November 20, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


November 6, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


October 30, 2013

The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) subtitled its concert series this past weekend “Lacombe & Gluzman.” This moniker referred to the conductor of the concert and the soloist in its featured work, but the descriptive title was so much more. NJSO Music Director Jacques Lacombe and Israeli violinist Vadim Gluzman have had a long performance history together, and this combination of conductor and soloist took a rarely-heard musical gem to new heights. Although this concert series was not presented in the NJSO’s home base of Newark’s NJPAC, audiences in the other four venues (including Richardson Auditorium Friday night) were treated to an extraordinary three-way partnership among conductor, violinist, and orchestral ensemble.

The piece which Mr. Gluzman brought to life was Leonard Bernstein’s programmatic Serenade for Violin and Orchestra. Composed between 1953 and 1954, this five-movement work inspired by Plato’s philosophical text Symposium reminded the audience at Richardson of Bernstein’s legacy as one of the great melodists in music history. Bernstein orchestrated this piece uniquely for strings, harp, a wide range of percussion, and a solo violin, whose line was at times contrary to the ensemble and other times a precise and integrated part of the orchestral fabric.

Mr. Gluzman began the opening movement solo line with both confidence and inquisitiveness into the melodic depth of the Serenade and its emotional impact. Melodies were expressively passed back and forth across the stage as the NJSO demonstrated rich sectional playing from violas and celli. Mr. Gluzman’s energy was limitless, matching the jazz elements in the music and showing that this soloist lives the music he performs. In several of the movements, the solo line never stopped (often with virtuosic demands) and Mr. Gluzman seemed to make a particular effort to play in solidarity with the first violin section, executing perfect timing with pizzicato strings and punctuating harp. Intensity throughout the work was built by the extended percussion section, complementing well Bernstein’s poignant musical dialog among soloist, strings, and percussion.

Mr. Lacombe preceded this work with the light and airy Hector Berlioz Overture to Beatrice and Benedict, and followed it with the substantial Symphony No. 4 in F minor by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. The Berlioz work sustained a bit of French quirkiness, with very crisp and clean orchestral playing from the ensemble as a whole. Instrumental solos, especially from flutist Bart Feller and oboist Melanie Feld provided elegance against rich string playing and clear-cut trios of trumpets and trombones. Mr. Lacombe effectively ended sections gracefully and whipped the orchestra into a grand finish to the Overture.

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 was a myriad of musical personalities as the composer was consumed with fatalism, yet conveyed final hope at the conclusion of the four abundant movements. The opening Fate motive was cleanly presented by the brass in a crisp Classical style, as Mr. Lacombe kept the mood driven and forceful. The concurrent melodic line from bassoonist Robert Wagner and clarinetist Karl Herman sounded as one instrument, with very light strings toward the end of the first movement. Throughout the symphony, the players maintained control over accelerandos at the ends of movements, while at the same time allowing instrumental solos to be heard.

Oboist Ms. Feld demonstrated a pastoral and continuous line in the poignant second movement, echoed by the cello section and answered at times by flutist Mr. Feller. Like Bernstein, Tchaikovsky was a great melodist, most evident in the second movement Andantino, and these tunes were made all the more touching by the juxtaposition of a languorous melody against incisive wind flourishes and instrumental echoes.

The third movement was uniquely scored for extended pizzicato strings, an unusual effect which is not easy to pull off as a large orchestra. The collective result of ensemble pizzicato against the intervening wind passages, combined with the dynamic ranges found by the players in the closing movements, accentuated the pathos and tenderness of the symphony, and brought the concert to an eloquent close.


October 23, 2013
SERPENTINE SITUATIONS: Green Snake (Tanya Thai McBride, left) and White Snake (Amy Kim Waschke), spirit demons who have changed their shapes from snakes into young maidens, plan to descend from their mountain cave and mingle with mortals in McCarter Theatre’s production of “The White Snake,” adapted by Mary Zimmerman from a classic Chinese fable and playing at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre, 91 University Place through November 3.

SERPENTINE SITUATIONS: Green Snake (Tanya Thai McBride, left) and White Snake (Amy Kim Waschke), spirit demons who have changed their shapes from snakes into young maidens, plan to descend from their mountain cave and mingle with mortals in McCarter Theatre’s production of “The White Snake,” adapted by Mary Zimmerman from a classic Chinese fable and playing at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre, 91 University Place through November 3.

Transformations are a recurrent theme in Mary Zimmerman’s distinguished career as playwright and director. As a writer, she brilliantly adapts stories, myths, and fables for the stage: her Odyssey at McCarter in 2000; Metamorphosis, based on Ovid’s tales, a Tony Award winner on Broadway in 2002; The Secret in the Wings (2005), from an array of European fairy tales and Argonautika (2008), the story of Jason and the Argonauts, both also at McCarter. But even more striking than her clever literary transformations is her wildly creative visual magic in bringing these stories to life on the stage. 

The White Snake, based on a classic Chinese fable and currently playing at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre in a lavish, aesthetically stunning production, embodies that theme of transformation in every facet of its plot and production. Snakes, of course, among other rich symbolic associations, are known for their shape shifting and skin shedding. And certainly a defining characteristic of the theater art itself is its capacity for transformation, as it uses the tools of light, sound, film, props, set, costumes and make-up to transform actors into characters and creatures, and bare stages into multiple worlds.

From the outset, Ms. Zimmerman and her White Snake protagonist are bent on taking the art of transformation to new levels. Originally produced by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival last year, The White Snake is the story, whose origins are more than a thousand years old, of a snake who studies the Tao, learns how to fly through the air and travel through the clouds, then how to change her shape into that of a beautiful young maiden. She then wishes to leave her mountain cave and visit the world below, where she meets and falls in love with a mortal man.

The story itself has changed shape many times over the years in numerous tellings and retellings — in oral recounting, in novels, plays, stories, opera, and film. In earlier versions the white snake woman is often depicted as villainous. In one version she and her serpent accomplice slaughter a would-be lover and devour his heart and liver. In most versions a religious figure becomes the antagonist representative of the status quo, exposing the disguised snake woman and imprisoning her under a stone pagoda.

In Ms. Zimmerman’s adaptation, and in most more recent versions of the tale, the White Snake, transformed into Madame White, is a sympathetic figure and the fable becomes a love story. White Snake marries a man named Xu Xian and they must battle the intolerance of a fierce Buddhist monk who is determined to expose Madame White and destroy this relationship between an immortal demon and a mortal man.

As she plots her visit, in the guise of a beautiful lady, to the world of mortals, White Snake (Amy Kim Waschke) teams up with Green Snake (Tanya Thai McBride), a fiery, outspoken sidekick who provides moral and physical support throughout the proceedings.

Madame White and Greenie meet a young man, Xu Xian (Jon Norman Schneider), in the park. Madame White uses her supernatural powers to bring on a rain storm so that she and Xu Xian will share an umbrella. Soon afterwards they share their hearts. With Greenie as go-between and procurer of money, Madame White and Xu Xian are soon married and working together in their pharmacy shop.

Their lives are peaceful and happy for a while, and, with Madame White’s supernatural healing powers, the pharmacy thrives, until a visit from Fa Hai (Matt DeCaro), the suspicious monk who has heard about a demon white snake missing from her cave in the mountains and about the astonishingly successful pharmacist, casts doubt in the mind of Xu Xian.

The rest of the story follows Fa Hai’s determined efforts to expose White Snake and break up her forbidden relationship with her husband, as Xu Xian and White Snake struggle to overcome his doubts and her deceptions to achieve a true, lasting, loving relationship.

In staging this tale of transformations and the transforming power of love, Ms. Zimmerman, her actors and her production team present a dazzlingly beautiful tour de force of imaginative performance and stagecraft. Dramatic tension here is a notch below that of Ms. Zimmerman’s earlier masterpieces. This story melds abundant narration with intriguing magic, vibrant characterizations, romantic intrigue, bits of humor and intense conflict, but it lacks the richness of the multiple adventures of Odysseus on his journey home and of Jason and his ill-fated quest. Nor can this fable, captivating though it is, match the variety and allure of Metamorphosis’s amazing, titillating Greek myths or the peculiarly dark and fascinating fairy tales of The Secret in the Wings.

The sheer beauty and ingeniousness of the staging, however, does carry the performance, and if the plot is not always riveting nor the resolution fully satisfying, the audience cannot help but enjoy the visual and auditory feast provided here.

Production elements, under the direction of Ms. Zimmerman, are so closely melded with each other and with the performances of the superb acting ensemble that it’s difficult to single out the artists’ individual contributions, but Ms. Zimmerman’s team of actors, musicians, and designers is thoroughly first-rate.

Starting with the snakes themselves — sometimes manipulated by actors in puppet fashion with two sticks, sometimes represented by a row of actors carrying parasols, sometimes appearing in the form of the two maidens themselves with long tails emerging from their clothes — the visual manifestations of the concrete and abstract elements of the story are striking.

Daniel Ostling’s minimalist set relies on billowing silky fabric and the audience’s imagination to create mountains, clouds, rivers; long strips of blue fabric descending from above to denote rain; a parasol carried by an actor for the moon; a single medicine cabinet with its numerous drawers and large jars on a shelf rising from the floor of the stage to represent the apothecary shop, opening up to become Madame White’s bed chamber; colorful, picturesque model boats pulled across the stage to create the dragon festival; multiple light, sound, film, and design elements to create an epic battle with White Snake and Green Snake calling on all their water spirits to flood the monastery and the mountain and engulf Fai Hai and all his cloud spirits; and a striking display of colorfully costumed actors carrying bright lanterns to celebrate the festival of lanterns.

