October 16, 2019

By Nancy Plum

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

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

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

By Donald H. Sanborn III

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

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

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

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

October 9, 2019

By Nancy Plum

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

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

September 25, 2019

By Nancy Plum

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

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

August 14, 2019

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

By Donald H. Sanborn III

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

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

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

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

July 31, 2019

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

By Donald H. Sanborn III

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

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

July 24, 2019

By Nancy Plum

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

July 17, 2019

By Nancy Plum

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

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

July 10, 2019

By Nancy Plum

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

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

July 3, 2019

By Nancy Plum

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

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

June 26, 2019

By Nancy Plum

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

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

June 19, 2019

By Nancy Plum

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

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

June 12, 2019

By Nancy Plum

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

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

By Donald H. Sanborn III

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

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May 22, 2019

By Nancy Plum

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

May 8, 2019

By Nancy Plum

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

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

May 1, 2019

By Nancy Plum

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

April 10, 2019

By Nancy Plum

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

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

March 27, 2019

By Nancy Plum

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra launched into spring this past weekend with a performance at Richardson Auditorium that was three-fold — presenting an audience favorite, a monumental cello concerto, and a work showing Music Director Xian Zhang’s development of the ensemble since taking the NJSO helm. Friday night’s concert of “Zhang Conducts Schubert and Dvorák” was heavy on concerto soloists, and their collective technical abilities were well appreciated by the Richardson audience. 

Ninteenth-century composer Robert Schumann’s Konzertstück for Four Horns in F Major had never been performed by the NJSO before this past weekend; this three-movement work placed the entire NJSO horn section front and center to showcase the capabilities and rich variety of colors available from the instrument. Horn players Chris Komer, Andrea Menousek, Lawrence DiBello, and Eric Reed played from the front of the stage, allowing the audience to hear Schumann’s motivic solo writing travel up and down the row of horns. Zhang began the first movement in a lively tempo, with a fanfare in well-tuned thirds from the horn soloists. Throughout the Konzertstück, Zhang kept the orchestral background clean, as horn solos were often answered by the Orchestra. Kathleen Nester’s piccolo playing added a sharply-defined color to the instrumental sound.

The darker second movement romanze was played in a more pensive style, with the four horn soloists providing a chorale-like texture.  Both Orchestra and soloists played uniform crescendi, and Zhang tapered the sections within the movement well. Komer, Menousek, DiBello, and Reed well handled the tricky fast-moving motives in the closing movement, emphasizing the hunting character of Schumann’s writing. The clean runs from the horns were complemented by lyrical melodies from the Orchestra, and the four players interacted well with each other. The trumpet section’s use of rotary trumpets enhanced the classical roots of this piece, adding a mellow color to the brass orchestration. more

March 13, 2019

By Nancy Plum

One musical bright spot after every winter in Princeton is the spring concert of the Princeton University Orchestra, when the ensemble presents winners of its annual Concerto Competition for undergraduate students. As evidenced by the audience reaction in this past weekend’s concert at Richardson Auditorium, this year’s winners have not been squirreled away practicing to the expense of everything else, but are fully participating in the Princeton University experience, with armies of friends who came to support them in their solo performances. Four of this year’s winners performed with the University Orchestra Friday night (the concert was repeated Saturday night), demonstrating musical poise, technical dexterity, and the culmination of their enormous capacity for hard work.  more

March 6, 2019

By Nancy Plum

The Princeton Singers continued its long-standing collaboration with the Princeton University Art Museum this past weekend with a performance tied to the Museum’s current “Family Album” exhibit of 18th-century British painter Thomas Gainsborough. Princeton Singers Artistic Director Steven Sametz led the professional chamber vocal ensemble in a program of British a capella choral music spanning more than six centuries. Performing in varied configurations in the Museum’s medieval gallery, The Singers made full use of the unusual space and complementary acoustics in bringing music of “This Sceptered Isle” to life.

The Princeton Singers’ late Saturday afternoon performance (the concert was repeated later Saturday night) was centered on a five-part work by 16th-century English composer William Byrd. Byrd bridged the Protestant and Catholic music traditions while composing several settings of the Catholic liturgical mass at a time when it was politically dangerous to do so. Sametz built Saturday’s concert around Byrd’s late 16th-century Mass for Four Voices, interspersing secular works of British choral music among the mass movements.

With interesting trivia-laden and informative introductions to each selection, Sametz illustrated his programming concept for this eight-work concert. The chorus opened with a “Pastyme with Good Company,” with music and text likely by King Henry VIII, who apparently had time for composing amidst his many wives. The Singers generated a very bright sound in the space of the gallery, with a joyous and chipper choral tone aided by uniform vowel production among all singers. more

