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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 24, 2014

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

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

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

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

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


September 18, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


July 30, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


July 23, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


July 16, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

The Good News

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

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

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

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

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

The Less Positive Perspective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Which are?”

“You’re a moron.”

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

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

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

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

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

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


Princeton Festival is many things during its month-long season, including opera, jazz, and instrumental genres. Last Saturday night was the Festival’s chance to be choral, with a presentation of one of the region’s most successful youth choirs. The Keystone State Boychoir, based in Philadelphia, maintains a musical education and performance program for 190 boys (its sister Pennsylvania Girlchoir is equally as active), and 47 of these boys came to Princeton’s Trinity Church to perform a sampling of their core repertoire. Conductor Steven Fisher and accompanist Joseph Fitzmartin (also an arranger for the choir) led the trebles, tenors, and basses through an engaging program which thoroughly entertained the audience at Trinity.

Keystone State Boychoir prides itself on diversity of repertoire, and the program Saturday night was billed as an “Americana Program.” Perhaps acknowledging the concert venue, the Boychoir opened with a verse from Percy Buck’s “Oh, Lord God” sung by a clear-voiced soloist, together with one of the international anthems of boychoirs — C. Hubert Parry’s “Jerusalem.” The “Evening Prayer” from Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, led by two soloists, showed a free and open tone in the upper registers of the singers. The Boychoir recently paid tribute to 90-year-old American composer Ned Rorem, and the excerpt from Rorem’s What is Pink? was sung at a sprightly tempo, with a tricky piano part effectively played by Mr. Fitzmartin.

Mr. Fisher divided the concert repertoire into music for trebles, then music for the changed voices, and the remainder of the first portion of the program included familiar works for treble chorus, sung with a well-blended full sound and good diction. Alan Naplan’s arrangement of “Al Shlosha” demonstrated some of the best tuning of the concert, and Mr. Fisher used the acoustics of Trinity Church well in Michael Scott’s arrangement of the American folktune “Dance, Boatman Dance.” The Keystone State Boychoir clearly emphasizes showmanship in performance, which could be seen in their rendition of “Food, Glorious Food” from the musical Oliver.

The “Graduate Choir,” comprised of the changed voices, showed both creative programming and singing through selections from Broadway to old pop music. The young men of this chorus displayed good animation in a clever arrangement of the Everly Brothers hit “Hello, Mary Lou,” with Mr. Fitzmartin maintaining good command over the jazz elements, as well as a unique vocal treatment of the Arabic change “Zikr.” Several soloists in particular proved themselves to be well-trained singers throughout the performance, including Nick van Meter and Colman Cumberland.

The impact of participating in a children’s choir goes way beyond the music, and the members of the Keystone State Boychoir showed that text can be equally as meaningful. A set of South African music sung by the entire choir and dedicated to the memory of Nelson Mandela, gave the singers a chance to point the way to a global future through music. The Boychoir’s rendition of “The Circle of Life” was quick and smooth, with Mr. Fitzmartin once again revealing himself to be an amazing pianist. More poignant was Mr. Fitzmartin’s arrangement of Dan Heymann’s “Weeping,” which the Boychoir had augmented with added rap written by choristers.

As the Keystone State Boychoir prepares for its upcoming tour to Australia, the energy of the singers was infectious and their commitment to choral performance confirmed.

The Boychoir’s performance Saturday night also fit well with the mission of the Princeton Festival to identify talent and create the musicians of tomorrow.


