March 11, 2020

By Nancy Plum

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

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

March 4, 2020

By Nancy Plum

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

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

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

February 26, 2020

By Nancy Plum

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

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

February 19, 2020

By Nancy Plum

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

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

February 12, 2020

“ANTIGONICK”: Performances are underway for “Antigonick.” Presented by Theatre Intime and directed by Paige Elizabeth Allen ‘21, the play runs through February 15 at the Hamilton Murray Theater. Antigone (Allison Spann, center) is visited by the spirits of her dead brothers, personified by NIck (Natalia Orlovsky, left) and Chorus (Kai Torrens). (Photo by Naomi Park ‘21)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Poet, essayist, and former Princeton University professor Anne Carson’s 2012 play Antigonick originally was published as a book, with illustrations by Bianca Stone. The work is an adaptation of Sophocles’ Antigone (c. 441 B.C.E.), as well as a meditation on previous interpretations of it, including mid-20th century productions by theater practitioners such as Bertolt Brecht.

Theatre Intime, whose cast and production team consist of Princeton University students, is presenting Antigonick. Directed by Paige Elizabeth Allen, the production brings its own point of view to the story, while borrowing some of the book’s imagery.

Carson retains Sophocles’ use of a chorus, whose poetic interludes demarcate the play’s seven scenes. However, Allen has repurposed these lines for a single character, still referred to as “Chorus” (portrayed by Kai Torrens). more

February 5, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

The first time I wrote about Bob Dylan Chronicles: Volume One (2004), I called it “one of the most quotable books you’ll ever read.” That was after observing, “Typically, Dylan plays fast and loose with his own title. If this book is a chronicle, so is Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.”

Fifteen years ago, I’d only begun to appreciate how much Dylan’s book had to offer, how often I’d turn to it, as I’ve been doing again in the wake of the “51 to 49 Blown-Impeachment Blues.” That was after the no-witnesses vote on Black Friday, January 31, when the line that came to mind was “when gravity fails and negativity don’t pull you through,” from the first verse of “Tom Thumb’s Blues,” on Highway 61 Revisited.

When the deal goes down and your fancy turns hopefully to thoughts of spring training and baseball, you find yourself casting the Senate Republicans as the Black Sox throwing the 1919 World Series. Then you think about the high-tech sign-stealing of the Houston Astros in the first “fall classic” of Trump’s reign. Then comes Sunday’s Super Bowl. If you’re a hardcore St. Louis Cardinal fan, the news of a Kansas City championship in 2020 only brings back the pain of losing the 1985 series to the Kansas City Royals, an outcome forever flawed by the most infamous blown call in pre-instant-replay baseball history. And what if the call was blown deliberately? Imagine 51 Republican senators embodied in one umpire. more

“THE BIG TIME”: Directed by librettist Douglas Carter Beane, and conducted by Fred Lassen, “The Big Time” was presented January 31 at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre. The cast included, from left, Michael McCormick, Jackie Hoffman, Bradley Dean, Raymond Bokhour, Will Swenson, Laura Osnes, Santino Fontana, and Debbie Gravitte. (Photo by Tom Miller)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

During a scene in The Big Time a prim British diplomat, Penelope Briggs-Hopkins, stiffly asserts that she is “not a fan of musical comedy.” She would disapprove of the musical in which she is a character; The Big Time is an unabashedly cheerful comedy, in the style of Hello, Dolly! or The Producers.

A concert performance of The Big Time was presented January 31, to an enthusiastic audience that filled McCarter’s Matthews Theatre. The event was the second installment of the Princeton Pops series, a new collaboration between McCarter and the Princeton Symphony Orchestra.

The show’s witty book is by Douglas Carter Beane, and the sprightly, memorable songs are by Douglas J. Cohen. The lyrics, which match the tone of Beane’s dialogue, have been set to music that evokes the big band era, as well as the sly saxophone-infused sound of a 1960s spy movie. Cohen’s well-crafted score establishes the characters’ personalities, while taking advantage of the performers’ vocal ranges.

Music director Fred Lassen opened the show by leading a band, formed by 16 members of the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, in a crisp rendition of the overture, which established the jaunty musical style. The orchestrations favor the drums, saxophones, and brass; however, the flute and clarinet stand out in other numbers.