February 27, 2019

By Nancy Plum

The giants of the opera world do not have much time to leave their stages and create innovative and cross-cultural programs for smaller audiences, but two such titans came to McCarter Theatre Center this past weekend to perform a bit of opera, American song, and spirituals — with a whole lot of entertainment. The career of bass-baritone Eric Owens has taken him from the Metropolitan Opera to interactive recitals for incarcerated youth to the maximum-security Attica correctional facility. His roles have ranged from Wagnerian to Aristotle Onassis to the delicate Mozart classics. This season, he has turned his attention in a new direction — a multicity vocal collaboration with tenor Lawrence Brownlee, a master of the 19th-century bel canto style of singing and also a leading performer in opera houses worldwide. Owens and Brownlee have teamed up this year for a recital of solo opera arias, duets, American song, and spirituals, and brought their unique partnership to McCarter Theatre this past Sunday afternoon with a program of Mozart, Donizetti, Verdi, and Bizet, as well as a journey through American music. more

February 13, 2019

By Nancy Plum

Continuing Princeton University Concerts’ 125th Anniversary season, Richardson Chamber Players presented an afternoon of mixed chamber works composed during the inaugural season of the Concerts series. In a Sunday concert at Richardson Auditorium entitled Then and Now, six musicians of the Richardson Chamber Players juxtaposed works composed in 1894 and 1895 with music of today, demonstrating connections among pieces written more than 100 years ago. Most of the works on Sunday afternoon’s program paid tribute to the University Concerts’ inaugural year, with the Eric Nathan’s very contemporary Threads for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano making the compositional leap into the 21st century.

The Chamber Players began their journey into Then and Now with a work for solo piano as pianist Geoffrey Burleson performed a paraphrase for solo piano of 19th-century French composer Camille Saint-Saëns. Paraphrases were virtuosic solo instrumental works based on popular melodies of the time, in the case of Saint-Saëns’ La mort de Thaïs, music from Jules Massenet’s opera Thaïs. Saint-Saëns set the opera’s “Vision” tableau of Act III, as well as the more well-known “Meditation,” and Burleson began the work with clarity in opening octaves punctuated by rolling arpeggios. Burleson played percussively, creating tension which moved the music along. This paraphrase was more driven than dreamy, although Burleson was effective in stretching the lines in a more pensive second section. Burleson finished the Saint-Saëns piece in majestic style, with virtuosic flourishes from the keyboard.

German composer Richard Strauss composed a generation later than Saint-Saëns, which can be heard in his boundary-pushing harmonics and emotional setting of text. Strauss composed more than 200 songs, and soprano Rochelle Ellis, accompanied by Burleson, presented four of them in thoughtful and unhurried fashion. The four songs performed by Ellis set poetry of varied text and mood, and Ellis well demonstrated Strauss’ picturesque writing with solid control of the vocal lines and animated storytelling. The third song in particular, “Heimliche Aufforderung,” showed an especially free-flowing accompaniment from Burleson and a sensitive ending to the text from Ellis. more

February 6, 2019

By Nancy Plum

Princeton Symphony Orchestra celebrated its 10-year relationship with Music Director Rossen Milanov this past weekend, with concerts paying tribute to the musical leadership which resulted from Milanov’s first concert with the Orchestra. Saturday night’s performance at Richardson Auditorium (the concert was repeated Sunday afternoon) featured Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 — the work which Milanov conducted in his debut with Princeton Symphony — as well as a Brahms piano concerto within the classical framework.

Johannes Brahms’ 1858 Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor reflected the composer’s homage to Robert Schumann, who served as a mentor to Brahms, and was originally intended as a sonata for two pianists — Brahms and Schumann’s wife Clara. Featured in this weekend’s performances by the Princeton Symphony was pianist Dominic Cheli, who received his training both at Yale University and Manhattan School of Music and is currently pursuing an artist diploma at the Colburn Conservatory of Music in Los Angeles.   

Like Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 which followed in the program, Brahms’ Concerto stated the music ferocity from the outset, with an extended orchestral introduction to the piano solo marked by both subdued strings and effective dynamic swells from timpanist Jeremy Levine. In his opening piano solo line, Cheli emerged from the orchestral texture seamlessly with thoughtful and sensitive playing, positioning the piano as a fellow instrument in the orchestra, rather than set off with its own part.    more

January 23, 2019

By Nancy Plum

Since late November, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra has been presenting a Winter Festival throughout New Jersey, with performances depicting how “Music Speaks.” The Orchestra brought the Festival to Richardson Auditorium last Friday night with both a performance of contemporary poetry set to music and a towering 19th-century symphony featuring text drawn from an early 19th-century anthology. In this concert, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra Music Director Xian Zhang conducted a lean first half of chamber instrumental textures and a second half of lush Romantic orchestration tempered with Viennese buoyancy.  

Composer and Minnesota native Maria Schneider has been credited with revitalizing the big band sound in the 21st century, as well as fusing the jazz and classical worlds. Schneider’s 2013 Winter Morning Walks, a setting of nine poems by Iowa poet Ted Kooser, has received a Grammy for Best Classical Composition, and has been championed by soprano Dawn Upshaw, for whom it was composed.  In Friday night’s performance of this work, Schneider combined three musicians from her own jazz orchestra with strings from the NJSO to accompany Upshaw in conveying Kooser’s descriptive Americana poems. Upshaw and some of the instrumentalists were amplified, which took away a bit from the soprano’s acoustic resonance, but Upshaw used the amplification well to convey the text through the hall. more