June 25, 2014
“SUMMERTIME, AND THE LIVING IS EASY”: Clara (Brandie Sutton) sings a lullaby to the baby cradled in her arms in the opening scene of the opera “Porgy and Bess,” while the people living in Catfish Row go about their business in the early summer evening.(Photo by Costa Papastephanou)

“SUMMERTIME, AND THE LIVING IS EASY”: Clara (Brandie Sutton) sings a lullaby to the baby cradled in her arms in the opening scene of the opera “Porgy and Bess,” while the people living in Catfish Row go about their business in the early summer evening. (Photo by Costa Papastephanou)

Princeton Festival continued its season this past Sunday afternoon with a sultry performance of George Gershwin’s immortal opera Porgy and Bess at the Matthews Theater of the McCarter Theater Centre for the Performing Arts. Considered the first completely successful and truly American opera, Porgy and Bess was revolutionary in its palette of American musical styles and influences. Although its 1935 premiere was on the Broadway stage, this work’s operatic vocal demands ask much of the singers, but leave the audience with some of the great tunes of early 20th-century America. Despite its length (productions often cut material, mostly in the first act), Porgy has remained a continued hit on operatic stages.

Princeton Festival Artistic Director Richard Tang Yuk took a brisk tempo for the musical introduction to the opening scene (often pared down in other productions), and a set bathed in purple combined with sinuous dance sequences (choreographed by Graham Lustig) created a steamy atmosphere marking the South Carolina setting. Porgy and Bess has a number of signature songs, the first of which heard was “Summertime,” sung on Sunday afternoon by soprano Brandie Sutton as the content and matronly Clara. “Summertime” recurs several times in the opera (including in a poignant duet with Clara’s husband Jake) and each time Ms. Sutton sang with a full rich voice often accompanied by a sinewy flute solo.

For an almost four-hour opera, the plot to Porgy and Bess is a bit thin, and much of the work serves as a blend of American musical idioms — including jazz, gospel, and parable-in-song — and opportunities for phenomenal singers to present lush melodies and snappy rhythms. Princeton Festival seemingly spared no expense in bringing talent to this production, and soprano Janinah Burnett brought her experience at the Metropolitan Opera to create the role of Bess. Deliberately dressed indecorously, in contrast to Marie Miller’s subdued costuming for the first act, Ms. Burnett demonstrated a full command of dramatic and forceful singing while floating notes in the upper register. Most intense was her Act II duet with the dock-loader Crown, commandingly sung by baritone Michael Redding.

As Porgy, Richard Todd Payne brought a full sense of both jazz and passion to the role of the gentle crippled competing with Crown for the affections of Bess. Both he and Ms. Burnett sought to “bend the rhythm” of Gershwin’s luxuriant melodies, with both voices synchronizing well to create a heavenly duet in another signature song, “Bess, You is my Woman Now.” Mr. Payne also effectively found the spirited syncopated effects in “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin,” with a small battle of musical wills between Mr. Payne’s desire to stretch the rhythm and the Festival Orchestra’s quest for exact precision.

Bess’ attempts to follow the straight and narrow are not only thwarted by Crown, but also by the drug dealer Sportin’ Life, sung with animation and character by tenor Robert Mack. Dressed like the proverbial fox in one of the few costumes of color in the first act, Mr. Mack drew on physicality and comedic timing as he continually tried to lure Bess back to the dark side. Mr. Mack’s rendition of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” was full of lively animation, physical presence, and precise timing with the orchestra.

From chorus member through the principal leads, all singers in Porgy and Bess were required to produce, and the singers of this production did not disappoint. Soprano Reyna Carguill sang “My Man’s Gone Now” with luxuriance, while Kenneth Overton provided sassiness and attitude to “A Woman is a Sometime Thing.” As Crown, Mr. Redding was sufficiently menacing when he needed to be, showing a rich voice that would make one want to hear his next Don Giovanni performance. At full force there was a full assembly of people on the stage, with the chorus providing the fullest sound heard in a Princeton Festival production. Clearly allowed to sing with color and expression, the many singers of the “Residents of Catfish Row,” prepared by Gail Blache-Gill, showed power and solidity; even when humming, the chorus was vocally strong. The adult chorus was joined by an equally as strong contingent from the Trenton Children’s Chorus, prepared by Dawn Golding.