And even more memorable and clever are the visual and musical/sound manifestations of abstract qualities — like doubt, depicted here by the indispensable Emily Sophia Knapp with her extra-long fingernail attachments attacking poor Xu Xian and drumming relentlessly on his head; or love, when Madame White and Xu Xian’s hands first touch while passing the umbrella and the moment resonates with sound, lighting effects and the excited trembling of the romantic pair; or soon afterwards when red rose petals fall from above, a huge red wedding ribbon descends and the bride and groom entwine themselves in the shimmering sash.

Mara Blumenfeld’s colorful traditional Chinese costumes, T.J. Gerckens richly varied, expressive and dramatic lighting design, Andre Pluess’ remarkable original music and sound design with Tessa Brinckman on flute, Ronnie Malley on strings/percussion and Michal Palzewicz on cello in the orchestra pit, Shawn Sagady’s intriguing projections — all contribute invaluably, vitally to the creation of this exotic world and the telling of this strange tale.

As part of the narration of this story, characters at times read from a 1936 book titled Secrets of the Chinese Drama. In traditional Chinese drama there is no scenery, so costumes, music, props and movement take on particular symbolic meaning. According to the book’s preface, “There is so much of imagination and so little reality. So many of the actions are symbolic and so few of the properties are real!” Among the many wonders displayed on the Matthews stage in this beautiful production of The White Snake, there is little wonder that the infinitely inventive Mary Zimmerman would find a fulfilling vehicle for her rich gifts and powers of transformation in this Chinese tale of transforming snakes and transformative love.


The Princeton University Orchestra started the year off with a musical bang this past weekend, with a concert program that belied the fact that the school year began less than two months ago. Conductor Michael Pratt led an orchestra chock full of players this year in a program of Paul Lansky, Mozart, and most impressively, Gustav Holst’s The Planets, one of the most complex works in the orchestral repertory.

Friday night’s performance at Richardson Auditorium (the program was repeated Saturday night) showed the orchestra increasing in size from small to large as the concert progressed, with Paul Lansky’s Line and Shadow scored for a scaled-down instrumental ensemble. The somewhat impressionistic one-movement piece began with low flutes, and its palette of musical colors and effects, together with the accessibility of the work as a whole, seemed to complement Mr. Lansky’s background in electroacoustic music. Mr. Pratt kept the orchestra subdued, allowing the syncopated rhythms and offbeat winds to speak, and the orchestra only reached its full sound at the end of the piece.

Mr. Pratt carried the same musical care and chamber character to Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Major, with more substantial string sections (but only a pair of oboes and horns) and featuring University senior Nicolas Apter-Vidler as soloist. Mr. Apter-Vidler has been studying music for a good ten years, including at Mannes College of Music, and his poised and confident performance demonstrated his solid musical training.

Mr. Pratt began the concerto gracefully, with a light touch from the oboes and horns which was vintage Mozart. Mr. Apter-Vidler began his solo with a delicate triad and light quick vibrato as he launched into the first movement Allegro. Mr. Apter-Vidler maintained a song-like quality in the principal themes, and was perfectly in time with the rest of the strings in rhythmic passages. With clean and sweet double-stops in the cadenzas to both the first and second movements, Mr. Apter-Vidler’s playing well complemented the saucy repeated phrases and effective deceptive cadences from the rest of the ensemble. A clever and tuneful Rondo containing both popular 18th-century gypsy elements and shades of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro (composed a decade later) closed the concerto tastefully.

The most astounding piece on the University Orchestra program was Holst’s monumental The Planets, a seven movement complex orchestral suite which expanded the University Orchestra roster to almost every instrument imaginable. Mr. Pratt expanded the string sections to a total of at least 60, and wind and brass sections added the bass instrument in almost every category.

Each movement in this work describes a different planet, assigning character and purpose to the heavenly bodies. The orchestra began Mars with precise string bowings, accompanied by low horns. The driving rhythmic motive which held the movement together was strongly sustained throughout, and the orchestral sound was well unified and certainly the loudest of the evening. The rhythm was well controlled by timpanists Isaac Ilivicky and JJ Warshaw, and the war-like intensity was eased by a melodic euphonium solo by Riley Fitzgerald. Frequently throughout the suite, horn principal Kim Fried provided solos which were pure in tone, accompanied in the Venus movement by a quartet of flutes. Also effective throughout the seven movements were periodic violin solos, sweetly played by Kate Dreyfuss, as well as wind solos played by oboist Alexa McCall and clarinetist Ryan Budnick.

Holst scored this suite for a wide range of percussive and keyboard instruments which add ethereal musical effects. Jason Nong added a celestial character from the celeste, augmented by very high bell effects played by the very busy percussion players. The most well-known of the movements contains what became a very popular English hymn, and Mr. Pratt conducted the familiar melody broadly, bringing out the grandeur of Jupiter. Two harps played by Cara Souto and Connie Wang added a bit of sparkle to certain passages, as did an offstage women’s chorus conducted by Kamna Gupta.

The Lansky and Mozart pieces were certainly enough to challenge the University Orchestra so early in the season, but The Planets clearly required the concentration and focus of every player on the stage. The University Orchestra musicians were well up to the task, and the bar has now been set very high for the year to come.


October 16, 2013

Along with fellow Hungarian Zoltan Kodaly, composer Béla Bartók was one of the early leaders in the emerging field of ethnomusicology in the 20th century. Both of these composers wrote standard works in addition to their research into indigenous music of their native region, including in Bartók’s case six string quartets. The Takács String Quartet, founded at Budapest’s Liszt Academy in 1975, presented back-to-back performances in Richardson Auditorium last week of all six Bartók quartets, treating those who chose to attend both nights insight into the unique harmonies and musical complexities of this composer.

Friday night’s concert at Richardson featured Quartets No. 2, 4, and 6 (No. 1, 3 and 5 were performed the night before) to a sold-out house which seemed to have no trouble assimilating the intricacies of Bartók’s music. String Quartet No. 2, composed a decade after Bartók’s first quartet, came to be as Europe was immersed in World War I. Bartók captured the melancholy of the times in this quartet through its slow movements — the piece seems to be missing the usual final movement which might end on an upbeat note. Although Bartók did not quote any regional folksongs specifically in this quartet, the minor third interval prevalent in Hungarian folk tunes was a structural cell and theme of the piece.

Of the four original members of the Takács Quartet, second violinist Károly Schranz and cellist András Fejér continue to play with the ensemble, joined by first violinist Edward Dusinberre and violist Geraldine Walther. In Quartet No. 2’s opening movement, each player in the Takács seemed to be playing in their own individual world, yet came to rest periodically in rare moments of tranquility. This quartet had several waves of musical activity, perhaps reflecting the chaotic state of the world at the time. Amidst the shifting musical sections were gems of solo playing, including Mr. Dusinberre’s sweet violin melody against strummed cello, rich low viola passages from Ms. Walther and an elegant cello melody in the third movement.

Contrasting the melancholy nature of Quartet No. 2 was Quartet No. 4, with four quick movements split to bracket a mournful Lento. This quartet contained intense entrances and driving rhythms which were well handled by the Takács players. The musicians were uniform in their handling of the technical demands of the Bartók work, executing forceful bow strokes, double and triple stops and the “con sordino” (with mutes) effects of the second movement.

Bartók composed Quartet No. 6 on the edge of World War II, just before Bartók came permanently to the United States. Each of the four movements was preceded by a Mesto or motto, the first of which was a mournful tune played by Ms. Walther. Despite its desolate start, Quartet No. 4 becomes quite light through the first movement with teasing melodic lines and a very sweet ending to the first movement. Mr. Fejér effectively provided the Mesto to the second movement and the saucy rhythms and jazzy nature of the movement were contrasted with a dramatic second violin line played by Mr. Schranz. The Mestos grew in intensity with each movement, until all instruments were playing together for the third and fourth movements. The Mesto to the third movement may have been rich in texture, but the tuning effects called for by Bartók for the second violin made one’s hair stand on end. The Takács players also found a wide variety of vibrato effects in the closing movement.

The Takács String Quartet is not a regular visitor to Richardson Auditorium, but the musicians clearly feel at home in the space. Cellist Fejér claims that the Quartet loves Richardson’s “classic, amphitheater-like shape, coming all the way from ancient Greece, which has been the ideal acoustical layout” for the ensemble’s concerts. The sold-out house at Richardson would no doubt agree that the Takács String Quartet is welcome back anytime.


October 9, 2013

The Princeton Symphony Orchestra has taken the concept of collaboration to new heights this year with its opening “Classical Series” concert this past weekend. With a musical program inspired by identifying what is uniquely “American” in music and centered on a work based on the Jacob Lawrence “Migration Series” set of paintings, the Princeton Symphony created an entire weekend of “Migration Project” activities, including discussions with the composer, a family festival, and art projects, all of which were achieved in partnership with a number of Princeton cultural and educational organizations. Princeton Symphony’s opening weekend culminated in a performance by the ensemble, on Sunday afternoon in Richardson Auditorium, of two American musical favorites and a New Jersey premiere, all commemorating the 150th anniversary of the emancipation proclamation. 

With some new faces on the roster, the Princeton Symphony opened Sunday afternoon’s concert with Aaron Copland’s suite from Appalachian Spring, a work considered representative of the American spirit. Although not directly related to a visual work of art, Copland’s Appalachian Spring could easily be connected with the broad Pennsylvania landscapes of Andrew Wyeth. Princeton Symphony Orchestra conductor Rossen Milanov opened the suite with a broad musical palette, capturing the image of the sun rising on an open field, aided by clarinetist Alexander Bedenko’s opening solo. Mr. Milanov kept the orchestral texture muted, allowing the solo lines, including oboist Nick Masterson and flutist Mary Schmidt, to speak freely. A quick transition to the second section was handled well by the ensemble as the strings and a pair of flutes were well-timed with one another. Mr. Bedenko and Mr. Masterson had a great deal of musical interplay throughout the suite, and Mr. Bedenko in particular showed himself to be an understated yet expressive player. Especially effective in the close of the piece were a bassoon and oboe duet (played by Seth Baer and Mr. Masterson, respectively) and the graceful presentation of the “Simple Gifts” theme by the viola section against pizzicato strings and offbeat winds.

