January 21, 2015

Each year, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) passes winter’s bleakest days by exploring music of a specific genre, composer, or singular theme. This year, the NJSO enhanced its “Winter Festival” with a two-week residency by violin virtuoso Sarah Chang. Ms. Chang has been earning her keep in this residency, with multiple performances and engaging school programs that interact with students. Ms. Chang brought her technical fireworks and unique performing style to Princeton last Friday night, as the NJSO presented its winter concert at Richardson Auditorium.

In this year’s “Winter Festival,” New Jersey Symphony is focusing on the “sounds of Shakespeare” — ways in which the Bard’s plays have influenced music throughout music history. One of the most common genres in which Shakespearean influence is heard is the programmatic orchestral works of the 19th century. In this tradition, Czech composer Antonin Dvorak wrote three overtures, one based on Othello. Although not as overtly dramatic as more well-known Romantic works on Shakespeare themes, Dvorak’s 1904 Othello Overture, Op. 93 was majestic and poignant as performed by the NJSO. Conductor Jacques Lacombe kept the sound under wraps for the first part of the overture, allowing for sweeping violin lines and clarity from the harps and pizzicato violas and celli. One could hear some of the same dramatic chords as in Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet overture-fantasy, as the piece moved from tragedy to a peaceful closing section. English horn player Andrew Adelson added sweet solo lines to the tranquil passages of music.

Any interpretation of Shakespeare is all about the words, and two lush vocal/orchestral works brought two other plays to life in this concert. Tchaikovsky composed a number of pieces based on Shakespeare drama, and after the composer’s death, an incomplete “Love Duet” from Romeo and Juliet was found. 19th-century Russian composer Sergei Taneyev completed and orchestrated the work, which was premiered in St. Petersburg in 1894. New Jersey Symphony Orchestra added the duet to its repertory in the 2000-01 season, and Mr. Lacombe brought it to the stage again on Friday night with the assistance of two up-and-coming singers from the Curtis Institute of Music.

In Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet “Love Duet,” Soprano Elena Perroni and tenor Roy Hage often seemed to be singing more to themselves than to each other, but their lyrical voices conveyed the Russian text well. Soprano Heather Stebbins, also a Curtis student, had a much more rigorously dramatic workout in two scenes from Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra. Barber’s orchestration was much thicker than the other composers heard thus far in the program, and Ms. Stebbins sang her two soliloquy scenes with an intense approach and a rich dramatic voice. Ms. Stebbins succeeded in telling a story in both scenes with a great deal of orchestral activity behind her. In this work, as well as the Tchaikovsky duet, Mr. Adelson added a lyric touch of English horn to the orchestral color.

It is unusual for a performing ensemble to save its star solo performer for the final work on the program, but in this case, it was a perfect culmination of all the Shakespearean pieces. In her residency, Ms. Chang has been performing music of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, arranged for violin and orchestra by American film composer David Newman. This is not music one would expect to hear on a virtuoso instrument, but Ms. Chang played the familiar tunes saucily on the violin (with some unusual ornamentation of the lines) and found a wide range of dynamics. This music was clearly going to be fun for her to play, and it was apparent Ms. Chang felt the music in every fiber of her being, with a great deal of physicality in her playing. There were some notable musical effects in Newman’s orchestration, especially in the song “Maria,” in which motives were passed around among solo violin, bassoon, and cello. As likely the most well-known modern adaptation of music on a Shakespeare theme, Newman’s West Side Story Suite was a thoroughly entertaining way for Mr. Lacombe and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra to end the evening.

January 14, 2015

Princeton University Opera Theater brought together the late 17th and 20th centuries this past weekend with a presentation of two operas separated by 300 years, but both representative of their musical times. Conductor Gabriel Crouch drew from past and contemporary British operas in Friday night’s Richardson Auditorium performance of Henry Purcell’s 1688 Dido and Aeneas and Jonathan Dove’s 1999 Tobias and the Angel. Both operas were conceived compositionally for non-professional singers, and this past weekend’s presentations (the operas were performed both Friday and Saturday nights) called upon the wide range of performing ensembles in the Princeton area.

The music of Dido and Aeneas captures many commonly-used compositional devices of the 17th century. Mr. Crouch compiled a small instrumental ensemble fitting for the period — strings, recorders, theorbo, baroque guitar, and harpsichord. All these instruments could easily be heard from the orchestra’s position partially under the stage, and throughout the opera, vocal lines were colored by delicate textures of lightly-bowed and plucked strings. From the opening Overture, Mr. Crouch kept the music well accented and nuanced in Baroque style.

Dido is a showcase for women’s voices, and some of the University’s more exceptional female singers were heard in this production. Three central characters carry the opera’s plot — Dido, her handmaiden Belinda, and the Sorceress. As Belinda, Stephanie Leotsakos warmed up well to her role, singing comfortably in the higher register. Senior Sophia Mockler has grown musically every year of her time at Princeton, and her performance of the title role of Dido showed a rich and full sound from top register to bottom, often gracefully accompanied by Beiliang Zhu on viola da gamba and Charles Weaver on theorbo. Ms. Mockler sang Dido’s signature aria, which closes the opera, with particular drama and plaintive longing.

A vocal surprise of the evening was Saunghee Ko, who sang the role of the Sorceress. Ms. Ko has been performing in University ensembles, but showed in her performance that she is thoroughly capable of commanding a stage as a soloist. Ms. Ko was saucy and sinister, not missing a vocal step with a voice which seemed mature beyond her years. The two male roles of the opera belonged to James Walsh, singing the role of Aeneas; and Zach Levine, who played a solo Sailor. Mr. Walsh sang with charm and lyricism and Mr. Levine sang with a great deal of spirit, joined by the men of the Princeton University Chamber Choir for a rousing “ship” scene. Choruses play a key role in Purcell operas, and the University Chamber Choir, prepared by Mr. Crouch, was exact in rhythm, with close attention to dynamics and text.

London-born composer Jonathan Dove has been called one of the most significant British opera composers since Benjamin Britten. Dove composed Tobias and the Angel, based on one of the books of the Apocrypha, as a “community” opera — able to be performed and enjoyed by non-professionals. The vocal requirements of Tobias, however, were anything but amateur, and the Princeton University students were well up to the challenge.

The opera is divided into two simultaneous scenes, in Nineveh and in Ecbatana, whose characters eventually come together. A key role of Tobit was sung by seasoned professional Jacob Kinderman as a full and dramatic narrator in a role requiring a mature voice. As his son Tobias, who carries the key plotline of meeting an angel without knowing he is an angel, tenor James Walsh made his second appearance for the evening. Mr. Walsh fit the youthful role well, and was very comfortable with Dove’s contemporary and often difficult vocal lines. In the role of Angel, initially masquerading as a “stranger,” counter-tenor Aryeh Nussbaum-Cohen revealed why he is yet another Princeton University musician well on his way to a professional career when he graduates. Mr. Nussbaum-Cohen sang with lyricism and vocal strength (with particular warmth in the upper register), and showed that his recent appearances in Europe have given him all the more stage presence. Gabriel Crouch wisely incorporated another talented counter-tenor on Princeton’s campus by obtaining permission from the composer to cast the role of the demon Ashmodeus for Michael Manning, who was deliciously spindly and ominous as he wended his way through the characters, casting evil about.

The women’s roles called for very strong voices, and the students who sang were well up to the task. Stephanie Leotsakos sang with a full voice, but was a bit hard to hear over the orchestra at times. Varshini Narayanan and Alyson Beveridge also sang with strong voices, in Ms. Narayanan’s case for a role that was extremely dark. Choral commentary on the action was provided by an ensemble of American Boychoir and Princeton Girlchoir singers, well trained by Fred Meads and cleverly dressed as fish and sparrows by costume designer Marie Miller. This production spared no expenses in costuming, with bright colors contrasting well with Dale Simon’s geometric set design.

The production of these operas was a dynamic way to start the new year, and the University seniors in the cast in particular had a great event to launch their final semester.

January 7, 2015
TWO GUITARS, TWO STYLES: Italian guitarist Beppe Gambetta (left) and Scottish musician Tony McManus will join forces Friday in a concert at Kingston Presbyterian Church.

TWO GUITARS, TWO STYLES: Italian guitarist Beppe Gambetta (left) and Scottish musician Tony McManus will join forces Friday in a concert at Kingston Presbyterian Church.

In a bit of larger-than-life advertising, local musician Bill Flemer has been promoting a concert coming to Kingston Presbyterian Church this weekend. A giant guitar on a platform, towed by a van, has been seen around town plugging “An Evening with Beppe Gambetta and Tony McManus,” taking place at the church Friday, January 9 at 8 p.m.

“It was originally supposed to be a little house concert,” said Mr. Flemer, a guitarist and lifelong Princeton resident whose own band, Riverside, is familiar to local bluegrass fans. “But it grew and grew and so we decided to have it in the larger venue of the church. We’re all just friends and admirers of Beppe.”

Mr. Flemer is among several local fans of Mr. Gambetta, a versatile Italian guitarist from Genoa who plays in the flat-picking style of Doc Watson. Equally enthusiastic is John Weingart, host of the WPRB-FM radio show Music You Can’t Hear on the Radio. 

“Beppe is technically a terrific guitarist,” Mr. Weingart said. “What makes him special is his deep knowledge and respect and feeling for both Italian and American traditional acoustic music. Plus, he has a wonderful, charming sense of humor and stage presence.”

Guitar players watch Mr. Gambetta closely because of his extraordinary facility. “They follow him note for note, trying to figure out how he does what he does,” Mr. Weingart said. “At the same time, many people who are not necessarily fans of folk or bluegrass or Italian music just get captivated by his performances. Part of what’s fun about his concerts is the audience, which is broader and more diverse than usual, and you frequently see people who heard him once bringing their friends to these concerts.”

Mr. Weingart, who has hosted his radio show for more than three decades, doesn’t often have live performers. Mr. Gambetta has been an exception. “It has been a real gift to have him on the show,” he said.

Through their friendships with Mr. Weingart and Mr. Flemer and their families, Mr. Gambetta has come to love Hunterdon County. He and his wife own a house in Stockton. “He often says at concerts that he’s been all over the world, but New Jersey is where he wants to live. People laugh, but he’s not kidding,” Mr. Weingart said.

According to Mr. Flemer, Mr. Gambetta found his calling when he fell in love with the bluegrass style guitar-playing of Doc Watson. He has performed as a solo artist in North America and Europe. He learns from other cultures and is particularly interested in forgotten music from the past. Tony McManus is a Scottish guitarist whom Mr. Gambetta met while touring Australia.

“He is a leading guitarist in Celtic music,” Mr. Flemer said. “So you could say this concert is Celtic meets Italian in the Appalachians, or something like that.”

Mr. Gambetta will also perform in concerts produced by Mr. Weingart at Prallsville Mills in Stockton in March. In the meantime, Mr. Weingart looks forward to this Friday’s event. “Beppe has a deep feeling for the tradition and continuing it,” he said. “But he always adds to it — as he is doing with Tony McManus — so that each concert is something new.”

Tickets are $25 at the door (students with ID pay $10). Kingston Presbyterian Church is at 4565 Route 27.

December 24, 2014

For many years, Princeton Pro Musica maintained a musical tradition of presenting Handel’s Messiah at Christmastime in Princeton. Traditions shifted a bit this year; Princeton’s Messiah offering was presented by the New Jersey Symphony, and Pro Musica turned its attention to Bach. Artistic Director Ryan James Brandau and the more than 100-voice chorus performed two cantatas of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and the complete Magnificat in D in Richardson Auditorium this past Saturday night, and as the musical accolades to William Scheide keep rolling in, this concert was a fitting addition.

Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is a set of six cantatas composed for the celebratory season between Christmas and the Feast of the Epiphany in 18th-century Leipzig. Parts V and VI, the portions presented by Pro Musica on Saturday night, were composed for the Sunday after New Year and for Epiphany, respectively. As in the oratorios of the time, the narrative is sung in recitative style, and as with Bach’s Passions, much of the narrative is sung by an Evangelist. Musical commentary on the drama is found in the arias and choruses. In Pro Musica’s performance, tenor Steven Caldicott Wilson sang the Evangelist role with tight German diction and rhythm, and a clean vocal sound which projected well into the hall, especially when accompanied by a single instrument and keyboard. The two cantatas included arias for seven soloists, with mezzo-sopranos Margaret Lias and Luthien Brackett providing the most dramatic performances of the evening. Ms. Brackett sang arias with a silky tone among all registers (which can get quite low in Bach) with an especially rich tone on the lower passages.

Soprano Justine Aronson sang with a youthful sparkle and soprano Melanie Russell sang expressively, but both sopranos seemed to be more cut out for lush Romantic lines than recitative and the light flexible lines required in Bach. In the Magnificat, Ms. Aronson was able to add expression to the soprano aria in the text,“For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden.” Baritone Christopher Herbert provided dramatic singing in both the cantatas and Magnificat, with his interpretation of Herod in Part VI of the Oratorio laden with a bit of sarcasm, and the “Quia Fecit” aria of the Magnificat sufficiently regal.

Dr. Brandau kept a light conducting touch throughout the concert, leading a stylishly small orchestra in the Oratorio and an ensemble of period instruments in the Magnificat. Adhering to the 18th-century Kantorei tradition, Dr. Brandau placed the soloists within the chorus, which helped strengthen the already well-trained chorus. A good balance was maintained between the orchestra and chorus, and most notable among the orchestra solos was Geoffrey Burgess, who played most of the oboe d’amore solos in all pieces. A trio of trumpet players, who played valveless instruments, was exceptional in adding a joyous touch to the musical color.

Dr. Brandau assigned much of the Christmas Oratorio to the chamber chorus of Pro Musica, which sang with clean diction and precise entrances following the solos. The full choruses joined on the chorales of the Christmas Oratorio, creating a full sound to close the works. Some of the trickier coloratura passages in the Magnificat were sung by the Chamber Chorus, and throughout the piece, the entire chorus demonstrated effective lilt and phrasing. Conducting effectively without a baton, Dr. Brandau built the terraced dynamics well between the orchestra and chorus.

The Bach works performed Saturday night represented the types of works Pro Musica does particularly well. The concert was a tribute to William Scheide, and showed the exact type of Baroque scholarship and thoughtfulness which he advocated.

