June 4, 2014

The Princeton Girlchoir pulled out all the stops this past weekend for its 25th Anniversary concert. Founded by music educator Jan Westrick and currently under the leadership of Artistic Director Lynnel Joy Jenkins, the Princeton Girlchoir (PGC) has provided an incomparable performance outlet to hundreds of Princeton area girls in its history. All six choirs of the PGC program performed in Sunday afternoon’s concert at Trenton War Memorial’s Patriot’s Theater, with all conductors and accompanists also taking part. There were 30 selections on the program, which may seem like a large number, but the range of repertoire both covered the varied musical taste of PGC’s history and captured the overriding message of PGC throughout the years to celebrate the power of girls’ voices.

The 250 girls of the PGC program are divided into six choruses ranging from youngest to oldest, and the training ensemble Grace Notes started things off Sunday afternoon. Conductor Melissa Malvar-Keylock introduced the clear and youthful sound of this younger choir with her own co-arrangement (with Jill Fridersdorf) of the technically difficult “Laudamus Te” from Mozart’s Mass in C minor. This aria is a hard enough piece for an accomplished soloist, but this arrangement removed some of the tougher coloratura and left Mozart’s long melodic lines to the chorus, accompanied by pianist Todd Simmons and flutist Jessica Renshaw. These young singers showed in their selection’s crisp endings an open and free sound.

Each chorus in the PGC program sang a few selections, some in combination with each other, with pieces showing technical difficulty and supporting the goal of fostering in the choristers a lifelong love of music. The Quarter Notes, conducted by Fred Meads, reaffirmed a message of youth in Mac Huff’s arrangement of David Mallet’s “The Garden Song,” made famous in the folk music world by Pete Seeger. Accompanied by Ms. Renshaw’s obbligato flute, the choristers of the Quarter Notes sang with the trademark PGC clear sound, easily maintaining two separate parts.

The complexity of music for Sunday afternoon’s concert proved to be commensurate with the age of the chorister. Ms. Malvar-Keylock returned to the stage with the Semi-tones, showing the same clarity of tone which runs through all the ensembles. Tom Shelton, conductor of the upper-high school age Cantores, showed himself from the outset to be a clear and demanding conductor, leaving no doubt as to what he wanted from the singers. He drew a strong sound from the Cantores, with a rich and pure sound from the top sopranos and exact tuning in the arrangement of Schumann’s lieder “Widmung.” The Hungarian “Fülemüle” was sung with typical Eastern European speed of text and precision more characteristic of a college choir.

The older choristers in the PGC family perform in Cantores, as well as the more advanced Concert Choir and the select Ensemble, both conducted by Lynnel Joy Jenkins. With the Ensemble, Ms. Jenkins showed her choral pedagogy to be a shared experience between conductor and singer by standing not in front of the chorus but to the side, joining the choristers in singing the music. Ms. Jenkins sang alto with the Ensemble in Duruflé’s motet “Tota pulchra es,” stepping in only to close the piece, and the Ensemble showed particular vocal independence in Victor Young’s “When I Fall in Love.” The Concert Choir showed pure intervals with the “Flower Duet” (“Dôme Épais”) from Delibes’ opera Lakmé, and Ms. Jenkins showed that she has clearly imparted a good sense of rhythm to the singers in a saucy performance of Leadbelly’s “Bring me Little Water, Silvy.”

As with many Princeton Girlchoir performances, alumnae join the Girlchoir for final selections, in this case, a piece commissioned from PGC accompanist Ryan Brechmacher for the 25th anniversary. “A Life of Song,” sung by the all the girls in the Girlchoir and the Alumnae Choir, summarized the PGC mission in its text “I want to live a life of song,” and as conducted by Ms. Jenkins, showed the precision and choral blend of the choirs. A performance of the duet “For Good” from the musical Wicked, conducted by founding director Jan Westrick, was also an appropriate choice to acknowledge the bonding experience of being part of the Princeton Girlchoir.

 

May 14, 2014

Princeton Pro Musica took a musical journey back to the world of George Frideric Handel this past weekend with a concert which was historically accurate, both in instrumentation and presentation.

Presented Sunday afternoon in Richardson Auditorium, Pro Musica’s performance of Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt was not programmed on the most spring-like of Mother’s Day themes (unless Mom is interested in plagues, pestilence and frogs), but the clarity of the performance and the orchestral music performed along with the oratorio certainly evoked the sprightliness of the season.

Pro Musica Artistic Director Ryan James Brandau programmed the concert to recreate a performance of Handel’s time, in which the two halves of the oratorio would be separated by an orchestral work, usually one of Handel’s own concertos. Israel in Egypt was first performed in 1739, and its oratorio form was a natural outgrowth of Handel’s very successful career as a composer of opera. This oratorio draws its text principally from the Old Testament’s book Exodus, with the chorus principally carrying the action of hailstones, darkness, and the smiting of the firstborn in the first part. Accompanied by a period instrument orchestra, the singers of Pro Musica began with a well-unified choral sound, especially showing how the men’s sections have developed under Dr. Brandau’s leadership. The eight-part opening chorus had a good choral foundation in the bass sections, with a tenor section which has also developed impressively over the past few years. The sectional soprano sound started off a bit fuzzy, but certainly cleaned up as the piece went on.

There were two small solos in the first part, as the chorus was joined by mezzo-soprano Kate Maroney and tenor James Kennerley. Mr. Kennerley showed himself throughout the performance to be especially expert at recitative, telling the story well and balancing Ms. Maroney’s elegant singing well in their second part duet. Ms. Maroney had a tough job with the register of the alto solos (these solos are often sung by a counter-tenor), but presented smooth melodic lines and especially nice ornamentation as well as adeptly-handled runs.

Handel’s oratorios tend to be on the long side, and different conductors cut different things, depending on their taste. Dr. Brandau reversed the performing focus in the second part, allowing a number of solo and duet movements to flow together without choral interruption. Soprano soloists Melanie Russell and Sarah Brailey were well-matched, with Ms. Brailey showing an especially rich sound which rang with bell-like quality in the upper register. Ms. Russell added the icing on the vocal cake with a lighter sound, and the two colors blended together particularly well in a duet for two sopranos of equal register.

In “The Lord is a man of war” Handel may have composed the only duet for two basses in oratorio repertory, and Mr. Brandau brought together two bass-baritones who often sang the same musical passages in succession but with different vocal textures (Handel often composed for forces on hand — there must have been some great basses in early 18th-century London). Accompanied by a lithe pair of oboes in Priscilla Jerreid and Geoffrey Burgess, Christopher Dylan Herbert climbed well into the higher register of the duet, while Jonathan Woody demonstrated the richer and more defiant sound — when he sang of Pharaoh’s chosen captains, also drowned, one was certainly convinced that they drowned.

The interpolated Concerto Grosso in G Major proved to be a good contrast against the dark nature of the oratorio. The five movements flowed together well, and the string orchestra, accompanied by harpsichordist Raphael Fusco, played with a consistently light and clean touch. Suspensions between the two violin sections blended well, and the solo trio of violinists Owen Dalby and Nanae Iwata, joined by cellist Katie Rietman, provided seamless contrasting textures.

For those curious about how Dr. Brandau has developed Pro Musica’s trademark choral sound, the “horse and his rider” choruses were worth the price of admission. Dr. Brandau took these two closing choruses like the wind, and the singers of Pro Musica did not miss a note in the choral coloratura, bringing the work to a typically Baroque glorious close. This oratorio may have been a handful for a choral singer, but the members of Pro Musica never let on that they were anything less than ready for more.

 

May 7, 2014

The clarinet does not often come out from its customary orchestral place behind the flutes and next to the bassoons. Mozart, as well as a few Romantic composers and Benny Goodman made the instrument a star in the “swing” world, but one does not often hear the range of musical styles from the clarinet heard from soloist Anthony McGill and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra this past weekend. NJSO conductor Jacques Lacombe programmed a concert on the theme of freedom and heroism, with clarinetist Mr. McGill representing the voice of Martin Luther King, Jr. in a newly-commissioned work by American composer Richard Danielpour.

Friday night’s performance in Richardson Auditorium was centered on aspects of heroism and continued a theme of the legacy of Dr. King which has been recurring throughout the season. The connection of Beethoven’s Leonore Overture to the freedom theme was immediately apparent; derived from Beethoven’s opera Fidelio, the overture reflected the hero Florestan’s emerging into the light for the first time after a long imprisonment. Mr. Lacombe began the overture with a stately walk by the strings, taking the music to its inevitable conclusion in triumph. Mr. Lacombe cleanly emphasized the sforzandi characteristic of Beethoven’s style, contrasting musical force with the delicate combination of flutist Bart Feller’s spool lines and light strings. Conducting from memory, Mr. Lacombe was able to focus on instrumental sections as necessary, moving quickly between sections and teasing with flute and oboe leading to the closing Presto.

Mr. Lacombe cited Richard Danielpour as one of his favorite American composers, and under his leadership, the NJSO has presented several of Mr. Danielpour’s works. The NJSO commission of Danielpour’s clarinet concerto From the Mountaintop was a three-way project, with the Kansas City Symphony and Philadelphia’s Orchestra 2001 taking part. Through this work, Danielpour depicted the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., especially centered on the “Mountaintop Speech” of April 1968.

In this programmatic concerto, the clarinet soloist was cast as a “minister in a Southern Baptist church” telling the life story of Dr. King. The soloist was expected to be a storyteller, and Mr. McGill clearly took the role very seriously. Beginning with a musical soliloquy, McGill evoked an atmosphere of mid-20th century jazz, with a seamless clarinet line amid Bernstein-esque rhythms. McGill demonstrated a solid feel for the music, which often pulsated among different instruments within the orchestra. His solo clarinet line was often in duet with percussion, including the unique color of the marimba and a cadenza duet with timpanist David Fein. With an ostinato from the harp and refined sound of English horn from Andrew Adelson, the music was often poignant and always in support of the soloist. McGill found a wide range of emotions from the clarinet, accompanied by varied orchestral colors, including a unified horn section and elegant cello solo commenting on the action from Jonathan Spitz.

Besides its well-known connection to Beethoven, the Symphony No. 1 in C minor of Johannes Brahms fit well into the theme of the concert with the sense of liberation conveyed in the Finale. Lacombe began the work with a commanding introduction to the first movement, marked by a steady timpani and an oboe solo from Robert Ingliss which built in intensity. The Allegro of the movement settled into a gentle flow, as the influence of Beethoven on Brahms became more evident.

Ingliss was featured again in the hymnlike and stately second movement, rising over the rest of the orchestral sound. This movement maintained a great deal of flow, led by the sensitivity of the winds. Clarinetist Karl Herman and concertmaster Eric Wyrick were also featured in the gentler inner movements. Mr. Lacombe brought out well the great string melody in the final movement, bringing the symphony to a triumphant Finale. A brisk performance of Brahms’ famous Hungarian Dance No. 5 as an encore reminded the audience at Richardson of what a spirited year it has been for the New Jersey Symphony as the orchestra’s Princeton season came to a close.

 

April 30, 2014
TOWERING TALENT: Young members of DanceVision, which is based at the Princeton Dance and Theatre studio in Forrestal Village, are appearing on a program of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Graduation Ball,” (shown here) this weekend and next.

TOWERING TALENT: Young members of DanceVision, which is based at the Princeton Dance and Theatre studio in Forrestal Village, are appearing on a program of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Graduation Ball,” (shown here) this weekend and next.

Among the many performances at Communiversity last Sunday was an excerpt from the ballet A Midsummer Night’s Dream, under a tent on Witherspoon Street just

outside the Princeton Public Library. The young dancers, from the DanceVision Performance Company, made a few concessions due to the asphalt that was serving as a stage floor, scrapping the traditional pointe shoes in favor of less precarious soft-soled footwear.

Injuries would have been especially unwelcome, since the company is set to appear this weekend at the College of New Jersey’s Kendall Theater, and the following Saturday in Neptune. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is artistic director Risa Kaplowitz’s take on the Shakespeare play. Also on the program is her version of the comedic ballet Graduation Ball.

The double bill is a repeat of one that debuted last spring. But those who were in the audience last year can expect to see some changes, according to Ms. Kaplowitz. “When you write something, you get to reread and edit it. When you are choreographing, you don’t get to see it until everybody else does,” she said last week. “Until you actually see it on stage, you don’t even know what you have yet. So the first year is always challenging. The second is relief, because you are able to tweak and edit and fix. It’s so much better this year.”