Considered equally as American as Copland but on another musical spectrum was George Gershwin, whose 1935 Porgy and Bess has been revered for its inventiveness and has generated a number of symphonic arrangements. Symphonic Picture, compiled and orchestrated by noted arranger Richard Rodney Bennett, took eleven of the opera’s great tunes and set them for an orchestra augmented by unique instrumentation, including a trio of saxophones and a banjo. Mr. Milanov began Symphonic Picture with bell-like effects, complemented by an elegant English horn solo played by Nathan Mills. With a bit of swing throughout the work, the Princeton Symphony drew out the teasing atmosphere of “Bess, You is my Woman Now” and the elements of big band style from the winds and brass. This was a very full orchestra, but one could hear such details as the banjo solo on “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin,” accompanied by flute and harp. This piece not only fit in well with the theme of the concert, but also was clearly fun for the musicians to play.

The defining piece of Sunday’s program was the New Jersey premiere of Migration Series, a five-movement work by award-winning American composer Derek Bermel, whose musical output crosses several genres. Mr. Bermel drew inspiration for this work from the Lawrence “Migration Series” set of 60 paintings (one of which was displayed in the Princeton University Art Museum for this performance). The Princeton Symphony was pared back to a small ensemble and was joined onstage by the Juilliard jazz orchestra, prepared by James Burton. The talented students of the jazz orchestra carried the bulk of the performing work in this piece, especially impressive were solos by trumpeter Joe Boga and trombonist Andy Clausen.

Mr. Milanov took a step back from conducting at times, allowing the jazz club atmosphere to prevail. The second movement of Migration Series, with its walking blues piano and gospel melodies, was especially accessible, but as might happen in a jazz club, there were times when there was an impression of musical chaos, which is not for everyone. The third movement seemed to be the most technically difficult, with the composer himself playing a mean clarinet accompanied by a combo of drums and bass. An amazing display of musical “banter” among three trombones marked a later section of the piece, as Mr. Bermel well captured the concept of “urban chatter” in musical form.

The Princeton Symphony Orchestra “Migration Series Project” was by no means limited to this past weekend; related events took place in September and will continue well into the fall at locations throughout the community. If each program of the symphony includes this in-depth a range of activities, there will surely be something for everyone as the Princeton Symphony Orchestra continues to make its mark on the region.


October 2, 2013
FAMILY TIME: Gertie (Juliet Garrett) takes drastic action to help her amnesiac daughter remember the past and make sense of her life in Theatre Intime’s production of David Lindsay-Abaire’s absurdist comedy, “Fuddy Meers,” playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through October 5.

FAMILY TIME: Gertie (Juliet Garrett) takes drastic action to help her amnesiac daughter remember the past and make sense of her life in Theatre Intime’s production of David Lindsay-Abaire’s absurdist comedy, “Fuddy Meers,” playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through October 5.

Imagine waking up every morning with no memory of your past, your identity, or your current life. Each day is a new start and a struggle to discover who you are in relation to family and the surrounding world. Theatre Intime’s current production of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Fuddy Meers takes its audiences on a wild journey in search of memory and truth along with its protagonist Claire, a middle-aged woman suffering from a rare form of psychogenic amnesia.

The world of this play is beyond bizarre. It’s a world of funhouse mirrors. That’s the “fuddy meers,” in the gibberish delivered by one of the characters whose speech is impaired because of a stroke. Claire’s dysfunctional family, with its array of physical and psychological deformities, goes far beyond the Sycamore family of You Can’t Take It with You or the Brewsters of Arsenic and Old Lace into the realm of wacky insanity and whimsical absurdity. Despite the larger-than-life, unsettlingly dark comic tone of the play, however, there is an underlying seriousness and dignity in Claire’s brave quest. The zany excesses of Christopher Durang — Betty’s Summer Vacation, in particular — and the work of Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company also come to mind, though Fuddy Meers is less sharp in its dialogue, humor, and social satire than the best of Mr. Durang and Mr. Ludlam.

A capable, energetic Theatre Intime undergraduate ensemble of seven, under the direction of Princeton University sophomore Tyler Lawrence, displays spirit and versatility in tackling this acclaimed 1999 off-Broadway hit. The 11 scenes are fast-paced and entertaining, with abundant laughter, and a sympathetic, engaging central figure.

Fuddy Meers, presenting an adventure-filled day in the life of Claire (Nathalie Ellis-Einhorn), begins as she wakes up in the morning, a blank slate, all memory erased. Her ever-cheerful husband (David Cruikshank) greets her with a cup of coffee and a book containing everything he thinks she needs to know about herself, her surroundings, and her life.

Suddenly a mysterious, scary, limping man (Pat Rounds) in black ski mask emerges from under the bed. He claims to be Claire’s brother and insists on taking her away to protect her from her husband. Claire and the audience are equally confused. The limping man and Claire drive to the house of Claire’s mother Gertie (Julie Garrett), who speaks only in gibberish as a result of a recent stroke, though she thinks and acts with complete clarity.

Next to join the gathering at Gertie’s house is Millet (Steven Tran), a sociopathic criminal who wants to be a zookeeper. He is inseparable from his outspoken, foul-mouthed hand puppet. Soon afterwards the odd assemblage is completed when the pursuing husband Richard and their pot-smoking 17-year-old son Kenny (Matt Barouch) arrive, along with a peculiar, claustrophobic woman police officer, whom they kidnapped after she attempted to stop them en route.

Violence (by knife, pistol, shovel, hot bacon grease, sewing needle, hack saw), humor, and extremes of eccentricity abound, as Claire struggles to overcome her memory lapses and the deceptions and dysfunctions of the characters who surround her in her quest to discover the truth about her past and actual relationship to these people who attempt to control her life.

Ms. Ellis-Einhorn provides a solid focal point for the proceedings. A bit more energy and intensity in this character would help her, the only “normal” character, to capture the audience’s full attention amidst the competing crazies.

Mr. Rounds as the primary antagonist is first-rate and forceful in his volatile, psychopathic demeanor. Funny and frightening at the same time, disfigured in face and behavior, this character drives the plot and consistently commands the audience’s interest.

Mr. Cruikshank’s cheery, Mr. Self-Help-Manual husband is appropriately cloying and amusing in his character incongruities, while Mr. Barouch’s son-from-hell Kenny is on-target in characterization, humorous in his outrageous rudeness and ultimately valuable in his truth-telling.

Ms. Garrett’s high-powered grandmother skillfully handles the demands of extensive dialogue in gibberish and succeeds in communicating with dynamic force and even clarity with her daughter Claire, with the other characters in the play, and with the audience. Mr. Tran and Ms. Coke provide strong support in their sometimes disturbing, often surprising, and consistently amusing, madcap roles.

Mr. Lawrence has directed with understanding, focus, and appropriately swift pacing, though the opening night set changes could have benefited from greater speed and efficiency.

Seen through Claire’s eyes, Fuddy Meers, according to the playwright, is “a world of incomplete pictures and distorted realities.” Set design here by Wesley Cornwall with lighting by Marissa Applegate, original music by Sam Kaseta, sound design by Charlotte Sall, and costumes by Julie Aromi fulfills this goal with minimal unadorned representations of the locales of the play. The set is functional, though a bit more stylization, surrealism, other-worldliness might help to further embrace the mood of this play.

In his notes in the script Mr. Lindsay-Abaire calls this play ”a world of mirrors and memories … a world where mad fun and genuine danger are wrapped around each other.” This youthful Theatre Intime company brings Fuddy Meers to life with energy and talent and offers an evening of memorable madness and entertainment.


The Princeton University department of music launched its 2013-14 season last Friday night with an old friend. The Brentano String Quartet, Performers-in-Residence at the University, set an elegant and precise tone for the year with a link of late Classical and early Romantic music with the Princeton premiere of a work by a well-established local composer. The very attentive audience in Richardson Auditorium paid careful attention to the Brentano’s musical details in the music of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and department of music chair Steven Mackey.

Ludwig van Beethoven redefined the string quartet form, but his 1800 String Quartet in D Major (the third of Opus 18) was pretty tame by Beethoven standards, refreshing in its sweet motives, but with just enough of a twist to keep the audience on its toes. The members of the Brentano String Quartet — violinists Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin, violist Misha Amory, and cellist Nina Lee — gelled immediately from the first movement Allegro, timing accents and sforzandi together and gracefully presenting the melodies. The chorale-like beginning of the second movement was leanly played by the lower strings, contrasting with Mr. Steinberg’s teasing first violin. The quartet uniformly increased intensity and dynamics throughout the movement with a deliberate and clean ending. Following a smoothly-flowing triple meter Allegro, the Brentano Quartet closed the work joyously with moments of elegance, rather than the usual decisive chords and cadences.

Steven Mackey’s One Red Rose was commissioned by Carnegie Hall, the Yellow Barn Music Festival, and the Nasher Center of Dallas, Texas in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The Brentano Quartet will play the three-part work on November 22 of this year, the actual anniversary date, in Dallas, combining the piece with spoken remembrances of that dark day in 1963 (members of the Richardson Auditorium were invited to contribute to the taped recollections). Mackey has incorporated many sounds of that weekend into the piece — repeated strokes from the cello recall the drums of the funeral caisson, sirens can be heard in the violin lines, and the music often breaks its mood abruptly, much the same way the original news rolled jarringly through the country and the world.