In a program note Beane relates that the show originated as a screenplay for Oliver Stone. The plot was crafted to parody the film Under Siege (1992), in which mercenaries, posing as caterers and led by an ex-CIA operative, hijack a battleship. more

January 22, 2020

By Nancy Plum

Nothing says a dark winter’s night like the more sinister music of 19th-century German composer Richard Wagner, and New Jersey Symphony Orchestra took full advantage of Wagner’s rich orchestration and lush harmonies in a concert in Princeton this past weekend. Conducted by NJSO Music Director Xian Zhang, Friday night’s concert at Richardson Auditorium introduced the audience to both an innovative approach to the operatic Wagner and a virtuosic pianist from one of Europe’s more unknown regions. Zhang led the Orchestra in two principal works, which although significantly different in length were equal in impact. Lorin Maazel’s orchestral reduction of Wagner’s towering Ring cycle made up the entire second half, yet Franz Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2, even though a third as long as the Wagner piece, was just as mesmerizing for the audience.  

In 1987, former Cleveland Orchestra conductor Lorin Maazel created an hour-long “greatest hits” orchestral arrangement from Wagner’s four operas which make up Der Ring des Nibelungen, a musical tetralogy more than 20 years in the making. Based on Nordic legend and the medieval epic poem “Nibelungenlied,” Wagner’s Ring cycle has been renowned for its characters and their arias, but the dramatic motion is often carried by the orchestra. In The Ring Without Words, Maazel recreated nine musical scenes with a storyline drawing from all four operas. Beginning in the lowest of the strings, NJSO’s performance of Maazel’s Ring presented much of the most recognizable music, and Zhang kept the musical thread moving along with steady tempi and effective use of silences. Especially in leading up to the familiar “Ride of the Valkyries,” Zhang and the Orchestra set the drama well.   more

“GOODNIGHT NOBODY”: Performances are underway for “Goodnight Nobody.” Directed by Tyne Rafaeli, the play runs through February 9 at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre. While discussing the frustrations of parenthood with a new mother, K (Ariel Woodiwiss, right), Mara (Dana Delany, center) tells a story that embarrasses her grown son, Reggie (Nate Miller, left), who was friends with K in high school. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Goodnight Nobody is receiving its world premiere at McCarter Theatre, which commissioned the show from playwright Rachel Bonds. This tragicomedy depicts a weekend during which artistic friends reunite, but an initially affable atmosphere becomes contentious when buried feelings erupt.

The effect of motherhood on the life of a creative person is one of several themes that are examined in Goodnight Nobody. The play also offers a more general exploration of inter-generational relationships, including romantic entanglements. It also considers situations in which jovial conversations mask feelings of deep pain that unexpectedly collide.

Mara, an acclaimed sculptor who is in her late 50s or early 60s, lives in a rustic farmhouse in upstate New York. She is dating Bo, a painter who is her age. However, she also has romantic feelings for Nan, a successful artist who is in his 30s — the same age as Mara’s son, Reggie.

To the character of Mara, Emmy Award-winner Dana Delany brings commanding stage presence and smooth, often wry, line delivery. The performance poignantly juxtaposes early scenes, in which Mara bluntly recalls the exasperating aspects of child care, against a later one in which she attempts to be more warmly maternal. more

December 18, 2019

By Nancy Plum

Often in classical music, convention has determined how works are performed, and artists have been reluctant to change a time-honored way in which a piece is presented. Handel’s Messiah must end with a loud “Amen,” Brahms’ Requiem should be sung by a large chorus, and endless discussions continue on how to perform Bach.  Such is the case with Franz Schubert’s 1827 song cycle Winterreise, historically performed by a male voice. 