Mr. Tang Yuk kept the action flowing well as conductor, leading the Princeton Festival Orchestra through a score that was as complex as any orchestral score from the early 20th century. Gershwin incorporated a number of effects characteristic of the time, including the use of banjo, played on Sunday by Patrick Mercuri. A number of elegant instrumental solos and unique colors could be heard, including from violist Julie DiGaetani, flutist Kim Reighley, clarinetist Rie Huebner, and a trio of saxophones played by Jay Hassler, Josh Kovach, and Robert Huebner. Costume designer Marie Miller used a wide range of dress to convey the times and lighting designer Norman Coates complemented John Farrell’s practical and effective sets with lighting nuance. This production of Porgy and Bess was more than a handful for Princeton Festival to take on, but the singers and instrumentalists down to the last were fully committed to bringing this story to life.


June 18, 2014

It is summer in Princeton, and one again, William and Judith Scheide are in a sharing mood. To the delight of Princeton choral aficionados, the Scheides brought the renowned Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, led by the equally as renowned conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner, to New Jersey. But, as Judith Scheide explained in her pre-concert remarks, this performance was about more than the music.

Sunday afternoon’s concert in Richardson Auditorium was in part inspired by a portrait of J.S. Bach, painted by Elias Gottlob Haussmann in the 1740s and lost to obscurity after Bach’s death in 1750. The portrait resurfaced in the early 1800s, and like the legendary red violin was passed down through generations until it was smuggled out of pre-World War II Germany to England, where it hung in the home of Sir John Eliot Gardiner. In 1951, William Scheide bought the portrait for his own home, and in Judith Scheide’s view, Sunday’s concert brought together all parties in this painting story to one place to celebrate the musical master himself. Also celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Monteverdi Choir, Mr. Gardiner presented an identical program to one performer earlier this year at London’s Buckingham Palace.

Mr. Gardiner is known for 18th-century performance practice, and his choice of Bach and Handel was right in the wheelhouse of the two performing ensembles involved. Bach’s double-chorus motet Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied requires singers to perform as instruments, executive coloratura passages at top speed, simultaneously phrasing lyrical melodic lines high in the vocal register. With counterpoint that was so clear one could take dictation from it, the thirty members of the Monteverdi Choir presented Bach’s music with precision and transparency. Throughout the motet, Mr. Gardiner led the choir through smooth transitions among the movements, emphasizing key words in the text while maintaining an overall orchestral character. Accompanied by two celli, double bass, and keyboard continuo, the soprano parts of the two choirs were equal in suppleness, and a gentler tempo to the middle movement made the closing “Alleluia” all that more effective.

Bach’s Cantata #4, Christ lag in Todesbanden, may have seemed a dark work to pair with the joyful Singet dem Herrn, but under Mr. Gardiner’s leadership, the cantata became dramatic and full of emotion not seen in choral music until 50 years after Bach. Beginning with the opening Chorale, in which repeated phrases were sung with innovative dynamics, the eight movement cantata became at times a quiet conversation between singers and instrumentalists, rising in volume on such text as “er ist wieder erstanden” (“He has risen again”). The players of the English Baroque Soloists played every phrase with character, often reducing the sound to almost nothing, together with the chorus, at the “Alleluia” which closed each movement.

Rather than use individual vocal soloists for some of the movements, Mr. Gardiner used the full choral sections. Most impressive were the tenor and bass sections, which sang with completely unified sound among the six singers in each of the sections, with the violins playing passages that would rival any of Bach’s most intricate instrumental music. In the fifth movement’s mostly a cappella chorus, one could easily hear the struggle between Life and Death, as the closing “Alleluia” dissipated as if overseeing carnage on a battlefield.

The music of G.F. Handel was innately more vocal than that of Bach, due to Handel’s extensive work in opera. However, as Mr. Gardiner pointed out in his comments, Handel could also require great virtuosity of string players, and the 1707 Dixit Dominus was a true concerto for voices in its time. With the Monteverdi Choir, Mr. Gardiner took a symphonic approach to the piece from the outset, with a first movement full of operatic nuance and dynamic variety. The top soprano choral sound had a fierce edge that could well have taken paint off the wall with its intensity, and such phrases as “conquasabit capita” were sung with such brutality one could hear the smiting of the enemy.