December 10, 2014

The Princeton University Orchestra is no stranger to Gustav Mahler — rarely have more than a few years gone by when the orchestra has not tackled one of the composer’s monumental works. Orchestra Conductor Michael Pratt has a well-known affinity for Mahler, and has also expressed that for the students who incorporate the orchestra into their busy Princeton collegiate lives, Mahler is music they “need to get to know if they are to develop a strong sense of the unfolding of musical history.” Last year was Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 in the spring; this past weekend was time for Symphony No. 4. Mr. Pratt noted that there was not much distance between the two symphonies, but regardless of the apparent lightness and ease of Symphony No. 4, this work was as great a challenge to the orchestra players as any of the other Mahler works they have tackled over the years.

Many ensembles would think a Mahler symphony to be sufficient for a full program, but for Friday night’s concert at Richardson Auditorium (the concert was also presented Thursday night), Mr. Pratt expanded Mahler’s concept of music and literature by pairing the Mahler work with a set of pieces just as innovative in our time as Mahler’s compositions were in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Four Sean-nós Songs, a setting of four Irish folk songs for voice and orchestra, was a co-compositional effort between two Princeton music faculty members — Donnacha Dennehy and Dan Trueman. All of these folksong arrangements featured Irish vocalist Iarla Ó Lionáird, who will join the Princeton University Orchestra on their upcoming tour to Ireland.

Opening with the text “I am stretched upon your grave,” Dr. Dennehy’s arrangement of the first song, “Taím Sínte,” was clearly not a light-hearted view of the world. The text was dark, yet the music had a lyrical and melodic sound not unlike the ethereal voice and orchestra music from recent epic films. Mr. Ó Lionáird expressively sang melodic lines full of indigenous ornamentation, aided by a light oboe line played by Tiffany Huang.

Dan Trueman showed a compositional style with heavier orchestration than that of Dr. Dennehy. A co-founder of the Princeton University Laptop Orchestra, Dr. Trueman has a vivid imagination of sound, and in his arrangements, one could hear such unusual instrumental touches as bowing the xylophone and a very sparse texture of second violins and violas on specific text. The three final arrangements flowed from one to another, as Mr. Ó Lionáird conveyed the strophic texts in both Gaelic and English. Dr. Trueman made full use of the orchestra, but not all at the same time, accompanying the voice at one point with two violas or holding the trumpets to emphasize the drama of the third song, “Siúl a Rún.” The ending of the entire set was impressive as the orchestra disappeared from under the voice without being noticed.

In his introductory remarks to the audience, Mr. Pratt noted that in the case of both of the works presented in the concert, the traditional language set was intended to be sung or read to a small group of people. In the case of Mahler’s symphonies using text, the composer raised this art form to a universal level. Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 closes with a movement for voice and orchestra, sung by Princeton graduate Katherine Buzard. With a colossal orchestral ensemble including thirteen celli, Mr. Pratt began the symphony with quick winds and light strings. Clean pairs of horns brought out accents well and pastoral melodies recurred from oboist Alexa McCall and bassoonist Louisa Slosar. Concertmistress Caitlin Wood easily switched back and forth in the second movement between instruments to play the “Devil’s violin” — an instrument deliberately played just out of tune enough to be quirky.

Throughout the symphony, Mr. Pratt maintained a joyous tempo and mood. Hornist Nivanthi Karunaratne played consistently sensitive lines, including a nicely sustained note leading to the coda of the first movement. The third movement was marked by hymnlike playing the lower strings, with the celli elegantly playing in the upper register, so unified one could not tell if it was a solo cello or the entire section. Against all these strings, Ms. McCall provided a refined oboe solo as the movement flowed along.

The fourth movement belonged to Ms. Buzard, singing texts from the 19th-century Das Knaben Wunderhorn. Gracefully accompanied by clarinet and Ms. Huang on the English horn, Ms. Buzard sang with a voice full of innocence, yet full enough to be heard over the lush orchestration. The English horn in particular provided the orchestral assurance that all would be well in Mahler’s exploration of some of life’s deepest questions.


Princeton University Orchestra’s next performance will be on, March 6 and 7 in Richardson Auditorium. Featured will be music of Respighi, as well as the winners of the Concerto Competition. For information visit www.princetonuniversityconcerts.org.

December 3, 2014

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra programmed only two works on this year’s post-Thanksgiving Day concert in Princeton, but what monumental works they were. Friday night’s performance in Richardson Auditorium may have drawn an audience laden with holiday feasting, but no one was sleepy during pianist Inon Barnatan’s performance of Frederic Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor. Guest conductor Stefan Sanderling led both the orchestra and soloist in a riveting display of elegance combined with precise virtuosity.

Mr. Sanderling scaled down the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra for Chopin’s 1830 concerto, composed hot on the heels of the great 18th-century Viennese keyboard concerto tradition. Conducting without a baton, Mr. Sanderling began the long orchestral introduction of the first movement with a bit of a peasant flavor. Unlike a Mozart concerto, in which the upper winds would rise above the orchestral texture, the winds in Chopin’s work blended into the musical fabric, until a delicate flute solo played by Bart Feller combined with lower strings to change the color. With a clean underpinning of horns, the orchestral accompaniment contained both the clarity of previous decades and the pathos of the later 19th century.

Just as the audience was beginning to forget this was a concerto, Mr. Barnatan embarked on a piano solo which exhibited tremendous give and take, holding notes until the last minute before releasing a cascade of descending scales and close hands precision. He played the second theme of the first movement in the aria-like style in which the music was likely conceived, accompanied by Chris Komer on a single horn. Mr. Sanderling clearly felt the drama in partnership with Mr. Barnatan, and the orchestra and soloist were easily able to change the musical mood on a dime.

Throughout the concerto, Mr. Barnatan proved a master of musical suspense, with lyrical melodies, often accompanied by bassoon soloist Robert Wagner. Chopin revealed his Polish roots in the third movement krakowiak passages, based on a heavily syncopated dance popular at the time, and Mr. Barnatan brought out the humor and vitality of the music well.

NJSO’s performance of Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 in E minor was played with a much fuller orchestra, marked by clean but lush strings. Mr. Sanderling took a somewhat methodical tempo to the first two movements (with an appropriate waltz feel to the first movement), but the third movement “Allegro giocoso” and closing “Allegro” showed a great deal of orchestral flair and a more broad approach to the music. Mr. Sanderling’s emphasis was on a clean performance, with the horns particularly solid. Similar to the Chopin concerto, there were very few instrumental solos in the Brahms Symphony, but solo winds, including from Mr. Feller and clarinetist Karl Herman, added a lighter color to the texture, and a regal trio of trombones helped close the work majestically.

Friday night’s performance may only have contained the two major works of these 19th-century composers, but the audience’s attention was unwavering, as the players of the New Jersey Symphony found drama in the music, and Mr. Sanderling clearly enjoyed his collaboration with all the musicians on the stage. These Thanksgiving weekend concerts have long proved to be a convincing way to begin the holiday season.


November 26, 2014

Richardson Chamber Players is moving into its second decade, and the ensemble has settled into a smooth-running chamber music machine. Sunday afternoon’s performance at Richardson Auditorium reaffirmed the ensemble’s mission to present, as co-founder Michael Pratt described, “Unique pieces that are well-known but rarely heard live.”

The Chamber Players devoted the first half of Sunday’s concert to the late 18th and early 19th century. The chamber music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is well-researched and performed, but the early 19th-century Italian guitarist and composer Mauro Giuliani (who had almost as short a life) is a little-known treasure in chamber music repertory. Giuliani was considered a virtuoso in his time, joining a rich musical tradition and history when he moved to Vienna in the early 1800s. Giuliani’s Gran Duetto Concertante for Flute and Guitar, Opus 52 was full of the light and crystalline clarity of the late Classical era, and one can easily envision listening to this work in a Viennese salon or outdoor concert. Guitarist Laura Oltman and flutist Jayn Rosenfeld maintained a consistently crisp dialog, with both instruments speaking very clearly in the hall. When accompanying, Ms. Oltman’s guitar chords were supportive of the lyrical flute melody, and Ms. Rosenfeld varied sequential passages well in dynamics. The third movement in particular resembled a youthful Mozart, with precise dotted rhythms in the flute and extremely quick fingering from both instruments.

Mozart’s Quintet for Piano and Winds in E-flat Major, K. 452 was called by the composer the “best thing I’ve ever written,” and came during his highly prolific decade of the 1780s. In this work Mozart experimented with innovative forms of instrumentation, compositionally pairing up oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and horn in different combinations to create a wide range of sonorities. Oboist Matthew Sullivan and bassoonist Robert Wagner sat across from clarinetist Jo-Ann Sternberg and hornist Chris Komer, passing musical thoughts and melodies across and diagonally to one another, all ably accompanied by pianist Margaret Kampmeier.

Throughout the three-movement work, the instrumentalists punctuated the piano phrases well, as Ms. Kampmeier conveyed fluidity from the typically Mozartean piano accompaniment. Mr. Komer provided consistently clean and solid horn playing, and duets among all the instruments were well timed and lyrical. There did not seem to be a real leader among the players; they all seemed to work together with ease. By the 1780s, Mozart had many coloristic choices in continually evolving orchestra instruments, and unique sonorities continually held the audience’s attention, especially delicate passages from the flute and upper register of the piano, and oboe and clarinet colors that were almost interchangeable.

A short but jewel-like piece allowed Ms. Oltman to show the full range of the guitar, playing Francis Poulenc’s Sarabande for Solo Guitar with every note resounding in the hall. This 1960 work, composed a few years before Poulenc’s death, incorporates early 20th-century impressionism into a 17th-century form. Using the slightest amount of vibrato, Ms. Oltman brought out both melody and poignancy. Poulenc’s Sextet for Winds and Piano, composed significantly earlier than the Sarabande but far more complex, seemed to divide the participating instruments into two forces — flute and oboe versus clarinet, bassoon, and horn, all again accompanied by Ms. Kampmeier. When playing together, the instrumentalists’ collective sound was jarring, and the players brought out a great deal of drama from the work. Both bassoonist Mr. Wagner and hornist Mr. Komer provided very lyrical melodies, while flute and oboe passages in thirds from Ms. Rosenfeld and Mr. Sullivan were haunting in sonority. This three-movement piece covered a wide range of moods, with the six players working together well to shift musical gears quickly.

Richardson Chamber Players seems to have programmed the current season around musical “treasures” and “jewels.” The roster of players who comprise this ensemble are no doubt enjoying this season’s journey into the more unknown chamber works in the repertory.

Richardson Chamber Players’s next performance will be on Sunday, March 1, 2015 at 3 p.m. Titled “Pierrot’s Stage,” the concert will feature Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire,” and other chamber works. For information visit www.princetonuniversityconcerts.org.



November 19, 2014

One of Princeton’s most resilient instrumental ensembles is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year — through all the economic ups and down over the past two decades, The Dryden Ensemble has continued to present concerts of 17th and 18th century works to Baroque music aficionados in the Princeton community. The Dryden opened its 20th anniversary season with a collaborative performance featuring more vocal music than the ensemble has presented in the past.

It is not unusual for the Dryden to feature a vocalist, and the inclusion of British counter-tenor Ryland Angel in Saturday night’s concert at Princeton Seminary’s Miller Chapel fit well into the Dryden’s mission of exploring Baroque repertoire. Mr. Angel has been making his mark in Baroque opera for a number of years, including on international stages and through more than 50 recordings. The Dryden Ensemble chose to center the performance on the music of Henry Purcell, a composer not celebrating any particular birthday, but not heard nearly enough in Baroque performance circles.

In the first half of the concert, Mr. Angel joined the ten members of the Dryden Ensemble in both free-standing songs and excerpted arias from Purcell operas. Mr. Angel used the space of Miller Chapel well to fill the hall with a well-rounded sound in the upper register and a rich tone on the low notes. Mr. Angel and violoncellist Lisa Terry brought out well the ground bass compositional style of “Musick for a While,” with Mr. Angel paying particular attention to the text. Mr. Angel seemed to find the aria “See my many Colour’d Fields” from The Fairy Queen easy to sing, communicating well with the strings.

With three strings and four winds, The Dryden Ensemble created good contrast in instrumental color in the pieces that were purely for chamber orchestra. Playing with an especially dry sound, the three strings (violinists Vita Wallace and Dongmyung Ahn and violist Fran Berge) created a great deal of tension in the music in the Chaconne from the play The Gordian Knot Untied. The wide selection of Rondeau’s and Aires played by the Dryden were conveyed with a well-blended collective sound, with solid underpinning by harpsichordist Webb Wiggins and theorbo player Daniel Swenberg, who also doubled on Baroque lute. Adding to the mellow and smooth color of the winds was Virginia Brewer playing oboe da caccia, an instrument (the “hunting oboe”) that is closely related to the modern English horn.

Where The Dryden Ensemble ventured into new territory was in its presentation of a significant portion of Purcell’s 1691 opera King Arthur, also known as The British Worthy. In the last six years of his life, Purcell composed incidental music for more than 40 plays, with many of the musical forms of the time represented in the scores. For this performance of King Arthur, the Dryden was joined by Mr. Angel and the Princeton High School Chamber Choir, which had been meticulously prepared by Vincent Metallo. Singing around the players in a semi-circle and performing mostly conductorless (Webb Wiggins led the chorus from the harpsichord in key moments), the 27-member Chamber Chorus sang with crisp diction and attention to detail, with a particularly bright sound from the women’s sections. Instrumentalists, singers, and soloists performed as a tightly-knit group, with Mr. Angel also helping lead the way.

Several soloists stepped out from the chorus, including a Shepherd duet well sung by sopranos Annika Lee and Blaine Rinehart. Soprano Alina Flatscher and bass Jai Nimgaonkar communicated well with each other as well as with the audience in their duet, with Ms. Flatscher singing with a clear and strong sound that carried well in the hall. The chorus was adept at changing style in the humorously titled “Chorus of the Cold People” in which the singers “chattered” and “trembled” effectively.

With so many performers onstage, the possibilities for new audience members were immense, and the almost full house at Miller Chapel no doubt included new potential friends to the Dryden. Artistic Director Jane McKinley and the Dryden Ensemble added a touch of poignancy to the performance by acknowledging the contributions of William and Judith Scheide over the years, including performing a Bach chorale as an encore. The type of collaboration seen Saturday night can only strengthen arts organizations, and Saturday night’s clearly successful performance will surely open new doors for all involved.