Joining the production as guest artists are Rickey Flagg II, from the professional training program of Dance Theatre of Harlem; and Charles Way, a member of the Lustig Dance Theatre Company. Ms. Kaplowitz is just as enthused about the dancers she has trained at the company’s Princeton Dance and Theatre studio in Forrestal Village, which she opened with former American Ballet Theatre (ABT) star Susan Jaffe in 2005. She is especially proud of 15-year-old Max Azaro, who recently won a full scholarship to ABT’s Jackie Kennedy Onassis School in New York City.

“I’m so happy for him,” she said “I’ve been teaching him since he was four-and-a-half. He’s so talented, and so are the other dancers. It’s really the cream of the crop of pre-professional dancers in this area.”

Set to Mendelssohn’s score, the one-act A Midsummer Night’s Dream opens the program. “I pieced it together so that it really follows the text,” Ms. Kaplowitz said. “A lot of middle school kids will be coming, and I think the way I’ve done it makes it understandable for them. It’s very, very funny. Thankfully, our guest artists know how to be funny without being silly — how to make it real and authentic. It’s hilarious.”

Graduation Ball, which has music by Johann Strauss II and was originally choreographed by David Lichine in 1940, “… is also very funny,” Ms. Kaplowitz said. “It’s a really fun dance, not your typical ballet.”

DanceVision members recently performed with Boheme Opera Company, and Ms. Kaplowitz has presented them in choreography she has created for programs with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. She recently spoke at a meeting of the Princeton Merchants Association, using visual aids to demonstrate her dancers’ abilities. “They were blown away,” she said. “Whenever we have professional dancers appearing with our [pre-professional] dancers, people always want to guess which ones are the professionals. And they always guess it wrong. It happens all the time.”

Performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Graduation Ball are Saturday, May 3 at 7 p.m. and Sunday, May 4 at 2 p.m. at the College of New Jersey’s Kendall Theater, 2000 Pennington Road, Ewing; and Saturday, May 10 at 7 p.m. at Neptune High School Performing Arts Center, 55 Neptune Boulevard, Neptune. Tickets are $20-$25 in Ewing; $15 in Neptune. Visit www.DancevisionNJ.org or call (609) 520-1020.

 

Princeton University Orchestra conductor Michael Pratt introduced this year’s Stuart B. Mindlin concert as a journey. For this past weekend’s concerts, the University Orchestra girded its musical loins and performed Gustav Mahler’s abstract, complex, and ultimately romantic Symphony No. 3 in D minor. Joined by the American Boychoir and the women of the Princeton University Glee Club, the more than 180 musicians on stage and in two balconies embarked on a 90-minute voyage through what Mr. Pratt described as Mahler’s “extraordinary vision and imagination.”

For Friday night’s performance in Richardson Auditorium (the concert was repeated Saturday night), Mr. Pratt suggested the audience think of the six-movement work as a movie. Mahler certainly had a great deal of musical action in mind when he conceived this work in the mid-1880s. Mahler wrote that a symphony “must be like the world. It must embrace everything,” and in the case of his third symphony, “everything” included nature and its relationship to the world and human emotion.

Mahler’s symphonic works are marked by pointed and expressive use of brass, and the eight horns of the University orchestra did not disappoint in the opening fanfare. Answered by sharp bowings from the expanded string sections, the brass sections collectively maintained a sense of suspense well through the first movement, especially in the trumpets’ muted extended suspensions. Mr. Pratt and the orchestra players brought out the melodic quirkiness often found in Mahler’s works, aided by strong trumpet lines and sweet instrumental solos from oboist Katrina Maxcy and concertmistress Kate Dreyfuss. Mahler asks a tremendous amount from players of his music, and Mr. Pratt guided the instrumentalists well with careful and well-planned transitions among sections. He also emphasized the Romantic tunefulness in what seemed at times like musical chaos. Throughout the movement, there was always clarity among the players and the music always sounded fresh, with clean cellos and double basses, four well-unified piccolos and solos from hornist Kimberly Fried, English horn player Alexa McCall, and clarinetist Paul Chang.

The second through sixth sections are abstract character pieces, through which Mahler depicts his perception of nature. The second movement, subtitled “What the flowers in the meadow tell me,” was well led off by Ms. Maxcy, with violins which were lush but as clean as if playing lieder. Solos chased one another around a bit within the orchestral fabric, including violinist Ms. Dreyfuss, flutist Lilia Xie, and Ms. Maxcy, and transitions were always graceful. Bassoonist Luisa Slosar steadily held the rhythm of the third movement with trumpeter Nicolas Crowell providing the work’s signature posthorn solo from the balcony.

Mahler revolutionized symphonic writing by incorporating voices, and in the fourth and fifth movements of Symphony No. 3 a solo mezzo-soprano voice and two treble choirs joined the orchestra. Mezzo-soprano Barbara Rearick a member of the voice faculty at Princeton, settled well into the text of Nietzsche’s poem after sitting quite a while before singing, and her voice effectively built in intensity as she sang of man’s suffering. In depicting “what the morning bells tell me,” the women of the University Glee Club and the 40-voice American Boychoir served effectively as angels. Although the text of “Bimm Bamm” might not lend itself to dramatic interpretation, the American Boychoir’s singing was laser-like, with impressive strength in the alto part. The women of the Glee Club, singing from across the balcony, lithely presented the “Poor Children’s Begging Song” from Das Knaben Wunderhorn with equal clarity from both soprano and alto sections.

As the Romantic lushness of the symphony flourished toward the close of the work, Ms. Maxcy effectively led the audience toward the end of the evening’s musical odyssey. Ms. Xie’s flute solos flowed seamlessly into those of other winds, and the University orchestra brought the symphony to a grand close as a testament to their collective achievement this year.

The orchestra’s presentation of Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 was certainly a journey, but as Mr. Pratt mentioned in his introductory remarks, there were a number of journeys being embarked upon that night. Twenty-five seniors graduated from the orchestra this year (but with an apparently huge pool of players ready to step in next year), with a number of Glee Club singers also graduating from Princeton and the eighth grade of the American Boychoir preparing for their journey into high school. These students’ collective final performances at Richardson will no doubt stay with them as a reminder of the all-encompassing power of music and the written word.

 

April 16, 2014

For the past 15 years, the Brentano String Quartet, comprised of violinists Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin, violist Misha Amory and cellist Nina Lee, has been Ensemble-in-Residence at Princeton University. As part of this residency, the Brentano has assisted with classes and workshops, and has presented concerts to the public each year, many of them free. The last of these public performances took place last Friday night at Richardson Auditorium, as the quartet played a fond musical farewell to an extremely fruitful relationship with the Princeton University department of music. 

For this performance, the Brentano selected music of two composers who would at first seem unrelated. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was one of the founders of the string quartet genre, certainly taking the form to new heights with elegant melodies and courtly dance styles. Composer Dmitri Shostakovich may have had access to the traditional classical music forms, but under the repression and censorship of early 20th-century Russia. The two Mozart chamber works presented by the Brentano Friday night to the full house at Richardson were replete with grace and late 18th-century sophistication, while the Shostakovich quartet was based on the same form, but infused with melancholy and idioms rooted in the Russian church tradition.

Mozart’s String Quartet No. 21 in D Major, K. 575 came relatively late in his career (although “late” is relative for a person who only lived to be 35) and showed the composer’s full command of melodies which could pull at the heartstrings of any generation. Mozart composed this quartet (intended as part of a set of six) for the King of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm II, and one could easily hear elements of the 18th-century court in the piece’s delicate figures and tapered ends of phrases. Friedrich Wilhelm was an amateur cellist, and Brentano cellist Nina Lee was featured extensively in the four movements.

The Brentano Quartet played from the outset with style and precise conversation among the instruments. Trills were well-heard in the hall, and the sound often collectively dissipated away, such as in the return to the exposition in the first movement. This movement in particular was conversational, with Ms. Lee leading the four-way chat.

Ms. Lee also showed elegance of phrase in the more lyrical sections of the work.

For the other Mozart piece on the program, the Brentano String Quartet added a fifth instrumentalist. Violist Hsin-Yun Huang, a soloist with numerous credits and awards of her own, added a light touch and crisp playing to Mozart’s String Quintet No. 4 in G Minor. A product of one of Mozart’s more trying years, this four-movement work showed the dark color of the composer’s other works in the same key, enhanced by rich viola lines and interplay between the two violins. This quintet reflected the frustration of Mozart’s year in a relentless ostinato in the opening movement, but occasionally moments of joy came through. The five players brought out well the drama in the music, and in the third movement Adagio, one could easily hear the tenderness of Mozart’s operas. In the closing movement, Mr. Steinberg played a graceful and aria-like violin line, and all five players brought the work to a close with finesse.

The chamber work which contrasted with the elegance of Mozart’s style was Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 11 in F Minor, composed in 1965, 200 years after Mozart. Shostakovich dedicated this quartet to a member of the Moscow Conservatory Quartet which had premiered most of his string quartets and who had recently died, and the structure of the work showed how far the form had come in 200 years. Shostakovich incorporated into the piece musical forms popular throughout the 19th century, tying them together to both pay homage to a colleague and create an eloquent musical palette.

The seven movements flowed seamlessly as the players of the Brentano found both the plaintive melodies of the work and its occasional sense of peace and calm. Mr. Steinberg in particular exhibited a persistent musical figure in the second movement, both on single string and in double stops. Ms. Canin drew an especially rich tone from the second violin in the closing movement, sounding almost like a wind instrument at times.

The Brentano String Quartet may be ending their formal residency relationship with Princeton University, but the players are certainly not going far; they are scheduled to return in recital next February with mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato. As the Brentano takes up its new residence at Yale, Princeton will welcome the innovative So Percussion Quartet as the Edward T. Cone Ensemble-in-Residence. This group of young musicians will no doubt bring a new style of music to the University as music at Princeton moves further into the 21st century.

 

April 9, 2014

The Richardson Chamber Players focused its final program of the season on “words in the English language that carry poetic promise,” and decided “England” was one of those words. The music selected for Sunday afternoon’s concert in Richardson Auditorium also emphasized spring, and fortunately the weather cooperated. Those who chose to come inside on Sunday afternoon heard pieces which not only evoked England and spring, but also demonstrated the Chamber Players’ mission of bringing lesser-known masterpieces of unusual combinations of instruments to the forefront. 

Few countries take their countryside more seriously than England, and composer Ralph Vaughan Williams’ song cycle Along the Field used solo violin and voice to depict a pastoral atmosphere. Soprano Rochelle Ellis and violinist Anna Lim presented five of these songs with both expressiveness and simplicity.

Ms. Ellis made her first entrance in the opening “We’ll to the Woods no More” with a great deal of resonance and fullness of sound. The pentatonic scale from Ms. Lim’s violin line gave the song an Eastern feel, and the two performers gave this first song a tapered finish. Throughout the five songs, Ms. Ellis and Ms. Lim brought out the folk elements of the set, from a Scottish bagpipe-type drone from the violin and clarity in the poignant text from Ms. Ellis. Ms. Ellis showed solid composure singing extensive a cappella passages, holding her own well against a violin line which was often contrary.

Tenor David Kellett also chose to present a song cycle of a British composer, but with a much different musical palette. Benjamin Britten composed a large amount of vocal music for British tenor Peter Pears, who possessed a unique tenor voice. In 1976 Britten was commissioned by Queen Elizabeth II to write a piece for the Queen Mother’s 75th birthday. The resulting A Birthday Hansel (“hansel” is a Scottish word for “gift”) combined the tenor voice with the intricacies and distinctive colors of the harp. Mr. Kellett was joined in selections from A Birthday Hansel by harpist Elaine Christy, harp instructor at Princeton University.

Like Vaughan Williams, Britten drew from Scottish influences for this song cycle, stretching the limits of both the tenor voice and the harp. As Ms. Christy explained to the audience, Britten composed extensively for the harp, but demanded unorthodox patterns, fingerings, and intervals. Ms. Christy showed no trouble at all with the Scottish bagpipe and drum impressions, flowing lines and repeated patterns extending into the highest register of the instrument. She achieved effects rarely heard from the harp, an instrument often buried in orchestral texture. Mr. Kellett, despite his protestations of the challenges of singing music composed for the unique voice of Peter Pears, sang with lyricism and clean diction.

Two instrumental works rounded out the program: a Folk Tale in G Minor for Cello and Piano by early 20th-century British composer Arnold Bax and Edward Elgar’s Quintet for Piano and Strings in A Minor. Bax composed his Folk Tale on the heels of World War I, and the work clearly reflects the impact of the war on England. Cellist Susannah Chapman and pianist Jennifer Tao brought out Bax’s fascination with Ireland in the long melodic lines for the cello and precisely-timed keyboard accompaniment. One could easily imagine meandering in the countryside as different life events and weather pass by. Ms. Chapman in particular showed a very pure sound in the higher register of the cello while sustaining the extended melodic lines well.

