Richardson Auditorium, filling the stage with singers, vocal soloists, and orchestral instrumentalists, all ably led by Pro Musica Artistic Director Ryan James Brandau. Paired with Mozart’s lively Concerto for Clarinet in A Major, the Great Mass in C minor created a program unique in the fact that these were two works Mozart composed because he wanted to, not because he had to for financial reasons.

Mozart’s music for wind instruments is universally charming and captivating. The clarinet appears to have been a particular favorite, likely due to his close friendship with fellow Masonic lodge member Anton Stadler, for whom he composed the 1789 Concerto for Clarinet. The instrument for which this work was composed was likely a basset clarinet — a standard clarinet to which was affixed an extension adding notes in the lower register. Nineteenth-century published versions of this piece adjusted the lower “extension” passages to higher octaves, in some ways making the Concerto more difficult to play. To open Sunday afternoon’s Pro Musica concert, Brandau led a chamber-sized orchestra and guest clarinet soloist Pascal Archer in a spirited performance of Mozart’s three-movement Concerto. Archer, currently acting principal clarinetist for the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, demonstrated not only his command of the instrument and the works technical demands, but also how demonic Mozart’s solo writing could be. more

October 30, 2019

By Nancy Plum

In a three-concert series entitled “Icons of Song,” Princeton University Concerts is examining both the concept of love and ways to expand the boundaries of chamber music. Composers through the centuries have explored the ups and downs of love through the solo song genre, and in the first of the “Icons of Song” series, Princeton University Concerts presented a program of two song cycles celebrating these very ideas. Accompanied by pianist Brad Mehldau, British tenor Ian Bostridge performed a contemporary song cycle by Mehldau, as well as Robert Schumann’s lyrically Romantic Dichterliebe. Throughout the more than 25 songs which made up the two cycles, the audience at Richardson Auditorium last Tuesday night listened in rapt attention as these two esteemed performers conveyed some of the most formidable yet tender poetry in literature.

A native of London, Bostridge received his musical education in England’s finest institutions, including as a choral scholar at Westminster School and a student at St. John’s College in Oxford and Cambridge. His recordings of both opera and lieder have won major international prizes and have been nominated for 15 Grammy awards. Bostridge and Mehldau have been collaborating since 2015, with Mehldau composing several works specifically for the tenor. Mehldau’s 11-song cycle, The Folly of Desire, premiered just this past January and toured by Mehldau and Bostridge this year, set the poetry of Blake, Yeats, Shakespeare, and Goethe, among others. more

“CATCH ME IF YOU CAN”: Performances are underway for The Pennington Players’ production of “Catch Me If You Can.” Directed by Laurie Gougher, the musical runs through November 3 at the Kelsey Theatre. A bright red sweater is one of many costumes — and personas — worn by Frank Abagnale Jr. (Scott Silagy, center), as he tells the story of his many exploits, with the help of the ensemble. (Photo by Jon Cintron)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

As a con artist, Frank Abagnale Jr. gave the authorities plenty of metaphoric song and dance, so it is fitting that he gets to do so, literally, as a character onstage.

Catch Me If You Can is being presented by The Pennington Players at the Kelsey Theatre. This brash, energetic musical is based on the true story that became a hit Steven Spielberg film in 2002.

Abagnale originally detailed his exploits in his 1980 autobiography, which he authored with Stan Redding. The 2011 musical version has a flippant but amiable libretto by Terrence McNally. The music is by Marc Shaiman, and the lyrics are by Shaiman and Scott Wittman.

The score by Shaiman and Wittman is characterized by much of the jocularity and musical flavor present in their songs for Hairspray, which also is set in the 1960s. more

October 23, 2019

By Nancy Plum

Things must have been lively in the Louisville, Kentucky, home in which Princeton University sophomore Elijah Shina grew up. He may well have been the kind of child that found rhythm in every empty box or can in the house and saw a potential drum on every surface he touched. These are the children who grow up to be great percussionists, and Shina has brought his great sense of inner rhythm to Princeton University and to the University Orchestra’s opening concerts this past weekend. A co-winner of the Princeton University Orchestra 2019 Concerto Competition, Shina showed virtuosic agility on a myriad of percussion instruments in a 20th-century concerto demonstrating a wide range of orchestral colors and effects.