November 12, 2014
STAR-CROSSED LOVERS: Romeo (Robby Keown) and Juliet (Rachel Stone) put on their masks before the Capulets’ ball in rehearsal for Theatre Intime and Princeton Shakespeare Company’s production of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” at the Hamilton-Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through November 15.

STAR-CROSSED LOVERS: Romeo (Robby Keown) and Juliet (Rachel Stone) put on their masks before the Capulets’ ball in rehearsal for Theatre Intime and Princeton Shakespeare Company’s production of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” at the Hamilton-Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through November 15.

Near the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Duke Theseus offers his bride Hippolyta a witty and wise critique of the play-within-the-play that they are watching. “The best in this kind are but shadows;” he says, “and the worst are no worse if imagination amend them.” The Theatre Intime — Princeton Shakespeare Company collaborative production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, at Hamilton-Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through November 15, takes on the daunting challenges of Shakespeare’s early romantic tragedy with energy and intelligence, but at times makes inordinate demands on the audience’s imagination and ability to suspend disbelief.

The production features some strong individual performances, consistently high production values, and clear, effective staging of the numerous scenes and the complex action of the play. The difficult lines — richly poetic, full of figurative language, colorful imagery, paradoxes and puns — are mostly well memorized and seemingly well understood by the actors, but the audience’s imagination is indeed strained, as performers often fail to communicate those lines and their characters with clear and dramatic expression and meaning.

Charlie Baker’s Mercutio, Sean Toland’s Friar Laurence, Robby Keown’s Romeo, and Justin Poser’s Tybalt provide strong, lucid, captivating characterizations, but other actors at times do not credibly and clearly deliver the Shakespearean language and engage the audience. In this play, clashing attitudes and concerns between adults and youths are crucial issues, but the age stretches for the six of these fourteen mostly undergraduate — one graduate student — actors playing adult roles are formidable. With luck, demands on the audience’s imagination to fill in credibility gaps may diminish as the play moves into its second weekend; these performers should settle more comfortably and confidently into their roles, diction and projection should sharpen, and the chemistry between the title character lovers should warm up.

Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet, early in his career, before the great tragedies, in the same years (1595-96) as A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Both plays are concerned with how the “course of true love never did run smooth,” and they share similar comedic elements until the tone of Romeo and Juliet darkens half way through and the play turns to the tragic mode.

Romeo and Juliet is the most famous love story in Western literature, perhaps in all literature. Over the 420 years since its creation it has inspired thousands of productions and hundreds of different adaptations for stage and screen around the world. Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 movie with its beautiful Italian settings and unforgettable musical score, Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes and the action updated to present-day Verona Beach, Florida, the great 1957 musical West Side Story, set in the streets of New York City, and Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet come most readily to mind, but there has also been a gnome version (“Gnomeo and Juliet”), a feline version, a sea lions cartoon version, a martial arts version — is there a time period in history or a place on the globe that has not served as a setting for the retelling of this powerful tale?

“It is too rash, too unadvis’d, too sudden, too like the lightning, which doth cease to be ere one can say ‘It lightens,’” Juliet (Rachel Stone) warns Romeo after they exchange their first vows of love. And soon afterwards, from Friar Laurence, Romeo receives another warning, similar in its dramatic imagery and urgency: “These violent delights have violent ends and in their triumph die, like fire and powder, which as they kiss consume.”

Of course, the nature and intensity of their passion make it impossible for Romeo and Juliet to heed these warnings, impossible for them to do anything but self-destruct in pursuing their desires. Amidst a bitter feud between their powerful families, Romeo and Juliet suffer a combination of bad luck, feckless adult influences, and mocking, impetuous friends to help speed them on their tragic trajectory. From Romeo’s first glimpse of Juliet (“Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear!”) at her father’s masquerade party, to their shyness and first kiss, Juliet’s realization that their families are dire enemies, through the balcony scene and their first declarations of love for each other (“My bounty,” says Juliet, “is as boundless as the sea, my love as deep; the more I give to thee, the more I have, for both are infinite.”), their secret marriage, Romeo’s banishment, and their final encounter, their romance is enthralling, the poetic language is rich and moving, but their doom is inevitable.

Mr. Keown’s Romeo is worthy and convincing as both fighter and lover. Dressed all in white, a strong costuming statement, he and Ms. Stone are set apart from their more darkly clad peers. All are in contemporary attire, although the language and other elements of the play remain traditional. Ms. Stone is an appealing Juliet, though her words and her shifting emotions do not always project with sufficient clarity and impact. Too much of the rich language is lost here.

Mr. Baker as the eloquent, ebullient Mercutio, ill-fated comrade to Romeo, is the most successful of the company in communicating character, dramatic movement and the rich poetry — so sad, for many reasons, that he does not survive past intermission. Mr. Toland, as a bespectacled, side-burned Friar Laurence, presents the most convincing of the older generation characters, while Mr. Poser’s “fiery” cousin Tybalt proves a suitably fearsome adversary for Mercutio and Romeo.

Jessica Li as Juliet’s nurse is entertainingly playful, talkative, bawdy and meddlesome, though less than convincing as a maternal figure. Miranda Bolef as a female transformation of Benvolio, Sam Kessler as an authoritative Prince Escalus, and Christian Gray as Juliet’s hapless fiancé Paris all present sound characterizations and deliver the 16th century prose and poetry with understanding and intelligibility. T.J. Smith and Kristin Coke as the Capulets, irascible father and fretful mother, Lydia Watt as Montague and Joseph Labatt and Jacob Zweiback, each in a variety of different roles, lend support throughout the evening.

Rachel Wilson, Princeton University junior, has directed this challenging production with skill and sensitivity. The action moves swiftly from scene to scene, and the plot — though not always all the lines — flows smoothly and dynamically from start to finish of this two-and-a-half-hour production. Wesley Cornwell’s unit set, constructed entirely of hundreds of wooden pallets stacked from floor to ceiling, provides the smell of a lumberyard and a bit of the look of a ramshackle shantytown, but the simplicity is effective in staging the action economically, providing the requisite entrances, exits and multiple levels for more than twenty different scenes, including balcony, bedroom, ballroom, street, underground tomb and others. Hannah Yang’s creative, nuanced lighting design contributes significantly in establishing the changing venues and in communicating the ominous shifts in mood as the action darkens from comedy to romance to tragedy. Savannah Marquandt’s contemporary costumes and Matt Smith’s portentous sound contribute further to the creation of the intense, dangerous, shifting world of the play.

“More light and light, more dark and dark our woes!” Romeo observes as he leaves Juliet at sunrise to serve out his sentence of banishment. As the stage lights darken for the final time at the end of this play, the Prince intones his final tragic pronouncement on the proceedings: “For never was a story of more woe/Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.” Despite some lapses in this production, the audience reaps abundant reminders of the greatness of the Bard (even so early in his career), the beauty and richness of his poetry, and the power of these two lovers to remain, more than four centuries later, our enduring model of true love.

The Theatre Intime’s and Princeton Shakespeare Company’s production of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” will run for one more weekend, November 13-15, with performances Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. in the Hamilton-Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus. Call (609) 258-1742 or visit www.theatreintime.org for tickets and information.

In the past two weeks, two very different piano soloists have tackled very different works on the Richardson Auditorium stage. Last week, 19th century musical pathos and drama was shown by Russian pianist Natasha Paremski in Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto. A more delicate sense of drama was featured last Friday night as the young French pianist Lise de la Salle joined the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra for Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat Major. Led by guest conductor Eugene Tzigane, Ms. De la Salle and the orchestra played a well-balanced and stylish concerto, full of sparkling musical dialog between pianist and instrumentalists.

As piano soloist, Ms. de la Salle showed nicely contained flair, with very flexible trills, strong hands, and the totally right effect for 18th-century piano-forte music. Principal oboist Robert Ingliss was kept busy throughout the night with small solo lines, but particularly in the Mozart work, in which he frequently answered the pianist with completions of phrases or the same lines in a different instrumental color. Especially in the first movement Allegro, Ms. de la Salle demonstrated a great deal of fun in playing, with a very lyrical closing cadenza.

Conductor Tzigane also kept the orchestra nicely contained in 18th-century style, bringing out the martial character of the first movement contrasting against the solemnity of the second movement. The players of the NJSO maintained a particularly effective intensity in the second movement, as Ms. de la Salle brought out the lyricism and sensitivity in the concerto. Both orchestra and soloist emphasized the humor in the third movement Rondo, with the winds adding to the courtly minuet. Throughout the concerto, Ms. de la Salle demonstrated great poise, showing herself to be musically wise well beyond her years.

Mr. Tzigane created an “Evening of Vienna” in combining the Mozart concerto with works by Johann Strauss and Franz Schubert. Both of these composers are known for melodic lyricism and capturing the lightheartedness of late 18th-century and early 19th-century Vienna. The two Strauss works performed — Artist’s Life Waltz and the overture to Die Fledermaus — are inherently lively and spirited. Mr. Tzigane led Artist’s Life Waltz, which opened the concert, in a surprisingly slow tempo, and the work felt like it wanted to speed up throughout the performance. The closing Fledermaus overture was more in the sense of a high-energy operetta excerpt, with Mr. Tzigane well in control of the Viennese flavor.

Schubert’s Symphony No. 3 in D Major is rooted in the Classical tradition of the 18th century, and the significant amount of nimble wind activity added to the character. Mr. Ingliss, as well as flutist Bart Feller and clarinetist Karl Herman, carried the flair in the galloping, dotted-rhythm opening movement. Conducting from memory, Mr. Tzigane clearly enjoyed himself during this work, as themes chased each other in tag-team style around the stage among the players. The second movement Allegretto was particularly graceful, with Mr. Ingliss and Mr. Herman playing sensitive melodies against pizzicato celli and double basses. Mr. Ingliss was joined by principal bassoonist Robert Wagner for a graceful duet in the third movement.

Throughout last Friday night’s performance, Mr. Tzigane showed himself to be very comfortable with audience interaction, as well as the repertory selected for the concert. His familiarity with the music no doubt facilitated his guest conducting role, communicating well with the players throughout. Based on the audience response to Friday night’s performance, Mr. Tzigane would be a welcome guest in Princeton anytime.


November 5, 2014

When studying in Bulgaria, Princeton Symphony Orchestra Music Director Rossen Milanov likely found Russian music and culture abundant. Judging from Sunday afternoon’s Princeton Symphony Orchestra’s concert at Richardson Auditorium featuring music of Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky, Mr. Milanov has clearly developed an affinity for the music of that part of the world. Another side of 21st-century Russia was presented in pianist Natasha Paremski, who was featured in Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor.

Ms. Paremski is part of a new generation of Russian performers who have combined the solid classical musical training for which Russia is known with the flair and elegance of contemporary fashion and style. From the opening piano chords of Tchaikovsky’s monumental concerto, Ms. Paremski played with supreme confidence, showing both astounding technique and consummate musicality. Following the very clean horn fanfare that opened the first movement, Ms. Paremski played the concerto as if she owned it (she recorded this work two years ago with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra), perfectly timed with the orchestra and sensitive to musical dialogues with instrumental soloists.

From the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, the soloist was accompanied by a variety of well-executed sonorities, including a smooth wind quartet of clarinets and bassoons in the first movement, clarinet and oboe duet in the second movement (played by Pascal Archer and Nicholas Masterson, respectively) and flutist Chelsea Knox playing graceful solos against fiendish passages from the piano. Mr. Milanov kept the three movements of the concerto moving along, adroitly traversing the abrupt changes in mood.

Mr. Milanov kept a Russian theme in the concert by pairing the Tchaikovsky concerto with a Stravinsky work which was more abstract but just as Russian in flavor and background. Stravinsky’s 1947 orchestral suite Petrushka was as intricate as the Tchaikovsky concerto was dramatic, with quirky solos and driving rhythms foreshadowing the more revolutionary later works of Stravinsky.

Petrushka is a set of four tableaux, originally composed as a ballet and later adapted by the composer as an orchestral suite. As one might expect from a Stravinsky work, there was a great deal of activity for the winds, with sonorities that were surely unique for the time. Clarinetist Pascal Archer was joined by bass clarinetist Rie Suzuki Huebner in octaves against pizzicato strings and light percussion, and throughout the suite, edgy solos from English hornist Nathan Mills provided an element of spookiness to the performance. Solo bassoon, played by Brad Balliett, added to the quirky musical palette, especially when combined with a well-played pair of muted trumpets from Jerry Bryant and Thomas Cook. Percussion played a significant role, with drum rolls bridging the tableaux. Timpanist Jeremy Levine and percussionist Phyllis Bitow (playing xylophone) were especially key in keeping rhythms precise.

Although the concert was titled “Classically Russian,” the subtheme was a tribute to the 18th-century commedia dell’arte tradition, and Mr. Milanov introduced this theme with a bit of musical détente — American composer William Bolcom’s Commedia for (Almost) 18th Century Orchestra. Linked with a current Princeton Art Museum exhibit, this work suited the Princeton Symphony well with its unique orchestration. Mr. Milanov used the space of Richardson well, placing horns on either side of the stage and in the balcony to create an antiphonal effect. Bolcom’s music was as quirky as Stravinsky’s orchestral suite, but in a different way — passages of 18th-century refinement were contrasted with dissonance and percussive effects from the instruments. This work, combined with the Tchaikovsky concerto and Stravinsky suite, showed the Princeton Symphony Orchestra to be off to a good start with musical precision this season.


October 29, 2014

As Princeton Pro Musica Artistic Director Ryan James Brandau wrote in his program notes to Sunday afternoon’s concert, his first two years with the ensemble deliberately excluded the lush choral music of German Romantic music. Dr. Brandau and the 100-voice Pro Musica Chamber Chorus took a trip through this repertory on Sunday afternoon at Richardson Auditorium, showing the range of compositional style and musical emotion from the turn of the 19th century to the turn of the 20th.

Dr. Brandau warmed up the audience with a solo violinist and orchestra, as Owen Dalby played the Romance in G by Ludwig van Beethoven. Beginning with clean double-stops, Mr. Dalby made the intricate but lyrical melody sound easy, maintaining a graceful dialog with the orchestra. Dr. Brandau kept things within a Classical framework, conducting a well-balanced orchestral ensemble. With Mr. Dalby providing a rich lower register of his instrument and broad musical strokes from the orchestra, this Romance closed in a stately manner.

