November 25, 2015

Music in response to great tragedy over the centuries has covered the spectrum of war songs, to orchestral works inspired by current events, to popular music. Perhaps as a sign of the time, musical works addressing man-made tragedies have become more common in the past two decades, such as John Adam’s On the Transmigration of Souls, commissioned shortly after 9/11. In 2014, composer and Princeton Singers Artistic Director Steven Sametz found himself compelled to compose a work in memory of those killed in the 2012 Sandy Hooks Elementary School shootings in Connecticut, believing that “as artists, we are hopeful that what we create may offer healing to those who mourn.” Perhaps also as a sign of the times, Sametz’s A Child’s Requiem is a multi-media work, incorporating artwork from elementary school-age children into a supertitled performance featuring two choirs, soloists, and orchestra. For Saturday night’s concert at Princeton Meadows Church and Event Center, The Princeton Singers were joined by the Ensemble and Cantores choirs of the Princeton Girlchoir, as well as three vocal soloists and a highly-polished orchestra.

The tributes to the victims of Sandy Hook began Saturday night in the entryway to Princeton Meadow Church with portraits of the children. In this work, Sametz also paid tribute to several musical traditions of the past, beginning with a musical anagram of letters from the words “Sandy Hook.” The four pitches derived formed a musical cell which Sametz wove into an orchestral “Prologue” marked by a poignant cello solo and visually accompanied by a child’s drawing of a broken heart.  more

November 18, 2015

Music Trenton

Trenton children beginning music study will have their own instruments to take home for practicing, and neglected instruments will find a whole new life, as Princeton University’s Office of Public Affairs and WWFM The Classical Network host “Instruments of Change,” benefitting the Trenton Community Music School. From November 30 through December 4, the Office of Public Affairs will open its doors for members of the community whose musical instruments are in need of a good home. Families whose children have outgrown their small instruments, shifted their interests away from playing, or developed into the need for a finer instrument, will find grateful recipients for their ½-size violins, novice-level flutes, or instruments that are no longer played. The Office of Public Affairs is located at 22 Chambers Street in Princeton, and will be open for donations from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

C Carol

McCarter Theatre has produced “A Christmas Carol” every year since 1980, when then Artistic Director Nagle Jackson brought his adaptation to the theater. The current adaptation by David Thompson remains faithful to much of the language and spirit of Dickens’s original story, capturing both the struggles of Victorian life, and the joy and redemption of the holiday season. 2015 performance dates run from December 4 through 27. Seen here (l-r) are Graeme Malcolm, Michele Tauber, Sari Weinerman, Madeline Fox, and Bradley Mott. (Photo Credit: T. Charles Erickson)

Theater rev 11-18-15 Bengal

GO, TIGER!: The Tiger (Victoria Davidjohn, center), who serves as narrator, aggressor, victim, and philosopher; is guarded by two U.S. Marines, Kev (Max Feldman, left) and Tom (Matt Chuckran) in war-torn Baghdad in Theatre Intime’s production of Rajiv Joseph’s dark surrealistic comedy “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” (2009), playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through November 21.

The legacy of Saddam Hussein and the repercussions of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq continue to haunt us. Playwright Rajiv Joseph, who understands the power of ghosts and the inexorable reverberations of violence and corruption, would not be surprised.

Mr. Joseph’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo (2009) is a war story, a dark comedy, with much more darkness than humor. Set in Baghdad in 2003, the first days of the Iraq War, the play is strikingly, shockingly realistic in its depictions of the brutalities of war and its effects on all parties involved. But it is also disturbingly surrealistic, with ghosts gradually taking over the stage from live characters, and an eloquent, acerbic, philosophical tiger presiding over the proceedings.  more

November 11, 2015

Princeton Symphony Orchestra continued its journey through “significant voices of our time” with a concert of appealing yet complex music Sunday afternoon in Richardson Auditorium. For this concert, in a season dedicated to women’s creativity, PSO Music Director Rossen Milanov chose to explore the topic through guest solo pianist Joyce Yang, an international superstar who mesmerized Sunday afternoon’s audience with demonically virtuosic playing.

Concerts featuring guest stars often ‘warm up’ the audience with a familiar work before the star attraction. PSO put a great deal of faith in its audience on Sunday afternoon by beginning the concert with a full-length symphony by Princeton composer Edward T. Cone. Cone’s 1953 Symphony showed the musical influence on Cone of the early 20th-century Second Viennese School in its use of small melodic fragments passed around among the players of the orchestra. In the opening Sostenuto random pitches seemed to come from throughout the stage, as conductor Mr. Milanov maintained steady control over the building intensity. The texture continually changed as different instruments came to the forefront during the course of the work.  more

November 4, 2015

Felix Mendelssohn did very little in the field of opera, however, his sacred oratorios are as theatrical as any 19th-century operatic work. In particular, the oratorio Elijah, premiered in 1846, musically depicts a dramatic Biblical story through arias, recitatives, and choruses, infused with the composer’s gift for melodic writing. The more than 100-voice Princeton Pro Musica, conducted by Ryan James Brandau, presented a well-informed performance of this work to a very appreciative audience on Sunday afternoon in Richardson Auditorium, showing off the capabilities of the chorus as well as four seasoned vocal soloists. more

October 28, 2015

Music Rev

The Princeton University Orchestra launched its 2015-16 season this past weekend with both old and new, challenging this year’s roster of musicians to draw on their highest level of playing. Conductor Michael Pratt paired the newest in performance imagination with a masterwork rooted in orchestral tradition, at the same time showing off one of the orchestra’s more talented members.