Elgar’s Quintet also dates from 1918 and claims not to reflect World War I, but one can easily hear poignancy and nostalgia in the lush music. Violinists Anna Lim and Stephanie Liu, violist Shmuel Katz, cellist Ms. Chapman and pianist Ms. Tao blended together seamlessly to create a smooth musical ambiance, becoming particularly lush in the first movement. The five musicians built in ferocity toward the end of the first movement, tempered with sweet duets between first violin and cello, and second violin and violist. The second movement Adagio was rich and hymnlike, as one could hear a cathedral rising in the distance of the countryside. With a majestic close to the work, the musicians of the Richardson Chamber Players succeeded in capturing a reflective side of England. 

 

April 2, 2014

Musical dream sequences often occur in opera, but symphonic works conveying dreams are less common. Princeton Symphony Orchestra (PSO) presented a concert of “Nights and Dreams” this past weekend, exploring three pieces which musically told stories of dreams and things that go bump in the night. The Princeton Symphony Orchestra Edward T. Cone Concert on Sunday afternoon in Richardson Auditorium showed the orchestra in more than fine form — tackling a very challenging and intriguing repertoire. 

Princeton composer Julian Grant was described in the concert program as specializing in opera and “experimental music theater.” Commissioned by Princeton Symphony Orchestra for a new work, Mr. Grant looked back to his own 1998 opera to create Dances in the Dark, a four section work depicting scenarios one might run into after dark. Incorporating a musical potpourri, including classical piano works, jazz and instrumental impressionism, this work resembled speeding in a time warp through New York City after midnight. While conveying musical tidbits and sounds of hypothetical random recitals, Mr. Milanov always found direction in the music, and the overall orchestral effect in this world premiere was very clean. Intriguing scenarios were created from a solo English horn (elegantly played by Nathan Mills) with sectional cellos, and a bit of jazz cacophony from the trumpets. Principal flutist Chelsea Knox was kept busy with quick passages, but Mr. Milanov seemed to always be aware of where the piece was going.

Benjamin Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Opus 31 is a set of six poems preceded and followed by a solo horn. Britten drew poetry from four centuries for this setting, including both familiar and lesser-known writers. For this work the Princeton Symphony was joined by horn soloist Eric Ruske, professor of horn at Boston University; and tenor Dominic Armstrong, a soloist with a great deal of experience with the music of Britten. Mr. Ruske opened the work with a clear tone in the Fanfare and effectively matched the moods of the poetry throughout the piece, whether bugle calls, providing a distant effect, or calling forth from purgatory. Britten set the six poems with serenity, evoking the English countryside and the grand stature of castle architecture. Mr. Armstrong matched the quality of the poetry well, especially the relentlessness of the anonymous 15th-century Dirge.

All composers surely dream, but no one’s dreams were more beyond the edge of reality than those of 19th century French composer Hector Berlioz. His 1830 Symphonie Fantastique, (an “Episode in the Life of an Artist, in Five Parts”) was programmatic, like many symphonic works of that period, but Berlioz provided the story of a fantasy well contrasting with the 19th-century focus on romance and melodrama. Mr. Milanov began the complex orchestral work with clarity, painting a dreamy picture while allowing instrumental soloists to present the idée fixe of the heroine cleanly. Musical ideas took a long time to spin out in this work, but Mr. Milanov consistently maintained control over the dramatic tension. Melodies were kept chipper, especially from horn soloist Douglas Lundeen and oboist Nicholas Masterson.

Mr. Masterson and English horn player Mr. Mills played a poignant duet in the third movement Scene in the Country, as Berlioz’s story develops continually more anguish. Throughout this movement, Mr. Milanov never rushed the tempo, creating a musical study in intensity at the close as a high flute blended well with the upper strings. The eccentricity of the story culminated in the final movement, as Berlioz sees himself at his own funeral, musically depicted by quirky clarinets, oboes and bassoons. This was likely the most familiar movement to the audience, with the medieval Dies Irae theme punctuated by bells coming from the balcony. Raw sounding col legno (playing with the wooden part of the bow) from the strings added to the creepiness of Berlioz’s thinking, but precision from the orchestra closed the symphony in 19th-century clarity.

 

March 26, 2014

It has been a season of musical birthdays in Princeton, and the Dryden Ensemble added to the mix with two concerts celebrating Bach’s 329th birthday this past weekend. Sunday afternoon’s venue in the Dryden Ensemble’s Trinity Church, Solebury home (the concert was also performed the night before in Princeton Seminary’s Miller Chapel) proved to be both an intimate chamber performance space and equally as musically appropriate a site for the ensemble as its Princeton base. 

The four members of the Dryden Ensemble — violinist Vita Wallace, viola da gamba player Lisa Terry, oboist Jane McKinley, and harpsichordist Webb Wiggins — clearly found Trinity Church a space in which it was easy to communicate, and all four of their instruments spoke well in the sanctuary. Sunday afternoon’s concert, dedicated to the memory of long-time Dryden supporter Mardi Considine, principally featured music of J.S. Bach, as well as that of his son and a predecessor.

The Dryden Ensemble explored two works of Bach originally composed for organ and transcribed for chamber string and wind ensemble. The players of the Dryden themselves transcribed BWV 525, originally an organ sonata in E-flat, to feature oboe d’amore and violin, accompanied by viola da gamba and harpsichord and retitled Trio in D Major. The Baroque oboe d’amore is not as rich and mellifluous as its modern counterpart, but Ms. McKinley was able to achieve both a smooth melody in the second movement and clean rapid lines in the closing passages. Ms. Wallace provided a crisp second voice in this instrumental dialog, and all four players maintained Bach’s intricacy within complex Baroque counterpoint.

Bach was preceded in history by Dietrich Buxtehude, primarily known for his keyboard works, but also a big fan of the viola da gamba. Gamba player Lisa Terry capitalized on the great musical variety found in Buxtehude’s instrumental sonatas, in this case Sonata in G minor for violin and viola da gamba. Crisply accompanied by Mr. Wiggins, Ms. Terry and violinist Ms. Wallace sustained both the rhythmic drive of the fast movements and the sensitive lines of the slower sections. In the penultimate Grave, Ms. Terry especially showed that she had complete control over the entire range of her instrument.

Mr. Wiggins introduced a new member of his keyboard family to the Dryden’s audiences this past weekend in a harpsichord built by William Dowd on the model of early 18th-century German builder Michael Mietke. Mr. Wiggins’ new harpsichord was a large instrument with a particularly rich lower register and capable of producing a substantial sound for what one thinks of from a Baroque instrument. Interpolated into Sunday’s program was a keyboard suite of Buxtehude, featuring Mr. Wiggins showing off the William Down harpsichord. As two voices chased each other on the keyboard in one of the quicker movements, the upper register of the harpsichord showed a well-rounded sound. Mr. Wiggins ably handled the challenge of the very fast lines, and was more than successful in finding sensitivity and lyricism in an instrument primarily heard accompanying or in continuo style.

In the closing work of the program, Bach’s Sonata in D Major for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord, Mr. Wiggins’ quick right hand matched the elegance of the melodic lines drawn out by Ms. Terry. Throughout this work, repeating sequences were exactly timed, and as the two instruments traded roles in a question-and-answer dialog, Mr. Wiggins and Ms. Terry seemed to enjoy the musical repartee.

 

March 19, 2014

Superstar instrumentalists rarely come to Princeton, and New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) presented a real treat to the community this past weekend with violinist Hilary Hahn. Playing Johannes Brahms’ demanding Violin Concerto in D Major, Ms. Hahn brought the audience at Richardson Auditorium down to pin drop level several times with her fiery playing, tempered with lyrical melodic lines.

Guest conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier, himself a violin prodigy as a child, seemed to be from the old school of conductors, taking command of the podium with little fanfare, but at the same time maintaining absolute control over the performance. Mr. Tortelier began Friday night’s performance of the concerto by immediately building drama with the horns in sync with the celli and violas, and winds nicely enmeshed in the orchestral texture. Ms. Hahn’s violin solo emerged from this palette with fire, and Ms. Hahn proved from the start that she is one fierce, intense, and powerful performer.

Ms. Hahn was able to create graceful cadences amidst continuous action for the soloist and mesmerized the audience with extended solo passages and a cadenza during which one could hear a pin drop in the audience. She used the full weight of her body while playing, while the musicians of the NJSO were perfectly timed with her. When not playing, Ms. Hahn often watched the orchestral players, showing that she was never for a moment disengaged from the music. Several players excelled at solo passages during the concerto, including oboist Robert Ingliss, bassoonist Robert Wagner, and concertmaster Eric Wyrick. Throughout the work, Mr. Tortelier wisely allowed Ms. Hahn to lead the way, with the musicians perfectly in tandem. Following the concerto, Ms. Hahn further delighted the audience with a solo encore of a “Loure” from J.S. Bach’s Partita No. 3 in E Major.

Mr. Tortelier paired the Brahms work with two smaller 20th-century works. Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, former music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, has turned his attention to composing in recent years. His 1981 Giro (which he revised in 1997) combined many small instrumental parts into a cohesive musical whole, with coloristic effects provided by solo instruments. The title of this symphonic poem can be translated as “turn,” and the work showed many twists and turns as the musicians seemed to be in their own worlds but clearly part of something larger. English hornist Andrew Adelson provided elegant solo lines, as did oboist Mr. Ingliss, bassoonist Mr. Wagner, E-flat clarinetist Andrew Lamy, and violist Frank Foerster. An unusual orchestral palette was added with the extensive use of harp and marimba.

Igor Stravinsky composed several versions of the Suite from the ballet The Firebird, the last of which was in 1945. The ten movements of the Suite flowed together well, as conducted from memory by Mr. Tortelier. Musical effects such as the “walking-like” ostinato from the celli and double basses reminded the audience that this music was originally composed for the dance, and the characters of the Russian Firebird folktale could be heard in the melodic wind fragments. Mr. Ingliss was kept very busy on Friday night, as he provided graceful solos in several movements. Flutists Bart Feller and Kathleen Nester played crisply against precise pizzicato writing in the strings, and clarinetists Karl Hermann and Mr. Lamy added a silky color to the “Pantomimes” which glued the movements together. Piano accompaniment, played by Elizabeth DeFelice, was well-timed with the winds, and hornist Lawrence DiBello provided a comforting melody following the chaos of the “Infernal Dance of King Kastchei.” Conducting this work from memory, Mr. Tortelier showed himself to be a very energetic conductor, tying the movements together well with effective builds of intensity.

Usually in the spring, the NJSO takes a moment to acknowledge the educational component of the orchestra’s activities. At the start of the concert, a string quartet of NJSO’s Greater Newark Youth Orchestra — violinists Rachel Seo and Winifred Waters, violist Melissa Holfelder, and cellist Danielle Lee — proved, with their performance of an excerpt from Antonin Dvorak’s American String Quartet, that they could hold the stage and the audience’s attention as well as the professional NJSO members behind them.

 

March 12, 2014

The Princeton University Orchestra concerts this past weekend had something for everyone, featuring two student instrumental soloists, one faculty vocalist, and two conductors. The music spanned close to 200 years, with a variety of ensemble combinations.

Saturday night’s performance in Richardson Auditorium (the concert was also presented Friday night) focused on student talent in the first half, with two exceptional underclassmen who were winners of this year’s University Orchestra Concerto Competition. Australian junior Nicholas Stead took on one of the most difficult piano concerti in the repertory — Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. Composed as a single movement concerto for a performer who had lost his right arm, this work presented Mr. Stead with the unique challenge of avoiding the temptation to add his right hand to the full keyboard range of the music. The strength required of the left hand was substantial to sustain the slow and intense dynamic and harmonic crescendo as the piece seemed to rise from the sea.

Conductor Michael Pratt led a smooth and flowing Allegro, emphasizing the many coloristic effects and percussive orchestration. The solo piano part required the same dexterity from the left hand as the most difficult works for two hands, and Mr. Stead showed no difficulty handling the intricate lines. Timing between piano and clarinets was exact, and the concerto was enhanced by elegant instrumental solos from English hornist Tiffany Huang and bassoonist Louisa Slosar. No one created musical sunrises better than Ravel, and as the University Orchestra reached full force at the end of the piece, the effect was dramatic.