The winds of change on this piece began blowing almost thirty years ago, and a New York Times editorial asked, “Can a Woman Do a Man’s Job in Schubert’s Winterreise?”  In recent years, more female singers have been tackling this emotional and challenging cycle. Musical custom has dictated that a male singer present this work, but the song cycle’s themes of lost love and the imminent approach of death are universal and speak to everyone, regardless of gender. Asking the question “what happens to the winter’s journey, when we feel it through the heart of the one who was the impetus of such agony and despair,” world-renowned mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato brought her unique interpretation of Schubert’s 24-song cycle to Princeton last Wednesday night in a performance presented by Princeton University Concerts “Icons of Song” series in Richardson Auditorium.  more

“A CHRISTMAS CAROL”: Performances are underway for “A Christmas Carol.” Directed by Adam Immerwahr, the play runs through December 29 at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre. Tiny Tim (Aria Song, left) receives a special gift from Scrooge (Greg Wood). (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

To fully experience McCarter’s annual production of A Christmas Carol, audiences should arrive at least 15 minutes before curtain time. Dressed in Linda Cho’s opulent costumes, which evoke Dickensian London, members of the community ensemble circulate the lobbies, ready to serenade anyone who will join them in a rendition of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” The caroling provides a seamless segue into the start of the show, as the performers exuberantly lead the audience in singing “In Dulci Jubilo.”

McCarter’s diverse and talented cast combines professional actors with nonprofessional performers who comprise a community ensemble (for ages 14 and older), and a young ensemble.

Old Marley’s ghost warns Scrooge, “It is required of every man that the spirit within him should walk … among his fellow men.” Director Adam Immerwahr’s staging lets the cast do this literally, as audience members periodically find characters standing next to them.

A banner bearing the inscription “London, 1843” is placed in front of the curtain. Scrooge climbs on stage and irritably tells the onstage carolers — and us — to stop singing. Then he disdainfully removes the banner. more

December 11, 2019

By Nancy Plum

In a concert taking place as University students are preparing for Christmas vacation, the Princeton University Orchestra presented a program which certainly entitled its members to enjoy their holiday break. Led by conductor Michael Pratt, the Orchestra performed two large-scale Romantic symphonic works which showed the strength and power of the ensemble, even before the school year is half over. Friday night’s performance at Richardson Auditorium (the concert was also presented Thursday night) featured Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4 in E-flat Major. Both in the prime of their compositional lives when these works were composed, Rachmaninoff and Bruckner were archetypes of the lush orchestration and emotional drama which marked 19th-century music.

Rachmaninoff based his 1934 Rhapsody for solo piano and orchestra on a melodic theme from the last of Niccolò Paganini’s 24 violin “Caprices,” likely composed in 1807. Beyond a virtuoso violinist as well as composer, Paganini was alleged to have cut a deal with the devil in return for his extraordinary talent. In particular, “Caprice” No. 24 was considered one of the most technically difficult pieces ever composed for violin, and Rachmaninoff brought the same demonic virtuosic requirements to the piano soloist. Pratt and the Orchestra began the Rhapsody decisively, with the theme’s fiendish quirkiness evident from the outset. Precise in rhythmic punctuation, the Orchestra continually demonstrated graceful lyricism and delicate ends of phrases. more

November 27, 2019

By Nancy Plum

Ideally, the mission of any university includes expanding the horizons of its students, and the members of the Princeton University Glee Club have been achieving that goal well in recent years. Under the leadership of Gabriel Crouch, the Glee Club has collaborated with ensembles from far corners of the world, including South Africa and the former Eastern European countries.

Last week, the 90-member Glee Club hosted a visit from the all-male Ensemble Basiani, touring the United States from the former Soviet region of Georgia, introducing audiences to the rich polyphonic tradition of this area. In a Princeton University Concerts program last Monday night, the 12-member Ensemble Basiani, led by director Zurab Tskrialashvili, entertained the audience at the Princeton University Chapel with a wide variety of a cappella sacred and secular choral works from seven centuries of musical history. more

November 20, 2019

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

By Donald H. Sanborn III

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

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

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

November 13, 2019

By Nancy Plum

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

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

November 6, 2019

By Nancy Plum

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

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

October 30, 2019

By Nancy Plum

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

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

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

By Donald H. Sanborn III

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

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

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

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

October 23, 2019

By Nancy Plum

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

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

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

By Donald H. Sanborn III.

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

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

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

October 16, 2019

By Nancy Plum

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

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

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

By Donald H. Sanborn III

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

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

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

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

October 9, 2019

By Nancy Plum

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

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

September 25, 2019

By Nancy Plum

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

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

August 14, 2019

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

By Donald H. Sanborn III

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

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

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

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