This year the University Department of Music has established a collaboration with the innovative So Percussion group as Edward T. Cone Performers-in-Residence. In its residency, So Percussion has been deeply entrenched in bringing their unique approach to the percussion around us to the students at the University, and Friday night’s concert at Richardson Auditorium was one more example of this creative and inventive combination of ensembles. Composer David Lang’s concerto man made, for percussion quartet and orchestra, made full use of the unique performance techniques and instruments of the So ensemble, complemented by the backdrop of a full orchestra. Lang’s man made began with the members of So Percussion supplying a rhythmic base with twigs snapped in various timings. No part of the twig was wasted — even dropping the pieces on the floor became part of the rhythmic pattern. The four percussionists were gradually joined by the orchestra in varying degrees of instrumentation.  more

October 21, 2015

Photo By Roger Mastroianni

At dinner Saturday night before the show, with some old friends I hadn’t seen for a few months, the conversation was not unexpected. With a pleasant balance of seriousness and humor, we caught up on the latest news in our middle age (late middle age?) lives: our children and their challenges in school and in starting out in the world after college; other friends and family, and how difficult it can be for adults to get along with each other; politics and our worries about the dysfunctions in our government; the state of our environment, and what sort of world we’re leaving for our children; mortality, aging, and and how fast the decades have sped by. more

Music RevA great deal of music came out of World War II, including patriotic songs and battle-inspired orchestral works from leading composers of the time, but none was more poignant than the music composed in Theresienstadt, the ghetto established in the city of Terezin, outside of Prague, in which 140,000 individuals were imprisoned by the Nazis between June 1940 and the end of the war. This European wartime center of music-making was one of its most productive but also one of its most horrific locales — a walled “Main Fortress” used both as a transport center and artistic “model settlement” for German propaganda.

Theresienstadt was a city unto itself, with a cultural life rivaling any European major city. The collective art and music of Terezin has been the subject of books and films, and pieces by imprisoned composers are heard on concert programs, sandwiched among secure and comforting war horses. It is a brave ensemble that presents an entire program on the works originating from such a devastating creative environment. The Richardson Chamber Players became one such ensemble this past Sunday afternoon in Richardson Auditorium, with “Voices out of the Storm,” a program of five rarely-heard chamber pieces composed by composers of Theresienstadt. More poignant than the music itself was the fact that four of the composers died in 1944, with the fifth in early 1945, characterizing the program as a concert of talent unrealized. more

October 14, 2015

Theater review

Fifth grade teacher Heather Clark (Hope Kean) is about to get a visit from a parent she doesn’t expect. Eleven-year-old Gidion has committed suicide after bringing home notice of his suspension from school, but his mother Corryn Fell (Ugonna Nwabueze) is determined to keep her scheduled appointment with his teacher.

Filled with feelings of anger, confusion, guilt, sadness, and frustration, Corryn arrives at Heather’s classroom. She wants to know why Gidion was suspended. She wants to understand why he killed himself. She wants an outlet for her anger and emotions. She wants a target for her revenge. The play takes place in real time as the two women square off over the next 75 minutes. more


Performing arts organizations have long been exploring ways to better connect with audiences, and listeners often wonder what is really going on with performers onstage during a concert. Princeton University Concerts has taken a step toward answering all these questions with a newly-created “Performances Up Close” series bringing musicians and audiences together in an intimate space. This past Sunday afternoon saw the renowned vocal ensemble Gallicantus performing within a circle of 150 of their closest friends in Richardson Auditorium. In this unique concert arena, the audience could hear every nuance from both singers and music, and the members of Gallicantus could easily gauge the impact of their performance. The only thing wrong with this concept was that despite two performances on Sunday afternoon, only 300 or so people could fit onstage and hear the finely-polished vocal precision of these five singers.  more

September 9, 2015


French Theater ArtistsPrinceton University’s Lewis Center for the Arts, Department of French and Italian, and L’Avant-Scène will present the fourth annual Seuls en Scène French Theater Festival, which will take place from September 24 through October 24 at venues across the University’s campus. All performances are free and open to the public. While performances will be in French, three productions will include English subtitles: Jaz, Le 20 novembre, and De mes propres mains.

Marking the launch of the fifteenth season of the student French theater workshop L’Avant-Scène, Seuls en Scène brings celebrated French actors and directors to the University and the local community. This year’s festival features an exciting line-up, including a play from the 2012 Avignon Theater Festival, a preview of a new production to premiere at the 2016 Avignon Festival, and works by some of the greatest contemporary playwrights in Europe and the Francophone world. Seuls en Scène has been organized by Florent Masse, Senior Lecturer in the Department of French and Italian and director of L’Avant-Scène. more

September 2, 2015

Dance 1

LEAPING INTO A NEW SEASON: American Repertory Ballet dancer Mattia Pallozzi is among those to be introduced to the public at the company’s first “On Pointe” event of the fall at Rider University on September 23. The series is designed to familiarize the community with the company, it’s dancers, and repertory. (Photo by Richard Termine)

When Douglas Martin took over as artistic director of the American Repertory Ballet five years ago, he knew he wanted to forge relationships inside and outside the studio. Having a continuing dialogue with the public was as important as training his dancers. So Mr. Martin, who was a principal dancer with the Joffrey Ballet and later with ARB before becoming its director, began to focus on a monthly series called “On Pointe.” more

August 12, 2015
DON’T LOOK BACK!: Orpheus (Brad Wilson) defies Hades’ warning not to look back, as his bride Eurydice (Caroline Hertz) follows him out of the Underworld, in Princeton Summer Theater’s production of Sarah Ruhl’s “Eurydice” (2003), playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through August 16.

DON’T LOOK BACK!: Orpheus (Brad Wilson) defies Hades’ warning not to look back, as his bride Eurydice (Caroline Hertz) follows him out of the Underworld, in Princeton Summer Theater’s production of Sarah Ruhl’s “Eurydice” (2003), playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through August 16.