Sophomore violinist Jessie Chen selected his solo challenge from the late 19th century, with the four-movement Scottish Fantasy of Max Bruch. Each movement incorporated a different folk song with its own unique character. The late 17th-century tune “Auld Rob Morris” was set for plaintive violin solo and orchestral accompaniment, giving the impression of the broad landscape of Scotland. Mr. Chen maintained a very folk-song style while conveying the tuneful theme against the broad string strokes of the orchestra. Mr. Chen was decisive when he needed to be, as the orchestra, led by Ruth Ochs, built the intensity of the movement well. The second movement country dance included numerous double stops for the violin soloist, and Mr. Chen was joined in a playful duet by flutist June Yoon. The most virtuosic passages for the violin solo came in the fourth movement, which Mr. Chen played against an elegant harp accompaniment.

In commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Benjamin Britten’s birth, the University Orchestra presented the composer’s dramatic cantata Phaedra, based on the mythological story of the daughter of Minos of Crete. Mezzo-soprano Barbara Rearick, a member of Princeton’s voice faculty, dramatically conveyed the text with its minimalistic accompaniment provided by a small orchestra including harpsichord. Britten sought a Baroque approach to this piece, but the harpsichord in this case had a more percussive and pointillist effect than the usual accompanying chords heard in Baroque music. Ms. Rearick worked effectively to present a vocal line that was not always melodic, accompanied by graceful accompaniment, especially from cellist Bradley Berman. Mr. Berman played an especially poignant melody toward the end of the work, as a commentary on the death of Phaedra, as conductor Mr. Pratt allowed the piece to fade away. The concert closed on a chipper note, with a spirited performance of Mozart’s Symphony No. 38 in D Major. The University Orchestra had no trouble finding the drama in Mozart’s music and the six wind players providing flute, oboe and bassoon accompaniment were especially strong in the Finale.

 

March 5, 2014

Richardson Chamber Players presented a concert this past weekend entitled “Quiet City,” named for incidental theatrical music by Aaron Copland, but devoted to the music of several 20th-century composers. The Sunday afternoon concert at Richardson Auditorium featured regular Richardson Chamber Player performers, and also included a number of Princeton University students who added great depth to the performance of the final Copland piece. In his introductory remarks, Music Director Michael Pratt commented that the five composers represented on Sunday’s program all lived at the same time, but “each could not have had a more different voice.” The musicians of the Richardson Chamber Players had no trouble finding the uniqueness in each composer.

No one is more identifiable in 20th-century American music than Leonard Bernstein, who composed some of the most recognizable tunes of the century. Bernstein composed Sonata for Clarinet and Piano on the edge of World War II and at a very young age, and the work clearly showed the beginnings of the innovative musical ideas which emerged in his musicals and orchestral music throughout the mid-20th century. Clarinetist Jo-Ann Sternberg and Elizabeth DeFelice both worked with Bernstein during his lifetime, and each had a good command of the composer’s rhythmic drive and jazz influence. Ms. Sternberg played with a mellow instrumental sound, finding direction in the very melodic lines and bringing out the tenderness in the lyrical melodies especially well.

Ms. DeFelice and Ms. Sternberg moved exactly together into the faster sections, and created quite a substantial sound in certain sections. One could hear in the piano accompaniment that Bernstein was quite a keyboard artist, and Ms. DeFelice executed well the precision required in the accompaniment, especially in the second movement.

Shortly before Bernstein wrote his clarinet sonata, Samuel Barber composed String Quartet in B minor, Opus 11. Barber intended the piece to be premiered by a string quartet ensemble from his alma mater, Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, but the work was not completed in time for the designated premiere event. When the String Quartet finally was premiered, the second movement Adagio exceeded Copland’s own description of it as a “knockout” — “Barber’s Adagio” has become one of the most beloved pieces in orchestral repertoire and certainly one of the most recognizable.

Following the first performances of String Quartet in B minor, Copland arranged the Adagio for string orchestra, and it became an instant hit through a national radio broadcast by the NBC Symphony Orchestra. However, as performed in its original form, this piece offered a more intimate and personal opportunity for string quartet musicians. Violinists Anna Lim and Sophia Mockler, violist Kyle Armbrust, and cellist Alistair MacRae presented a starker and less luxurious interpretation than audiences might be used to from hearing this piece in film scores, but one could clearly discern the counterpoint and dialogues among the players. The bulk of the musical drama fell on first violinist Ms. Lim, who played consistently with a light vibrato. This piece has many resting places, and the four musicians arrived at cadences together, making these points all the more poignant.

The Players moved into a more contemporary musical genre with Roy Harris’ Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight, a “Cantata of Lamentation” setting the poetry of American poet Vachel Lindsay. The 1914 poem “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight” links Lincoln’s torment of the tragedy of the Civil War with the horrors of World War I, and Harris brought both of these times to life through instrumentation of violin, cello, piano, and soprano voice. Ms. Lim, Mr. MacRae, Ms. DeFelice, and soprano Sarah Pelletier conjured numerous images of Abraham Lincoln through their collective performance. Ms. Pelletier sang with a rich and clear sound as if she were setting the scene of Lincoln’s life, telling the story well and paying particular attention to the poetic details of the text. One could hear Lincoln’s insomnia in the restless strings, and Ms. Lim and Mr. MacRae particularly achieved lyrical sonorities. Effectively accompanying the players was Ms. DeFelice, allowing the piano to “walk” through the score with harmonic chords.

Ms. Pelletier also performed Elliott Carter’s song cycle Tempo e Tempi, accompanied by oboe, clarinet, violin, and cello. Carter’s tribute to Italian culture was both song cycle and quintet, with all instruments being of equal importance. Premiered in 2000 when Carter was 90 (he was active through most of his incredible 103 years), Tempo e Tempi combined Carter’s settings of varied Italian poets into a work which explored a wide range of instrumental combinations and effects. Ms. Sternberg doubled on both clarinet and bass clarinet, and Matt Sullivan played both oboe and English horn as the other players handled syncopations and ostinato well. With instruments often in competing meters, this piece was described before the performance as “redefining what it means to play together,” and the Richardson Chamber Players’ performance found the complexities within the piece.

The Players closed the concert with Aaron Copland’s Quiet City, bringing together an ensemble of both professional and student musicians. Even though no longer connected to a play in its format as a concert piece, Copland’s work was programmatic in its dialogue between trumpet and English horn, played by Wayne du Maine and Matt Sullivan, respectively. The play for which the piece was written was not successful, but Copland’s depiction of a “nocturnal cityscape” was effective in capturing the broad spaciousness of music found in other Copland works. Mr. du Maine showed his vast experience in jazz, complemented by Mr. Sullivan’s lyrical English horn playing. Perfectly matched in pitch and timbre, these two artists, accompanied by the large ensemble of strings, painted a broad palette of colors and moods to bring the concert to a close.

 

February 6, 2014

The musical birthday accolades to scholar and philanthropist William H. Scheide just keep coming in honor of his 100th birthday; the latest was a tribute concert of the Dryden Ensemble presented this past weekend in Solebury, Pennsylvania and Princeton. Sunday afternoon’s performance at Princeton Theological Seminary’s Miller Chapel (the concert was also performed Saturday night in Solebury) was devoted to Bach, paying tribute to both Mr. Scheide’s Bach expertise and his long-time support of the Dryden Ensemble. Nine instrumentalists and four vocalists presented a Bach “CantataFest” — two complete cantatas and several excerpts from other cantatas.

Joining the Dryden Ensemble were four more than excellent singers, each with a long history of Baroque performance practice. Soprano Teresa Wakim, mezzo-soprano Kristen Dubenion-Smith, tenor Jason McStoots, and baritone Mischa Bouvier were individually featured in arias and joined together for the opening and closing chorales of the cantatas. Ms. Wakim demonstrated a glorious top register, quickly finding the optimum resonance of the space in Miller Chapel. She had a real ring to her voice within a Baroque context, elegantly handling melismas on specific words, such as “freundlich” in her opening aria. Ms. Dubenion-Smith sang with a remarkably smooth register, especially in the aria “Wie furchstam wankten meine Schritte” of Bach’s Cantata 33 — an aria loaded with octave skips. Conceived more instrumentally than vocally, Bach’s arias can be difficult for mezzos because of range and register, but not for this mezzo. Ms. Dubenion-Smith handled the tough intervals and figures with a voice as smooth as silk and her Cantata 33 aria was particularly gracefully accompanied by violinist Vita Wallace and Daniel Swenberg playing theorbo.

Tenor Jason McStoots demonstrated a lyrical and lighter sound, singing expressively with clean diction. Mr. McStoots’ aria “Woferne du den edlen Frieden,” from Cantata 41, was a complex dialog between voice and violoncello piccolo, played by Lisa Terry. In this aria the musical roles were almost reversed, with the cello taking on most of the melodic movement and the voice serving in more of an obbligato role. Mr. McStoots also provided a complementary voice to baritone Mr. Bouvier, with whom he sang a duet toward the end of Cantata 33. Mr. Bouvier had his opportunity to shine in the aria excerpt from Cantata 62, “Streite, siege, starker Held.” Mr. Bouvier clearly had the potential for a great deal of vocal firepower, with well-handled and articulate coloratura on the words “Streite” (“struggle”) and “kräftig” (“mighty”). The closing Cantata 97 featured each soloist in an aria, with Ms. Wakim’s voice like icing on the cake over the counterpoint of the other three soloists.

As instrumentalists, the Dryden players stayed true to the Baroque character of the music. The concerto-like opening Sinfonia contained delicate swells in the music with clean trills, with sequential phrases which were always going somewhere. Organist Webb Wiggins provided bell-like passages on a chamber organ and the ensemble as a whole maintained a clean texture, even when at full sound. Ms. Wallace had several opportunities for obbligato playing with one of the vocal soloists, playing especially sensitively in the tenor aria of Cantata 97. Oboists Jane McKinley and Julie Brye provided chipper playing, often in thirds, and were particularly supple in accompanying Ms. Wakim in her Cantata 97 aria. Cellist Lisa Terry, bassoonist Sue Black, theorbo player Mr. Swenberg (also playing Baroque lute) and Mr. Wiggins provided solid continuo playing throughout the performance, allowing each of the instruments to speak well in the space.

The Dryden Ensemble has devoted itself to music of the 17th and early 18th century, and Sunday afternoon’s all-Bach performance was particularly appropriate for its dedication to Mr. Scheide. On first glance, Dryden Ensemble concerts may not seem to have a great number of pieces on the program, but Sunday’s performance was well-informed with nuance, and introduced four great singers to a Princeton audience.

The Dryden Ensemble will present a birthday concert to J.S. Bach on Saturday, March 22, 2014 at Miller Chapel on the campus of Princeton Theological Seminary. This concert, in honor of Bach’s 329th birthday, will feature chamber music by Buxtehude, C.P.E. Bach, and J.S. Bach. Ticket information can be obtained by visiting www.drydenensemble.org.

 

January 29, 2014

Joy comes in many forms and has been represented in music in many ways. Joy was definitely the overriding theme of the annual William H. Scheide “Birthday Benefit” concert held last Saturday night to a full house attendance at Richardson Auditorium. What was special about this concert was its celebration of Mr. Scheide’s 100th birthday (his actual birthday was January 6). Born on the edge of World War I, Mr. Scheide has seen a century of tumultuous events, larger-than-life personalities, and great music. William and Judith Scheide brought together honorees of past Scheide birthday concerts, as well as many old friends, to celebrate Mr. Scheide’s music, philanthropy, and humanitarianism.

This year’s “Ode to Joy” concert benefitted Westminster Choir College, honoring the Choir College’s model of “how to work together in harmony for the service of others.” Featured in performance was Westminster’s renowned Symphonic Choir, which clearly enjoyed its role in the celebrations. One of the vocal soloists for the keynote piece, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor, also had a past connection with Westminster.

Conductor Mark Laycock began the festive evening in a first half dedicated to Mr. Scheide’s former academic life, with J.S. Bach’s setting of Philipp Nicolai’s 1598 hymn which became Cantata BWV 140, “Wachet auf.” The Westminster Symphonic Choir, accompanied by the Vienna Chamber Orchestra, set the tone for the evening with the words “Gloria to you be sung with human and angelic voices.” As Mr. Scheide’s scholarly and performing reputation has been rooted in Bach, this was an appropriate way to open the concert. The Symphonic Choir, prepared by Joe Miller, presented a serene yet majestic sound, with the soprano section singing with an appropriately light Baroque timbre. Mr. Laycock maintained a broad tempo throughout the short selection, building the orchestra and chorus to a fortissimo in the closing lines of the chorale setting.

Johannes Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture seems to characterize academic youth, especially in its closing “Gaudeamus Igitur,” a popular student song in its day. The work’s emphasis on “rejoicing while we are young” was demonstrated in the brisk tempo with which the Vienna Chamber Orchestra began the piece. The strings of the orchestra presented a smooth and unified sound, accompanied by rippling clarinets and very clean horns. The brass sections throughout the concert were as well blended as an a cappella chorus. With Brahms’ compositional roots in Vienna, this music would be in the Vienna Chamber Orchestra’s blood, and the graceful melodic lines and playful winds showed that this overture is much more than a silly drinking song at the end.