In the same way as the day of 11/22/63, One Red Rose required great intensity and concentration. Dr. Mackey divided the first part into Five Short Studies, each of which was slightly different in character. Beginning with a mournful second violin, sounding as if from afar, One Red Rose opened with a series of repeated patterns accompanied by drumbeat and drone from cellist Lee. With a bell-like second section and more melodic third section, Five Short Studies well captured the juxtaposition of control and chaos so prevalent both that day and for much of the remaining decade. The Brentano Quartet played relentlessly, with sudden emphasis when appropriate and often falling back on a more reflective texture.

Especially in the third section Anthem and Aria, universal mourning can be heard in the cello, accompanied by rich and melodic playing from the two violins and viola. One Red Rose closed with rich lushness from the Brentano’s four players.

The Brentano Quartet returned to a classical giant for the closing work on the program. Felix Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in D Major, Opus 44, No. 1 began with all the freshness of the composer’s Italian Symphony and a rhythmic drive characteristic of the early 19th century. The Brentano’s overall sound in this light and airy piece was well contained and calm, keeping the rhythmic patterns moving and the dynamics under control. The violins kept the music flowing like a river in the second movement Menuetto, with especially smooth eighth notes from Mr. Steinberg in the Trio. Mr. Steinberg and Ms. Canin provided a gentle and songlike duet over pizzicato lower strings in the third movement Andante, ending the movement especially delicately.

The Brentano String Quartet has a long history with Princeton University, and in this concert last week, Richardson Auditorium seemed like home to the players. The new concert season has begun with the bar set high, and the Brentano’s performance has put everyone in the mood for great music for the fall.


September 19, 2013

If Patience Tawengwa could lift McCarter Theatre from it’s perch on University Place and deposit it in Harare, Zimbabwe, where she co-directs a dramatic arts organization called Almasi, she would make it happen. Sitting in the office of McCarter’s artistic director Emily Mann a few weeks ago, shortly before she returned home after five weeks at the theater as part of a cultural exchange, Ms. Tawengwa smiled as she imagined doing just that.

“There is a certain magic here,” she said. “I don’t know what it is, and I’ve been trying to figure it out so I can take it back with me.”

Ms. Tawengwa, who is in her 30s, spent much of August and some of this month living on Palmer Square and shadowing Ms. Mann in an effort to learn how a major arts organization works. She was struck not only by Ms. Mann’s abilities as a director, but by the simple fact of her gender.

“I come from a very patriarchal country, a boy’s club. So the fact that she is a woman and so accomplished is very important,” she said. “Then, just watching her process and how she works with the actors has given me such a shift of perspective. Her attention to detail is amazing to me. Everything is so particular and it’s all done so quickly. Just watching how she lets the actors explore on stage has made me realize that I’ve been somewhat harsh with actors. I realize you get a lot more with honey than without.”

It hasn’t been easy for Ms. Tawengwa and her Almasi co-founder, actress Danai Gurira, who is familiar to television audiences from her role on the drama The Walking Dead as well as her extensive work as a playwright. The two founded Almasi, which means “diamond” in Swahili, in 2011 as a “Zimbabwean American Dramatic Arts Collaborative Organization,” as it is written in the website. Through staged readings, educational outreach, and cultural exchanges such as the one just completed by Ms. Tawengwa, they hope to make the arts much more accessible.

“In Zimbabwe, they put very little emphasis on arts education. And there are all these talented kids out there,” Ms. Tawengwa said. “Part of what we’re doing is going into high density and rural schools, with a goal that every child knows what theater is and can get involved.”

Ms. Tawengwa was already known in Zimbabwe as an award-winning film director when she came to the attention of the U.S. Embassy there two years ago. “They wanted to do something for World AIDS Day,” she recalled. “That’s when I met Danai.”

Ms. Gurira was born in the U.S. to Zimbabwean parents and raised in Zimbabwe. Among her plays is The Convert, which appeared at McCarter, the Goodman and Center Theatre Group theaters and is part of a trilogy about Zimbabwe. As part of the exchange, McCarter’s Associate Artistic Director Adam Immewahr will travel to Harare this fall to direct a production of the play.

It was after working together on The Continuum, which Ms. Gurira co-wrote, that she and Ms. Tawengwa decided to form a partnership. “We had some unpleasant experiences with the producer. It was very disorganized,” Ms. Tawengwa said. “So we said to each other, ‘Let’s form this organization.’ We knew our niche would be strictly that we were a Zimbabwean/American collaboration.”

Ms. Gurira and three others run the American side of Almasi, while Ms. Tawengwa and three others are based in Zimbabwe.

In addition to shadowing Ms. Mann at McCarter, Ms. Tawengwa was able to spend time interacting with other members of the staff. “I have come to appreciate how non-profits are run,” she said. “This is what we envision for Almasi in many years to come. There’s a certain excellence and culture about the way McCarter is run that I’ve never felt elsewhere.”

Ms. Tawengwa’s time in Princeton also included investigations into Ms. Mann’s body of work. “I think she does art that matters,” she said. “In our country, you can’t just do art for art’s sake.” Back in Zimbabwe, Almasi will do a staged reading of Ms. Mann’s play, Greensboro.

Mr. Immewahr’s upcoming direction of The Convert at Almasi is another example of the collaboration between the two theaters. “I’m very excited to have this opportunity to direct this play that premiered under Emily Mann, and to let it be seen in the country that inspired it,” he said. “It is a thrilling play set in 1895 Zimbabwe, about women who escaped forced marriages, and I think it will be particularly resonant to see it performed in Harare with Zimbabwean actors and designers.”

Ms. Gurira has been a big part of the exchange between the two theaters. “It’s been a fluid process,” Mr. Immewahr said. “We’ve developed plays. We’ve sent Danai to Zimbabwe, and now we’re developing her next play. It’s a messy process, with many components. It doesn’t fit into a box. And hopefully it will enrich our community here at the same time it enriches the artistic community in Zimbabwe.”

Ms. Tawengwa was planning to do a talk at the American embassy in Zimbabwe upon her return home, detailing her experiences in Princeton and her plans for Almasi’s future. “We play by the McCarter way now,” she said. “We’ve got a new code.”


August 28, 2013
BLOCK PARTY: Crowds enjoyed a selection of festive activities and foods from local eateries at McCarter Theatre’s third annual outdoor Block Party last Wednesday as they listened to the Philadelphia Jazz Orchestra.(Photo by Emily Reeves)

BLOCK PARTY: Crowds enjoyed a selection of festive activities and foods from local eateries at McCarter Theatre’s third annual outdoor Block Party last Wednesday as they listened to the Philadelphia Jazz Orchestra. (Photo by Emily Reeves)

Rain stopped long enough last week for throngs of local residents and visitors to attend McCarter Theatre’s third annual block party. The event took place under festive lantern-lit trees on the lawn in front of the Matthews Theatre.

The free three-hour event, from 5 to 8 p.m., drew a crowd of all ages. Children took part in tot-sized versions of carnival like games such as the high-striker (also known as the strongman) as well as spin art, a scavenger hunt, and activities from JaZams. There were also ticket giveaways and, for the first time this year, stage tours.

People brought picnic blankets and lawn chairs and their pet dogs too. After buying food, they settled down at the tables and chairs provided or on the grass to enjoy music from the Philadelphia Jazz Orchestra.

The orchestra, which was also at the event in previous years, is made up of high school and college performers from New Jersey and Greater Philadelphia. It was led by founder Joseph Bongiovi, who also directs the Princeton High School band. Vocalists Emily Zetterberg and Caitlyn Bongiovi (Mr. Bongiovi’s daughter) wowed the crowd with renditions of jazz standards.

Food ranged from gourmet pizza and paella to hotdogs from Nomad Pizza, Mediterra, Mistral, Terra Teatro, elements,4 Daughters Franks, Bitter Bob’s BBQ + Comfort Food, D’Angelo Italian Market, among others. Sweet dessert treats were to be had from Chez Alice Catering, Gil & Bert’s Ice Cream, and Maddalena’s Cheesecake & Catering.

Christine Murray, special events manager at -McCarter, said the block party “welcomes the community into our doors in a different way.”

In past years, as many as a thousand people have turned out for the event, which makes Wednesday evening’s count something of a record. “We didn’t get an exact count but I would say we had somewhere between 1,000 and 1,500 people,” said Christine Murray, who was in charge of the event. “I am very grateful to the 80 staff and volunteers who helped make the evening run smoothly. Without the help of these fabulous people the event would not be possible.”

In addition to informative stage tours led by Stage Supervisor Stephen J. Howe, teaching artists Jillian Carucci and Stacy Horowitz presented classes throughout the day for children in grades K through 2nd and 3rd through 5th in the theater lobby.

“All of us at McCarter are thrilled by the Block Party’s growing success,” said Ms. Murray. “We feel it’s important, as a member of the Princeton community, to have an event that kicks off our new season and brings together young and old for a great night of food, music, and activities. A fun time was had by all.”

McCarter’s upcoming season includes five-time Tony winner Audra McDonald, Grammy winner Chris Botti, standup comedian Lewis Black as well as a joint recital by Pinchas Zukerman and Yefim Bronfman. Plays include Proof by David Auburn, The White Snake by Mary Zimmerman and August Wilson’s Fences and two by Beaumarchais, directed and adapted by Stephen Wadsworth: The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro. 

For more information, call (609) 258-2787, or visit:


July 24, 2013

William and Judith Scheide clearly have deep roots in Princeton, but until this past week, no one in the community knew about their strong connection to the Philadelphia Orchestra. From his earliest days at Princeton University, Mr. Scheide was a Friday afternoon concert-goer to Philadelphia’s Academy of Music, where he no doubt reveled in the orchestra’s rendition of Leopold Stokowski’s lush arrangements of Bach. Judith Scheide also attended Philadelphia Orchestra concerts, perhaps unknowingly at the same performances as Mr. Scheide. The stars converged last Wednesday night as the Scheides, conductor Mark Laycock (no stranger to the orchestra himself) and “Those Fabulous Philadelphians” came together at Richardson Auditorium for the annual Scheide Midsummer Celebration. The Philadelphia Orchestra has not performed in Princeton since 1964, and although many Princetonians likely make the journey to the Orchestra’s new home at the Kimmel Center, there is nothing like the ensemble’s clean, precise and rich playing in Princeton’s own backyard.