In Eurydice (2003), currently playing at Princeton Summer Theater, Sarah Ruhl takes an original slant on this familiar myth of the brilliant musician Orpheus, his bride Eurydice, who dies on their wedding day, and his journey to the Underworld to try to bring her back to life. Ms. Ruhl’s version presents quirky, contemporary characters, relates the story from Eurydice’s perspective and brings the relationship between Eurydice and her father, who does not appear in the original myth, to center stage. more

August 5, 2015
CLEAR AS A BELL: Music from Princeton University’s carillon can be heard as far away as the Institute for Advanced Study, according to the University Carilloneur Lisa Lonie, shown here with the instrument in Cleveland Tower of the Graduate College. The 23rd Annual Summer Carillon Series of concerts is currently underway and continues through the end of August.

CLEAR AS A BELL: Music from Princeton University’s carillon can be heard as far away as the Institute for Advanced Study, according to the University Carilloneur Lisa Lonie, shown here with the instrument in Cleveland Tower of the Graduate College. The 23rd Annual Summer Carillon Series of concerts is currently underway and continues through the end of August.

On summer Sundays at 1 p.m., there is a gathering of sorts on the lawn outside Princeton University’s Cleveland Tower. The Collegiate Gothic style building is home to the University’s carillon, on which a short concert is performed by carilloneurs who come from as far as Australia to take their turn on the massive instrument. more

July 29, 2015


Princeton Summer Theater’s double bill of one-acts, The Actor’s Nightmare (1981) by Christopher Durang and The Real Inspector Hound (1968) by Tom Stoppard, is an insider’s delight with both plays set in a theater, both plays about plays, performances and actors (and, in the latter case, critics too). The highly skilled young performers of these brilliantly clever works at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through August 2, enjoy themselves immensely in their madcap endeavors, and the enjoyment inexorably spreads through the loudly laughing audience.  more

July 22, 2015

NJSOIf orchestras nationwide are struggling financially, those who create for these orchestras are surely further behind. Just as musicians are compelled to play, composers must write, and often opportunities to present the fruits of their labor are few and far between. New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) provided such an opportunity last week with a Composition Institute held at Princeton University that culminated in a concert Thursday night at Richardson Auditorium.

The four composers who participated in the 2015 NJSO Edward T. Cone Composition Institute not only were mentored through the process of creating a work for the orchestra, but were also counseled on the business side of classical music. Institute Director Steven Mackey programmed the concert at Richardson Auditorium with four works from these very diverse composers. more

July 8, 2015

It can be hard for a European music ensemble to compete with American independence. The Vienna Piano Trio, a well established and refined ensemble of musicians originally based in Austria, came to Princeton last Thursday night on the cusp of the 4th of July holiday weekend to present a concert of wide-ranging chamber music. Accompanied at times by the sound of nearby fireworks, the Trio nevertheless captivated a full house at Richardson Auditorium, and demonstrated a diverse performance skill set in music which crossed nearly a century and a half.

The Vienna Piano Trio was founded in 1988, and has made a worldwide name for itself playing music of composers closely associated with Austria. The program last Thursday night expanded that range into early 20th-century Spain and late 19th-century France. In keeping with the initial concept of the ensemble, violinist Bogdan Božovic´, cellist Matthias Gredler, and pianist Stefan Mendl began the concert with an elegant performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Trio in C Major, K. 548. Composed late in Mozart’s life, this work was both playful and complex, and the Vienna Trio showed immediate command of this three movement intimate conversation among three instruments. Pianist Mendl led the first movement with sharp dotted rhythms and a very even right hand in the flowing passages, showing an ability to switch musical gears easily. Mr. Gredler accompanied piano and violin subtly in a lighthearted second exposition of the first movement.

Both Mr. Gredler and Mr. Božovic´ played instruments of Mozart’s time, with Mr. Božovic´ playing a 1685 Stradivari violin, and Mr. Gredler playing a 1752 Guadagnini cello. These instruments did not generate overwhelming sound, although they were well up to the task of the late 19th century music heard later in the program. Mr. Gredler was particularly able to play both decisively and delicately, and Mr. Božovic´ provided a consistently sweet sound throughout the concert.

Early 20th-century Spanish composer Joaquín Turina was overshadowed by the more towering Spanish composers of his time, but as his 1926 Piano Trio No. 1 in D Major showed, Turina’s music is fresh and melodic, reflecting his cosmopolitan musical life in Paris and Madrid. Turina named the three movements of this work with titles drawn from music history, but the traditional forms were infused with the outdoor feel of a Paris café and the jazz flavor sweeping France during the early 20th century.

In the opening “Prélude et Fugue,” Mr. Gredler’s cello accompaniment was much more dramatic than in the Mozart work, and Mr. Božovic´ played a violin melody recalling a stroll along Parisian streets. The Vienna Trio was able to pick up speed and intensity uniformly, communicating well with one another. In both the second and third movements, Mr. Gredler provided cello melodies which were exceptionally rich, from an 18th-century instrument. Throughout this impressionistic and somewhat jazzy work, Mr. Mendl played with a great deal of flow.

The closing five-movement Piano Trio No. 2 in E Minor by French composer Camille Saint-Saëns offered a much richer piano part than the previous two works, accompanied by a much darker cello line. A duet between violin and cello was almost Russian in its opulence, with steady chords provided by the keyboard. Using significant pedal, Mr. Mendl played with nonstop Romantic flow and particular fierceness in the upper octaves of the keyboard. Mr. Božovic´ played contrasting chipper melodic fragments and motives, also participating in a lyrical conversation between cello and violin in the third movement. One could easily hear Bach’s structure and musical construction in this work, with a touch of Beethoven as an exacting coda brought the piece to a glorious close.