Concertos for percussion were unusual in 20th-century American music. Chicago-born Joseph Schwantner, intrigued by the infinite array of timbres and sonorities available in an orchestral percussion section, composed the 1995 Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra on commission from the Philharmonic-Symphony Society of New York for the New York Philharmonic’s 150th anniversary. The resulting work, performed by the University Orchestra this past Friday and Saturday nights, was a musical collaboration between soloist and ensemble demanding the highest level of skills and techniques from an entire section of percussionists, not just the soloist. more

“MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN”: Performances are underway for “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.” Directed by playwright David Catlin, Lookingglass Theatre Company’s production runs through November 3 at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre. Mary Shelley (Cordelia Dewdney, left) gazes reflectively at Frankenstein’s Creature (Keith D. Gallagher). (Photo by Liz Lauren)

By Donald H. Sanborn III.

McCarter Theatre is presenting Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, in time for Halloween. Lookingglass Theatre Company brings its brooding spectacle to Princeton following its premiere in Chicago earlier this year. David Catlin, whose Lookingglass Alice was presented by McCarter in 2007, is the playwright and director.

The title of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein hints at one of the elements that make this version unique: the author becomes a character. Brief glimpses into Shelley’s stormy life are juxtaposed against scenes from her famous novel.

As with McCarter’s production of Gloria: A Life, seats have been placed on the stage, so that the show is presented in the round. Daniel Ostling’s set is covered by an off-white sheet, which is suspended by a brick cubicle. During the opening scene we see the actors through this sheet, which somewhat separates them from us despite the intimacy inherent in the seating arrangement. more

October 16, 2019

By Nancy Plum

Last year’s 125th anniversary season of Princeton University Concerts — with star conductor Gustavo Dudamel leading the lineup — is a hard act to follow. Princeton University Concerts began its 126th season last week with a well-respected ensemble also celebrating a milestone. New York’s Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, marking its 50th anniversary, brought to Princeton a program paying homage to both Americana and the longevity of Princeton University Concerts. Last Thursday night’s “New World Spirit” performance at Richardson Auditorium featured music of four composers who embodied American music in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with one work having close ties to the University Concerts series.

Pennsylvania composer Harry T. Burleigh has been well-known in the choral world for his arrangements of spirituals and for bringing African American music to the forefront in this country, also composing a handful of instrumental pieces. A student of Czech composer Antonin Dvorák, Burleigh similarly infused his musical works with American folk tunes and atmosphere. Burleigh’s Southland Sketches for solo violin and piano was comprised of four salon pieces capturing the fresh and open outdoors through broad melodies and bits of familiar tunes. Violinist Chad Hoopes and pianist Gloria Chien showed solid communication and precise timing in performing the four Sketches, with effective double stops from Hoopes adding harmony to the solo violin part and Chien’s accompaniment well reflecting the diverse styles within the music. more

“DAUPHIN ISLAND”: Performances are underway for “Dauphin Island.” Directed by Amina Robinson, the play runs through October 27 at Passage Theatre. Selwyn (SJ Hannah, left) and Kendra (Shadana Patterson) unexpectedly share an intimate moment, but they both face personal challenges that may present obstacles to their ability to build a life together. (Photo by Jeff Stuart)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Passage Theatre is opening its season with an outstanding production of Dauphin Island. Jeffry Chastang’s bittersweet romantic comedy depicts an unlikely relationship between Kendra Evans, a cancer survivor who lives in seclusion in the piney woods of Wilcox County, Alabama; and Selwyn Tate, an injured stranger who stops at her house, on the way to start a new job.

Dauphin Island received a New Play Award grant from the Edgerton Foundation. Its world premiere was at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in 2017.

“This season’s shows all grapple with the question of where we come from,” promises Artistic Director C. Ryanne Domingues. “Our pasts, our families, and the places we grew up all have a huge impact on who we are and how we shape our futures.” She adds, “Dauphin Island is a refreshing play about what happens when we show a little bit of kindness towards each other.”

On the surface “kindness” initially seems an odd word with which to characterize the relationship between the characters. The edgy, gun-wielding Kendra’s first act consists of shackling Selwyn to the railing of her porch, “so you don’t kill me,” she says. Only then does she bandage his injured hand — with cobwebs. more

October 9, 2019

By Nancy Plum

Princeton Symphony Orchestra turned its attention to music of Russia in the second performance of the ensemble’s Classical Series this past weekend. Guest Conductor Bernhard Gueller and the Orchestra successfully delved into music of 19th-century Russian titans Mikhail Glinka, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky in a pair of concerts featuring guest pianist Natasha Paremski. Saturday night’s concert at Richardson Auditorium (the performance was repeated Sunday afternoon) not only showed Paremski’s virtuosic and dynamic technical skills and expressiveness, but also the lush orchestration and chromatic harmonies of 19th-century Russian symphonic music.