This season’s Pro Musica Chamber Chorus made their first appearance to sing excerpts from Johannes Brahms’ light and spirited Liebeslieder Walzer. The sound suffered a bit from the space differential; the chorus was at the back of the hall with Eric Plutz and James Sparks playing piano four-hands as Dr. Brandau conducted from the front of the hall. Dr. Brandau maintained the same Classical lilt begun in the Beethoven work, with nicely blended men beginning the first excerpt. The seven of the 18 Walzers performed were not sung too fast, and the men in particular showed precise singing in “Am Donaustrande.” Soprano Blythe Quelin was featured in one of the Walzer, singing with a self-assured rich sound, especially in the lower register. Conducting without a baton, Dr. Brandau elicited clean diction and precise cadences from the chorus.

Dr. Brandau has continued the Pro Musica tradition of presenting orchestral works on a choral program, but rather than a large orchestral piece contrasting with a choral/orchestral work, Dr. Brandau interspersed smaller works within the program. Beethoven and Felix Mendelssohn both composed programmatic pieces based on Goethe’s poem “Meeresstille und Glückliche Fahrt” (“Calm Sea and Successful Voyage”) — Beethoven for chorus and orchestra and Mendelssohn for orchestra alone. The accompanying orchestra to Pro Musica presented Mendelssohn’s Meeresstille und Glückliche Fahrt with the calm of the sea evident from the start in the strings. Mendelssohn added winds sparingly, with four-note solos speaking well from the wind players. Dr. Brandau maintained an effective flow to the music, as the sea rose and fell with a finality of a clean trio of trumpets.

In contrast, the calm of the sea in Beethoven’s setting came from the full chorus of Pro Musica, immediately setting the mood as more reverent. The singers of Pro Musica brought out the imaginative setting of the text about the lack of wind on the sea, and came to life as the “waves part and the distance draws nearer.” This piece contained a great deal of drama and tension which was difficult to maintain, especially with the sopranos on a high “A” for an extended period of time.

Dr. Brandau journeyed to the end of the 19th century with Gustav Mahler’s solo song, “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,” sung by guest mezzo-soprano Sarah Nelson Craft. Mahler wrote luxuriantly for mezzo-sopranos, and scored this song particularly sensitively with accompanying English horn, played by Nathan Mills. Mahler’s music often falls into the depths, and Ms. Craft rose well vocally out of the deep, singing reflectively yet without despair. The instrumental combination of Mr. Mills, harpist Andre Tarantiles, and bassoonist Seth Baer brought elegant sonorities to accompany the solo voice. Mahler was a master of orchestration, and the English horn was the perfect sonority to combine with Ms. Craft’s rich voice.

The full chorus of Pro Musica joined forces again to close the concert with Brahms’s orchestrally accompanied choral song Schicksalslied. The lushness of this piece was well suited for Pro Musica’s forces, and the choral sound unfolded well. Although the sopranos sounded a bit stretched in the upper registers, an a cappella cadence was well handled by the entire chorus toward the end of the piece.

This concert was somewhat unusual in that it was not totally about the whole of Pro Musica — the full chorus only sang two small pieces, with a third of the program given over to orchestral works. As this new season embarks, audiences can hopefully look forward to hearing Princeton Pro Musica at its fullest.


October 22, 2014
REHEARSAL WOES: Harry (Adam Green), in the title role, is surprised to find that his jilted ex-fiancee Roxanne (Danielle Skraastad) is the stage manager, running the understudy rehearsal - and that's just one of many mishaps that ensue in McCarter Theatre's production of Theresa Rebeck's "The Understudy," playing at McCarter's Matthews Theatre through November 2.

REHEARSAL WOES: Harry (Adam Green), in the title role, is surprised to find that his jilted ex-fiancee Roxanne (Danielle Skraastad) is the stage manager, running the understudy rehearsal – and that’s just one of many mishaps that ensue in McCarter Theatre’s production of Theresa Rebeck’s “The Understudy,” playing at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre through November 2.

Theresa Rebeck’s The Understudy (2008) is a comical, 90-minute, one-act depiction of life in the theater. The setting is a theater during a special rehearsal to help prepare the new understudy for a Broadway premiere of a recently discovered work by Franz Kafka. On the big stage at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre through November 2, The Understudy presents a humorous and affectionate representation of two actors and their stage manager — all under unusual personal and occupational stresses.

From the opening sound of a gunshot until the final curtain, high tension and multiple mishaps, both human and technical, proliferate. It’s a funny play, with some razor sharp wit, clever dialogue, and rich comical situations evolving as rehearsal and personal relationships progress. Ms. Rebeck is also delivering an indictment of the American Theater’s obsession with celebrity and the debilitating, dehumanizing effects of that obsession on the dedicated artists who continue the work they love as actors, stage managers, and other theater artists. The fact that the play-within-the-play is a lost work by Franz Kafka helps to ensure that the comedy served here will at times be dark and satirical.

This production, under the resourceful direction of Adam Immerwahr, in his first time directing on a McCarter main stage, merges a dynamically interesting, energetic, and talented cast of three with an extravagantly engaging set design and dazzling production values. What the script may lack in depth or development of plot and characters, this vibrant trio of experienced young actors, along with Eugene Lee’s fascinating, frequently moving set as a fourth character, provide to successfully capture the audience’s attention and interest.

The central metaphor here compares these anxious, isolated actors to characters from Kafka’s stories, particularly The Trial and The Castle — placed in mysterious, surreal situations, controlled by irrational forces in a dark, absurd world where there is no choice but to forge ahead. In The Understudy those tyrannical, invisible, offstage forces include not just the Hollywood-driven financial powers of the acting hierarchy and the whims of the businessmen producers, but also the erratic behavior of a stoned light board operator with her abundant supply of wheeling and flying scenery and special effects. Roxanne, the stage manager character, and her two actors, Harry and Jake, are, of course, also subject to the vicissitudes of human behavior in the tangles of a romantic triangle of sorts.

As the McCarter program points out, however, “everything you need to know about Kafka to enjoy The Understudy is “nothing at all …” Despite Kafka’s brooding black and white visage and a greatly enlarged page from an edited manuscript hanging over the stage, profundity, character exploration, and plot development are not priorities here. Comedy and a fascinating, quirky glimpse at the creative process of theater are the order of the day for this show, and the opening-night audience responded with abundant laughter from start to finish.

In the role of Harry the understudy, Adam Green establishes a winning rapport with the audience in his brilliantly funny, satiric, psychologically-revealing opening monologue. He continues to navigate skillfully the difficulties of the journeyman actor confronting first Jake (JD Taylor), his rival “Hollywood” scene counterpart, then Roxanne (Danielle Skraastad), his stage manager/boss, who also happens to be the woman he jilted just two weeks before their scheduled wedding. Mr. Green, who played Figaro in last spring’s acclaimed McCarter productions of The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro, is charming and sympathetic in his frustrations (“I mean it’s not — and it’s not that I’m bitter. People look at you; they say oh he’s an actor who’s not liked so he must be kind of bitter, and I am, I am bitter, but that doesn’t mean that movies don’t suck …”) — an ideal guide to lead us into the crazy backstage world of actors and the rehearsal process.

Mr. Taylor’s Jake, a screen star known for his roles in action movies, commands $2 million for his film roles, yet remains at the mercy of bigger Hollywood names and ruthless producers. His conventional good looks and dashing presence have gone a long way for Jake, who knows how to draw a gun with panache and apparently reached the apex of his career with his recent movie line: “Get on the truck!” Mr. Taylor persuasively embodies both the much mocked matinee idol/action movie star and also a more sympathetic actor coming to terms with a challenging stage role, two psychologically complex colleagues and the realities of life in the theater.

Ms. Skraastad’s Roxanne is commanding and larger than life as stage manager and woman scorned. She battles valiantly against the forces of fate and theatrical mischance to try to keep the rehearsal and her life moving forward. Harry explains that “the stage manager is the one person in the theater you’re supposed to be able to count on to keep her head. That’s the job description: to always have six kinds of duct tape, a pencil sharpener, Band-Aids, and a cool head” — but under the circumstances the cool head is too much to expect. Roxanne is understandably, comically flummoxed in her struggles with the intoxicated light board operator, the actors and the producers on the phone — not to mention the unexpected appearance of her ex-fiancé. With her air of authority, barely covering fierce anger and hysteria, she is funny and admirably convincing.

Mr. Lee’s set uses the immense Matthews stage and many of its accessories to full advantage, representing, and at the same time exaggerating and satirizing, the excesses of the big-budget Broadway show. With dozens of lighting instruments on all sides, a giant wind machine, melodramatic music and sound effects, picturesque onstage precipitation, a ghost light at center stage, a vast “Broadway-style” proscenium arch complete with golden-harp motif, along with a variety of set pieces wheeling on and off, and huge backdrops of a study, a tavern, and a dungeon — this animated set creates a comedy of its own. And of course there’s the face and manuscript of Kafka hanging at center stage above this Kafka-esque world. A large, well-equipped stage manager’s table in the front section amidst the orchestra seats provides Roxanne with a command post from which she vainly attempts to rein in the chaos of this rehearsal. The much acclaimed Mr. Lee, designer of The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and at Saturday Night Live since 1974, has designed many Broadway shows, including the current long-running musical Wicked.

Kafka, who, supposedly, actually wrote a play that no longer exists and whose aura does pervade The Understudy and the play-within-the-play, once stated: “There is plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope in the universe — but not for us.” In the end, however, Ms. Rebeck’s indomitable characters and her comedic perspective on the underbelly of the theater world, succeed in transcending the hopelessness and leaving us with a joyful affirmation of life and theater.

With a sea of musicians on the Richardson Auditorium stage, the Princeton University Orchestra launched its new season this past weekend with a concert of lush and Romantic music featuring two exceptional soloists. By the end of Friday night’s concert (the performance was repeated Saturday night), conductor Michael Pratt was understandably proud of how the students rose to the challenge of this year’s opening night.

The works on the program were linked by their use of indigenous music as well as concerto structure. The piano concerto of Edvard Grieg and bass clarinet concerto of Jonathan Russell were clear in the role of the solo instruments, but more veiled was the structure of George Gershwin’s Cuban Overture as a concerto for the unique percussion instruments Gershwin encountered in his travels to the Caribbean nation. Collectively, the members of the orchestra clearly had a good time as the musical school year got off to a joyous start.

Sophomore Marc Fishman was a winner of last year’s Princeton University Orchestra Concerto Competition, saving his prize-winning performance for this season. With its opening chords and flowing arpeggios, Edvard Grieg’s 1868 Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16 is recognizable, and challenging for a performer of any age. From the start, Mr. Fishman took his time on the decisive chords and sinuous solo passages, maintaining a thoughtful and exacting approach to the music. Grieg was inspired by Schumann in the composition of this three-movement work, and the music well reflects the luxurious orchestral writing and keyboard virtuosity of the late Romantics of northern Europe and Russia. Mr. Fishman executed light playing of the opening passages and found the playfulness of the second theme, with both drama and delicacy in the cadenza which closed the first movement.

Mr. Pratt wisely allowed the piano soloist to dictate some of the pacing of the concerto, and built the accompanying orchestral swells effectively. The University Orchestra showed itself in strong form throughout the concerto, from a lyrical sectional cello melody in the first movement to the majestic and lush third movement. Within the orchestra, elegant instrumental solos were provided by flutist Marcelo Rochabrun and hornist Bryan Jacobowitz.

A different kind of concerto style was heard from Jonathan Russell’s Concerto for Bass Clarinet, performed by the orchestra in a world premiere. Mr. Russell, currently a PhD candidate in composition at Princeton, has composed a work which seeks to show a “virtuostically wide range of colors and approaches to the instrument.” In composing this work, Mr. Russell emphasized all the bass clarinet’s unique musical effects, including the instrument’s “altissimo” passages and the use of “throat harmonics,” a technique he describes as “changes in throat position to create buzzy overtones of the fundamental pitch in the manner of a throat singer.”

Mr. Russell began the solo line of his concerto with a single held note, played with minimal vibrato, hauntingly accompanied by strings. The concerto proved to be an appealing work to hear, often with a melancholy reminiscence of Samuel Barber’s orchestral works. Mr. Russell moved easily through all the registers of the instrument, incorporating funk and jazz styles in long melodic lines. The orchestra played a solid rhythmic ostinato, broken by occasional instrumental solos. With an extended cadenza that was more of a meditation than a standard 19th-century cadenza, this work succeeded in introducing the audience to the full capabilities of a unique instrument.

Bracketing these two concerti were sprightly works by Antonin Dvorak and George Gershwin. In the opening work of the program, the University Orchestra brought out well Dvorak’s gift for melody in Carnival Overture, Op. 90, and the augmented percussion section seemed to have the best time in Gershwin’s Cuban Overture. After three lush works, Gershwin’s one-movement Overture was as fun as it should have been, with maracas, bongos, a gourd, and claves spicing up the rhythm. This piece seemed to be a concerto for Cuban instruments, and Mr. Pratt and the players took a sufficiently saucy approach to close the concert in high spirits.

October 1, 2014
MASTER CLASS: Mark Rothko (John Fairchild, on left) uses his assistant Dan (Ryan Gedrich) as student, sounding board, and lackey, as the two clash frequently while creating Rothko’s massive paintings, in Theatre Intime’s production of John Logan’s “Red” (2009) at the Hamilton-Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through October 4.

MASTER CLASS: Mark Rothko (John Fairchild, on left) uses his assistant Dan (Ryan Gedrich) as student, sounding board, and lackey, as the two clash frequently while creating Rothko’s massive paintings, in Theatre Intime’s production of John Logan’s “Red” (2009) at the Hamilton-Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through October 4.

In 1958, Mark Rothko, in his mid-50s, vastly successful and in the final years of transition towards abstraction in his painting, undertook one of the most prestigious and lucrative commissions ever offered to an artist. At the behest of architects Phillip Johnson and Mies van der Rohe, Rothko began work on his Seagram Murals for the Four Seasons Restaurant in the new Seagram Building on Park Avenue. Rothko created these massive, magnificent canvases, rectangular fields of reds and black, in his old gymnasium studio in the Bowery, New York City.

Intensely serious, brilliant, arrogant, fiercely opinionated, and obsessive, Rothko painted at least 30 of these murals, though only seven were required, but he eventually repudiated the commission, and returned the advance money. The famous Seagram Murals today hang in the Tate Museum in London, the National Gallery in Washington D.C. and the Kawamura Memorial Museum in Japan.