Mr. Scheide’s own compositional skills were honored by a premiere public performance of a work he composed while a student at Princeton. Pianists Marian Nazarian and Andrew Sun performed Mr. Scheide’s 1936 Prelude, clearly inspired by the orchestral concerti of Bach, with high-spirited humor and clean counterpoint. Ms. Nazarian has long been a Scheide collaborator, bringing expertise to the keyboard in other birthday performances, and Mr. Sun proved why he is an up-and-comer to watch.

Forces came together in a variety of ways for the Beethoven Symphony No. 9, a work which holds a strong historical place in Westminster’s history and surely fits well into the Vienna Chamber Orchestra’s repertory. The orchestra began the open fifths of the first movement with sharp attacks, punctuated by well-timed timpani, in a tempo that was not too fast. Mr. Laycock kept things moving steadily along, with lyrical wind parts, allowing the orchestra to reach full volume until the recapitulation of the movement.

Mr. Laycock and the orchestra began the second movement Molto Vivace in a brisk tempo, with entrances lightly handled by the players. The wind section’s rhythmic lines were especially clean, as were the melodic lines played by the horns. Mr. Laycock created numerous small builds in the music, enabling the tricky wind entrances of the third movement to seem that much more serene.

In the third movement, the players kept the long lines smooth, with particularly rich second violin and viola sectional playing. Sections of the movement sounded quite hymn-like in tranquility as the orchestra overall played with a very lean sound. The players presented the familiar “Ode to Joy” theme of the fourth movement with very little vibrato, enabling all parts, especially during the presentation by the strings, to be heard.

The Westminster Choir and Vienna Chamber Orchestra were joined by four vocal soloists with strong operatic backgrounds, which were a necessity, even with only 18 minutes or so of music in the movement. Bass-baritone Mark Doss was dramatic and forceful, and well answered by the men of the chorus. Mr. Doss was a good vocal partner for tenor William Burden, who handled the quick pace of the “Turkish march” section well. Mezzo-soprano Leah Wool and soprano Ah Young Hong rounded out the quartet, handling the demanding quartets at the end of this challenging symphony well. An equal star of this movement is the chorus, providing a solid sound in the thematic sections, while being somewhat haunting and ethereal on the text “Do you bow down before Him, you millions?” Mr. Laycock (who conducted the entire program from memory) led the orchestra and chorus through the transitions well, wisely allowing at times to let the music play itself.

As Judith Scheide noted in her introductory remarks to the concert, Mr. Scheide begins each day with music. She also shared with understandable pride a letter received from President Barack Obama congratulating Mr. Scheide on reaching his 100th birthday and commending his “unique and important contributions to American culture and society.” For those unable to attend this past weekend’s celebratory concert, it was taped for later broadcast on PBS, and it is only 342 days until William Scheide turns 101.

—Nancy Plum

 
January 22, 2014

A floral supplies store would seem an odd place to shop for musical instruments, but in preparation for New Jersey Symphony Orchestra’s (NJSO) recent North American premiere of Tan Dun’s Earth Concerto, members of the ensemble’s percussion section found themselves looking at planters of varying sizes and materials to serve as drums. Audience members at NJSO’s concert last Friday night at Richardson Auditorium peered with great interest at the three sets of multiple planters, not necessarily realizing that the three percussionists were creating amazing music on items available at the neighborhood gardening emporium.

NJSO Music Director Jacques Lacombe programmed Friday night’s concert of the Tan Dun concerto and Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde as part of the orchestra’s Winter Festival theme of the relationship between music and the elements of nature. Both the Tan Dun and Mahler works were “songs to earth” concerning man and nature. In a type of “chicken and egg” cycle, Chinese composer Tan Dun drew his inspiration for Earth Concerto from Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, while Mahler found inspiration for this work in Hans Bethge’s poetic translation of Tang dynasty poetry.

NJSO programmed Earth Concerto as a closing bookend to Tan Dun’s Water Concerto, performed in the Winter Festival of 2011. The complete title of the work is Earth Concerto for Stone and Ceramic Percussion With Orchestra, and the three-movement work is scored for 99 ceramic and stone instruments with large orchestra. The concerto had its premiere in 2009, and what made NJSO’s North American premiere unique was its use of local instruments. The terra cotta, ceramic, and metal planters played by David Cossin, James Neglia, and James Musto provided scales, bell-like tones, and a somewhat rustic effect which Mr. Cossin noted “brings people back to a quieter and less distracting time.”

Understandably, most of the focus during the performance of Earth Concerto was on the three percussionists, as well as guest artist Zhang Meng, who played three traditional Chinese instruments — ceramic horn, xun, and flute. The most melodic of these instruments was the xun, a globular ocarina-type instrument providing a rich and mellow sound, especially when accompanied by harp. Adding to the percussive effects of the piece was the ceramic horn, which Mr. Zhang blew into, not unlike the indigenous Australian didgeridoo. The ceramic flute, used primarily in the third movement, contrasted with the ostinato played by the three percussionists and a slightly tipsy string sound to match the movement’s title: The Drunkard in Spring.

Tan Dun’s concerto was a work of innovation, as was Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde in its time. Composed in 1907-08, the six-movement work straddled the genres of orchestrated song cycle and symphony, while musically addressing Mahler’s obsession with mortality. Beginning with the trademark Mahlerian horn calls, Mr. Lacombe and the NJSO kicked off the piece majestically. Mahler changes musical moods on a dime, and throughout the work the players had no trouble navigating the composer’s very complex and evolutionary imagination.

American tenor Russell Thomas, who presented the first, third, fifth and final movements, sang with bright and sometimes fierce sound which was necessary to be heard over the thick orchestration. A nice Viennese flow from both singer and instrumentalists marked the reflective third movement, and like its companion third movement of the Tan Dun concerto, the fifth movement of the Mahler was sufficiently tipsy.

Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop displayed exactly the rich vocal tone and sensitivity to the text required for Mahler’s pensive approach to Bethge’s poetry. Both of these vocal soloists were necessarily operatic, and Ms. Bishop was in no hurry to rush the text, providing a bit of sauciness in the fourth movement. In the closing movement, in which both soloists sang, Ms. Bishop floated text describing the peaceful earth as Robert Ingliss’ oboe solo combined with undulating violas to depict a brook that “sings loudly through the darkness.”

The mid-19th century was a heyday for horns, and the horn section of the NJSO showed clarity and unified sound throughout. Mahler exploited almost every instrument of the orchestra in his larger-than-life musical concepts, and NJSO’s wind players in particular demonstrated both grace and strength. A pair of clarinets “wandered” through eternal love and English hornist Andrew Adelson provided supple melodic lines periodically throughout the movements. Mahler’s unique orchestration of piccolo solos, played by Kathleen Nester, added to the playfulness of the Drunk in Springtime fifth movement, and Bart Feller’s sensitive flute playing added to the pathos of the final farewell. Mahler’s underlying optimism was conveyed by the celeste, played by Elizabeth Difelice, as the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra brought the substantial yet poignant work to a close.

 

January 15, 2014

The academic year goes by quickly, especially with a holiday break half-way through. The Princeton University Opera Theater always takes on a challenging opera to be presented shortly after the winter break, but it is hard to imagine Princeton’s operatic students and faculty undertaking a production as testing as Claudio Monteverdi’s TheCoronation of Poppea so soon after break. Fifteen singers, accompanied by harpsichords, strings, lutes, and theorbo presented Monteverdi’s final opera this past weekend, demonstrating the depth of vocal and instrumental talent in an opera which even the Metropolitan Opera would find daunting.

Friday night’s performance in Richardson Auditorium (the opera was repeated on Saturday night) was staged with pairs of musicians on either side onstage and a small string ensemble in the pit. The directorial team led by conductor Michael Pratt and director Ethan Heard sought to complement a production of the same opera in 2001, featuring countertenor and Princeton student Anthony Roth Costanzo, now on the roster of the Metropolitan Opera. This year’s production featured a number of University singers also headed for promising careers in music.

The Coronation of Poppea harks back to opera’s beginning; with an Italian libretto by Giovanni Francesco Busenello, it was one of the first operas to use historical events and real people as subject material. Princeton University’s production was primarily in English (with translation by Peter Westergaard, Wendy Heller, and Arthur Jacobs), with the original Italian retained at specific moments, such as in a late duet between Nero and Poppea. The singers were accompanied by an appropriate combination of harpsichords, played by Nicholas Lockey and Jason Nong; as well as lute and theorbo, played by Charles Weaver and Daniel Swenson alternating among instruments. All of these period instruments spoke well in the hall, with the lute and theorbo accompaniment easily balancing the singers as solo instruments.

The description of the opera’s Prologue could easily be used to describe the state of the world today: “Fortune and Virtue argue about who holds the true power of the world; Love proclaims his supremacy.” Accompanied by a nice light touch from the strings, Fortune and Virtue, sung by Allegra Wiprud and Sarah Cooper, respectively, solidly opened the production. Ms. Wiprud, costumed a bit like Lady Gaga, showed a voice with a good ring in the hall and well handled the extensive recitative text. Ms. Cooper deftly handled the extensive runs of Virtue’s role. Varshini Narayanan joined Future and Virtue onstage as the character of Love, bringing an energetic and nymph-like interpretation to her role throughout, with consistently impressive movement and singing.

The Coronation of Poppea revolves principally around the illicit love affair between Nero and Poppea, both married to others. Contrary to Italian morality of the time, the adulterous relationships prevail, with Nero’s wife Octavia and Poppea’s husband Otto banished in exile. The two students cast as the leads Nero and Poppea have worked very hard toward probable careers in singing. Countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen has proven his scholarly and performance command of music of the 17th and 18th centuries, and soprano Katie Buzard has been refining her vocal skills both at Princeton and the Royal College of Music in London. Mr. Cohen took command of the stage immediately, showing that the extensive vocal runs (precursors to the coloratura fireworks of the subsequent decades) were squarely in his wheelhouse, showing no trouble at all with the vocal demands of Nero’s role. Ms. Buzard demonstrated a sparkling top register, also keeping the 17th-century Italianate style well in hand. Monteverdi’s music, revolutionary for its melody and humanism, served the text and the emotions conveyed by the singers, and both of these performers never lost sight of the connection among these elements.

The two hapless spouses of these conniving individuals were also well performed. Countertenor Michael Manning sang the music of Otto, deliberately composed to show Poppea’s husband as tentative and timid, lyrically, and demonstrating despair well. Marie-Gabrielle D’Arco, singing the role of Nero’s wife Octavia, sang with incredible richness and maturity and showed that she will have no trouble pursuing her chosen career in opera as she powerfully executed the almost exclusively dramatic recitative-style. Operas of the early 17th century feature upper voices, and the one significantly lower voice in this production was Jonathan Choi’s interpretation of the philosopher Seneca. Seneca’s music is bold and wide-ranging, and Mr. Choi was especially effective in the extreme lower register. In addition to the onstage Baroque instruments, conductor Michael Pratt effectively led a small ensemble of strings to support the singers. Most impressive among the strings was cellist Nathan Haley, who provided a great deal of specific accompaniment to arias and extensive solos.

Following its premiere in the mid-17th century, The Coronation of Poppea was neglected until the late 1800s and achieved new popularity in the second half of the 20th century. For a university opera company to take this production on could have been an invitation for difficulties and frustration, but the Princeton University Opera Theater provided itself to be more than up to the task.

 

January 8, 2014
BILL SCHEIDE AT 100: At his 100th birthday party, which he celebrated on Sunday, January 5, Bill Scheide, shown above with his wife Judy, entertained 22 children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. He recited Lewis Carroll’s “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” played a Bach prelude, and said “I’d rather be 80.” At the upcoming birthday concert in honor of Mr. Scheide at Richardson auditorium, the program will feature a piano piece by Mr. Scheide, as well as works by Bach, Brahms, and Beethoven. Performers include the Westminster Symphonic Choir and the Vienna Chamber Orchestra. Tickets for “Ode to Joy: Celebrating the 100th Birthday of William H. Scheide” are available from www.scheideconcerts.com or University ticketing, (609) 258.9220.