July 1, 2015

The Princeton Festival has been exploring some new performance genres this year, including Indian music and dance, and country music. The Festival presented an evening of Baroque music last Wednesday night with a high-level of playing and a bit of audience education from the musicians. The performance by the Festival Baroque Orchestra in Princeton Seminary’s Miller Chapel proved to be both entertaining and informative.

For Wednesday night’s performance, Princeton Festival Artistic Director Richard Tang Yuk assembled a chamber orchestra of young players, all with a connection to the renowned music school at Indiana University. Dr. Tang Yuk also cast himself in a rarely-seen role as continuo harpsichord player. The nine string players and one oboist in the Festival Baroque Orchestra focused their performance on works of 18th-century masters, as well as two lesser-known but equally as important composers. Concertmaster Juan Carlos Zamudio, together with Dr. Tang Yuk, transformed the performance into more of a lecture/recital with a brief discussion beforehand on Baroque performance practice, instruments, and tuning. These introductory remarks gave the audience some insight into the challenges of the music heard, as well as an appreciation for how well the players, who live throughout the United States and came together for this performance, presented a cohesive and well-executed program.

Composer Heinrich Biber is not one of the most well-known of the early Baroque, but this Austrian performer and composer was one of the most important creators of music for the violin of his time. Composers of this era often interpreted events in musical forms, including Biber’s Battaglia á 10 in D Major, a multi-movement piece depicting the action and atmosphere of a battlefield. Recreating the noise of battle in an ensemble without brass might seem like a challenge, but Biber’s eight-movement work used effects from the strings to replicate cannon fire, drums and trumpet calls. The string players of the Festival Baroque Orchestra followed concertmaster Mr. Zamudio well, playing with unified strokes as soldiers marched, and long melodic lines in reflective passages.

Throughout the concert, the upper string players reshuffled themselves into different combinations of players, creating a solid overall sound for Georg Muffat’s Florilegium Primum: Fasciculus I – a set of six dance movements introduced by an Overture. The Baroque Orchestra easily captured the energetic dotted rhythms and lilt of this late 17th-century work, as well as demonstrating well-executed ornaments from the upper strings.

The two undisputed powerhouses of the Baroque – Georg Friedrich Handel and Johann Sebastian Bach – were rooted in similar compositional techniques, but at the height of their careers, these two composers were writing very different music. Handel took the concerto form and expanded it to juxtapose not only soloists but also small ensembles of players against full orchestra, and Concerto Grosso, Op. 6, No. 10 was a consummate example of a mature 18th-century instrumental concerto. For this work, the strings of the Festival Baroque Orchestra were joined by oboist Sarah Huebsch, whose playing made a significant difference in the orchestral color.

The Baroque Orchestra easily executed the rhythms of the opening Overture, achieving a wide range of dynamics. The players also found the varied characters of the seven different movements, including the stateliness of an Allegro which reflected Handel’s choral writing, and the precise articulation of the faster movements. In a courtly Allegro, each violinist had a chance to take the lead.

In contrast, Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins featured soloists Mr. Zamudio and Reynaldo Patino in a complex battle of strings. Each half of the orchestra was uniform among its players, with the sequential passages well interpreted. Both Mr. Zamudio and Mr. Patino were confident players, with Mr. Patino a particularly decisive musician as each solo violinist answered the other. In the second movement Largo, Mr. Zamudio introduced the melody without vibrato, creating a more majestic effect answered by Mr. Patino. The Orchestra as a whole built intensity and dynamics well, providing graceful cadences. The third movement Allegro was marked by little motives traveling around the ensemble as the Orchestra controlled the busy activity, coming together to close the movement well.

The upper strings were featured in each of the four works on Wednesday night’s program, but no less key to the success of the concert were cellist Brady Lanier and double bassist David Casali. These two players provided consistent underpinning to the other instrumentalists, enabling the music to flow within a solid structure. A very sprightly and historically accurate playing of Johann Pachelbel’s Canon in D as an encore showed the ensemble’s ability to develop motives from short and dry phrases to long melodic lines, bringing the concert to a well-appreciated close.

June 24, 2015

One of the benefits of staying around Princeton in the summer is taking advantage of the Princeton University Summer Concerts series, which presents free chamber music performances in Richardson Auditorium.  This summer’s offerings include two string quartets, the first of which was featured this past Thursday night.  The Aeolus Quartet, currently Graduate Resident String Quartet at The Juilliard School, mesmerized a nearly full house at Richardson Auditorium with a concert of masterworks from the string quartet repertory. Violinists Nicholas Tavani and Rachel Shapiro, violist Gregory Luce and cellist Alan Richardson thoroughly entertained the audience with music of Fran Joseph Haydn, Bèla Bartûk and Antonín Dvorák, each introduced by informative remarks by a different member of the ensemble.

The Aeolus Quartet, named for the ancient Greek god of the four winds, was youthful, energetic and clearly interested in engaging with the audience. Opening with Haydn’s String Quartet, Op. 71, No. 2, the Aeolus Quartet brought this work of the 18th century into the modern age, not only with musical exuberance and spirit, but also by the fact that at least two of the musicians of the Aeolus Quartet were playing from electronic devices, rather than printed scores. Haydn’s Quartet was full of Viennese gentility, with long melodic lines from the violins and clean underpinning from cellist Mr. Richardson.

In choosing its name, the members of the Aeolus Quartet sought to convey the idea of “a single spirit uniting four individual forces,” and each member of the Aeolus showed an individual musical personality. Concertmaster Nicholas Tavani was an earnest and sincere player, exhibiting clean fast fingering in Haydn’s “Allegro” passages. Second violinist Rachel Shapiro seemed to be always playing with a touch of a smile, while violist Mr. Luce and Mr. Richardson filled out the elegance and rolling accompaniments of Haydn’s music well.