John Logan’s two-character drama Red (2009), originally produced at the Donmar Warehouse in London with Alfred Molina in the role of Rothko, then brought to Broadway the following year, and now through October 4 at Theatre Intime on the Princeton University campus, portrays the artist in his studio over a period of a few months in 1958-59. The play, winner of six Tony Awards, including Best Play, is about the relationship between the artist and his work, and also about the growing, conflict-ridden connection between Rothko and his young assistant. Rothko’s work and increasingly dark aesthetic focused on engaging with and enveloping the viewer, and Mr. Logan’s play also attempts to embrace the audience and explore the relationship between the artistic work and the spectator.

Felicitously scheduled to coincide with an exhibit of abstract expressionist works, including a painting by Rothko, at the Princeton University Art Museum, this production of Red provides, in five scenes without intermission, a rich theoretical discussion of modern art, a master class of sorts, and a glimpse into the world of Rothko’s atelier. Red is also an intriguing human drama and a compelling story of a young artist coming of age through his struggles with the overpowering shadow of his controlling mentor/father figure.

Mr. Logan’s dramatic device here of presenting Rothko and his work through his interactions and dialogue with his young assistant Ken is a rewarding stratagem that both reveals the man and his art and tells a dramatically engaging story — occasionally contrived and not quite historically accurate, but mostly convincing and full of striking truths.

The Theatre Intime Princeton University undergraduate company, under the direction here of junior Oge Ude, has taken on this serious, challenging script, with focus, thoughtful intelligence, creativity and commitment that befit the subject matter and the artist they are portraying.

John Fairchild, as Rothko, making the stretch to portray this domineering icon more than twice his own age, does, unsurprisingly, lack the gravitas of this fearsome artist. The moments when Rothko should be roaring are somewhat toned down here, but Mr. Fairchild succeeds in bringing to life the profound seriousness and passion of the character. Lightly bearded with shaved head and glasses, short-tempered, nervous and full of pent-up energy, he makes this character, in his anger, despair and transcendent intensity, both credible and thoroughly absorbing.

As the new assistant Ken, Ryan Gedrich provides a strong counterpart to the powerful Rothko. From the opening line, Rothko’s “What do you see?” followed by his first diatribe/sermon, Ken listens and, throughout the play, increasingly finds his own voice, develops his own independent character and identity as an artist, despite the overweening dominance of his dogmatic mentor. Mr. Gedrich’s depiction of this young man coming of age, who, as it turns out, has a dark secret of his own, is dynamically interesting and sympathetic, deftly providing the audience with an illuminating perspective on Rothko the man, Rothko the artist and his realm of abstract expressionism. “This is the first time you’ve existed,” Rothko tells Ken after his protégé, for the first time in their mounting Oedipal conflict, challenges Rothko, fights back, and asserts himself. Besides being a counterbalance to the monumental Rothko, Ken also speaks for the new generation of artists — Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, and others — whom Rothko sees as threats to his supremacy.

Becoming an integral part of this production between scenes, sometimes on stage and sometimes in the aisles, is a six-person modern dance troupe: Peter Deffeback, Selah Hampton, Kamber Hart, Casey Ivanovich, Tess Marchant and Glenna Yu. Contributing to the abstract expressionism of the style, theme, and subject matter of the rest of the production, the dancers also interact with the paint, and in paint-splattered t-shirts and fiery red light they reflect the tension and movement in the paintings and in the psychological struggles of the drama. Less skilled dancers or a less subtle, sensitive, sophisticated director could make this choreographic addition to the play an intrusion or distraction, but here the dance interludes are both riveting and appropriately complementary to the human drama at center stage.

Original, mostly atonal music by Sam Kaseta is also highly effective in establishing the dark, unsettling tone and mood of the piece. Marissa Applegate’s unit set design, with scenic design by David White and lighting by Alana Jaskir, is realistic, detailed, and believable in creating Rothko’s cluttered gymnasium studio with vivid, specific details: paint cans, brushes, bottles of Scotch, a phonograph and records, stovetop, phone, and, most importantly, large representations of three of Rothko’s canvases in red with black lines. The lighting appropriately remains dim throughout most of the play, as Rothko himself demanded dim lighting in attempting to control the environment in which his work would be seen.

Rothko orders his assistant Ken to read Freud, Jung, Shakespeare, and Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy. (The battle in the work of art and in life is always the battle of Greek tragedy, the battle between the order and reason of Apollo and the irrational passion and energy of Dionysus.) The references here to artists, writers, and thinkers are abundant. The 90-minute play, among other things, is certainly a sort of master class for the audience. Rothko’s question, “What do you see?” at both the beginning and end of the play, as he looks at the imaginary fourth-wall painting hanging in front of the audience, is a crucial question for Ken and for us. We too are the work. It is our class, and we too must accept the invitation to become immersed and enlightened in our encounters with the artist’s creation.

Theatre Intime’s production of John Logan’s “Red” will run for one more weekend with performances at 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, October 2 and 3, and at 2 and 8 p.m. on Saturday, October 4, in the Hamilton-Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus. For tickets and information call (609) 258-1742 or visit www.theatreintime.org.

A 30-year history is an accomplishment, whether in a job, residence, or membership in a club. In the case of The Princeton Singers, a 30-year history has meant growth from a British-focused volunteer chorus to a fully professional vocal ensemble well known in choral circles. With only two conductors in its esteemed history, The Princeton Singers had a lot to celebrate this past weekend.

“The Dream Concert,” the ensemble’s 30th anniversary celebration, musically summarized the programming dreams of the chorus, both past and present. Reaching back to the Edwardian British and Renaissance with which John Bertalot launched the Singers, and looking ahead to the 21st century through music composed by current conductor Steven Sametz, the concert Saturday night at Trinity Church showed that throughout these past 30 years, the emphasis on vocal tuning and precise musicianship has never wavered.

As Mr. Sametz expressed in his opening remarks, conductor John Bertalot dreamed The Princeton Singers into reality, largely through exploring the multi-century English choral tradition. The Singers paid tribute to these origins in their opening selections, C.V. Stanford’s double chorus Coelos Ascendit Hodie, followed by a two 16th and 17th-century works. The augmented chorus of The Princeton Singers, including all alumni who were in attendance, demonstrated a full and rich choral sound in what was a joyful way to start a concert. Monteverdi’s Si ch’io vorrei morire, sung by the Singers alone, presented a sharp and crisp sound as the chorus stood at the foot of Trinity’s chancel. The typically Monteverdian tuning quirks and suspensions came through well, and the women’s sections were especially well tuned, as Mr. Sametz built the tension well toward the end of the jubilant text. The poignant text of Philippe Verdelot’s patriotic Italia mia was performed with smooth homophony, as this mid-16th century piece proved as passionately nationalistic as the more well-known 19th-century works of Verdi.

Mr. Sametz selected several contemporary works for this performance, including one of the classic “dream” choral works — Eric Whitacre’s Leonardo Dreams of his Flying Machine. Musically depicting the little known legend that Da Vinci envisioned flying machines even in the late 15th century, Whitacre wrote a piece in which the singers tell the story through complex harmonies and a clever text well set for voices. Sound effects become part of the fabric, and The Princeton Singers had no trouble shifting gears from Renaissance polyphony to the sharp and decisive tone required by this piece.

The versatility of The Singers was demonstrated multiple times throughout the concert, including in Mr. Sametz’s two compositions programmed for the evening. Three Mystical Choruses set three different texts in three different languages, and The Singers presented each well from three different locations within the chancel. As a composer, Mr. Sametz clearly knows the chorus well, finding especially silky harmonies in the setting of the Shabbat blessing “En kelohenu.” The setting of Kabir’s “Mein to tere paas me” showed a much more sparse vocal color, and the chorus had no trouble with the off-rhythms in the piece. The other work of Mr. Sametz performed, Dante’s Dream, set an extensive passage of Dante Alighieri’s text in a chant-like manner and a vocal effect which was pointillist and full of light. Especially impressive was mezzo-soprano Sage Lutton, who sang a lyrical solo in “Niño de Rosas,” the first of Sametz’s Three Mystical Choruses.

The Princeton Singers has made a reputation presenting multicultural contemporary works, and one of its trademark pieces is Stephen Leek’s Knowee, the story of an Aboriginal figure. In Aboriginal folklore, Knowee wanders the skies looking for her son, and the women of the Singers proved they were all independently strong singers as they wandered through the aisles of Trinity Church, each musically looking for her mythical son. In the same multicultural and complex vein, the arrangement of the Iroquois Peyote Song featured soprano Victoria Jueds in an appealing piece reminiscent of the Eastern European choral style of the 1990s.

It may have been fairly easy to start a choral ensemble in the 1980s, but as the myriad of folded arts organizations in this country will tell, it certainly has not been easy to maintain a performing organization, particularly in these economic times. Thanks to consistently high performance standards and seemingly avoiding the temptation to over-expand, The Princeton Singers has a solid hold on its position in the choral arena as the ensemble enjoys its next decades.

September 24, 2014

On paper it probably sounded so simple: a narrator reads from literature while a string quartet plays music suitable to the text. This type of concert fits in well with Princeton University Concerts’ aim to engage larger audiences in chamber music and emphasize the connections among art forms through interdisciplinary performance. But things are not always what they seem. What made last Friday night’s Princeton University Concerts presentation in Richardson Auditorium unique and not so simple was the caliber of performers engaged — the narration of Philip Roth’s Everyman was read by multiple Academy Award®-winner Meryl Streep, accompanied by the renowned Takács String Quartet. This concert of simplicity became the event of the month to attend to open Princeton University Concerts 2014-15 season.

Ms. Streep is no stranger to Princeton; she has given at least one lecture on campus in recent history. The text Ms. Streep read as narration in this concert was a set of four scenes from Philip Roth’s novella Everyman, a literary meditation on death, the “common experience that terrifies all of us.” The Takács String Quartet provided a musical backdrop in the quartet music of contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, whose sparse, yet rich music perfectly matched the narration of loss and regret. Friday night’s performance was the second time this music and fiction had come together — the first performance of this combination was in 2007, with Philip Seymour Hoffman as narrator.

The Pärt-Roth pairing was divided into four parts, with the Takács playing a movement of music followed by Ms. Streep reading 20-25 pages of text. The opening sections of Pärt’s Fratres for string quartet were hymn-like, and easily depicted the cemetery scene with which Roth’s work opens. The members of the Takács String Quartet (violinists Edward Dusinberre and Károly Schranz, violist Geraldine Walther, and cellist András Fejér) kept the musical atmosphere dry, playing without vibrato but still staying very much in tune. A master of voice and character, Ms. Streep held the audience in rapt attention when reading the opening pages of Roth’s text.

The music of each section seemed to perfectly complement the subsequent text; the second Summa was musically more upbeat, as if walking away from the grave and onto the next thing in life and the third and fourth sections brought peaceful reflection into the mix. Pärt’s music, including the entire Fratres, the one-movement Summa and his Psalom for string quartet, was marked by a great deal of repetition, but with different colors among the instruments. Particularly sensitive were the sonorities between viola and cello and viola and second violin. Mr. Dusinberre’s first violin playing was darker than one might hear in Italianate music, and the overall effect from all four players well fit this musical commentary on death. Despite the lengthiness of some of Roth’s passages, the full house at Richardson Auditorium had no trouble staying with Ms. Streep’s captivating narration and spoken exploration of the characters in Roth’s writing.

The Takács String Quartet paired the multidisciplinary Pärt/Roth work with a piece seemingly on the same theme. Franz Schubert’s 1824 string quartet Death and the Maiden was considered Schubert’s testament to death. Closely related to an 1817 song Schubert composed of the same name, this four-movement work came about at a time of great personal struggle for Schubert, and contains the same graceful melodic style for which the composer was known. The Schubert quartet was a chance for the members of the Takács to play full out, and the piece was well in the ensemble’s wheelhouse. The overall musical character was more uplifting than Pärt’s chamber music, and the Takács ensemble took full advantage of the ample room for intensity within the music. Mr. Dusinberre’s delicate cadenza-like passage at the end of the first movement complemented well the unity in speed and transition from the others in the Takács Quartet. As one would expect from a significant Schubert work, the second movement “Andante” was songlike, even while in a minor key — homophonic and hymn-like, with collective unison in dynamics, as the musicians’ bows never seemed to leave the strings. Mr. Dusinberre demonstrated a particularly rich tone in the lower register of the first violin part, and the cello melody in the second variation of the theme was elegantly played by Mr. Fejér. The rollicking closing “Presto,” full of quick dotted rhythms, showed the uniformity of the Takács String Quartet which comes from years of playing together, bringing the high-powered evening to a close.


September 18, 2014

Princeton University is steeped in tradition, as is classical music, but music is a continually evolving medium. Well into the second decade of the 21st century, the University’s department of music has established a new residency collaboration with one of music’s most innovative ensembles. So Percussion, a quartet of four human rhythm machines who have been performing together for 15 years, opened its residency with a concert in Richardson Auditorium last Friday night. Following the former Edward T. Cone Performers-in-Residence — the mufti-faceted Brentano String Quartet, So Percussion may have had a big job introducing their repertoire and style of music to the Princeton audience. However the four musicians of So Percussion (Eric Beach, Josh Quillen, Adam Sliwinski, and Jason Treuting) are no strangers to the Princeton community and quickly made themselves at home.

The New York Times recently called the percussion ensemble the “string quartet of the 21st century,” and attendees at orchestra concerts can easily make an evening out of watching the percussion section. It is therefore no surprise that the percussion section has stepped out of the orchestra on its own as a performing ensemble. Melodic line and sinuous melodies may not always be present in the repertoire of percussion ensembles, but Friday night’s concert showed that great variety could be found in the diversity of instruments and rhythmic intensity of the music.

So Percussion presented three works from the 20th and 21st century, one of which demonstrated that music for this genre goes back further than one would think. American composer John Cage composed Third Construction in 1941, surely before anyone thought this medium would be popular. Cage wrote this one movement work for both traditional instruments and objects found around the house. So Percussion set the stage with a collection of drums, as well as tin cans, South American and Northwest Indian instruments, and some of the lesser-heard instruments of the orchestra. Composed for a very early percussion ensemble with which Cage was involved in the 1940s, Third Construction required each musician of So Percussion to play at least five instruments. All players demonstrated exacting rhythm and communication with one another. Among the more unique instruments played were Northwest Indian rattles, claves, a conch, and a “lion’s roar” — a membranophone bringing of a sound from the depths.