BILL SCHEIDE AT 100: At his 100th birthday party, which he celebrated on Sunday, January 5, Bill Scheide, shown above with his wife Judy, entertained 22 children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. He recited Lewis Carroll’s “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” played a Bach prelude, and said “I’d rather be 80.” At the upcoming birthday concert in honor of Mr. Scheide at Richardson auditorium, the program will feature a piano piece by Mr. Scheide, as well as works by Bach, Brahms, and Beethoven. Performers include the Westminster Symphonic Choir and the Vienna Chamber Orchestra. Tickets for “Ode to Joy: Celebrating the 100th Birthday of William H. Scheide” are available from www.scheideconcerts.com or University ticketing, (609) 258.9220.

Princeton philanthropist William H. Scheide, known affectionately as “Bill,” turned 100 on Monday. For the past six years, the ever youthful music lover, Bach scholar and bibliophile, whose name is associated with numerous educational institutions, has celebrated his birthday with an annual concert of music conducted by former music director of the Princeton Symphony Orchestra Mark Laycock. 

This year, “Ode to Joy: Celebrating the 100th Birthday of William H. Scheide” will take place Saturday, January 25, at 7:30 p.m. at Richardson Auditorium in Alexander Hall, on the campus of Princeton University.

As befits the special occasion, the concert will feature a stellar line up that includes the local and the international: Westminster Symphonic Choir, the Vienna Chamber Orchestra (Wiener KammerOrchester), soloists Ah Young Hong (soprano), Leah Wool (mezzo-soprano), William Burden (tenor), and Mark S. Doss (bass-baritone), and pianists Mariam Nazarian and Andrew Sun.

Several of the performers have strong connections to the Princeton area. Ms. Wool received her Bachelor of Music magna cum laude from Westminster Choir College and Mr. Sun, who is currently pursuing his Master’s degree at New York University, was born in West Windsor.

Many local residents will recall a small recital held at Jasna Polana in which Mr. Scheide joined Ms. Nazarian at the piano. Ms. Nazarian made her U.S. debut in 1995 with a solo recital in Princeton as well as in Washington, D.C., New York and Philadelphia. At age 16, she was the youngest pianist in the history of Carnegie Hall to have performed J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations, BWV 988. She is associate director of the Scheide Fund and has also served as programming advisor to the Arts Council of Princeton (incidentally, she recently coached Elijah Wood for his role in the upcoming thriller, Grand Piano).

The concert, which Mr. Scheide will attend, pays tribute to his love of Bach by opening with the composer’s “Gloria sei dir gesungen” from Cantata BWV 140. Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture (Op 80) will follow and then a work composed by Mr. Scheide in his student days: Prelude for Piano Four Hands. The evening will culminate with a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, “Choral,” with Mr. Laycock conducting the Wiener KammerOrchester for the third time at a birthday celebration for Mr. Scheide.

Known for his work with Opera New Jersey, especially a concert of Mendelssohn’s rarely performed Symphony No. 2, Lobgesang, with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, Mr. Laycock was music director of the Princeton Symphony Orchestra for more than 20 years. He is credited with transforming what was a small chamber orchestra into a full and critically acclaimed professional symphony orchestra.

Westminster Symphonic Choir, led by conductor Joe Miller, is considered among the world’s leading choral ensembles and is composed of all juniors and seniors and half of the graduate students at the college.

Each year, proceeds from the annual Scheide birthday concert go to a worthy cause. In past years, lsles, Centurion Ministries, The Arts Council of Princeton, Princeton HealthCare Foundation, Princeton Public Library, and the Princeton Recreation Department have benefited. This year, Westminster Choir College of Rider University has been chosen as the local institution to receive funding that will be used for renovations to rehearsal space that has seen some of the world’s greatest conductors, including Leonard Bernstein, Kurt Masur, and Simon Rattle.

“I have a deep and abiding belief in the critical role that Westminster Choir College plays in our community, bringing the joy of music into our lives,” said Mr. Scheide in a letter that accompanies the concert program. Mr. Scheide has had long and faithful relationships with Westminster Choir College where he served on the Board of Trustees.

Born in Philadelphia on January 6, 1914, Mr. Scheide is the only child of John Hinsdale Scheide and Harriet Hurd. He grew up in a household that was passionate about music, culture, rare books, and the well-being of humanity. His father played the piano, and his mother sang. At the age of six, he began piano lessons.

In a “This I Believe” essay broadcast in New York during the 1950s, Mr. Scheide said that his early love of music has made him “sensitive to values that cannot be expressed in language.”

Mr. Scheide attended Princeton University (Class of 1936) where he majored in history simply because at that time there was no music department. He went on to earn an MA in music at Columbia in 1940 and became the first American to be published in the Bach Jahrbuch journal of Bach scholarship. In 1946, he founded and directed the Bach Aria Group, a vocal and instrumental ensemble that performed and recorded for 34 years.

The Scheide Library, now housed in Firestone Library at Princeton University, contains books and manuscripts that Mr. Scheide, his grandfather, Willam T. Scheide, and his father, John H. Scheide (Class of 1896) acquired. It holds copies of the first four Bibles ever printed; materials on the invention and history of printing; books and manuscripts on the early voyages to the Americas; and musical manuscripts of J.S. Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, and many others.

Mr. Scheide’s long life has been dedicated to fostering the arts, education, civil rights, health, and poverty relief programs. In his “This I Believe” essay he stated his own credo: “When Bach set to music the words “Credo in Unum Deum,” — I believe in one God — he did not express a pious ideal or a devout or romantic aspiration. The here and now poured out of him. What inspired was simply the basic material of his life. That, he recognized, was his belief. And that, I think, is any man’s belief if the word is to have any actual substance that can be grasped.”

His own words from over half a century ago bear repeating in this his centennial year. “I believe that a democratic society must be ultimately founded on love for enemies, real and fancied enemies, who daily and inevitably trample our personalities and threaten to destroy our innermost beliefs — that is, our essential natures. I believe also that a love for enemies, as I conceive it, is impossible without that vague but deep thing which is usually called belief in God …. Belief in an ultimate absolute makes love and tolerance possible in a group of creatures seen through a glass darkly …. My faith is both that which I am and that which I feel I ought to be. It represents the energy — sometimes more, sometimes less — with which I cling to life, but which also confers the apprehension of a higher and more perfect life. When I am at my best, I work on the problem of bringing this higher life to realization.”

Mr. Scheide’s essay can be heard by visiting: http://thisibelieve.org/essay/16961/.

“Ode to Joy: Celebrating the 100th Birthday of William H. Scheide” will take place Saturday, January 25, at 7:30 p.m. at Richardson Auditorium. General admission tickets are $35 each from University ticketing, (609) 258.9220, or online from www.scheideconcerts.com.

 

December 18, 2013

As a professor in Princeton University’s music department specializing in Russian and Soviet music and dance, Simon Morrison is an expert on the famed Bolshoi Theatre. The Moscow arts institution has been frequently in the news since the bizarre acid attack last January that left Sergei Filin, the artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet company, nearly blind.

Mr. Morrison, who is writing a history of the 227-year old theatre, has been frequently called upon by The New York Times and other news outlets to comment on the volatile situation, especially since Russian dancer Pavel Dmitrichenko was found guilty this month for his role in the attack. A Moscow judge ruled that the dancer and two co-defendants had intentionally caused grievous bodily harm to Mr. Filin, who had a jar of acid thrown in his face by a masked assailant.

Mr. Dmitrichenko, who maintained that he wanted Mr. Filin roughed up but didn’t expect acid to be hurled in his face, was sentenced to six years in prison. Yuri Zarutsky, convicted of carrying out the attack, got 10 years.

“The horrible part of Dmitrichenko’s defense is that he said what happened to Filin wasn’t so bad,” Mr. Morrison said during a recent interview in his office at the University’s Woolworth Center of Musical Studies. “But I was in Moscow in October and I met Filin, and what was done to him is ghastly. He has crimson lines on his face from the battery acid that was used.”

The attack last January left Mr. Filin writhing in pain in the snow outside his apartment building. The incident revealed the bitter behind-the-scenes rivalries that exist at the Bolshoi. Mr. Dmitrichenko was reportedly angry with Mr. Filin for denying him and his girlfriend, a ballerina, important roles in Bolshoi productions. Mr. Filin said that Mr. Dmitrichenko had spread false rumors about him having affairs with ballerinas. Defense witnesses portrayed Mr. Filin as imperious and Mr. Dmitrichenko as a champion of those afraid to speak out against the artistic director.

“The problems are multi-layered,” Mr. Morrison said. “It seems clear that there were favorites. There was no proper collective agreement. No union represented the dancers properly. So if you got sick or got pregnant, you were in trouble. That absence of a proper collective bargaining agreement is the cause of the problem, and it needs to be fixed.”

The Russian government dismissed the Bolshoi Theatre’s longtime director Anatoly Iksanov last July. The new director, Vladimir Urim, is trying to make things more equitable. “He’s a no-nonsense guy,” Mr. Morrison said.

Mr. Morrison has lectured and written articles on numerous topics related to Russian and Soviet music and dance. He is the author of the book Lina and Serge: The Love and Wars of Lina Prokofiev, which was published by Random House this year. He plans to return to Moscow next month to do more research on his history of the Bolshoi Theatre. He has done extensive studies of the works of composers Shostakovich and Prokofiev, both of whom were involved in the Bolshoi.

“I’ve loved ballet for many years,” Mr. Morrison said. “I took some classes as an adult, just to know what I’m talking about. I’ve been involved in staging historic projects on campus. And it has become a real addiction, through research.”

Mr. Morrison said he was surprised that Mr. Dmitrichenko was sentenced to six years in prison instead of the 12 that Mr. Filin’s lawyer requested. “Given how volatile he is, he will have a hard time,” he said of Mr. Dmitrichenko. “He’ll go to a ‘strict regime’ prison, and he’ll be made to work a lot.”

The recent scandal will play a minor but important part in Mr. Morrison’s upcoming book. “It’s not the main part of the book, but something I have to mention,” he said. “And it’s relevant, because it’s reflective of the system of the past.”

 

December 11, 2013

There are numerous musical ensembles on the Princeton University campus which occasionally combine for joint concerts. An unusual musical collaboration took place this past week as the University Orchestra and Concert Jazz Ensemble combined their efforts in Richardson Auditorium for a program celebrating the concept of freedom. Dedicated to the memory and legacy of Nelson Mandela, Friday night’s performance (the concert was also presented Thursday night) intermingled the musicians of both ensembles for a concert that was “about as American as a concert can get.”

Current events have influenced musical composition for centuries, and Princeton University Jazz Studies director Anthony D.J. Branker found inspiration and message in the 2012 Trayvon Martin case in Florida. Dr. Branker composed Ballad for Trayvon Martin, that was premiered at these performances, as a “song of healing that speaks to the urgent need for all of us to continue to work together.” Featuring guest tenor saxophonist Ralph Bowen, Ballad for Trayvon Martin honored victims of several civil rights incidents of the 20th century, and musically brought together members of the Jazz Ensemble with the string sections of the University Orchestra.

Branker brought a sprightly energy to the conducting of his work, creating a flowing lilt in the Bach-like canonic entries from the strings. He placed saxophonist Bowen within the orchestra and alongside a trio of piano, double bass, and drums, allowing Bowen’s smooth and rich sound to emerge from the instrumental texture as Branker finessed the colors within the strings. Throughout the one movement piece, Bowen changed tempo with the pace of the work, but never lost the sleekness of the line.

University Orchestra conductor Michael Pratt added brass and winds for a second world premiere, demonstrating that American jazz is a continually evolving form. David Sanford’s Teatro de Strada was a more abstract piece than the Branker work and was commissioned by the University Orchestra and Concert Jazz Ensemble to also feature tenor saxophone soloist Ralph Bowen. The one movement work was marked by the improvisatory sounds of street music and the urban musical environment, with conventional harmonies juxtaposed against the free playing of Mr. Bowen. The University Orchestra was joined in the piece by the complete Concert Jazz Ensemble, including trumpets, trombones, and a trio of double bass, piano, and drums. Pizzicato strings showed the work’s classical side, while a bit of “wail” in the saxophone solo and solo brass parts emphasized the variety of colors within the complex piece.

The Princeton University Orchestra continued the “freedom” theme with a piece composed for a theatrical production that was a play concerned with oppression. Ludwig van Beethoven’s Overture to Egmont incorporated “the heroic triumph of good over evil” into crisp music performed with elegant wind solos by the University Orchestra players, especially oboist Katrina Maxcy, clarinetist George Liu, and flutist Marcelo Rochabrun. Led by the orchestra’s Assistant Conductor J.J. Warshaw, the familiar thematic passages were played very cleanly, and Warshaw clearly had the piece well in hand.