Bartûk composed his final string quartet, String Quartet No. 6, in the fall of 1939, on the brink of World War II.  Bartûk built this quartet around a “Mesto,” a slow melody played “sadly,” which introduced each movement. Mr. Luce was very busy in this Quartet, introducing the melodic material and leading the rest of the players in unified intensity. The endings of each movement were particularly well executed, tapering away with unified bowings and dynamics which seemed to dissipate into the air above the audience.  Mr. Richardson led the jagged second movement “Marcia” with the “Mesto” melody played by the ensemble in controlled unsettledness, no doubt reflecting the times in which the piece was composed.

The Aeolus Quartet took a step back chronologically but further into Americana with the closing work on the concertó Dvorák’s String Quartet No. 12, Op. 96. Composed during the composer’s time in the United States, this work resonated with 19th century pioneering and wide open spaces. Beginning with a broad melody from violist Mr. Luce, the first movement unfolded with a “prairie” feel to the texture and a wide range of dynamics from the players. Concertmaster Mr. Tavani gracefully introduced a gypsy-like melody in the second movement, mournfully answered by Ms. Shapiro on second violin and accompanied by rich playing through all registers by cellist Mr. Richardson. Sections of this work had a hoe-down feeling as the players brought out the fresh and open character of the music. An encore of a Beethoven “Cavatina” reminded the audience of the Aeolus Quartet’s proficiency in grace and elegant playing.

June 17, 2015

There is a line in the movie Amadeus, spoken by the Austrian Emperor, that the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart has “too many notes.” One could easily apply this comment to Mozart’s 1786 opera Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro); with four acts filled with recitative and arias, Figaro is one of the most multi-layered operas in the repertory. Princeton Festival presented this operatic powerhouse this past weekend at McCarter Theatre Centre, leaving the audience wanting more of those “too many notes.”

Le Nozze di Figaro was revolutionary in its time for a variety of reasons. Operas up to the mid-18th century had focused primarily on safe heroic subjects, and in many cases were vehicles for singers to show off their virtuosic abilities. For Figaro, Mozart took on the controversial Beaumarchais play of the same name, which dismantled well-established class lines to create a comedic drama between servants and the aristocracy. Figaro was musically revolutionary in its emphasis on the ensemble, rather than the solo singers, and in its continuous forward movement with the music. Having a number of “hit” tunes in its score also did not hurt in achieving world-wide popularity.

Princeton Festival selected Figaro as its main stage opera for the month-long festival, with opening night last Saturday night at McCarter Theatre Centre’s Matthews Theatre. Festival Artistic Director Richard Tang Yuk assembled a cast with solid national and international credits, and all had the complex and intricate opera well in hand.

The music of Mozart is deceptive. The lyrical melodies and rolling accompaniments look easy on the page, but the expressiveness and musical grace required are not for all singers. One singer in the Princeton Festival production who consistently aimed for Mozartean elegance and style was soprano Haeran Hong, who sang the role of Susanna. Ms. Hong was a sparkling voice from the outset, perfectly in time with the orchestra and even through the vocal registers. Her ariatic high point, and perhaps that of the entire opera, was her Act IV aria “Deh vieni, non tardar,” cleanly sung with refinement and plenty of time with the long lines.

Ms. Hong’s voice was particularly well suited to sing with soprano Katherine Whyte as the Countess, and their “Letter Duet” was full of Viennese sweetness. Ms. Whyte, although an edgier voice and character than other “Countesses,” brought out particular drama in her Act III aria “Dove sono,” and found a great deal of expressiveness in “Porgi amor,” which opens the second act.

The male counterparts to these two strong women were equally in control of their roles. Baritone Jonathan Lasch sang the role of Figaro with resonance and wit, especially in the Act I aria “Se vuol ballare,” and his vocal soliloquy in Act IV, warning the audience against the underhandedness of women was very appealing. Baritone Sean Anderson was imposing from the start as the Count, physically towering over other characters and convincingly making his point with commanding drama.

Pants roles were common in 18th-century operas, initially sung by castrati and later sung by women. The role of the page Cherubino was one of these roles, sung in this production by mezzo-soprano Cassandra Zoé Velasco. Ms. Velasco easily captured the adolescent yearning of the part, singing with quick and light coloratura, especially in the Act I aria “Non so più cosa son,” accompanied by light winds. The role of the gardener’s daughter Barbarina is small, but soprano Jessica Beebe sang it effectively as a saucy spitfire sashaying her way to accomplish her devious agendas. The Princeton Festival cast was filled out by solid singers, including Kathryn Krasovec as Marcellina, Ricardo Lugo as Bartolo, David Kellett as Don Basilio, Paul An as Antonio, and Vincent DiPeri as Don Curzio. A chorus well-trained by Robin Freeman added to the crispness of the ensemble scenes.

Figaro is a very long opera, and its length may have led to some of the breakneck tempi taken by Dr. Tang Yuk and the precise orchestra he had assembled, especially in the recitative sections. Recitative musically replicates spoken dialog, but the speed at which the recitatives were taken in Saturday’s production made it difficult to understand the conversational style. However as the opera went along, its innate lyricism emerged. The music was well enhanced by Peter Dean Beck’s set design and Norman Coates’s lighting design, and director Stephen LaCosse made excellent use of the stage with the singers. Despite Figaro’s length, the audience at Matthews Theatre was engaged until the last note, confirming that one cannot really argue with the music of Mozart.