The central piece of Princeton Symphony’s concerts this past weekend was the second piano Concerto of late 19th-century Russian composer Rachmaninoff, bracketed by a spirited opera overture by Glinka and a monumental symphony of Tchaikovsky. Composed between the fall of 1900 and spring of 1901, Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18 was premiered in its entirety in November 1901, and coincidentally earned the composer the prestigious 500-ruble Glinka Award, named for the composer whose Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila opened the Princeton Symphony program. In this work, Rachmaninoff followed the classical concerto form, but augmented it with sumptuous orchestration and a full exploitation of the piano’s Romantic capabilities. Featured as piano soloist in these performances was Moscow native Natasha Paremski, who has been playing professionally since the age of 9. After earning a degree at New York’s Mannes College of Music, Paremski embarked on an international career which has brought her musical passion and technical virtuosity to all corners of the world. more

September 25, 2019

By Nancy Plum

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed more than 20 piano concerti which grace the repertories of symphony orchestras worldwide, but less than a handful of pieces for two pianos. To celebrate Rossen Milanov’s 10th anniversary as music director of the ensemble, Princeton Symphony Orchestra presented Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra in E-flat Major, featuring a 21st-century pair of virtuosic sisters in pianists Christina and Michelle Naughton. Bracketed by one of Mozart’s more popular operatic overtures and one of his more joyful symphonies, this Concerto proved to be the perfect vehicle to commemorate Milanov’s tenure as conductor of the Orchestra and welcome the audience to a new season.

Saturday night’s performance at Richardson Auditorium (the concert was repeated Sunday afternoon) also paid homage to former Princeton Professor Edward T. Cone’s role as pianist and mentor — the last time the Mozart double piano Concerto was performed by Princeton Symphony was with Cone himself and his student Robert Taub (who had his own extended history with the Orchestra) at the keyboards. Milanov and the Orchestra warmed up the audience with Mozart’s “Overture” to The Marriage of Figaro, an operatic standard since its premiere in 1786. Musically launched with lithe bassoon swirls, Mozart’s “Overture” was full of well-tapered lines and well-defined accents. Inner instrumental parts were heard well and the Orchestra effectively closed the work in a blaze of glory. more

August 14, 2019

“TOPDOG/UNDERDOG”: Performances are underway for Princeton Summer Theater’s production of “Topdog/Underdog.” Directed by Lori Elizabeth Parquet, the play runs through August 18 at Princeton University’s Hamilton Murray Theater. Brothers Lincoln (Nathaniel J. Ryan, left) and Booth (Travis Raeburn, right) stare each other down during a game of three-card monte. (Photo by Kirsten Traudt)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Princeton Summer Theater is concluding its 2019 season with a gripping production of Topdog/Underdog. This edgy, character-driven drama, which depicts the relationship between two African American brothers, is an apt fit for a season whose mission has been to “explore love in all its forms.”

Topdog/Underdog played on Broadway in 2002. It earned playwright Suzan-Lori Parks the Pulitzer Prize, as well as the Outer Critics Circle Award.

Lincoln is a former three-card monte hustler who now earns money at a carnival arcade by impersonating the famous president for whom he is named. This entails wearing whiteface and pretending to be shot.

Booth — the younger brother — has not given up three-card monte, and aspires to emulate his brother’s former success at the game. In his apartment he ceaselessly practices dealing cards, and luring potential victims with smooth chatter, although we will discover that in the past there was a crucial moment in which his skill drastically fell short of his ambition. He persists in attempting to persuade Lincoln to abandon his current occupation and join him. more

July 31, 2019

“A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM”: Performances are underway for Princeton Summer Theater’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Directed by Maeli Goren, the play runs through August 4 at Princeton University’s Hamilton Murray Theater. Nick Bottom (Chamari White-Mink, center) entertains the company with a play within the play. (Photo by Kirsten Traudt)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Princeton Summer Theater is presenting a bold, somewhat abstract reinterpretation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. William Shakespeare’s comedy (c. 1595), in which fairies disrupt the romantic lives of ancient Athenians, is an apt choice for a season whose mission is to “explore love in all its forms.”