As an ensemble, So Percussion not only focuses on music of the past century, but also creates its own repertory. In 2006 founding member Jason Treuting created a series of short pieces entitled amid the noise, several of which were performed in this concert. Again, each musician played multiple instruments at once, and especially in the first “life is (blank)” the rhythm and percussive action were so fast it was difficult to tell who was playing what instrument when. The second and more improvisatory “June” contrasted pitched percussion instruments with an electronic drone carried through the audience and to various parts of the stage. The “noises” of amid the noise are sounds of both traditional classical music and sounds of the concert hall in which the piece is played. Audience involvement is another component of So Percussion performances, and the audience at Richardson was more than willing to participate.

So Percussion likes to devote the second half of the ensemble’s concerts to a single work, and Bryce Dessner’s 2013 Music for Wood and Strings showed innovation both in compositional style and instrumentation. Dessner composed this work for four “chordsticks,” a newly-invented instrument which was a cross between a guitar and hammered dulcimer. Resembling a zither and played with sticks the size of pencils, the “chordstick” was fretted as a guitar, yet also bowed with a violin bow at times. The four members of So Percussion each played one of these instruments throughout Dessner’s piece, creating a more mellow sound than one would hear from a dulcimer. The music appeared to be notated on cards (with Mr. Sliwinski impressively playing without any apparent written score) and the overall effect built in intensity as the piece went on.

Music in the 21st century has entered a new era of evolution, and Princeton University has placed itself in the thick of it with the appointment of So Percussion as performers-in-residence. Much of the ensemble’s responsibilities will involve working with students, which will no doubt open up new avenues of creativity within the department of music. Princeton audiences as well will surely enjoy hearing music at its evolutionary best through this unique ensemble.

September 17, 2014
“LET ROME IN TIBER MELT”: Mark Antony (Esau Pritchett), general and co-ruler of Rome, romances the Egyptian queen Cleopatra (Nicole Ari Parker), as civil wars rage throughout the Roman world, in William Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through October 5.(Photo by T. Charles Erickson}

“LET ROME IN TIBER MELT”: Mark Antony (Esau Pritchett), general and co-ruler of Rome, romances the Egyptian queen Cleopatra (Nicole Ari Parker), as civil wars rage throughout the Roman world, in William Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through October 5. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson}

Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (1606-07), written after the great tragedies of Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth, is seen by scholars and theater practitioners as a “problem play.” Despite the fame of its protagonists and the richness of the plot and poetry, the play is seldom produced, and assessments of its text and its characters diverge widely. Emily Mann’s current production of Antony and Cleopatra at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre in Princeton is an exciting theatrical event and a bold, engaging endeavor to present and overcome the challenges of this perplexing masterwork.

The problems start with the play’s genre. Is it history, tragedy, romance, comedy, or something else? (The McCarter website, mccarter.org, gives you an opportunity to vote on this question.) The historical detail here is extensive — Plutarch’s Lives (translated into English in 1579) is Shakespeare’s principal source — as Antony, Cleopatra, Octavius Caesar and others engage in the civil wars, after the death of Julius Caesar, which eventually lead to the end of the Roman Republic and the establishment of the Roman Empire. The grandeur of the two protagonists and the sense of loss and waste in their devastating fall certainly evoke the thoughts and emotions of tragedy. But there is also a spirit and tone here that is lighter than that of the great tragedies. The romance here — both in the love between Antony and Cleopatra and in the contrasts between the stern, efficient reality of Rome and the exotic, emotional, sensual attractions of Egypt — is a powerful element of the play.

The problems, both practical and theoretical, multiply for producers of this play. How do you stage a script that includes 42 scenes, as the action of the play shifts rapidly back and forth between Rome and Alexandria in Egypt, from palaces to battlefields and elsewhere throughout the Mediterranean, and calls for more than 40 different characters? And how do you interpret these heroic, larger-than-life, even mythical main characters with their fatal flaws, their moral ambiguity, and their destructive actions?

Ms. Mann has made judicious cuts in the original script, eliminating several short scenes and merging or eliminating a few minor characters, in order to focus the action and bring the running time to just two and a half hours. Only 11 actors here play 21 different roles. Audiences are not likely to miss the deleted lines, characters, or events. Also streamlining the action and enhancing pace, continuity, and dramatic tension are Daniel Ostling’s unit set design, finely coordinated with Paul Tazewell’s striking costumes, Edward Pierce’s lavish and varied expressionistic lighting and Mark Bennett’s original music and sound, mostly performed onstage by percussionist Mark Katsaounis.

The simple set, following the principle of Shakespeare’s bare platform stage without curtains, consists only of three large panels — like three huge sails? — golden in color and origami-like in their texture and folds. The actors and their lines, aided by costumes, music and lighting, splendidly and clearly delineate the shifting locales and contrasting worlds of this play. Individually and in finely coordinated collaboration, the clothing, the soundscape, the colors, and the nuances of light reflect the clashing of the cold, martial efficiency of Octavius’s Rome with the warmer, less rigid, more mysterious allures of Egypt.

An even bigger challenge with this problem play lies in the two monumental protagonists and their troubled, intense relationship. Again Ms. Mann has risen to the challenges in her casting of Esau Pritchett and Nicole Ari Parker. Mr. Pritchett played the leading role of Troy Maxson in August Wilson’s Fences at McCarter last January and last spring performed as a younger Antony in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (1599) at the Orlando Shakespeare Theatre. The imposing character of Troy, albeit in mid-20th century Pittsburgh rather than first century B.C. Rome, shares a number of Antony’s strengths and flaws, and Mr. Pritchett, with numerous other Shakespearean roles on his resume, is superbly qualified to don the mantel of Antony here. He is physically and vocally able to command the stage — convincing as the great, aging military and political leader and also fully believable as the lover of Cleopatra. As he moves back and forth between Rome and Egypt, Mr. Pritchett’s Antony vividly embodies the noble, admirable qualities and the morally ambiguous, flawed qualities of both worlds. He is convincing as both mighty warrior and infatuated lover, in grandeur and in human weakness. He is both “the triple pillar of the world” and ”a strumpet’s fool,” as he is described by one of his followers in the opening scene.

As Cleopatra, Ms. Parker, star of films and Showtime’s Soul Food series, is, in many ways, a worthy counterpart to this Antony. Dazzlingly beautiful in an array of stunning costumes, she brings the character to life with a contemporary flair that works effectively in portraying Cleopatra in many of her more human moments of worry, of anger, of cattiness, of bantering affection with Antony, of jealousy when she hears of Antony’s arranged marriage. She is less adept than Mr. Pritchett with the poetic lines, however, less clear in communicating the rich language and less able to rise to the grand stature of this mighty queen and last reigning pharaoh of Egypt.

As Antony’s friend and follower Enobarbus, Michael Siberry creates a sympathetic character, torn by central conflicts of the play. He also provides a valuable, often ambivalent perspective on the proceedings and delivers, most eloquently, some of the Bard’s finest poetry. For example, he describes Cleopatra: “The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne,/Burnt on the water. The poop was beaten gold;/Purple the sails, and so perfumed that/The winds were lovesick with them … Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale/Her infinite variety.”

As Cleopatra’s eunuch Mardian, the incomparable Everett Quinton, bedecked in bright orange with appropriate nail polish and shimmering handbag, creates a character — fascinating, extravagant, at times comical, yet believable too — to embody the gender conflicts and ambiguities of the play. Mr. Quinton plays a second very different role, also convincing, in the final scene of the play as he delivers the basket of deadly asps to his queen.

As Octavius Caesar, the cold, calculating, consummate leader, nephew, and adoptive son of Julius Caesar, soon to become the triumphant Caesar Augustus, Tobias Segal, not large in size but mighty in authority, delivers his part with imperious command.

The first-rate supporting cast is impressively strong, well-rehearsed and consistently in character. Mairin Lee in two roles as Octavia, sister of Octavius, betrothed to Antony in an arranged political marriage, and also as Cleopatra’s servant Iras is on target and affecting, as is Zainab Jah as another attendant on the queen. Tom Sesma in a variety of roles, Philippe Bowgen as Octavius’ stern lieutenant, Keith Eric Chappelle as a mesmerizing soothsayer and other roles, and Warner Miller as Antony’s faithful right-hand man–all lend credible, invaluable support.

Mr. Katsaounis, the percussionist, ensconced on stage left but emerging at key moments with an enormous red, war drum, rightfully joins the cast list, as a significant dynamic player in the drama.

“Give me my robe. Put on my crown. I have/Immortal longings in me,” Cleopatra tells her attendants as her end approaches in the final scene of the play.

Despite all the “problems” of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, the play is undeniably one of the Bard’s greatest poetic masterpieces and a brilliant study of two of the most fascinating, memorable characters in all literature and history. The theatricality here is brilliant. Ms. Mann and the McCarter company successfully bring Shakespeare’s colorful, transcendently poetic vision to life in this stirring production.


August 13, 2014
SCAMMERS AND THEIR PREY: Subtle (Bruce Cromer, left), posing as the all-knowing alchemist, foresees business prospects for Abel Drugger (Jeffrey M. Bender) in New Jersey Shakespeare Theatre’s production of Ben Jonson’s “The Alchemist” (1610), playing through August 31 at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre in Madison.(Photo by Jerry Dalia)

SCAMMERS AND THEIR PREY: Subtle (Bruce Cromer, left), posing as the all-knowing alchemist, foresees business prospects for Abel Drugger (Jeffrey M. Bender) in New Jersey Shakespeare Theatre’s production of Ben Jonson’s “The Alchemist” (1610), playing through August 31 at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre in Madison. (Photo by Jerry Dalia)

“O Rare Ben Jonson!” reads the epitaph on the tomb, in London’s Westminster Abbey, of the great Elizabethan and Jacobean poet and playwright. Though Jonson is considered, along with Shakespeare, to be one of the two towering figures of English Renaissance drama, his “rarity” is most clearly manifested today in the unlikelihood of anyone reading or producing his plays.

Undaunted, Bonnie Monte, New Jersey Shakespeare Theatre’s artistic director, has painstakingly and lovingly adapted and staged Mr. Jonson’s The Alchemist (1610), a wild, irreverent satiric comedy, one of his two most famous plays (along with Volpone from 1605). Even in this streamlined, artfully directed, skillfully acted, impressively fine and funny production, the reasons why you may never have had an opportunity to see a Ben Jonson play are obvious.

While Shakespeare may have been, as Jonson himself described him, “not of an age but for all time,” Jonson lived in the moment and was decidedly a man of his time. The Alchemist, for example, takes place in Jonson’s present-day Blackfriars, a suburb of London, during the Plague. Firmly rooted in the corruptions of the real world, Mr. Jonson’s comedy is satiric, holding the mirror up to human beings and their actions, showing us our folly and foibles so that we can make amends.

Heroism? Idealism? Admirable characters? True romance? Not likely in Jonson’s world. Money takes priority over love here, and these characters, all driven by greed and ego-centrism, are not easy to warm up to, despite an enormous, boisterous energy, a vitality and even grandeur emanating from the sheer cunning, creativity, and enjoyment in their out-and-out knavery. And there may also be particular resonances, some lessons to be learned by contemporary audiences, engulfed in the relentless self-promotions, aggressive marketing, and offensive sales pitches of our materialistic world.

Ms. Monte’s adaptation of The Alchemist, including “at least 1000 changes to Jonson’s original text,” deletion of “various minor characters and locations,” “hundreds of cuts and word changes,” and many lines rewritten is helpful in clarifying or eliminating eccentric and incomprehensible syntax, topical allusions, obscure vocabulary and colloquialisms. Those changes, along with some superb performances and a fine sense of comic timing throughout, help to ensure that the humor comes across here. At three hours running time, however, with sustained close listening a requisite and some comprehension challenges remaining, even this new, more accessible Alchemist will not appeal to all tastes.

Jonson follows a classical dramatic structure to frame what looks like almost a celebration of anarchy in his plot. The Alchemist respects the three unities of time (one day), place (the Blackfriars’ house of Lovewit who has left town), and action (Lovewit’s servant and two friends take over the residence as a headquarters for operating their “alchemy” business, involving various fraudulent enterprises that thrive on the gullibility and greed of their victims).

The elaborate unit set, artfully designed by Jonathan Wentz, is rich in detail and scores top marks for functionality and aesthetics. Representing the interior of Lovewit’s house and offering twelve different entrances and exits on two levels, this setting, like a 17th century version of the interior for Michael Frayn’s 1982 Noises Off, puts us squarely in the realm of farcical comedy. The action to take place here is bound to be fast and frenetic.

Nikki Delhomme’s bold, wildly creative costumes, are just sufficiently extreme to enrich the characters’ over-the-top behaviors and personalities. The colorful, memorable wardrobe choices greatly add to the spirit and comedy of the world of The Alchemist. Lighting by Steven Rosen contributes to the relatively clear staging of the chaotic action of this play and also enhances the energetic, buoyant tone, and mood of the piece.

At the core of the action in The Alchemist are the three ‘dirty rotten scoundrels’ — Lovewit’s butler Face (Jon Barker), Subtle the “alchemist” (Bruce Cromer), and a prostitute, Dol Common (Aedin Moloney) — who take over the house while the owner Lovewit (John Ahlin) is away. Although the house is supposed to be kept closed to guard against spread of the Plague, the clever trio entertain a steady stream of eager customers.

First comes Dapper (Jon Sprik), a naïve young lawyer’s clerk seeking a “familiar,” a fairy queen summoned through Subtle’s magical powers, to assist Dapper’s gambling ventures. Then Abel Drugger (Jeffrey M. Bender) appears, begging supernatural assistance for his tobacco business. Next to arrive is the wealthy Sir Epicure Mammon (Brent Harris), voracious in his appetites for money, food, and women, and determined to enlist Subtle’s alchemy in acquiring the legendary philosopher’s stone, that turns all metals into gold. Accompanying Sir Epicure is Pertinax Surly (Kevin Isola), a voice of reason and skepticism, who quickly assesses the fraudulence of Face and his cohorts, but, of course, is ignored and scorned by all.