June 10, 2015

Greater Princeton Youth Orchestra (GPYO) wrapped up its 2014-15 season this past Saturday night with a very full concert at Richardson Auditorium. Presenting three of the ensembles within the GPYO organization, the concert both showcased the graduating senior musicians and demonstrated ensemble musical expertise.

This past year, GPYO added a choral performance element to its activities with the GPYO Choir, for singers grades seven through twelve. Conducted by Jennifer Sengin, director of choirs at East Brunswick High School, the small but very effective vocal ensemble demonstrated good tuning and choral technique in their six selections.

Ms. Sengin is known for her knowledge of diverse and multicultural music, and the six pieces she selected for the GPYO Choir began with a Zambian arrangement and ended with a bit of Broadway. Ms. Sengin taught movement to the 14 members of the choir to go with Andrew Fischer’s celebratory arrangement of Bonsa Aba. Accompanied by drum, the GPYO Choir sang with a clean blend among all the voices. In the second selection, Z. Randall Stroope’s flowing setting of Omnia Sol, the alto section of the women’s parts was particularly strong, topped by a light soprano sound. Through all these selections, it was clear that Ms. Sengin can train voices and impart style. The choir shifted gears again with the Robert Shaw/Alice Parker arrangement of the Italian Renaissance Fa un canzona, in which the irregular accents and odd meters were well handled.

GPYO has two principal orchestral ensembles under its umbrella — the Concert Orchestra and the Symphonic Orchestra. The Concert Orchestra amassed a full stage of players for three unique works. Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture is usually heard outdoors at this time of year, complete with fireworks, but GPYO’s Concert Orchestra made the piece work well within the confines of Richardson Auditorium. Conductor Arvin Gopal kept musical phrases crisp, with a lean string sound and clean winds. A quartet of horns was especially clean, and it was impressive how well the triangle rang in the hall from the percussion section.

Joseph Jay McIntyre’s Ghosts of Antietam captures the atmosphere of the Civil War as spirits of the great battle come to life through music. Beginning with low cello, chimes, and swirling winds, this was a dark piece, which the Concert Orchestra kept precise. McIntyre’s symphonic work incorporates Civil War tunes, passed among instrumental solos. Trumpeter Marie Petitjean provided an effective rendition of “Taps” to close the piece. The Concert Orchestra closed its portion of the evening with a sprightly rendition of Ronan Hardiman’s Music from the Lord of the Dance. This piece, also replete with familiar tunes, was well played by the orchestra, with elegant themes in the flute and brass.

GPYO’s Symphonic Orchestra, conducted by Kawika Kahalehoe, presented the winner of GPYO’s Concerto Competition in a movement from a challenging Chopin piano concerto. Seventeen-year-old Louis Petitjean has studied at some of the finest musical institutions in the country, and shares his talents with the Symphonic Orchestra as a member of the flute section. In the first movement of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in e Minor, the Symphonic Orchestra presented the long dark orchestral introduction with a very clean sound, emphasizing the sinuous Romantic melodies. Chopin wrote no full symphonies, but this work was so close to a symphony one forgot that there was a piano soloist waiting to enter the musical action.

And what an astounding piano soloist he was — Louis Petitjean showed himself to be a very composed performer, taking plenty of time on entrances. Mr. Petitjean was a very strong yet agile pianist, elegantly playing fluid passages with a quick and nimble right hand. Mr. Petitjean demonstrated very strong octaves against the symphonic orchestral accompaniment.

Through the two closing works on the program — an excerpt from Holst’s The Planets and several movements from Rimsky Korsakov’s Scheherazade — the Symphonic Orchestra brought out the bright and chipper orchestration of the pieces, as well as rich playing of the familiar “I Vow to Thee my Country” hymn of Holst’s orchestral suite. Scheherazade in particular showcased a number of the graduating seniors in the orchestra as soloists, most notably cellist Michelle Zhou, clarinetist Anthony Wang and oboist Jennifer Park, as well as exquisite solo violin playing by concertmistress Dallas Noble. The graduating musicians joined the entire ensemble in closing the evening with a solid musical performance.

May 13, 2015
SMALL-TOWN CLAUSTROPHOBIA: Rufus (Nathan Darrow), back home for a visit from New York, and Mary (Kristen Bush), still living in the small town where they grew up, share memories, hopes, frustrations, and gummy worms in McCarter Theatre’s production of Rachel Bonds’ “Five Mile Lake,” playing at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through May 31. © T Charles Erickson

SMALL-TOWN CLAUSTROPHOBIA: Rufus (Nathan Darrow), back home for a visit from New York, and Mary (Kristen Bush), still living in the small town where they grew up, share memories, hopes, frustrations, and gummy worms in McCarter Theatre’s production of Rachel Bonds’ “Five Mile Lake,” playing at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through May 31. © T Charles Erickson

“Where does one get to with your heroes?” Leo Tolstoy complained about his Russian contemporary Anton Chekhov,” from the sofa to the outhouse and from the outhouse back to the sofa again.” And audiences might well make a similar complaint about the characters and plot of Five Mile Lake, Rachel Bonds’ new play (which premiered at South Coast Repertory in California a year ago) now at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through May 31.

Not much seems to happen or change for Ms. Bonds’ five troubled, frustrated, young characters, but the greatness of Chekhov and the power of Ms. Bonds’ play lie not in sensational plot twists or dramatic events, but rather in the subtleties of human behavior and the understated relationships and interactions that can quietly shape people and their lives. Ms. Bonds’ characters, all struggling to work through the demands and disappointments of early adulthood, reveal themselves gradually, realistically, through what looks like casual dialogue, but resonates with realism and emotion.

The richness here lies often in the subtext — what is not said, rather than what is said — as these characters in their gestures, intonation, body language, facial expressions, perhaps a quick glance or movement — display their deepest selves and greatest needs.