The legendary Philadelphia Orchestra “sound” has changed since the days of Eugene Ormandy’s performance at McCarter Theatre in 1964. Once heavy on string sonorities and legato playing, principal conductors since Ormandy, most notably Wolfgang Sawallisch and Christoph Eschenbach, crafted a leaner and more supple string sound and introduced a number of young players into the ensemble, adding to the Orchestra’s musical vibrancy. Wednesday night’s concert of refreshing and energetic works showed a wide range of dynamic and stylistic nuance, and it was clear that conductor Mark Laycock was having a great time painting on the Philadelphia Orchestra palette.

Sergei Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony No. 1 in D Major is one of the composer’s most popular works, but not many ensembles can execute it at the speed at which Mr. Laycock began the opening Allegro movement. Ultimate precision marked this performance, whether it was a pair of bassoons against pizzicato violins, the internal winds of the third movement Gavotta or timpanist Don Liuzzi finding an incredible range of dynamics — always on the front edge of the rhythm. Conducting from memory, Mr. Laycock was thoroughly comfortable with all the works on the program, and the Prokofiev was an effective way to reintroduce the Philadelphia Orchestra to the Princeton community.

Carl Maria von Weber’s opera overtures have survived almost more successfully than the operas themselves, and his Overture to Oberon well captured the early 19th-century German musical preoccupation with magic and the supernatural. Particularly marked by Jeffrey Lang’s clear and resonant horn solo, rich sectional playing from the violas and celli, and a languorous clarinet solo from Samuel Caviezel, the orchestra’s performance of this Overture emphasized the same dynamic rises in intensity as can be heard in Weber’s more familiar Overture to Der Freischütz.

The Philadelphia Orchestra demonstrated its ability to deftly shift musical gears as Mr. Laycock led the instrumentalists through the seven-part set of Variations on a Theme Of Haydn by Johannes Brahms. Remarkably light and airy in orchestration (especially the combination of winds and lower strings, and clarinets and horns), the Brahms work was led by Mr. Laycock with effective changes in tempo and character as the ensemble reached its fullest sound half-way through. The seventh variation in particular showed a nice lilt and smooth blend of sound within the Baroque Siciliano form.

The orchestra reached its height of majestic power in Robert Schumann’s Spring Symphony, full of characteristic youthful energy and rich chorale textures. A programmatic work in its connection to poetry, Schumann’s Symphony No. 1 in B-flat Major was full of difficult stops and starts which the orchestra handled well, and smooth transitions between sections, especially in the third movement alternation of Scherzos and Trios. The fourth movement Allegro Animato was played with a strong emphasis on animato, evoking the playfulness of summer. A spirited encore of the Overture to Glinka’s opera Russlan and Ludmilla brought a grand and glorious finish to a summer concert which has become equally as grand a tradition in the community.


July 10, 2013

In the 2012 film A Late Quartet, the story of a fictional string quartet’s struggles toward possible dissolution, the second violinist character suggested switching chairs with the first violinist so he could take a turn leading the ensemble. The idea was met with horror from the rest of the ensemble, suggesting that maybe there is a hierarchy between violinists in a string quartet. The Amphion String Quartet proved this theory wrong in their performance last Tuesday night as violinists Katie Hyun and David Southorn easily traded chairs for three principal works on the program. In the penultimate concert of the Princeton University Summer Concert series, the Amphion Quartet’s performance at Richardson Auditorium was a crisp and meticulous presentation of music of the 19th century.

Ms. Hyun and Mr. Southorn, joined by violist Wei-Yang Andy Lin and cellist Mihai Marica, devoted the first half of the program to Franz Schubert. Schubert’s String Quartet No. 9 in G minor alternated between drama and grace, colored by a fierce and tragic character heard in other Schubert works in the same key. The Amphion players demonstrated a youthful sound, with Mr. Southorn leading the ensemble well as first violin. The first movement Allegro, demanded intense playing from the upper strings, with Mr. Marica providing delicate cello background.

Schubert was one of the great melodists of music history, which could be heard in the second movement Andantino. The quartet overall paid close attention to subtle classical upbeats, maintaining a great deal of tension in sequential passages. The movement was marked by a graceful dialog between first violin and cello in which Mr. Marica’s bow seemed to barely touch the strings yet the sound echoed through the hall.

Like the Dorian Wind Quintet last week, the Amphion String Quartet turned to a contemporary composer for a new twist on 19th-century music, in this case American composer Bruce Adolphe. The Brentano String Quartet commissioned Mr. Adolphe in 2010 to put a 21st-century spin on the 40-bar Andante passage from Schubert’s unfinished Quartet in C minor. Mr. Adolphe’s one-movement Fra(nz)g-mentation, led by Ms. Hyun as first violinist, was more jarring than Schubert’s completed work would have been. Mr. Marica opened and closed the work with a cello soliloquy, with more heard from Mr. Lin on viola than in the Schubert original.

The Amphion Quartet gave the second half of the concert over to a not-often heard String Quartet No. 1 in G minor of Edvard Grieg, composed with significant Nordic influence, beginning with the unison “Spillamaed” song which opened the first movement. This four-movement work was both dramatic and romantic, with continual rise and fall of tension. The first movement melody played by first violinist Mr. Southorn was backed by an icy and stark accompaniment from the other three instruments. A dialog between cello and viola in the first movement demonstrated an almost indiscernible timbre between the two instruments, as Mr. Marica utilized the upper register of the cello. This work also included a number of gypsy-like passages, which the Amphion Quartet played with great flourish and uniformity in bowing and rhythm.

The relatively young Amphion String Quartet (founded in 2009) has had considerable success in its short history, including competition wins, a Carnegie Hall debut, and an overseas tour. Their performance last week at Richardson was another case of the Princeton Summer Concerts series giving audiences a chance to hear young and up-and-coming performers on their way to their destinies as top-quality ensembles.

July 3, 2013

In the world of chamber music, there are numerous string quartets but fewer small ensembles combining wind instruments. The Dorian Wind Quintet, founded at Tanglewood more than 50 years ago, has collaborated with a number of composers, festivals, and educational institutions, exploring and creating repertoire for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and horn. The five members of the Dorian Wind Quintet came to Richardson Auditorium last Thursday night as part of the Princeton University Summer Concerts series, presenting works from the 18th to 20th centuries.

Flutist Gretchen Pusch, oboist Gerard Reuter, clarinetist Benjamin Fingland, bassoonist John Hunt, and hornist Karl Kramer-Johansen opened their program with an intriguing work from a composer with longevity in both age and reputation — the 1948 Quintet for Woodwinds of Elliott Carter, who died last year at the remarkable age of 103. The music of Carter can be described as intricate and complex and the Dorian Quintet achieved a smooth blend among the instruments, with crisp rhythmic figures and refreshing unisons. Mr. Kramer-Johansen’s horn playing melded well into the instrumental texture, and the quintet found particularly elegant sonorities in the second movement, Allegro.

The Dorian Quintet devoted a considerable portion of Thursday night’s concert to the musical influence of Antonin Reicha, one of a myriad of late 18th-century Bohemian composers who were overshadowed by the German and Austrian titans. Reicha’s Quintet in E-flat Major for Winds was every bit as charming as the chamber music of Mozart, but the works of Reicha and some of his contemporaries is not nearly as well known. Reicha’s Quintet in E-Flat is but a portion of his Opus 88, a large compendium of wind quintets, and the Dorian players focused on the work’s classical sophistication and characteristic melodic appeal that marked European music of the late 18th century.

The opening movement of the Reicha Quintet began with similar chords to Mozart’s opera overtures, and the Dorian Quintet made the most of every tapered phrase and appoggiatura. The players demonstrated graceful dialogs between flute and bassoon as well as clarinet and horn. The third movement, Andante, was so melodic (especially from the horn solo) it could have been an aria from an opera.

The Dorian Wind Quintet took Reicha’s tunefulness one step further in the early 2000s by commissioning five composers to write variations on the opening theme of the Quintet in E-flat Major. The grazioso theme was presented by oboist Mr. Reuter, after which the Dorian Quintet launched into five variations marked by quick and precise playing, as each instrumentalist took a turn leading the music. The variation by Sir Richard Rodney Bennett was sprightly with a quick harmonic twist and full of moving parts, while George Perle’s treatment was led by flutist Ms. Pusch (with echoes by Mr. Reuter) and contained some of the more dissonant passages. Staccato effects from hornist Mr. Kramer-Johansen marked the “Draino” variation of Bruce Adolphe and a majestic variation, complete with horn call, by Lee Hoiby closed the set with complex and intricate instrumental colors.

Thursday night’s performance, the second in the 2013 Princeton Summer Concerts series, was as refreshing as water ice in a summer which is starting off a bit on the hot and muggy side. The remaining concerts in the series will no doubt be just as energizing as Princeton relaxes into the summer music season.

—Nancy Plum

June 26, 2013

This season The Princeton Festival has been presenting a wide variety of musical genres ranging from a cappella vocal jazz to chamber music to the Festival’s annual youth piano competition. There is only one major operatic offering this season, presented this past weekend with a repeat performance later in the festival. The music of opera titan Richard Wagner might initially seem a bit overwhelming for a summer music audience, but The Princeton Festival’s production of Wagner’s 1843 Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) was crisp as dramatic theater with musical emphasis on elegance, melodic solo lines, and the omnipresent brass which marks much of Wagner’s operatic output.