Director Maeli Goren has added an environmental focus, going so far as to begin the play with a speech that does not appear in the script until the second act. Titania, Queen of Fairies, offers this warning: “The spring, the summer, the childing autumn, angry winter change their wonted liveries, and the mazèd world, by their increase, now knows not which is which. And this same progeny of evils comes from our debate, from our dissension.” more

July 24, 2019

By Nancy Plum

The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra spent last week in Princeton coaching and guiding four contemporary composers in an immersive laboratory experience through which the talented participants received musical and practical feedback about their pieces, composing for a symphonic orchestra, and getting music published and performed in today’s market. Dichotomy, conflict, and ultimate hope seemed to be the overriding themes of the pieces resulting from this year’s Edward T. Cone Composition Institute, as these works were presented in a concert entitled Scores last Saturday night at Richardson Auditorium. Led by Romanian conductor Cristian Macelaru, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra performed four works of the Cone Institute’s composers, along with an East Coast premiere of Institute director and Princeton University professor Steven Mackey. more

July 17, 2019

By Nancy Plum

Princeton University Summer Chamber Concerts ended its 2019 season last week with a return to the classics, as Canada’s Rolston String Quartet performed the final concert of the series. Formed six years ago at the picturesque and renowned Banff Arts Center in Alberta, Canada, the Rolston String Quartet provided a fitting close to a season featuring innovation by showing the future of classical music through the masterworks of the past. Violinists Luri Lee and Emily Kruspe, violist Hezekiah Leung, and cellist Jonathan Lo dazzled the audience at Richardson Auditorium last Friday night with their musicality and energetic approach to the works of string quartet masters Franz Joseph Haydn and Ludwig van Beethoven bracketing a complex piece by 20th-century Hungarian composer György Ligeti.

“Papa” Haydn is considered the father of the string quartet genre, which Beethoven subsequently pushed to new musical boundaries. Among Haydn’s most well-known string quartet compositions are those contained in Opus 76, the last complete set of the more than 60 quartets the composer wrote. Quartet No. 63 in Bb Major, the fourth of Opus 76, acquired the nickname “Sunrise” for its depiction of the sun coming up over the horizon, and the Rolston String Quartet brought out well the diverse shadings one sees in an early sunlit sky. In the first movement “allegro con spirito,” the Rolston players placed their musical emphasis on “con spirito,” energetically moving through the allegro with clean sforzandi accents and a light violin sound from Lee’s Baroque-era instrument. Lee and Kruspe also demonstrated especially sweet thirds between the two violin parts. more

July 10, 2019

By Nancy Plum

Of the trumpet, French horn, and trombone, the most familiar is likely the trumpet, thanks to a repertory of 17th and 18th-century music featuring the instrument. The French horn is also well known though a number of concerti over several centuries. The trombone, however, is rarely featured in orchestral settings, and is a pleasure for audiences to hear and see close up. Princeton University Summer Chamber Concerts brought these three instruments together last Tuesday night at Richardson Auditorium with a performance by the New York Brass Arts Trio. Definitely an ensemble for the 21st century, the Brass Arts Trio is comprised of trumpeter Joe Burgstaller, French horn player David Jolley, and trombonist Haim Avitsur, who came together in this performance to demonstrate the power of their instruments within the finesse of ensemble playing.

Burgstaller, Jolley, and Avitsur are not only expert performers, but also imaginative arrangers; almost all of the pieces on Tuesday night’s program were arranged by one of them. The Trio presented works spanning three centuries, beginning with David Jolley’s arrangements of three sinfonias of Johann Sebastian Bach. In these short pieces, the three brass instruments were able to achieve appropriate lightness in melodic lines, as well as dynamic contrasts. Burgstaller found numerous opportunities for ornamentation in music tailor-made for a bright trumpet sound. more

July 3, 2019

By Nancy Plum

Although the violin, viola, and cello have changed little as instruments over the past century, music for this genre is continually evolving. Nowhere was this more evident this past week than in the Princeton University Summer Chamber Concerts presentation of PUBLIQuartet, an ensemble of four musicians committed to stretching the instruments of the string quartet to new boundaries and stimulating new repertoire for the field. Violinists Curtis Stewart and Jannina Norpoth, violist Nick Revel, and cellist Hamilton Berry presented a program demonstrating that in the ensemble’s less than 10-year history, PUBLIQuartet has made a solid mark on American contemporary chamber music.