Five Mile Lake takes place in a small town near Scranton, Pennsylvania in seven short scenes (just one hour and 40 minutes of uninterrupted running time), that occur over a period of several days in winter. Jamie (Tobias Segal) and Mary (Kristen Bush), both approaching 30, run the local bakery/coffee shop. Jamie never left town because he loves the beautiful lake and he is in love with Mary, and his ambitions lie locally: fixing up his grandfather’s house that he has inherited on the lake, taking care of his mother — and winning Mary’s attention and affection.

Mary, however, still dreams of escape from the claustrophobia of small-town life. She feels trapped, and is currently taking care of her brother Danny, who is back from two military tours in Afghanistan, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and struggling to get a job and lead a normal life. A cross country runner in high school, Mary has found her runs becoming shorter and shorter as her world shrinks and her life becomes more limited. She yearns for an escape.

Near the end of the first scene, Jamie’s brother Rufus (Nathan Darrow) and his girlfriend Peta (Mahira Kakkar) arrive from New York on an unexpected visit that will unsettle the worlds of Mary and Jamie. Rufus is unsuccessfully trying to write his PhD dissertation, and Peta is an assistant magazine editor. They come out to Rufus’ old hometown and the house he co-owns with Jamie (but seldom visits) in order to “work on their relationship.”

Tension is high from the start — Between Jamie and Mary, between the two brothers and between Rufus and Peta, whose relationship, we discover, is seriously troubled. There is an immediate attraction between Rufus and Mary, who share an affinity for the larger world beyond the confines of Five Mile Lake, and that attraction proves seriously upsetting to both Peta and Jamie.

Five Mile Lake is about the difficulties of entering adulthood, about ambitions and about small-town life versus the allure of the big city. It is about memories and regrets, about establishing relationships, and finding a path forward towards fulfillment.

Though “nothing happens” as the scenes move back and forth between Jamie and Rufus’ lake house and the coffee shop, the four protagonists, all convincing, credible individuals, become more and more intriguing as we learn more about their pasts, their present fears, and their dreams for the future.

The character of Peta, the least thoroughly developed of the four principals, would be interesting to know in more depth and detail — as would the relationship between the two brothers. It’s difficult to believe these two actually grew up together in the same home, though maybe that’s the point, as these estranged siblings struggle in vain to make connections with each other in the face of so many barriers and so much time apart.

Near the end of the play, as Mary and Jamie are preparing to open the coffee shop for the first customers of the day, Mary relates a story about a figure skater on TV, who, near the finale of what would have been a spectacular performance, misses her landing. “You can see something breaking in her,” Mary reports, “–it’s like this little crack running down the side of a teacup, just this terrible sense of failure like running across her skin. And she’s thinking, I missed it. I missed it.”

As Ernest Hemingway described in A Farewell to Arms, in the context of World War I, “the world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” The cracks in Five Mile Lake, some more subtle than others, appear in all of the characters — “something breaking,” some wound from the past that does not fully heal, something they’ve “missed.”

Ms. Bonds’ script that, like Chekhov and Hemingway at their best, is rich in its reticence and its unadulterated realism, along with these highly committed, capable, focused actors under the wise, loving, scrupulous direction of Emily Mann, ensure that audiences will care about these people. Even the occasionally arrogant, insensitive Rufus and Mary’s volatile brother Danny (Jason Babinsky), in a supporting role, win over the audience. We care deeply about these characters, worry about them, wonder where they’re heading as the play ends. To establish that degree of audience engagement is an extraordinary accomplishment for playwright, director, and performers.

Production values here are exquisite, most notably Edward Pierce’s meticulously realistic set design, with lighting by Jeff Croiter, to create the detailed scenes inside and outside the bakery shop and also inside and outside Jamie’s lake cabin. The turntable revolves with impressive efficiency and style to shift venues seamlessly and convincingly.

Tolstoy and his preferences for high-action drama notwithstanding, Five Mile Lake provides a moving, memorable evening in the Berlind Theatre. Rachel Bonds is a young playwright whose work will surely be staged frequently in the future.

Rachel Bonds’ “Five Mile Lake” will run at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through May 31. Call (609) 258-2787 or visit for tickets and information.

Princeton Pro Musica closed its 2014-15 season this past Saturday night with a work well suited for the ensemble, and in an appropriate acoustical space, but the performance may have missed the opportunity to educate its loyal audience about a unique period in music history. The 100-voice chorus presented 11 movements of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil to a full house at the Princeton University Chapel, but a lack of context for why the chorus selected the movements it did for performance may have left the audience unaware of the unique and historic musical effects Rachmaninoff employed in the piece.

Rachmaninoff composed his setting of the All-Night Vigil in 1915, as Russia was teetering toward revolution and Rachmaninoff was conversely achieving worldwide acclaim as a conductor, virtuoso pianist, and composer. The Vigil, the traditional Russian Orthodox service celebrated before major feasts or on Saturday evenings, combined portions of three daily services. These texts were not foreign to Russian composers; Tchaikovsky also produced a setting in 1882. Rachmaninoff set 12 traditional parts of the Vigil, with the addition of three movements of his own. Like much of Russian choral music, Rachmaninoff set the Church Slavonic text for a cappella chorus, which was tailor-made for the vast acoustics of the University Chapel.