These three one-movement works were preludes to the final symphony on the program, which fit into the overall theme. Antonin Dvorak composed Symphony No. 9 in E minor just as jazz was emerging from the American musical scene and as his own expression of American musical idioms and traditions. A rich and clear lower string sound opened the first movement and with crisp rhythms and subtle dynamic builds the orchestra was off and running. Conductor Michael Pratt allowed the sound to flourish on its own, with tunes that recall the open spaces of early 20th-century America. Clean horns and elegant winds, including from clarinetist Paul Chang, flutist Lila Xie, and oboists Alexa McCall and Ms. Maxcy, kept the lively themes at the forefront.

The second movement Largo featured an eloquent English horn solo played by Tiffany Huang which became more expressive as the movement progressed. Mr. Pratt and the players brought out the “Goin’ Home” theme gracefully from a number of instrumental solos and combinations, from pairs of clarinets and oboes against pizzicato double basses to a solo string quartet. A sensitive horn solo by Gabe Peterson and intense playing by the orchestra brought the broad symphony and challenging program to a close.

 

December 4, 2013

Black Friday is principally known for early Christmas shopping, but music has its own post-Thanksgiving tradition in Princeton with New Jersey Symphony Orchestra’s annual “Black Friday” concert. Starting within just a few minutes of the packed house at the Palmer Square tree-lighting, Friday night’s NJSO performance at Richardson Auditorium was no concert of holiday fluff — Music Director Jacques Lacombe programmed an evening of demanding piano and orchestral music, including a world premiere.

The NJSO New Jersey Roots Project has become an integral part of the organization’s commitment to bringing the works of the state’s composers to the forefront. Lowell Liebermann found inspiration for Barcarolles for a Sinking City in the city of Venice, but the four-movement work began with a somewhat dark view of the “Floating City.” The barcarolle, a song of the Venetian gondoliers, rolls along in a motion depicting a boat on waves. The opening Funeral Gondola of Liebermann’s work maintained the smooth roll, but dark melodies from solo instruments and sectional violins made it clear that this was not a sunny ride through canals.

The second movement paid direct tribute to the most well-known barcarolle in music with Liebermann’s incorporation of Jacques Offenbach’s Barcarolle from The Tales of Hoffmann into a hymn-like orchestral fabric punctuated by unusual instrumental effects. Throughout the Quodlibet movement, refined instrumental solos came through the texture, including from trombonist Charles Baker, bass clarinetist Lino Gomez, and English horn player Andrew Adelson. The carillon effect of the third movement Ostinato/Carillon was created by the scoring of marimba and xylophone, contrasted by Alexandra Knoll’s eloquent oboe solo. Like Hungarian composer Bela Bartok (whose Concerto for Orchestra closed the concert program), Liebermann likes to explore all instruments of the orchestra, and Barcarolles for a Sinking City created a palette from a myriad of instrumental combinations and abrupt shifts in dynamics which were well-handled by the NJSO.

Mr. Lacombe turned his attention to virtuosity in Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major, featuring a dazzling pianist in Texas native Adam Golka. Although only in his mid-20s, Mr. Golka has amassed an impressive array of credits, both as a recitalist and concerto soloist. Ravel’s concerto is short by concerto standards, but full of technically demanding passages within an impressionistic palette. The key to this performance was precision, beginning with the percussive snap which opened the first movement. Mr. Golka excelled in both languid and technically quick passages, showing very fluid playing against the orchestra’s light and crisp sound.

Ravel patterned the middle movement Adagio after the music of Mozart, leaving great opportunity for Mr. Golka’s sensitive playing. The steadiness of his left hand never stopped, with graceful counter melodies provided by flutist Bart Feller and English horn player Mr. Adelson. The NJSO brought out the jazz influences in the work with klezmer-like winds and fierce percussion in the closing passages of the work.

Bartok’s five-movement Concerto for Orchestra showed the capabilities of almost all the players in the orchestra, with solid lower strings in the opening movement and wind scales going in many different directions. This piece required vigorous playing from the strings, complemented by sweet timbres from the English horn, bass clarinet, and a pair of harps. Winds were kept busy with solos, including from Ms. Knoll and clarinetist Karl Herman, and pairs of winds effectively brought out the Eastern flavor of the work. A rare movement of double bass exposure in the third movement was contrasted by clean piccolo playing from Kathleen Nester as Mr. Lacombe gently tapered phrase endings amid the full sound of the orchestra. Mr. Lacombe also worked hard to build dynamics slowly, effectively closing the concert with the orchestra in robust form.

 

November 27, 2013

The Westminster Conservatory, which houses the Westminster Community Orchestra, has within its ranks a wealth of musical talent not often heard on area public stages. The Community Orchestra and conductor Ruth Ochs have a long relationship with Westminster Conservatory pianist Phyllis Alpert Lehrer (who performed with the orchestra last season) and this past weekend showcased another conservatory colleague in pianist Ena Bronstein Barton. Sunday afternoon’s concert by the Community Orchestra in Richardson Auditorium featured a Beethoven piano concerto played by Barton with both lyrical classicism and a bit of dramatic fire. 

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major had an auspicious start at its premiere in 1808, sandwiched among at least five other monumental works by Beethoven, but has since found its place in concerto repertory. A concerto from this period should be  marked by classical sparkle, and a pianist of Barton’s caliber would no doubt bring drama to the piece, and neither aspect of the performance disappointed the audience.

Barton opened the concerto with elegant but strong chords, cleanly answered by the strings. Both orchestra and soloist brought out the dynamic accents heard to the extreme in late Beethoven. Subtle instrumental solos by oboist Helen Ackley and flutist Judy Singleton complemented Barton as she launched into keyboard runs in the middle of the first movement. Barton used a bit more pedal than some might be used to in a piece from the early 19th century, but she maintained exceptional clarity, especially among parallel thirds as her hands flew over the keys.

Throughout the concerto, the Community Orchestra matched Barton’s level of virtuosity, as Ochs watched Barton carefully to keep ensemble and soloist exactly in time. Barton found intense fire in the cadenza to the first movement, with shades of drama amidst the long melodic scales and false cadences.

Ochs paired the Beethoven concerto with an expansive symphony by Antonin Dvorak, whose works contain complex ideas within small spaces and require great orchestral stamina to maintain musical intensity. In the opening movement of Dvorak’s 1884 Symphony no. 7 in D Major, Ochs brought out the rolling drama of the music with trumpets and trombones which were always clean. The first and fourth movements of this symphony had an overall dark character, but Dvorak can also be nimble and airy, and the oboes, clarinets, and flutes of the Community Orchestra aided in creating contrasting lighter sections.

The orchestra achieved its fullest sound of the afternoon toward the end of the first movement of the Dvorak, with a trio of clean horns paying homage to Wagner’s orchestration. Throughout the symphony, wind playing was precise, including solos from flutist Ms. Singleton, clarinetist Daniel Beerbohm, and oboist Ms. Ackley, and the winds particularly came to the forefront in the Trio of the third movement. Ochs whipped the orchestra into a frenzy for the close of the third movement Scherzo, with the rhythmic motives of the movement clear. This is a work which grew more settled within the players as the movements progressed, with the back row of brass, including trumpets, trombones, and tuba, always accurate. The fourth movement in particular contained a myriad of musical ideas, and the orchestra always managed to hang onto their focus to convey the complex instrumental palette.

The Dvorak symphony was an especially challenging work for the Westminster Community Orchestra, and Conductor Ochs was deservedly proud of the players following Sunday’s performance. The Beethoven concerto held the audience’s attention for Ms. Barton’s exceptional playing, and the Dvorak brought the Community Orchestra together to reach a demanding and difficult new performance height.

 

November 20, 2013

Each year at this time, Princeton takes on Yale in a football game that, for more than a century, has been bringing out the best in student competition. Over the same century, the Princeton and Yale Glee Clubs have presented a joint concert to kick off the weekend of collective school spirit and friendly rivalry. Glee clubs have a long tradition of fostering camaraderie but collegiate choral singing is not just for drinking and football songs anymore. This past Friday night’s “Centennial Football Concert” with the Princeton and Yale University Glee Clubs in Richardson Auditorium featured a challenging mixture of choral works, together with a commissioned premiere.

Princeton Glee Club conductor Gabriel Crouch and his Yale counterpart, Jeffrey Douma each programmed a range of music reflecting a variety of anniversaries as well as their own personal repertoire specialties. Following works by Brahms and Victoria, Dr. Douma led the Yale Glee Club in music of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, including his own arrangements. In the Brahms piece, which opened the program, Douma found a Viennese flow to the music, showing off a light and clear sound from the sopranos in the Glee Club. In a refreshing piece by Mark Sirett, the 16-voice Yale Glee Club Chamber Singers demonstrated the same exact tuning under the direction of Yale Masters student Kathleen Allan.

Douma paid tribute to British composer John Tavener, who died this month, with a performance of Song for Athene, probably Tavener’s most well-known piece. Although the low choral drone was hard to hear from these young voices, the lone melodic lines were well sustained and harmonic shifts from major to minor were well executed. The singers achieved particular intensity on the text “Life: a shadow and a dream.” Douma closed his half of the concert with two of his own imaginative compositions, as well as a medley of football songs by historic Yale Glee Club conductor Fenno Heath, sung to the backdrop of the obligatory friendly heckling from the Princeton Glee Club members in the balcony.

Princeton Glee Club conductor Gabriel Crouch focused his half of the concert on the late 19th and early 20th centuries, acknowledging a myriad of anniversaries. Most significant was the choice of Herbert Howells’ Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing, composed for the funeral of President John F. Kennedy 50 years ago this week, and the Carol (Maiden in the Mor Lay) who would have turned 100 on the same date as Kennedy’s assassination. Interspersed throughout the Glee Club’s program were other unofficial anniversaries, including 400 years since the death of Carlo Gesualdo and 70 years since the death of Sergei Rachmaninoff, both composers of works in the concert. With his choice of the jazzy I’m a Train, Crouch may also have inadvertently paid tribute to the legendary “Princeton locomotive” cheer heard so often in Richardson Auditorium over the past decades.

In their opening selections from Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil, the Princeton Glee Club presented large blocks of sound, with an effective flow to the music. Crouch kept the members of the nearly 80-voice Glee Club close together, allowing the solid chords to ring through Richardson as they would have resounded through spacious Russian churches. Commendable in the second selection Blagoslovi, dushe moya, Gospoda was mezzo-soprano soloist Saunghee Ko, who displayed a rich sound well beyond her years and complete ease with the low register of the solo.

Crouch’s conducting “bread and butter” is the music of late 19th-century and early 20th-century England, and he showed his mettle with the Glee Club in the music of C.V. Stanford and Herbert Howells. The harmonies in Stanford’s Beati quorum via unfolded luxuriantly from the women’s voices, and the difficult harmonies in Howells’ Take Him, Earth were well-handled by the chorus. Crouch showed a lighter side of the Glee Club Chamber Chorus in a double-chorus selection by Bach, with a polished and clear sound from the singers. He also gave a student the chance to lead the Glee Club, and Princeton senior Kamna Gupta showed that minimal conducting gestures can produce tremendous results in a crisp presentation of Britten’s Carol.

The two University Glee Clubs joined forces for a premiere of a work by Finnish composer Jaakko Mäntyjärvi commissioned specifically for this occasion. The Famous Tay Whale, led by both conductors (each conducted their own respective chorus in tag-team conducting) was a jazzy and homophonic setting of humorous text appropriate for the concert. Pianists Paul Noh and Min Joo Yi well handled a keyboard accompaniment which was entertaining in itself.

As one can read elsewhere in this paper, Princeton beat Yale in the football game Saturday and is on its way to an Ivy title. Friday night’s performance by the two Glee Clubs showed that the students from these two Universities were well capable of handling complex and difficult choral music while asserting their places in their respective scholastic histories. Equally as important, this engaging concert also proved that healthy competition in a choral setting can do as much as sports to create fine young individuals in a college setting.

 

November 13, 2013
TRUTH AND CONSEQUENCES: Chris (Peter Giovine) pleads with his mother (Uchechi Kalu) to face reality, move on, and leave the past behind, as his father (Jordan Adelson) looks on in Theatre Intime’s production of Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” (1947) at Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through November 16.

TRUTH AND CONSEQUENCES: Chris (Peter Giovine) pleads with his mother (Uchechi Kalu) to face reality, move on, and leave the past behind, as his father (Jordan Adelson) looks on in Theatre Intime’s production of Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” (1947) at Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through November 16.

In the manner of Aeschylus, Sophocles’ Oedipus and the great tragedies of Henrik Ibsen, Arthur Miller’s All My Sons (1947) is a drama of retrospective analysis. Written and set in the wake of World War II, All My Sons, Miller’s earliest success, just two years before Death of a Salesman, depicts one tragic day in the life of the Keller family. When the play begins, most of the key events of the story have already taken place. The dramatic action on stage is an exploration and revelation of a past that shapes and weighs upon the tortured lives of the main characters.