Performed in German with English supertitles at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre, last Saturday night’s performance drew its six principal lead cast members from high places, beginning with the Metropolitan Opera. Both principal male characters were sung by Met regulars; baritone Mark Delavan and bass Richard Bernstein took charge of their roles and the tension between their characters with clear vocal and dramatic strength clearly gained from years on opera’s major stages. Much of this opera revolves around the sea, and as the Norwegian sea captain Daland, Mr. Bernstein vocally rolled with the undulating orchestral accompaniment and visual effects of the tossing waves. Looking sufficiently bedraggled for being eternally at sea, Mr. Delavan’s “Flying Dutchman” conveyed a range of emotions, both plaintive and foreboding, as he sought to break the curse of endless wandering on the ocean seeking the love of his life. Like the Commendatore in Don Giovanni, Mr. Delavan’s Dutchman was on a mission, the roots of which were clearly not of this earth.

Soprano Indra Thomas may not be singing at the Met at this time, but that is likely in her future. Philadelphia audiences have long known how amazing Ms. Thomas is as a singer and the sold-out house at McCarter clearly recognized her vocal powers and range of emotions in her role as Daland’s daughter Senta. From her dreamy presence among her fellow spinning girls to her final leap into the ocean to join her beloved Dutchman, Ms. Thomas produced an incredible amount of sound with very little effort and exhibited the ability to change musical expression and mood on a dime in this demanding role.

Two stand-out tenors were Jason Wickson, singing the role of the huntsman Erik and Alex Richardson as Daland’s steersman. Mr. Richardson set the stage well for the arrival of the Dutchman’s “phantom” ship with a lyrical and appealing voice, and Mr. Wickson definitively proclaimed his love for Senta in a passionate and richly musical soliloquy. Rounding out this very solid cast was mezzo-soprano Dana Beth Miller, keeping the spinning girls in line with rich vocal tones, maternal instinct, and toughness. The six principals of this opera were well supported by large choruses of sailors and spinning girls who provided full and solid choral accompaniment for the large ensemble scenes.

Although the cast was listed as only eight principal roles, there were two other “characters” with significant impact on the production — the Princeton Festival Orchestra and the technology employed to bring Wagner’s libretto and music to life. Conductor Richard Tang Yuk cleanly led an orchestra which showed exact playing from the crisp horn call which opened the overture. Throughout the long introduction to the first act, Mr. Tang Yuk kept the music rolling along, bringing out the early 19th-century classicism and refinement. Elegant wind and brass solos recurred throughout the opera, including from hornist Karen Schubert, oboist Geoff Deemer and English hornist Evan Ocheret. With rich lower strings capturing the mood of the sea topped by a graceful harp, the Festival Orchestra captured the nuances of the story (especially with Senta’s passages echoed by oboe) and never overpowered the singers.

Technology has revolutionized operatic production with the capabilities of visual effects on flat screens, and designers Marc Pirolo, Norman Coates, and David Palmer created innovative and at times spell-binding visuals to absorb the backdrops of the stage. The sea undulated, clouds floated by and The Dutchman’s vessel arose as a ghost ship from the bottom of the sea. Lighting changes matched the moods of the story, and this ability to successfully combine film and live opera enhanced the audience’s experience considerably.

This opera was a major undertaking for The Princeton Festival — somewhat off the beaten repertory track and requiring a depth of vocal talent which surely was a huge financial investment. The house was close to sold out on Saturday night, showing that perhaps Wagner can have a home in Princeton after all.

June 12, 2013

The Greater Princeton Youth Orchestra (GPYO) finished the 2012-13 season by showcasing two of the ensembles of the orchestra’s expansive program as well as a guest vocal soloist and a winner of the GPYO-sponsored concerto competition, all part of the opening concert of this year’s Princeton Festival. Like most GPYO performances, the concert Saturday night at Richardson Auditorium included shorter pieces and movements from larger orchestral works, but the selection of overtures, vocal airs, and symphonic movements delighted the audience and gave the graduating seniors from the ensemble the opportunity to go out on a high note.

GPYO’s season this year included a record level of participation in the four ensembles which make up their program, as well as a concert at Carnegie Hall. The Youth Orchestra, and in particular its spring concert, has maintained a strong history with the Princeton/ Pettoranello Sister City connection, and the concert Saturday night paid tribute with Neapolitan songs performed by guest tenor Jon Darios. Mr. Darios, a well-established and accomplished singer and actor, performed a lively art song of Rossini and three selections from the early 20th century with animation and keen excitement, even if overpowered by the GPYO Symphonic Orchestra in the first half of the concert. The Rossini “La Danza” and spirited rendition of “Funiculi, Funicula” (without which no Neapolitan vocal evening would be complete) were accompanied by a more restrained orchestral backing, making the words much crisper and the spirit of the songs more clear. Throughout all the vocal selections, both orchestra and soloist handled teasing rubatos well, with clean swirling winds especially marking the Francesco Paolo Tosti air toward the beginning of the program.

Symphonic Orchestra conductor Kawika Kahalehoe began the evening with the exuberant playing of the overture to Rossini’s opera La Gazza Ladra. Clean and subtle playing could be heard from a large brass section, with the strings coming to life in the second part of the overture. A trio of crisp flutes and solos from oboist Heeyoung Park contrasted the lean string sound, as well as exceptional piccolo playing from Sarah Gift, especially in the extreme upper register of the instrument. Rossini overtures always have a bit of mischievous humor, which the Symphonic Orchestra was able to find.

The GPYO Concert Orchestra, conducted by Dr. Arvin Gopal, demonstrated a more contained sound than the Symphonic Orchestra, with a nice light sectional string sound in Rossini’s overture to The Barber of Seville. The familiar second half of the overture erred on the side of musical care rather than brisk tempo, but still achieved drama, aided by horn, clarinet, and bassoon solos. Dr. Gopal bravely led the Concert Orchestra through the tricky Jupiter movement of Gustav Holst’s The Planets, beginning in a sprightly tempo with crisp brass and decisive strokes by the strings, and lavishly playing through the familiar “I Vow to Thee, my Country” hymn. The Concert Orchestra also found lightness and melody in an overture to Richard Wagner’s Rienzi, effectively opened by a trumpet lead from Andrew Hill.

The star of the second half of the concert was clearly Dallas Noble, a thirteen-year-old violinist who was a winner of the GPYO Concerto Competition. Her selection of Edouard Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole was no easy task, made even more remarkable by the fact that she played with the orchestra in all the other pieces on the program, rather than sit and wait her turn to solo. Ms. Noble is clearly serious about her music, as the violin solo reached high into the instrument’s register from the start. She was clearly in control of the music, finding passion, lyricism, and sweetness in the one-movement piece, while the Symphonic Orchestra provided some of its cleanest playing of the evening. A ten-year veteran of the violin and currently a student at the prestigious Settlement Music School, Ms. Noble clearly has a future with this instrument and will no doubt be winning more competitions in the future.

The 53rd Annual Spring Concert of the Greater Princeton Youth Orchestra was the opening event of The Princeton Festival, which is presenting concerts throughout the month in venues around Princeton. More information about The Princeton Festival and its schedule of performances and workshops can be obtained by visiting www.princ

May 22, 2013

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) completed its 2012-13 Princeton concert series in grand fashion on Friday night with a performance full of precision, operatic flair, and innovative musical composition. Music Director Jacques Lacombe led the orchestra in a program of two works linked by musical richness and complexity, combined with a concerto capturing the essence and humor of the growing child, all served to a wildly enthusiastic audience in Richardson Auditorium.

The opening work commemorated the birth year of towering composer Richard Wagner, who would have been 200 years old as this review arrives on Princeton doorsteps. Wagner’s Prelude to his monumental opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg brought together the major themes of the opera in a majestic flow well captured by the New Jersey Symphony. The opening phrases showed a bit of heavy playing, but the strings developed a leaner sound for the second section with clean and stately motives from the brass. Mr. Lacombe kept the tempi moving along, marked by sinuous solo lines from oboist James Roe, flutist Bart Feller, and clarinetist Karl Herman, and a solid underpinning from the tuba, played by Derek Fenstermacher. Mr. Lacombe took an especially broad approach to the close of the work, with precise rhythmic motives from the brass.

As part of its New Jersey Roots Project, the orchestra presented the east coast premiere of Princeton composer Steven Mackey’s Stumble to Grace: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra — a unique piece capturing an aspect of everyday life in innovative musical style. All parents can identify with the struggles, both poignant and humorous, of a child learning to walk, as Dr. Mackey characterized, “learning to become human.” A joint commission by NJSO, the St. Louis Symphony and Los Angeles Philharmonic, Stumble to Grace musically depicts several stages of child development, emphasized by a huge range of percussion instruments and effects.

The piece began with what sounded like looking out over a collection of child’s toys, followed by an effect with which all parents are familiar — the sound of things dropping. Piano soloist Orli Shaham (to whom the work is dedicated) played the appealing jazzy piano lines with swing as Mr. Lacombe kept a crisp beat from the accompanying orchestra. The musical communication and jazz rhythms between soloist and orchestra was exact, with a light right hand in the piano perfectly answered by the orchestra in the first section. Stumble to Grace changed character among its five movements (much like the day-to-day changes of a growing child), and Ms. Shaham and the NJSO captured the different moods well. So varied were the percussive and orchestral effects that this is the kind of piece one might want to hear again just to catch all the different instrumental tricks.

Tchaikovsky’s massive yet elegant Symphony No. 5 in E minor has been a cornerstone of the orchestra’s late spring concert offerings, and clearly one with which Mr. Lacombe is very familiar. Composed in 1888, the four-movement symphony is cyclical (considered one of Tchaikovsky’s “motto” symphonies), with a theme which recurs in some form in each movement. Like many of Tchaikovsky’s symphonic works, the piece retains an element of tragedy, but has an overall arch leading to triumph which Mr. Lacombe captured with a musical approach emphasizing elegance and clean harmonic flow. Clarinetists Karl Herman and Andrew Lamy opened the first movement in dark and stately fashion, as Mr. Lacombe took his time leading up to a lilting first theme. The wind melodies maintained an even flow, with solos from Mr. Herman and bassoonist Robert Wagner. An almost imperceptible beginning marked the second movement Andante with the beginnings of triumph well introduced by an expressive solo from hornist Chris Komer. The winds took charge in this movement, with graceful solo playing by Mr. Herman, Mr. Wagner, and oboist James Roe topping off the orchestral fabric.