The performance included five vocal soloists, all of whom sang with the clarity for which British choirs are known. Sopranos Katy Hill and Emilia Morton sang with refined color, with Ms. Hill never seeming to run out of air in her triplet-filled aria. Soprano Esther Brazil sang the mezzo-soprano solos expressively, and with Ms. Morton, sang a duet full of sharp intensity. Tenors Guy Cutting and Peter Harris, along with bass Alexander Ashworth rounded out a vocal quintet which had both solo and choral lines well in hand. The dramatic close to the work brought the audience to its feet, showing the great appreciation for choral music which exists in the Princeton area, and in particular for this small sampling of the rich palette the British choral tradition has to offer.


June 11, 2014

Over the past decade, Princeton Festival has grown to include a wide range of performance genres, from orchestra, to opera, to jazz. Just as diverse is the music presented by the ensembles which are part of Princeton Festival. The Festival kicked off its month-long jam-packed season this past weekend with the Greater Princeton Youth Orchestra’s (GPYO) concert of operatic, vocal, and orchestral selections Saturday night in Richardson Auditorium. The annual spring concert of the Youth Orchestra featured the Concert and Symphonic Orchestras, with an evening clearly about the young musicians who take part in the GPYO program.

Dr. Arvin Gopal, conductor of the middle through high school level Concert Orchestra, presented works that capitalized on the army of violins in the Concert Orchestra. Following a humorous start in which Dr. Gopal sang along with an unanswered cell phone in the audience, the Concert Orchestra launched into the 20th-century Chant and Joyous Dance of American composer Eliot del Borgo. The unison strings provided a heavy and dark sound against well-unified and pulsating trombones. Dr. Gopal maintained a solid driving rhythm through the piece and showed himself to be a steady and easy-to-follow conductor.

Modest Mussorgsky’s fantasia Night on Bald Mountain featured impressive lower trombones and tuba from within the Concert Orchestra, and Dr. Gopal was able to find numerous tempi within the one-movement piece. A pair of flutes demonstrated clean tuning, with Shannon Lu playing graceful solo lines.

The more advanced young musicians of the GPYO perform with the Symphonic Orchestra, conducted by Kawika Kahalehoe. The Symphonic Orchestra focused their portion of the program largely on opera, with two orchestral selections from 19th-century operas and four arias featuring tenor Jon Darios. The two operatic orchestra excerpts — the overture from Johann Strauss’ Der Zigeunerbaron and an intermezzo from Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana featured numerous oboe solos, elegantly played by Kaitlyn Walker. Ms. Walker showed a great deal of physicality in her playing, taking her time on the long Alpine-like lines. The horn section of the orchestra showed a very smooth blend in the overture to Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz, with clean melodic lines played by the clarinets.

Well-blended upper strings marked the intermezzo, as extended string melodies were spun out against pizzicato playing from the double basses. A very nice touch was added to the end of the piece by harpist Alyssa Caffrey. Tenor Jon Darios, a veteran of musical theater and opera, sang arias of 19th-century operatic composers Donizetti, Tosti, and Califano, showing himself to be a more decisive singer in the faster selections. He wore a microphone on stage, which probably was not necessary and did not seem to match the acoustic palette of the players, but he was nonetheless entertaining as a performer.

An internal star of the Symphonic Orchestra stepped out in front with a movement from Mozart’s Concerto No. 1 in G Major for Flute and Orchestra. Katarzyna Dobrzycka, heading to Rutgers in the fall, played a chipper solo line with clean scales as the reduced orchestra of strings, oboes, and horns accompanied her. One could hear every turn in the melodic line, and the episodes within the rondo were evenly played with detached effect as if in an 18th-century court parlor.

The theme of Princeton Festival this year is “The New World: Voices of the Americas.” Greater Princeton Youth Orchestra’s concert Saturday night fit right in with not only repertory of the Americas but also the “voices” of its young musicians performing together.


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.