Conductor Ryan James Brandau selected movements 1-8, and 10, 11 and 15 — excluding the movements that Rachmaninoff added, as well as one movement of traditional praise text. With unfortunately no explanatory notes in the printed program, it was difficult to know why specific movements were selected or deleted. The singers of Pro Musica certainly had their hands full; the concert was less than an hour in length, but an hour of music in Church Slavonic would require great preparation. Through much of the piece, the preparation of Pro Musica came through well. There were many passages during which the chorus moved through dynamics uniformly, and diction was consistently clean. The reverberating acoustics of the University Chapel made it difficult to always discern choral precision and when the music split the chorus into as many as 12 parts Brandau maintained good control over ending movements gracefully. There were some unfortunate lapses in tuning in a couple of movements, particularly at the end of the piece, when the choral chords became a little unstable at the close of the work.

Joining Pro Musica were mezzo-soprano Cynthia Cook and tenor Kyle van Schoonhoven. Ms. Cook, featured in the second movement, sang from the Chapel lectern with incredible richness while accompanied by a stream of sound from the chorus (interestingly, this solo was sung by a boy in the work’s premiere). The soprano sectional sound in this movement was especially clean, as Brandau kept the combined sonority of soloist and chorus steady. Kyle van Schoonhoven is a Westminster Choir College graduate who has done well, singing with opera companies throughout the country. From the Chapel lectern, his solid tenor sound fit in well with the upper choral voices that provided the bulk of the responding text in the fourth movement, with the basses answering “Alliluiya.” Both soloist and chorus created more fervency in the text, ending the movement with a joyful character.

In his introductory remarks to the concert, Brandau suggested that the audience “let the music come to you and wash over you.” This was easy to do in the University Chapel, but what the audience missed was listening for the different types of chants Rachmaninoff employed in the piece. Znamenny, the oldest form of unison, melismatic Orthodox chant, figures prominently in this work, contrasted with Rachmaninoff’s use of Greek and regional Russian chant, as well as chants of his own composition. Without knowing the details of the chant setting, the piece runs the risk of becoming a set of homophonic movements with no connection or delineation. However, the audience present at the University Chapel on Saturday night seemed committed to supporting Pro Musica throughout the season, including this concert of challenging Russian choral works.

May 6, 2015

Opera popularity is often in reverse chronological order. Much is made of contemporary works, the most popular of the genre date from the 19th century, and enthusiasm has grown for Baroque opera in recent years. One does not often get the opportunity to hear the “Big Daddy” of them all — Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, which upon its debut in 1607, set opera on its course to what we know today. Thanks to the continuing generosity of Scheide Concerts, Princeton was able to hear the best of the best last Wednesday night as the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists presented L’Orfeo in Richardson Auditorium.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir have spent the last half century exploring the depths of choral music from throughout history, including performing 198 Bach sacred cantatas in Europe. Most recently, the choir has turned its attention to Monteverdi, who changed the course of music history with his staged works, sacred choral music, and secular madrigals. Last year, the Monteverdi Choir celebrated its 50th anniversary performing Monteverdi’s towering 1610 Vespro della Beata Virgine, and this year has been touring L’Orfeo. With this opera, accompanied by the English Baroque Soloists (which Mr. Gardiner also founded), the Monteverdi Choir showed an incredibly rich level of talent within the ensemble.

In his commentary on Wednesday night’s performance, Mr. Gardiner wrote that he views L’Orfeo as a “secular sibling” of the 1610 Vespers. At the turn of the 17th century, opera was emerging from a combination of musical intermedios and stage plays; just seven years before L’Orfeo, Jacopo Peri composed the first official “opera,” also based on the Orpheus and Euridice story. With L’Orfeo, Monteverdi put opera on the map, with his expansive five-act production appearing throughout Italy and inspiring a new generation of composers. Even with this first opera, Monteverdi tested the limits of harmony and sonority at the time, using word-painting and a smooth synthesis of recitative and aria to support the opera’s text and drama.

The soloists for the Monteverdi Choir’s performance, who came from within the choral ensemble, were immediately up to speed with Monteverdi’s style of setting narrative to music. Four Shepherds — tenors Andrew Tortise and Gareth Treseder, alto James Hall, and bass David Shipley — all declaimed recitative text with speed, accuracy, and vocal weight suitable to the period of music. Mr. Hall sang with a rich vibrato in the counter-tenor register, and Mr. Tortise excelled at the voice of reason in a second act recitative. The two tenor shepherds were particularly clean in the climbing harmonies of a later duet.

One of the few female soloists in the opera, soprano Francesca Aspromonte sang the role of the opening narrator Musica with vocal sparkle and a great deal of character to set up the story. Ms. Aspromonte accompanied herself on the guitar in her opening musical monologue, enabling her to draw out the drama in the text. Ms. Aspromonte returned later in the role as Euridice, singing the role with nymph-like flirtation and always being dramatic within the style of the music.

As Orfeo, tenor Krystian Adam sang recitative passages like spoken dialogue, and as a somewhat dark and brooding character, sang the particularly dramatic arias with passion. Mr. Adam was able to shift moods easily, nimbly handling spirited and highly rhythmic passages as well as the lyrical and sensitive love songs.

The English Baroque Soloists provided solid accompaniment to the opera, with the addition of multiple lutes to the string and wind orchestra. The orchestra seemed to be divided into two ensembles: one of strings and lutes and the other of winds and lutes. Playing in Baroque style, the strings were not as loud as modern strings, which required the audience to listen more carefully. A trio of recorders enabled the orchestra to bridge the Renaissance and Baroque musical eras. The Monteverdi Choir sang with as full a sound as any sacred work of Bach, yet was able to be nimble and sprightly as an ensemble of “nymphs and shepherds.”

Wednesday night’s performance was the last concert William Scheide planned with great anticipation of hearing the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists. Early opera maintained an emphasis on spectacular scenic effects; although there were no special effects in this production of L’Orfeo, the enthusiasm of the performers and diversity of talent among the performers was a visual effect in itself in an evening of great entertainment and high quality performance.