Two Anabaptist religious figures, an angry Ananias (James Michael Reilly) and his colleague Tribulation Wholesome (Raphael Nash Thompson), also prove ready victims in their greedy scheme to see their money turned into gold. Drugger returns and introduces a rich, alluring young widow, Dame Pliant (Kristen Kittel) and her brother Kastril (Seamus Mulcahy) into the mix.

As Face and Subtle battle over the affections of Dame Pliant, Dol, in the guise of a “royal lady” who has gone mad, romances Sir Epicure. Dapper is gagged and blindfolded and hustled off to the privy, where he spends most of the rest of the play. Drugger and Surly, who is now disguised as a Spanish nobleman, join the heated pursuit of the comely widow, and a huge explosion from the alchemy laboratory, offstage left, adds yet another layer to the madcap confusion.

The unexpectedly early return home of Lovewit finally brings the chaos and increasingly feverish, creative machinations of the three con artists to a head, and a hilarious final scene ensues, where Face, back to his actual persona as Jeremy the housekeeper/ butler, must sort out the insanity and explain the bizarre situation to his bewildered master.

The ensemble of thirteen, all experienced Shakespeare Theatre professionals, take on this challenging work with energy, intelligence, and finely honed comedic style. The characters with their particular quirks and vanities come across clearly and memorably. The actors successfully communicate the difficult language here and, under Ms. Monte’s careful direction, the wild convolutions of this zany plot become mostly coherent.

In this summer of darkness for Princeton Summer Theater, New Jersey Shakespeare Theatre’s highly entertaining production of Ben Jonson’s classic The Alchemist is well worth the hour-long trip north to Madison, especially for aficionados of Ben Jonson and classic English theater. Ms. Monte has composed a remarkable adaptation of a masterpiece and staged it brilliantly to win over contemporary audiences. This is a production to garner appreciation and enjoyment of the rarity of “rare Ben Jonson” and to offer hope that his plays will grace 21st century stages more often in the future.


August 6, 2014
DOGPATCH, USA: Pappy (from left, Pat Parton), Li’l Abner (Glenn Kraft), Daisy Mae (Amber Payne), and Mammy Yokum (Kathy Kutalek) enjoy a pause amidst the pandemonium in M&M Stage’s production of the 1956 musical comedy “Li’l Abner” at Mercer County Community College’s Kelsey Theatre through August 10.

DOGPATCH, USA: Pappy (from left, Pat Parton), Li’l Abner (Glenn Kraft), Daisy Mae (Amber Payne), and Mammy Yokum (Kathy Kutalek) enjoy a pause amidst the pandemonium in M&M Stage’s production of the 1956 musical comedy “Li’l Abner” at Mercer County Community College’s Kelsey Theatre through August 10.

It’s “a typical day in Dogpatch, USA,” which means that the menfolk are doing a lot of sleeping, fishing, swapping lies, making Kickapoo Joy Juice moonshine and collecting unemployment, while the women are doing all of the work and looking forward to the Sadie Hawkins Day race when they hope to catch and marry the men of their dreams. The beautiful young Daisy Mae declares her “one aim in life is to be a good wife, and marry Li’l Abner someday!” The “mystical” and pugilistical” Mammy Yokum is “sassiety’s queen,” who “heads the local machine.” Meanwhile her tall, handsome, good-hearted son Abner, a model of innocence in a corrupt, scheming world, spends most of his energy running away from Daisy and other marriage-seeking young women.

Currently playing at Kelsey Theatre at Mercer County College in an M&M Stage production, the 1956 musical Li’l Abner is based on characters created by Al Capp in his long running (1934-1977) comic strip. It features an array of larger-than-life stereotypes of the rural South, of male-female relationships and of heroes and villains in the world of the 1950s.

The original production, with lyrics and music by Johnny Mercer and Gene de Paul and book by Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, ran for 693 performances on Broadway in 1956-57, followed by a nationwide tour and 1959 movie. The show has remained popular in schools, colleges, and community theaters, though there has never been a major professional revival. The show includes an assortment of amusing, appealing characters, some memorable musical numbers, and some mostly mild satire that often, in the style of Mark Twain via Al Capp, hits home, even six decades after its composition. Despite this worthy, spirited Kelsey production, however, Li’l Abner does suffer from a bit of creakiness and corniness in the plot, seems a bit dated in its 1950s subject matter and traditional musical comedy style, and, at two hours and 45 minutes, goes on about half an hour too long.

Under the skillful direction of Matt South, the capable M&M (Mike Almstedt and Mike Dilorio, producers) ensemble cast of 26 successfully brings the world of Dogpatch, USA to life. Strong voices and experienced actors in most of the leading roles, along with lively, sure-handed choreography by Laura Murey-Ghaffoor and the capable pit orchestra of 15 under the baton of Charlie DeMets ensure a smooth-running, engaging evening.

The “Typical Day” in Dogpatch, with Li’l Abner (Glenn Kraft) and Daisy Mae (Amber Payne) at an enamored yet uncommitted stand-off, quickly spirals into pandemonium when Senator Phogbound (Chuck Denk) arrives to inform the town that the government plans to turn Dogpatch into a nuclear testing ground. Even worse, the evacuation of the townspeople is scheduled to take place before Sadie Hawkins Day, when the local young ladies were all counting on catching their desired mates. Marryin’ Sam (Del Howard), of course, was looking forward to the resulting boost in income.

The only way to save the day is to find something necessary about the town. Could the secret lie in the Yokumberry tonic that Mammy Yokum (Kathy Kutalek) has spoon fed to Li’l Abner every day since he was a baby? Li’l Abner courageously heads to Washington D.C. with the secret formula, but General Bullmoose (Tom Bessellieu), a consummate businessman, plans to trap him into marrying Bullmoose’s secretary Appassionata Von Climax (Kristina Lunetta) and acquire Yokumberry tonic for his own purposes. Meanwhile Daisy Mae has agreed to marry Earthquake McGoon (Evan Bilinski) if he will help her to rescue Li’l Abner, and they, along with an animated contingent of Dogpatchers, descend upon General Bullmoose’s mansion and the government testing laboratory, where the eccentric Dr. Finsdale (Joe Zedeny) and his colleagues are working assiduously to use the Yokumberry formula to create a “brave new world” of superior human beings (“Oh Happy Day”). How will Daisy Mae and Li’l Abner ever get together? How will Dogpatch ever survive?

Mr. Kraft and Ms. Payne in the starring roles are a convincing, attractive romantic duo. In duets (“Namely You” and “Love in a Home”) and other individual and ensemble numbers, they present harmonious, beautiful singing, on-target character work and fine chemistry.

Ms. Kutalek’s Mammy Yokum is suitably feisty, energetic, even acrobatic, strong-willed and entertaining, while Mr. Howard, as Marryin Sam, slick and dapper in black hat and suit with blue vest, provides a vibrant character and a dynamic catalyst for several of the best numbers in the show. A polished dancer with a strong singing voice, Mr. Howard leads the ensemble in the hilarious and rousing “Jubilation T. Cornpone,” in praise of the bumbling Confederate general whose statue graces the Dogpatch town square (“Stonewall Jackson got his name by standing firm in the fray./But who was known to all his men as good ol’ ‘Paper Mache?’”), and also in the sharply satirical, and timely — some things never change, at least not for the better — “The Country’s In the Very Best of Hands” and “The Matrimonial Stomp.”

Mr. Bessellieu’s General Bullmoose delivers a forcefully dramatic caricature of “the military industrial complex” that President Eisenhower warned against, and his two signature numbers, “What’s Good for General Bullmoose” (“is good for the USA”) and “Progress Is the Root of All Evil,” help to reveal and develop this charismatic villain.

Other colorfully striking characters populating the production include Mr. Parton’s laid-back Pappy Yokum (with interesting resemblance to Jerry Garcia), Mr. Bilinski’s powerfully threatening McGoon, Ms. Lunetta’s alluring Appassionata, and Mr. Zedeny’s zany Dr. Finsdale. The supporting ensemble, representing a range of experience and talent, displays fine vocal accomplishments, simple and appealing choreography, and amusing characterizations of the eccentric, zealous Dogpatchers and others to keep the evening moving with energy and focus.

Mr. Almstedt’s brightly-colored set design is functional and effective in helping to create the several different locales in Dogpatch and Washington, D.C., though more speedy set changes would be helpful in driving the plot forward and keeping audience focus. Robert Rutt’s lighting, Louisa Murey’s costumes and Nick Mastalesz’s sound all coordinate together smoothly to bring Al Capp’s wacky world to life on the Kelsey stage.

All in all, M&M’s Li’l Abner — though a bit corny, a lot dated, occasionally tiresome — nonetheless delivers an enjoyable evening of lively music, captivating characters, witty satire, and entertaining humor.

M&M’s production ofLi’l Abner” runs for one more weekend, with performances at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, August 8 and 9, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, August 10, in the Kelsey Theatre at Mercer County Community College on the college’s West Windsor campus, 1200 Old Trenton Road. Call (609) 570-3333 or visit www.kelseytheatre.net for tickets and information.


July 30, 2014

Princeton does not get to hear visiting orchestras very often, but thanks to William and Judith Scheide, there have been more recently. This year’s 7th Annual Midsummer Concert Series concluded last Wednesday night with a performance which continued the Scheide tradition of presenting great orchestras to the community. For this concert in Richardson Auditorium, the Scheide’s decided to focus on the rich depth of American orchestras, linking conductor Mark Laycock (a frequent conductor of Scheide musical events) and the Buffalo (NY) Philharmonic Orchestra in its first visit to Princeton and a world premiere. Mr. Laycock’s Flute Concerto for Jasmine Choi (Songbird’s Journey) showcased the young Korean flute virtuoso Jasmine Choi, clearly a rising star on the international music scene. In this Scheide-sponsored convergence of conductor, soloist and ensemble teamwork, Mr. Laycock, Ms. Choi and the Buffalo Philharmonic presented a mid-summer treat of well-played and well-appreciated music.

Mr. Laycock set up the premiere of his Concerto with a nimble and robust performance of Antonin Dvorak’s 1892 Carnival Overture. The Buffalo Philharmonic started off with a bang, with Mr. Laycock taking a quick tempo to the high-spirited work. The Philharmonic maintained a particularly stately approach to the second theme, with clarinetist John Fullam playing a resonant solo line and English hornist Anna Mattix providing a very sweet solo against concertmistress Amy Glidden. Mr. Laycock built the dynamics well to end the Overture with a grand flourish.

The keynote piece of the evening was Mr. Laycock’s own Flute Concerto, composed for Jasmine Choi, whose career Mr. Laycock has followed closely. Subtitled ‘Songbird’s Journey’ and completed in 2013, this three-movement work drew upon the full virtuostic abilities of the prodigious Ms. Choi. In composing the work, Mr. Laycock drew inspiration from Ms. Choi’s spirit, conceiving a piece that was ‘beautiful and happy, sincere, fun to play and hear.’ The first movement recalled pure late 18th-century counterpoint and musical style, with a soloist cadenza and almost operatic melodic lines. There were no sectional flutes in the ensemble; Mr. Laycock scored all the flute color and delicacy for the soloist. Ms. Choi played the joyful themes with clean runs, supporting the atmosphere of birds chasing one another. By moving the harp to a more prominent location within the violins, Mr. Laycock was able to add a tantalizing color and flavor to the music, and the movement ended as the bird flew away.

Mr. Laycock scored the second movement in a more somber and hymn-like manner, with walking strings as the songbird passed over, reflecting with the depicted monks on their daily prayerful walks. Throughout the work, Ms. Choi played with a great deal of physical energy and determination, fitting well into the majestic phrases.

Mr. Laycock subtitled the third movement ‘suave et enfumè’ (‘sweet and filled with smoke’), implying an impressionistic jazz character. This closing movement did show tinges of early 20th-century French impressionism, but was also colored with Benny Goodman-style swing. The winds, including solo flute, all seemed to go in their own directions, as if the songbird had landed in a downtown New York jazz club. Marked by a great deal of well-executed syncopation and unusual breath effects from Ms. Choi on the flute, this movement effectively closed a work which fit in well with the Buffalo Philharmonic’s mission of blending classical and cross-over music.

In the closing of Symphony No. 2 in D major of Johannes Brahms, the Buffalo Philharmonic preserved the light and sunny atmosphere begun with the Flute Concerto. Pastoral horns cleanly opened the Symphony, as Mr. Laycock moved the first theme along quickly in the violins. Mr. Laycock had the varied styles of the work well in hand, allowing the melodies to flower while eliciting a lean sound from the string sections. Conducting this work must have been a relief after the pressure of presenting his own world premiere, and Mr. Laycock clearly relished the moment as the swirling melodies played out. The brass sections of the Buffalo Philharmonic were impressively clean, and the quick wind passages of the third movement were well executed.

Summer has gone by quickly in this area, but the musical presentations sponsored by the Scheides made the month of July that much richer, and proving that despite the competition for people’s time in the summer months, there is always room for a good symphony in Princeton.


July 23, 2014

For eleven years, a musical treasure has been taking place in Princeton in the summer. The Golandsky Institute has been presenting a symposium and International Piano Festival each summer, training artists in a specific technique known as the Taubman Approach, which develops virtuosity while preventing the injuries affecting highly-accomplished players. As part of the symposium, the Institute has presented public concerts to show off the faculty and talented students.

With the generosity of William and Judith Scheide, the Golandsky Institute took a journey through the history of the piano concerto in a performance last week at Richardson Auditorium. Last Thursday night’s “Scheide Concerto Evening,” offered two of the Institute’s long-time faculty members and two other talented participants in the Institute in four concerti spanning 200 years. Prominently featured were works by two of the biggest names in 18th-century keyboard music — Johann Sebastian Bach, who transcribed virtuosic works for other instruments to the keyboard; and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who took the keyboard concerto form to new heights with an instrument that was still evolving.

Father Seán Duggan, a performance expert on the music of Bach, paid tribute to the hosts of the evening Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in E Major a work originally for harpsichord and which was based on Bach cantatas first recorded by William Scheide with the Bach Aria Group. Concerti in Bach’s time were beginning to take the shape known today, with keyboard concerti characterized by virtuoso requirements usually seen from string instruments. Performing this concerto on a modern piano created a more powerful interpretation than Bach would have imagined, but Father Duggan’s playing was every bit as clean and precise as Bach would have expected. With graceful mordents and trills, Father Duggan well handled the virtuosity required of the work, especially in the extremely quick third movement. Conductor Mark Laycock kept the accompanying orchestra appropriately in the background, building tension between the strings and keyboard and elegantly bringing the music down to nothing to close the second movement Siciliano.