PUBLIQuartet’s performance last Thursday night at Richardson Auditorium was far from the conventional string quartet concert in its focus on music from very recent decades. When the living American composer John Corigliano is the “old man” of composers represented, PUBLIQuartet’s commitment to the latest in string quartet composition was clear. more

June 26, 2019

By Nancy Plum

The Princeton Festival has stretched itself well into the challenging operatic stratosphere in its 15th anniversary season this year with its mainstage production of John Adams’ Nixon in China, which opened at McCarter Theatre Center’s Matthews Theatre this past Sunday afternoon. For this production, Festival Artistic Director Richard Tang Yuk assembled a cast of both returning and new singers to the stage for a complex operatic production bringing humanity and poignancy to two controversial historic characters.

John Adams’ composed his 1987 opera Nixon in China to a libretto by American poet Alice Goodman, who is also an Anglican priest. The roots of Nixon in China, musically depicting Richard Nixon’s historic 1972 trip to China, were in a collaboration between Adams, innovative theater director Peter Sellars, and noted choreographer Mark Morris, from the viewpoint of the 1980s — a time when Nixon was an easy target for late-night comedians. Sellars claimed the opera idea came to him as an amalgamation of working on Franz Joseph Haydn’s 1784 opera Armida; reflecting on the Vietnam War, which had ended a decade earlier; and the writings of Henry Kissinger and Chairman Mao. Adams had been scoring a documentary on Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung and was immersed in Wagnerian operas at the time, and saw the Nixon in China story as a musical opportunity to “find our mythology in our own contemporary history.”  The resulting production, a four-way international operatic commission premiered in Houston in 1987, was considered thought-provoking in its subject matter, fusing Wagnerian operatic idioms with popular American music genres in Adams’ trademark minimalistic compositional style and serving as a catalyst for future operatic treatments of current events. more

June 19, 2019

By Nancy Plum

There is a relatively new performing ensemble in Princeton focusing on repertoire for a specific set of instruments. Founded in 2016, Princeton Symphonic Brass draws players from other area ensembles to explore music written specifically for brass instruments — horn, trumpet, trombone, euphonium, and tuba. This past Saturday night, Princeton Symphonic Brass presented a concert of “City Lights, Latin Nights” in the recently renovated Hillman Performance Hall at Westminster Choir College. Led by conductor Lawrence Kursar, the 11 brass and two percussion players of Symphonic Brass performed to an appreciative audience and showed some fancy footwork on instruments often performing from deep in the background of an orchestra. Dressed casually and sitting in a semi-circle in the hall, the members of the ensemble created an informal performance atmosphere which did not detract from achieving high technical standards.

Most of the works performed Saturday night were pieces for other instrumental combinations arranged for brass ensemble, giving the audience the chance to hear familiar or new repertoire with different orchestral colors. The program explored music of Latin American composers, as well as a few American works reflecting Spanish flavor or influence. Symphonic Brass opened the program with an iconic fanfare tailor-made for brass — Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, composed as a concert season-opener in World War II and arranged for this group by trumpet member Ed Hirschman. The four trumpets of the ensemble were well blended and rhythmically precise, presenting a clean dialog between upper and lower brass. more

June 12, 2019

By Nancy Plum

For close to six decades, the Greater Princeton Youth Orchestra has been offering a comprehensive range of orchestral training programs to young musicians in the area. This past Saturday night, GPYO presented its Senior Division Spring Concert, showcasing the winner of the Orchestra’s annual Concerto Competition. This year the competition was won by oboist Michael Chau, a senior at South Brunswick High School, who demonstrated musical talent and composure well beyond a student just graduating from high school. Chau easily mesmerized the Richardson Auditorium audience with his versatility and technical skill, performing one movement from a Mozart oboe concerto with GPYO’s flagship ensemble, the Symphonic Orchestra.

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“SHE LOVES ME”: Performances are underway for “She Loves Me.” Directed by David Kellett, the Princeton Festival’s production of the musical runs through June 30 in the Matthews Acting Studio at Princeton University. Coworkers Georg (Tommy MacDonell, left) and Amalia (Amy Weintraub) have a contentious relationship, but they unknowingly have exchanged love letters. (Photo by Jessi Oliano)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

The 15th anniversary Princeton Festival includes the Broadway musical She Loves Me. Directed by David Kellett, this presentation of the charming romantic comedy boasts exquisite musical performances, as well as elegant choreography and production design.