This was a symphony of great tunes and melodic phrases, and Mr. Lacombe paid tribute to its light-hearted touch in the third movement Valse, saving an operatic crescendo for the fourth movement Finale. The work closed in grand fashion, with crisp trumpets and a joyous coda which seemed to characterize the NJSO’s season this year. A lively encore excerpt from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet score sent the audience home in high spirits, no doubt looking forward to more great music from the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra next year.

May 8, 2013

Very few chamber ensembles thrive for more than forty years, and few music organizations have the luxury of saying good-bye through music to their loyal and steadfast fans. The Tokyo String Quartet, formed in 1969 at the Juilliard School of Music, is disbanding after forty-four years, some of the most significant of which have included Princeton. The Quartet’s farewell season is taking them back to a number of their favorite cities and concert halls, and this past Wednesday night was Princeton’s turn to say farewell. The four members of the Tokyo Quartet came to Richardson Auditorium to play three of their signature pieces as a nearly full house flocked to hear a concert capping the ensemble’s 40 year performing and recording history with the Princeton community.

Josef Haydn’s string quartets are chamber music gumdrops, and the Opus 103 Quartet in D minor, even in only two movements, is no exception. The two movements, which would likely have been the inner movements of a full quartet, were graceful and charming in their simplicity, and throughout both, the Tokyo musicians maintained their most intimate collective chamber personality. Violinists Martin Beaver and Kikuei Ikeda, violist Kazuhide Isomura and cellist Clive Greensmith played in an elegant manner which made the audience immediately feel at home, as if they were eavesdropping on a living room soirée. First violinist Mr. Beaver played with strength and grace as cellist Mr. Greensmith kept the music flowing, especially in a crisp and sprightly Minuet section. The quartet as a whole demonstrated delicate endings to repeated sections, and presented a sweet yet teasing Trio in a second movement full of Haydn-esque humor.

The Quartet No. 6 of Bela Bartok was much more complex than the Haydn, but no less appealing. Begun in the early days of World War II and not premiered until two years later, this work was both introspective and poignant, especially its final movement capturing a feeling of looking out over the war’s devastation. The first movement began with a soulful and melancholy viola solo played by Mr. Isomura, a fitting recognition of the only continuous and original member of the ensemble. The movement was intense, with a Vivace section marked by furious pizzicato from Mr. Greensmith. Phrases came together well, and the second movement Marcia, containing some of the most demanding passages of the piece, was effective as a march of grief. Mr. Isomura’s expressive viola melody returned in the final movement to close the work with peaceful yet jarring effect.

The Mendelssohn Quartet in E minor which closed the program was also vintage Tokyo String Quartet — melodic and crisp in clarity. Mr. Beaver played a number of key lines as first violinist, with refreshing melodic lines also heard from the second violin. Clean figures were heard from all parts, and the first movement in particular was forceful but not overpowering. An especially sweet melody was heard from cellist Mr. Greensmith in the third movement Adagio, and a non-stop first violin part toward the end of the final movement brought the Mendelssohn work to a close and the Richardson crowd to its feet. The Tokyo Quartet obliged the appreciative audience with an encore taken from Mozart’s K. 499 String Quartet in D major, in a serene “Ländler” character which brought the Tokyo String Quartet’s musical relationship with Princeton to an elegant and glorious finale.


May 1, 2013

The two works performed in the Princeton University Orchestra’s concerts this past weekend paid particular tribute to the performance’s honoree — former orchestra percussionist Stuart B. Mindlin. The music of early 20th-century France was marked by coloristic orchestral effects, many of which were scored into the percussion section. The compositions of Francis Poulenc and Maurice Ravel presented Friday night (the concert was repeated Saturday night) at Richardson Auditorium made full use of diverse orchestral palettes and showed some of the more unique percussion effects prevalent in music from a century ago.

These concerts were a collaborative effort between the University Orchestra and Glee Club, and began with the Glee Club showing the best sound heard from this ensemble in a while. Conductor Gabriel Crouch has amassed a good-sized chorus of more than eighty singers, yet the precision and clarity of sound produced in Poulenc’s Gloria made the ensemble sound like a concise chamber chorus. The Glee Club was accompanied by a substantial orchestra to bring out varied orchestra colors, punctuated by crisp brass, especially a trio of trumpets. Mr. Crouch kept the string lines sinewy and lean, allowing the vocal melodies to speak clearly above the orchestra. Throughout the six-movement work, one could hear dissonances clearly, with the tenors providing an especially full sound and the sopranos sounding like icing on an impressionistic cake. Inner voice parts were particularly well-blended, and a tricky a cappella passage in the second movement was meticulous.

Featured as soprano soloist in the Gloria was Clara Rottsolk, stepping in at the last minute. Ms. Rottsolk began her first solo passage with a strong and plaintive sound, and a vocal edge to match the accompanying lower strings. In a later movement, Ms. Rottsolk’s sound flowed effortlessly into the choral parts, backed by a steady pizzicato in the strings. The closing movement showed an especially warm orchestral sound, aided by two harps and topped by Ms. Rottsolk’s shimmering soprano, revealing Poulenc’s own version of a choral sunrise.

The true innovator of the orchestral sunrise was Maurice Ravel, whose works are renowned for building in driving intensity to brilliant heights. Ravel’s orchestration in his ballet score Daphnis et Chloé used the full range of orchestral instruments as well as a wordless chorus and a variety of percussive effects and musical devices popular in early 20th-century Europe. The stage at Richardson filled quickly with the very large University Orchestra assigned to play the ballet score, with the Glee Club split on either side of the balconies. Conductor Michael Pratt began the work subtly in the lower strings as the antiphonal chorus cleanly echoed the emerging sunrise in the lower instruments of the orchestra. Flutist Alison Beskin, principal hornist Max Jacobson and oboist Bo-Won Keum brightened the instrumental palette with elegant solo playing as the sound built in richness and sustained intensity.

The complete ballet score of Daphnis is divided into sections, with Mr. Pratt and the orchestra executing transitions smoothly and keeping the flow of the piece even. Among the percussive effects scored by Ravel was the use of a wind machine, adding an eerie color to the texture (and perking up audience interest), and a “Jeu des timbres” or glockenspiel, exploring the full scope of possible timbres. Precise winds startled the audience out of the impressionistic atmosphere, with the brass, especially trumpets, playing a key role in changing the orchestral colors. In the more familiar second suite, the sun rose through the strings, aided by languorous solos played by Ms. Beskin and alto flutist Marcelo Rochabrun. Throughout this section, the chorus built intensity and dynamic range well, with clear off-beat accents and choral sound flowing precisely across the stage between balconies. Especially impressive throughout the work was the ability of the chorus to be heard at all dynamics in the hall, especially when humming.

Although the second suite of Daphnis et Chloé is often performed by orchestras, the ballet score is rarely heard in its entirety. Both the University Orchestra and Glee Club demonstrated in these concerts that they were up to the challenge of these two impressionistic and inventive works, closing their seasons well with a well-deserved sense of achievement.

April 24, 2013

Music scholars have long recognized that music is more than the notes on the page; composers write within the context of their lives and what is happening around them. The Dryden Ensemble has never been a performance organization to limit itself to the music of one composer, and the ensemble’s concert at Miller Chapel in Princeton on Sunday afternoon presented a good survey of 17th and 18th-century French music. Perhaps taking a cue from the recent and highly successful Metropolitan Opera pastiche The Enchanted Island, Dryden ensemble oboist Jane McKinley designed a program which told a story through music and literature — primarily the letters of 17th-century French aristocrat Madame de Sévigné. The incorporation of these letters, as well as other period readings, provided the Dryden with the opportunity to create a drama in which literature provided commentary and atmosphere to the music.

Unlike other Dryden Ensemble performances, which mixed and matched the players for different pieces, the six performers on Sunday afternoon — violinists Vita Wallace and Andrea Andros, oboists Jane McKinley and Julie Brye, viol player Lisa Terry and harpsichordist Webb Wiggins, all played in almost every piece. There were several works which featured solo or duets of instruments, but Ms. Terry and Mr. Wiggins were on call throughout as continuo players. In the pieces in which all players participated, the ensemble was impressively precise in the space of Miller Chapel, with violins and oboes blending together well. In the opening “Entrée from Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Armide,” the notes inégales were nicely played with 18th-century swing, and the Dryden Ensemble effectively provided “mood music” to the narration.

To convey the story, Paul Hecht, a veteran of McCarter Theatre as well as Broadway, read a narrative of the trial of Nicolas Fouquet, Superintendent of Finances to Louis XIV, augmented with other readings and letters describing the culture of the times. Providing literary commentary and embellishment was Roberta Maxwell, also a veteran of stage and film, reading the letters of the Marquise de Sévigné. The letters of the Marquise were both eloquent and humorous, commenting on the drama and subtle soap operas playing out in the royal court. Mr. Hecht especially seemed to enjoy the accompanying music, and both he and Ms. Maxwell were animated and communicative with the audience.

The Dryden Ensemble divided the program into two “acts,” each featuring the music of leading French composers of the Baroque period. Only one complete work was performed — François Couperin’s La Piémontoise, whose movements bracketed several readings. The excerpts of the works of Lully, Couperin, and Marin Marais were appealing in and of themselves, but as accompaniment to the descriptive readings, these pieces held audience attention well. Ms. Terry’s seven-string viol was the most unique instrument heard, with Ms. Terry playing clean lines into the viol’s upper register. Oboists Ms. McKinley and Ms. Brye provided courtly playing in Lully’s Menuet pour les Hautbois, and Ms. Wallace and Ms. Andros had numerous opportunities to play clean thirds and unison ornaments in several works featuring paired violins. Ms. Terry and Mr. Wiggins were relentless in providing solid continuo accompaniment to the other players.