The other Golandsky faculty member featured in this concerto evening was Ilya Itin, a pianist with facility in all centuries of music. By Mozart’s time, the concerto placed certain expectations on the performer in terms of structure, and in Mozart’s case, melody. Mr. Itin’s performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12 in A Major used similar orchestration to the Bach Concerto, but the lower strings in particular served a very different role, and all orchestral parts were responsible for line and drama. Mr. Itin perfectly matched the orchestral colors of the opening introduction and showed that he was capable of both a delicate touch and a forceful style within a graceful framework. The dialog between pianist and ensemble was exact, and Mozart’s humor was well brought out in the third movement interplay among the players.

Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich composed for a piano that was capable of conveying a full range of emotions and musical styles. An experiment by Shostakovich in neo-Baroque orchestration, Concerto in C minor for Piano, Trumpet and String Orchestra added the color of a brass instrument to the light instrumental character, with Mr. Itin again playing solo piano. The first movement seemed to incorporate a Russian folk tale, with a walking bass line and a musical atmosphere that was not as dense as other Shostakovich works. The violins of the New Jersey Symphony provided mournful tunes in the second movement, but with lean playing to accompany the Mr. Itin’s pounding left hand in the keyboard part.

The combined third and fourth movements were the most dramatic of the concerto, with the most virtuosic requirements of the soloist, and more technically demanding playing required of all the musicians. Shostakovich’s humor could be heard in the col legno playing from the strings, while Mr. Laycock kept the musical action moving right along. Shostakovich seemed to throw everything but the kitchen sink into these two combined movements, and the players of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, as well as Mr. Itin, had it all well in hand.

The two Golandsky faculty members were joined by two younger members of the Institute in the closing work of the concert: Bach’s Concerto for Four Pianos in A Minor. Originally scored for four harpsichords, this work was a transcription of a work by Antonio Vivaldi in its day, and in Thursday’s concerto showed all four players to be of equal artistry. Nathan Grabow and Sakura Myers both clearly have futures as concert pianists, and as the melodic material traveled among the keyboards, all players knew their roles as either featured soloists or harmonic background. Ms. Myers in particular showed a great deal of style at the keyboard as the concert closed with typically Vivaldi harmonic drive and intensity.


July 16, 2014

What is enjoyable about the Princeton University Summer Concerts Series is that people tend to come as they are on a warm summer evening — anything goes with attire and the audience has an upbeat summery attitude. Apparently the Summer Concerts committee has also taken an “anything goes” attitude toward the ensembles presented, particularly stretching the imagination of the audience in last week’s performance of the Donald Sinta Quartet. Comprised of four highly-accomplished saxophone players, the Sinta Quartet took the instrument out of its more familiar jazz setting and showed that the saxophone can be just as virtuoso a classical instrument as the violin or flute. Last Wednesday night’s concert in Richardson Auditorium took a “Then and Now” approach to the repertoire presented, alternating classical works (some arranged for saxophone quartet) and newly-commissioned pieces.

The combination of four saxophones is well known in jazz, and an element of casualness carried over as Dan Graser, Zach Stern, Joe Girard, and Danny Hawthorne-Foss sauntered onto the Richardson stage with their instruments. Freed by a lack of music stands, the members of the Sinta Quartet stood tightly together and communicated well throughout the concert, especially when passing musical fragments around among the players. The opening Quartettsatz in C minor of Franz Schubert was originally composed for string quartet, and Mr. Graser carried the long melodic lines well with the soprano saxophone. This instrument could reach quite high in register, and seemed to have two distinct colors — one for the upper register and one for the lower and richer range. The sound from the four players together was most remarkable when they played softly, capturing the Viennese flavor and subtlety of Schubert’s music.

The Sinta Quartet turned again to the string repertoire with a transcription of Barber’s timeless Adagio from String Quartet, Op. 11. In his introductory remarks, Mr. Graser described the saxophone quartet as made up like a choir (with soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone instruments) with the sound of an organ. The quartet began the Adagio almost imperceptibly, as the melodic line flowed from Mr. Graser’s soprano sax. The dynamic builds in the music were all the more dramatic because there was air behind them, and the quartet could uniformly break the lines with breath. One could hear a pin drop in the house during the rests, and tenor saxophonist Joe Girard combined with Mr. Graser for a smooth melodic duet.

The “Now” portion of the concert came from several very contemporary composers, including one commissioned by the quartet through a composition competition. Natalie Moller’s Phantoms began as if from afar, with a sound so well unified the instruments easily resembled horns. A haunting melody was played by alto saxophonist Zach Stern and one could hear more of the baritone sax from Danny Hawthorne-Foss than in previous pieces. A tenor cadenza played by Mr. Girard was definitely borrowed from jazz as Ms. Moller’s piece became sharper and more cutting toward its close.

David Maslanka’s 2006 Recitation Book draws on music from old sources for each movement, in the case of movement V, the 16th-century chorale tune “Durch Adams Fall ist ganz verderbt,” set multiple times by J.S. Bach. Mr. Maslanka’s “Fanfare/Variations on the Chorale ‘Durch Adams Fall’” recalled the majestic style of Giovanni Gabrieli, with superimposed jazz precision. Bach could never have imagined the sound of a saxophone ensemble re-interpreting his music or the musical idioms which followed the 18th century as this set of variations combined more 250 years of music history. The Sinta Quartet easily handled Baroque ornamentation, passing motives among all four instruments.

The Sinta Quartet has included film music in its repertory, with transcriptions of two selections from The Piano, scored by British composer Michael Nyman. “Here to There” and “The Promise” were played with chipper and bright attention to detail and smooth melodies. Speed Metal Organum Blues, which closed the concert, was a mix of several musical styles within the span of a minute, and one could hear the medieval organum influence, while the “blues” was led by soprano and baritone saxophones. This quick survey of musical history showed all the best aspects of the instruments and the polished manner with which the Sinta players work together.

No doubt many in the audience had not heard a saxophone quartet before, and certainly not in classical repertoire. The Princeton University Summer Concert series, known for the excellent string quartets in its series, stretched its range with this foray into saxophone ensembles, and the audience clearly enjoyed the ride.

The Princeton University Summer Concerts series concludes on Monday, July 21 with the Harlem Quartet, at 7:30 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium. Tickets are free and can be picked up at 6 p.m. the night of the performance.


July 2, 2014
SCOUNDRELS IN COMPETITION: Lawrence Jameson (Steve Lobis, right) and his protégé ­Freddy Benson (Travis Przybylski) wager over who can first win over and extract $50,000 from a rich American soap heiress, in Off-Broadstreet Theatre’s revival of the musical comedy “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” playing in Hopewell.

SCOUNDRELS IN COMPETITION: Lawrence Jameson (Steve Lobis, right) and his protégé ­Freddy Benson (Travis Przybylski) wager over who can first win over and extract $50,000 from a rich American soap heiress, in Off-Broadstreet Theatre’s revival of the musical comedy “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” playing in Hopewell.

“What you lack in grace, you certainly make up for in vulgarity,” the suave con-man Lawrence Jameson advises his young rival Freddy Benson, as the two compete for supremacy in the swindling of rich heiresses on the French Riviera in the musical comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, playing through July 26 at The Off-Broadstreet Theatre in Hopewell.

A Broadway hit of 2005 starring John Lithgow and Norbert Leo Butz, based on a 1988 movie starring Michael Caine and Steve Martin, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels re-emerges here with a cast of seasoned area professionals along with a contingent of young and talented Rider College performers — all under the able direction of Robert Thick.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, book by Jeffrey Lane and music and lyrics by David Yazbek, is funny and engaging. But, like its main characters, a couple of scurrilous international charlatans, the show, under a veneer of suaveness and style, does at times lack grace, and it does occasionally push the boundaries of good taste with an abundance of silly shtick and bawdy humor. Mr. Thick and company have taken on a big, challenging, difficult production.

So this week you’ll get two reviews, two perspectives.

The Good News

The protagonist explains his philosophy of the art of the con in his opening number. “Give Them What They Want,” he says, and last Saturday night’s sold-out audience appeared to be thoroughly entertained from pre-curtain desserts to final bows, responding with frequent loud laughter and applause. The show is at times hilarious, as Lawrence and Freddy take on multiple guises and disguises in pursuing their romantic and financial interests. There is much clever dialogue, with richly inventive, amusing, and outrageous song lyrics.

The cast of ten is well rehearsed, extremely versatile — with most taking on multiple roles — and skilled in acting, singing, and dancing. The older veterans blend well with the energetic, attractive younger performers. The motley array of characters is interesting and engaging, the plot takes a number of intriguing twists and turns, and the evening passes swiftly and pleasantly.

Mr. Thick knows his craft and directs with a swift pace and a deft touch. The simple, brightly colored set design serves to move the action by spinning a large staircase and wall through 18 scenes, as the action shifts to different interior and exterior locales throughout the elegant Riviera resort town.

The music, though hardly memorable, is mostly tuneful, with at least three or four strikingly clever and entertaining numbers. The pit band, under the direction of Philip Orr, with three keyboards, a bass and a percussionist, is thoroughly professional and consistently strong in support of the soloists and ensemble members.

There are abundant reasons why this show was nominated for 10 Tony Awards and 10 Drama Desk Awards and ran for a year and a half, followed by a year-long national tour from 2005 to 2007. But,

The Less Positive Perspective

There are also problems, with both the show itself and the Off-Broadstreet production. The humor misfires at least as often as it hits the target — sometimes just through inanity, sometimes in a tiresome flatness, sometimes in its tastelessness. The lyrics are often more corny than clever, the musical score fails to offer a single number that resonates in the memory, and there is some unevenness in the power and quality of the voices here.

Though Mr. Thick has indeed staged the action resourcefully, the seams sometimes show in this frugal production, as performers spread themselves a bit thin in taking on many different roles; the scenery — literally and figuratively — at times creaks; and what should pass for the luxury and polish of the rich and famous on the Riviera sometimes looks a bit shabby here.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels opens with the debonair Jameson (Steve Lobis) in the process of working his art on Muriel Eubanks (Melissa Rittman), a bejeweled American heiress. Posing as a prince and aided by his friendly local gendarme, Andre Thibault (Michael Lawrence), Jameson has no difficulty in quickly acquiring the lady’s jewels and affections. “What Was a Woman to Do?” Muriel laments in chorus with a small support group of sympathetic women.

Jameson then decides to take on the coarse, brash, young Freddy (Travis Przybylski) as an apprentice con artist, and Jameson proceeds to demonstrate his craft on an Oklahoma oil heiress, Jolene (Milika Cheree Griffiths). In order to extract himself from an imminent marriage, he enlists the services of his protégé to play the role of the prince’s mentally defective brother.

Next to arrive on the scene is purported American soap heiress, Christine Colgate (Ally Hern), and the bet is on. Who can be the first to extort $50,000 from her? The battle of the two scoundrels quickly comes to a head in a dramatic Act One finale, as Freddy poses as a paralyzed wheelchair veteran in need of a $50,000 operation from a distinguished Viennese doctor. And who should suddenly appear at the Riviera resort, but Jameson in the guise of the illustrious Dr. Shuffhausen himself.

Both scoundrels are taxed to their limits in the ongoing deceptions, stings, and desperate battles for one-upmanship. No spoilers here, but more than a few twists and turns ensue, and the action-packed second act even features a comically romantic subplot, with Muriel and Andre, before it reaches its surprising finale.

As the aging virtuoso con man, Mr. Lobis is convincing, comical, poised, and consistently in character, with relentless resourcefulness and the requisite “supreme confidence.” His voice is sturdy and strong. His expressive reactions are fun to watch in his varied interactions.

He delivers his most memorable number, however, when caught in an uncharacteristic, serious, vulnerable moment in the second act, as he confesses, in a romantic ballad, that “Love Sneaks In.”

The rivalry between Lawrence and Freddy is especially entertaining, fast-moving and rich in bristling repartee:

“Freddy, what I am trying to say is know your limitations.”

“Which are?”

“You’re a moron.”

Mr. Przybylski’s Freddy, pink-cheeked and youthful in an over-the-top, rock-star mode with bouffant hair and aggressive demeanor, lives up to his billing of “Great Big Stuff,” as his hilarious signature number is titled. He threatens to steal the show with his energy and comical, larger-than-life persona (though his scene as the “prince’s” mentally defective, lascivious brother crosses the boundaries of good taste). He and Ms. Hern provide another highlight of the evening, accompanied by the vibrant, sure-footed chorus, in “Love is My Legs,” one of several amorous encounters during the evening.

Ms. Hern’s Christine is appropriately charming and focused, though not always strong enough vocally to embrace fully this powerful leading lady role. More successful, albeit in a supporting role, is Ms. Griffith’s Jolene, who plays to the hilt the bright-eyed, straight-from-the-prairie, husband-seeking Oklahoma oil heiress, complete with a chorus of country-and-western line dancers and a spoof on the musical “Oklahoma.”

Ms. Rittman’s Muriel and Mr. Lawrence’s Andre supply further strong support, some deft footwork, and a diverting, romantic second-act interlude.

Emily Elliott, Sarah Whiteford, Sean Magnacca, and Robert Risch, all first-rate Rider College-trained performers, make up the talented, attractive ensemble, taking on four, five, six, even seven different roles apiece throughout the evening. Julie Thick has choreographed the enjoyable dance numbers here, and, though occasionally spread thin — needing perhaps another member or two, this ensemble is vocally, dramatically and physically, kinesthetically up to the challenges of the demanding show.

Ultimately, Off-Broadstreet Theatre’s spirited, ambitious, at times scintillating production of this flawed musical romp provides a diverting evening. You might not find yourself humming the tunes, and you might not care too deeply about these two-dimensional scoundrels and their shenanigans. But, especially with Princeton Summer Theater dark this season, fans of musical comedy will find it worth the short trip to Hopewell to see Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and to celebrate Off-Broadstreet’s 30years (and 238 shows!) of popular, entertaining theater — and delicious desserts too.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” runs through July 26, with performances at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, and dessert served from an hour before curtain time. Call (609) 466-2766 for reservations and further information or visit www.off-broadstreet.com.