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May 22, 2019

By Nancy Plum

The orchestral concerto was a musical development of the Baroque era which composers often took to the next level by composing for two or more solo instruments and orchestra. New Jersey Symphony Orchestra brought Johann Sebastian Bach’s double concerto for two violins into the 21st century this past weekend by pairing it with a contemporary work for orchestra, violin, and electric guitar — definitely not a Baroque instrument. Bracketing Friday night’s concert at Richardson Auditorium with 19th-century opera overtures, NJSO conductor Xian Zhang led the ensemble and soloists through the music of Baroque legend Bach and 21st-century musical inventor and Princeton University professor Steven Mackey. more

May 8, 2019

By Nancy Plum

A 40-year history is commendable for any performing organization, and Princeton Pro Musica, which presented its first concert in the spring of 1980 and has only had two music directors in four decades, celebrated this milestone this past weekend with a festive concert at the Princeton University Chapel. Pro Musica’s decades-long musical roots provided bookends to Saturday afternoon’s performance of the music of George Frideric Handel as founder Frances Fowler Slade led the 100-voice chorus in the opening and closing works on the program. Current Artistic Director Ryan James Brandau conducted the chorus and an accompanying chamber orchestra in several of Handel’s lesser-known but equally as appealing pieces, recreating a concert atmosphere which could have taken place in Handel’s time in a space which well suited the performers and repertoire.

Slade retired from Pro Musica in 2012, but many of the current singers performed under her direction for a number of years. Slade took the podium to lead the chorus and orchestra in two “Coronation” anthems of Handel, a composer whose music Pro Musica performed every year since its founding. Slade maintained a lively tempo in both pieces, keeping a crisp conducting style and encouraging the blocks of sound for which the chorus has been known. The University Chapel can be a cavernous space for a large chorus, and the choral sound that seemed to work best for Pro Musica included the ensemble’s trademark expansive homophonic passages. In both “Zadok the Priest” and “The King Shall Rejoice,” Slade guided the chorus well through the Baroque lilt in the music, demonstrating that even in retirement, she is still looking for precise endings and phrasing. more

May 1, 2019

By Nancy Plum

Los Angeles Philharmonic Music Director Gustavo Dudamel, who has been in residence at Princeton University for this academic year, finished his year-long stay on the campus with a jammed-packed week of multicultural events featuring performing talent both local and international. In a residency centered on “Uniting our World through Music,” Dudamel focused the April activities on exploring art and nature, with particular emphasis on art, politics, and society. The final week of April, which concluded Dudamel’s residency, featured a film screening, performance by international chamber musicians, conversational lecture on The Artist in Society, concerts of El Sistema-based instrumental ensembles, and a culminating event of Dudamel leading the Princeton University Orchestra and Glee Club in two performances reaching more than 2,500 people. Demanding the same expectations of Princeton University musicians as he would the LA Philharmonic professionals, Dudamel set a very high musical bar for the close of the academic year. more

April 10, 2019

By Nancy Plum

Boheme Opera NJ is marking its 30th anniversary this season, and the regional opera company is not celebrating quietly. In this past weekend’s productions at the College of New Jersey’s Kendall Mainstage Theater, Boheme Opera NJ took on a blockbuster from a master of Italian dramatic opera in Giuseppe Verdi’s monumental Aida. An opera in four acts (the last two are often combined), Verdi’s 1871 Aida was a departure for the composer in that there were no show-stopping arias of vocal fireworks for superstar singers; rather, the technical demands were evenly spread among all performers. The principal singers assembled by Boheme Opera NJ for Friday night’s performance (the production was repeated Sunday afternoon) consistently demonstrated their mastery of Verdi’s rich harmonic score and musical drama. Against a simple set leaving much of the locale depiction to a digital backdrop, the performers in this production were able to easily captivate the audience throughout the poignant story.

The timeframe of Aida is deliberately vague and open to interpretation, described only as during the “Old Kingdom of Egypt” (covering a good four centuries), and  Boheme Opera NJ placed the story “during the reign of the Pharaohs,” with virtual set artist J. Matthew Root’s digital scenery showing settings of Luxor in Upper Egypt and inner tombs of pyramids while the opening orchestral prelude was played. The orchestra assembled in the pit, and led by Artistic Director and Conductor Joseph Pucciatti, began the opera to the digital accompaniment of the Nile River flowing by as lean violins and graceful wind solos moved the tempo along as smoothly as the Nile. more