July 28, 2021

By Nancy Plum

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

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

July 14, 2021

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

By Donald H. Sanborn III

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

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

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

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

July 7, 2021

By Nancy Plum

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

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

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

June 23, 2021

By Nancy Plum

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

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

June 16, 2021

By Nancy Plum

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

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

June 9, 2021

By Nancy Plum

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

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

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

June 2, 2021

By Nancy Plum

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

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

May 26, 2021

By Nancy Plum

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

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

May 19, 2021

By Nancy Plum

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

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

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

May 12, 2021

By Nancy Plum

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

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

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

May 5, 2021

By Nancy Plum

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

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

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

April 21, 2021

By Nancy Plum

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

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

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

April 7, 2021

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

By Donald H. Sanborn III

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

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

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

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

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

March 31, 2021

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

By Donald H. Sanborn III

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

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

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

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

By Nancy Plum

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

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

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

March 24, 2021

By Nancy Plum

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

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

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

March 10, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

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

—James Huneker on Chopin’s Prelude No. 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Nancy Plum

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

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

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

March 3, 2021

By Nancy Plum

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

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

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

February 24, 2021

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

By Donald H. Sanborn III

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 17, 2021

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

By Donald H. Sanborn III

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

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

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

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

February 10, 2021

By Nancy Plum

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

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

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

February 3, 2021

By Nancy Plum

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

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

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

January 27, 2021

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

By Donald H. Sanborn III

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

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

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

January 20, 2021

By Nancy Plum

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

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