All My Sons, currently playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus, is the story of Joe Keller (Jordan Adelson) and his wife Kate (Uchechi Kalu). It takes place “in the outskirts of an American town” on a Sunday in August, 1946. Their son Larry, an air force pilot, has been Missing In Action for three years, but Kate cannot give up hope and let the family move on with its life. Joe, jailed three years earlier when his aircraft engine business issued damaged cylinder heads that resulted in the deaths of 21 pilots, has recently been exonerated, released, and returned home, where he lives with his wife and 32-year-old son Chris (Peter Giovine), who is back from military combat service in Europe.

Recently arrived and staying at the Kellers’ house is Annie (Nadia Diamond), formerly engaged to Larry and currently anticipating a proposal from Chris, who has been corresponding with her by mail over the past two years. Annie, who grew up next door to the Kellers and whose father was a partner with Joe in the aircraft engine manufacturing business and who is still serving time in the penitentiary, serves as a catalyst figure in the drama, forcing the family to confront the truths of Larry’s death, of Joe’s guilt, and of the necessity of moving forward with their lives.

Miller’s characterizations are deep, complex, and interesting. The plot, focused on the single day when the crises of the past emerge to engulf the Keller family, is carefully articulated and intense. And the issues here — ethical dilemmas of capitalism, corporate greed and its human consequences, family strife, dealing with loss — are universal, perhaps even more timely today than they were 65 years ago.

Unfortunately, however, although Theatre Intime, with a cast of 10 undergraduates under the capable direction of sophomore Oge Ude, does present a worthy production of this difficult work, the plot occasionally creaks, some dialogue seems forced, and the characterizations do not always ring true.

All My Sons is similar to Death of a Salesman, Miller’s next and most famous play, in many ways: characters, dramatic structure, theme and tragic impact. The plotting of the earlier play, however, seems more contrived, some dialogue less realistic, the monologues less gripping, and the parent-son relationships less emotionally gripping than those in the later play.

The young Intime company will certainly settle into its rhythm and its characterizations more fully in its second weekend, but opening night last Thursday revealed some difficulties in the realistic portrayal of both generations of troubled characters.

Mr. Adelson as the central figure is a fascinating picture of denial, attempting to elude, to rationalize the ugly truth of his past. “That’s business. That’s a mistake, but it ain’t murder.” Experienced and comfortable on stage, and well-rehearsed, Mr. Adelson delivers this brusque character with clarity and force, though the character stretch across 40 years and an unfathomable depth and darkness of life experience, at times proves daunting and makes this protagonist less than fully credible.

Ms. Kalu, facing similar challenges, succeeds in creating a convincing and sympathetic wife and mother, grasping and communicating Kate’s struggles to accept her son’s death, her husband’s guilt, and the necessity of burying her false hope and moving forward with her life.

Mr. Giovine’s Chris is uneven in his performance, though mostly appealing and intriguing in his anguished relationships with his father and mother, his haunting memories and survivor’s guilt from the war, and in his budding romance with his brother’s former girlfriend. As Ann, Ms. Diamond provides a worthy match for Chris and a welcome freshness and air of truth from outside the tortured Keller family.

Charlie Baker lends helpful support as Ann’s brother George, a lawyer, arriving in the second act with vital, devastating information just received from his father in prison. Nathalie Ellis-Einhorn as a meddling, troublesome neighbor; Evan Coles as her beleaguered husband; Blake Edwards and Tess Marchant as another, contrastingly upbeat neighboring couple; and the spirited young Adam LeCompte as a boy in the neighborhood — all provide capable, significant support to the principals in the first act, with less stage time in act two, as the drama narrows its focus to the Keller family.

Matt Seely’s sturdy, functional unit set depicting the Keller backyard, with symbolic apple trees (“Larry’s tree” is struck down in a storm just before the play opens.) and a small trellised arbor upstage is realistic, except for an expressionist touch on a stage right wall covered with newspapers, presumably the fateful newspapers from three years earlier that broadcast the crime and punishment of Joe Keller and his partner.

Lighting by Hannah Yang and Rebekah Shoemake and appropriate 1940s costumes by Joane Joseph effectively complement the actors and plot. Ms. Uge’s direction unifies the production elements effectively, moves the action along smoothly, and mostly sustains the audience’s interest in this, at times, long-winded drama.

“The tragic feeling is evoked in us when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing — his sense of personal dignity,” Arthur Miller wrote in his 1949 essay “Tragedy and the Common Man.” “From Orestes to Hamlet, Medea to Macbeth, the underlying struggle is that of the individual attempting to gain his ‘rightful’ position in his society.”

That is the struggle of Joe Keller and also of Willie Loman and of all the tragic protagonists of a cluster of other great plays written by this giant of the 20th century American Theater. In All My Sons the ambitious Intime company brings to life this classic tragic pattern of inevitable, shocking climax, followed by catharsis and restoration of the moral order with accompanying lessons for society.

 

Between the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and next year’s 70th anniversary of D-Day (as well as a few World War I anniversaries) there are a myriad of opportunities to acknowledge the role of music in and around the military. War and anti-war songs and marches are straightforward in interpretation and role, but musical works inspired by times or literature of war are more subtle and pieces which link two completely different battle periods are especially intriguing. Princeton Pro Musica took advantage this past weekend of its opening concert’s close proximity to Veterans Day by presenting four works connected to U.S. involvement in war over the past two centuries. Pro Musica Artistic Director Ryan James Brandau found a common theme in works using the same poetry in some cases to showcase Pro Musica in precise choral form in both chamber and full force configuration.

Saturday night’s performance began with an acknowledgment by Dr. Brandau of veterans in the Richardson Auditorium audience, together with a musical tribute by Aaron Copland to all the “common men” involved in the war effort of World War II. One of ten fanfares commissioned by the Cincinnati Symphony in 1942 (and the only to survive with any longevity), Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man has often been a go-to piece to convey patriotism, and the eleven brass players of the orchestra accompanying Pro Musica for the evening filled the hall with clean playing and spirit. The sectional sound from the trumpets, an unofficial instrument of battle, was especially vibrant and ringing.

Both early 20th-century British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams and mid-20th century American composer Jeffrey Van musically set the poetry of Walt Whitman, in some cases the same poems. Vaughan Williams composed his choral/orchestral Dona Nobis Pacem from the depths of uncertainty between World Wars I and II, while Van’s 1990 A Procession Winding Around Me was inspired by the composer’s visit to the Civil War battlefield Gettysburg, and both pieces find commonality in the post-Civil War poetry of Whitman. Van’s four-movement work was scored for chorus and guitar (Van is a member of the guitar faculty at the University of Minnesota), and Dr. Brandau presented this piece with the 35-voice Pro Musica Chamber Chorus, accompanied by guitarist James Day.

Van’s setting of Whitman’s poems was primarily homophonic, with a clear-cut declamation of the text. The singers in the Pro Musica Chamber Chorus demonstrated clear diction, with a consistently well-blended sound (especially from the men) and with vowels reliably pure. The setting of the third poem, “Look Down Fair Moon,” was the hardest to tune (admirably achieved by the chorus), beginning with whistling as from afar and well accompanied by Mr. Day with guitar playing that was both accompanying and percussive. Van composed some particularly effective word painting passages in the fourth poem, “Reconciliation,” which ended the piece on a positive note.

The Dona Nobis Pacem of Vaughan Williams was textually more complex than Van’s work, combining verses from the Bible with Latin liturgical text and Whitman’s poetry. Vaughan Williams composed the six-movement free-flowing choral/orchestral work as a plea for peace, using chorus and orchestra with soprano and baritone soloists. Williams began the work with text from the last part of the Latin mass — starting right off in despair. Soprano JoEllen Miller consistently sang with pure and ethereal tone, contrasting with the chorus’s expression of past devastation and impending return to war. This composer wrote effectively for chorus, and the full forces of Pro Musica handled well the driving rhythms and demand for sustained sturdy sound.

The Civil War was a very different kind of war from World Wars I and II, yet Vaughan Williams brought Whitman’s poetry new meaning in the 20th century with sensitive orchestration and solo writing. Baritone Paul Max Tipton (who also sang an Edward Cone song setting poetry of 19th-century British poet Matthew Arnold) sang Vaughan Williams’ version of “Reconciliation” with compassion, aided by the full-bodied sound of the chorus and refined solo playing from oboist Carl Oswald. Soprano Miller returned periodically throughout the piece as the voice of the people, interpolating the text “dona nobis pacem” into Whitman’s verses. Throughout the Vaughan Williams work and the entire concert, the chorus, soloists, and orchestra together brought life to music paying tribute to the dead, and presented well these four pieces which are not heard often enough.

 

November 6, 2013

A crisp and sunny fall afternoon on Sunday contradicted the unifying theme among the works presented by the Princeton Symphony Orchestra this past weekend. Led by Music Director Rossen Milanov, the Princeton Symphony performed three pieces focused on “notions of death and the eternal,” two by Romantic composer Richard Strauss and one by contemporary American composer Aaron Jay Kernis. Despite the dark themes and intense musical tone, the Princeton Symphony played with sensitivity and continuous focus through some very challenging music.

Aaron Jay Kernis composed the three-movement Colored Field in 1994 as a concerto for English horn and orchestra. Rooted in the tragedy of World War II as interpreted by the composer himself through visits to Auschwitz and Birkenau, Colored Field uses the solo instrument as a voice of anguish. Following the work’s premiere, Mr. Kernis rescored the piece for solo cello and orchestra, and this was the version the Princeton Symphony brought to Richardson Auditorium Sunday afternoon. Joining the Symphony was soloist Susan Babini, principal cellist of The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and soloist in this piece’s East Coast premiere with Mr. Milanov’s other ensemble, Symphony in C. As solo cello has often represented a voice of pathos to composers, Ms. Babini had no trouble conveying the despairing vocal character of Mr. Kernis’ work.

Ms. Babini began Colored Field with a somewhat light but definitely intense tone, conveying simplicity while maintaining a musical dialog with oboist Rita Mitsel. The Princeton Symphony cleanly played the many repeated patterns in the first movement, as the solo cello line blended well into the orchestral fabric, but just a step or two apart from the ensemble in character.

Despite the complexities of the Kernis piece, the audience persevered in catching every nuance and musical gesture. Mr. Milanov kept conducting patterns strict, so that there was no question for the players as to where Colored Fields was going. The sound was rather harrowing at times in effect, and elegant wind solos (including from clarinetist Alexander Bedenko and bass clarinetist Sherry Hartman Apgar) were so well submerged in the texture that one had to look hard to see where the player was. Through it all, Ms. Babini maintained firm control over the intricate music, meeting both the virtuosic demands and the call for sweet melodic lines.

Mr. Milanov paired the Kernis piece with two programmatic works of the pioneering 19th-century composer Richard Strauss. Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration) is one of Strauss’ most well-known symphonic poems, a form which Strauss brought to a zenith with lush orchestrations and unique combinations of instruments. Although based on a somewhat depressing story line (a man’s final days), Death and Transfiguration ends in uplifting fashion.

The symphonic poem began peacefully, with stylish wind solos, especially by Ms. Mitsel, accompanied by harpist Andre Tarantiles. An identical melodic fragment passed among players, from oboe to flutist Chelsea Knox, English horn player Nathan Mills, and concertmistress Basia Danilow. Notwithstanding the lavish orchestration, the work never sounded thick, with melodies clearly heard. This being Strauss, there was a heavy emphasis on brass in the texture, and the brass sections of the Princeton Symphony played cleanly, never allowing the music to become bombastic.

Mr. Milanov kept an even flow to the music, bringing out the heroic character which is inherent in many Strauss symphonic poems. The Princeton Symphony extended this flow into frenzy in the closing work on Sunday’s program — “Salome’s Dance” from Strauss’ opera Salome. This high-spirited operatic excerpt began with a brisk Middle Eastern musical effect, with a snake-charmer melody from Ms. Mitsel, who carried the bulk of the melodic work of the piece. Rich unison upper strings contrasted with steady celli and harp, and Strauss’ unusual percussion effects added to the seductive character. Mr. Milanov whipped the Princeton Symphony into an appropriate frenzy, but the music always gracefully returned to the Middle Eastern melodies from the winds.

These three works may have been rooted in concepts of death, but Sunday afternoon’s program by the Princeton Symphony was subtitled “Eternal Light,” recognizing the optimism beneath each piece. This was a very challenging program for the players, who more than rose to the occasion, but may well have felt they had been through the “Dance of the Seven Veils” themselves by the end.