In this century of electronic communication, hand-written letters are rare and expressive glimpses into another time and place, and paint pictures not often seen these days. The Dryden Ensemble’s imaginative “Versailles” concert provided a look into a thought-provoking time from a prior century which may have been turbulent, but produced some of the most elegant music ever written.


April 17, 2013

For the course “Documentary Film and the City,” Princeton University Urban Studies students have a ready-made laboratory less than 15 miles away: Trenton. The capital city is a gold mine for the kinds of issues they explore — rising crime, failed housing developments, abandoned buildings, and policy problems.

But the urban setting also offers a window into how these problems might be solved. The students have been working on “The Trenton Project,” a collaborative collection of mini-documentaries about housing in the city that will be shown next month as part of an ongoing film series at the School of Architecture’s Betts Auditorium. Interviewing developers, social workers, housing specialists, and residents, the students have seen the proverbial lights at the end of the tunnel.

“Out in the field, they have been really amazed by the dedication of the social workers they’ve been talking with,” says Purcell Carson, a documentary film editor who is teaching the course. “When you think of a welfare office, you don’t normally think of people being totally emotionally invested in their clients. But that’s what they’ve seen, and it’s been eye-opening for them. They’ve also seen that problems of the city are not just public policy, but have to be thought about by individuals as well. They’ve been really interested in the developers, small and large, who see opportunity where others see problems.”

The Urban Studies Film Series has been screening documentaries and other films, followed by talks with various scholars, writers, and filmmakers, since early March. Greetings from Asbury Park is scheduled for April 23, followed by a discussion with the director. On April 30, La Sierra, about Colombia’s bloody conflict, will be shown. Works in progress from The Trenton Project will be screened May 7. The final showing of the Trenton Project will be May 20 at Artworks, in Trenton. All programs are free and open to the public.

This is the first year that “Documentary Film and the City” has been offered to University students. They are working in conjunction with the University’s Community Based Learning Initiative (CBLI), which pairs students with local non-profits to do community-based research. As part of the course, they have learned about issues in Camden, the Mount Laurel decision on affordable housing, and other related subjects. They took part in a history of public housing tour last month.

“They are looking at questions such as ‘How do you come in with this knowledge of a living place, and tell the stories that are unfolding right before you?’” says Alison Isenberg, a professor of history who co-directs the program in Urban Studies. A recent screening of The Pruitt Igoe Myth about a public housing project in St. Louis attracted up to 50 people, who came not just from the University but from Trenton, New Brunswick, and beyond.

“One of the opportunities of a series like this is to take the scholarship embodied in this kind of documentary, and use it to help animate a discussion about a place like Trenton today,” Ms. Isenberg adds. “The turnout, to me, was indicative of exactly the interest in that crossover. What can we learn from both the historical and ongoing efforts at rebuilding? What can we take from this discussion in a living and breathing way, for the very same questions that swirl in the policy decisions that people are making every month? We hope to sustain the discussion of those issues through the next couple of weeks.”

For Ms. Carson, who is contracted to teach at Princeton for three years, the course has a double goal: to educate students about documentary film, and about east coast post-industrial cities and the problems they face today. This semester’s focus on housing is “a way of having each of the short films they make create a broader mosaic portrait together,” she says. “My goal at the beginning of the semester was to find situations and circumstances along the spectrum of housing, and put my students in those situations to make these very short, slice-of-life portraits.”

Working with CBLI, Ms. Carson has paired her students with subjects through the Mercer Alliance to End Homelessness and Greater Trenton Behavioral Healthcare, among other agencies. Some of the students have focused their lens on the former Miller Homes high-rise housing project near the Trenton Transit Station, which will become the Rush Crossing community of townhouses. “They’ve been talking to the local housing authority, the developers, and the people who used to live in those homes and were kicked out when the city decided they were a problem that was unfixable,” she says.

Other students are making films about the thousands of abandoned properties in the city. Their research has paired them with a representative from the Isles organization, a developer, and other members of the community.

“These students are mostly sociologists and public policy people,” Ms. Carson says. “Documentary film is a really interesting way to make big problems legible and expose them through a different lens.”



With the growth of performing opportunities at Westminster Choir College over the past years, one thing which has been missing is a proper hall in which to present non-choral performances. The college now has a solid operatic training program in place, in which vocal students can get roles under their belts before graduation. The Choir College has presented operas at the nearby high school and other venues, but this past weekend, the Westminster Opera Theater poured cast, stage, and a very appreciative audience into the campus’s Playhouse for a presentation of one of the more substantial operas in the repertory. With stage on two sides, a pianist on a third side and conductor at the back of the hall, this was operatic theater in the round, and considering the limitations of the space, the resulting production was nothing short of remarkable.

Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann is a prime example of late 19th century French operettas, combining humor, caricatures, and great melodies into an opera which captivated Paris from the moment of its premiere. Offenbach constructed the three-act (with prologue and epilogue) with major characters who change identity in each act but are sung by the same performer, requiring tremendous vocal stamina from singers of any age, much less in the early twenties.

The bulk of the vocal work falls on the tenor role of Hoffmann (based on the German author and composer E.T.A. Hoffmann) and the Villains (four, sung by the same baritone) and an additional four-part tenor role of the Servants. Westminster Opera Theater double-cast almost all of the roles for performances Friday and Saturday nights (with an additional performance on Sunday cast with the covers to the principals), and Friday night’s cast proved that these singers were well up to the task of high-quality professional opera.

The role of Hoffmann was sung by tenor Rexford Tester, a first-year graduate student. Throughout the opera, Mr. Tester showed remarkable vocal endurance and range of emotion when he rhapsodized about his three loves, both imaginary and vehicles for demonic betrayal. Mr. Tester sang the “Kleinzach” scene with animation and sneering drama, and his love duets with the three separate beloveds were poignant and affecting. Hoffmann was a spent man by the end of the opera, but Mr. Tester never ran out of vocal energy.

The roles of the four Villains are much trickier to sustain through three acts. Although Hoffmann appears in virtually every scene, his character remains relatively consistent. The four Villains, Lindorf, Coppelius, Dr. Miracle, and Dapertutto, vary their scheming techniques or demonic inspirations to trip up Hoffman and the personalities of the characters differ considerably. Baritone Brian Mextorf, currently pursuing a Master of Music at Westminster, has several significant roles to his credit. Mr. Mextorf changed characters substantially for each role, with a voice that resonated well in the space of the Playhouse. As the dollmaker Coppelius, Mr. Mextorf was somewhat geeky; he was sufficiently oily as Dr. Miracle, “curer” of all ills; and he clearly had something going with the Devil as Dapertutto, stealer of souls and reflections.

Interestingly, Offenbach composed the characters of Hoffmann’s three love interests for three separate sopranos. The three roles require very different vocal abilities and present significantly varied personalities and each of the three sopranos on Friday night brought the appropriate vocal treatment to the roles. The character of Olympia, sung by graduate student Madeline Apple Healey, required solid coloratura singing, but unlike the great 18th century coloratura soprano roles, there was a great deal of physicality involved. Ms. Healey was vivacious in doll-like stature, with crystal clean runs and scales, and high E-flats that were right on pitch. Antonia, Hoffmann’s obsession in Act II, was frail and delicate, but Liesl McPherrin sang with a lovely upper register and good ensemble connection with the other singers. Courtesan Giulietta was a schemer, easily swayed by Dapertutto to capture Hoffmann’s reflection for her own gain, and Marissa Mae Chalker proved to be a saucy and seductive, yet decisive singer. Especially elegant was her Barcarolle duet with the character of Nicklausse, solidly performed by mezzo-soprano Laura Elizabeth Davis.

Supporting characters were no less substantial than the leads. Tenor Lucas Levy, clearly a popular singer on the Westminster campus, found humor and energy in his four characters of the “Servants.” As Nicklausse (and the Muse in the prologue and epilogue), Ms. Davis was often the glue which held the act together, always trying to be the voice of reason to Hoffmann. The twenty-member chorus sounded well-blended in the Playhouse and no doubt enjoyed the numerous costume and character changes. With so many characters in this opera, if one did not particularly care for a voice, it was just a matter of waiting a minute for a completely different voice to appear.

Stage Director David Paul made tremendous use of the limited space of the Playhouse, and although the chorus often had no choice but to make their entrances rather noisy, the production elements throughout the space incorporated the audience into the show. Musical Director William Hobbs packed a lot of music into the three-hour time period, assisted by the exceptional Soyoung Kim providing piano accompaniment. This opera was a major production for any college-level institution, but especially notable for Westminster Choir College, whose singers now have one more tool in their arsenals for future performance employment.


April 10, 2013

As part of its residency at Princeton University, the Brentano String Quartet presents a public concert each semester. This semester’s performance paired light and airy music with the beautiful early spring day which the audience at Richardson Auditorium seemed only too happy to give up in favor of music on Sunday afternoon. The Brentano String Quartet, violinists Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin, violist Misha Amory, and cellist Nina Lee, performed standard chamber music of Haydn and Brahms, as well as an appealing piano quintet of a unique American composer.

Haydn’s Quartet in E-flat Major proved to be a sprightly and crisp way to open the program and warm up to the contemporary work which followed. The four-movement Haydn quartet was subtitled “The Joke,” and the members of the Brentano uniformly teased the audience with delayed cadences and playful dialogs among instrumentalists. In spite of the musical humor, the Brentano still provided the required precision and exacting communication, with even trills between the violins and clean interplay so that all players ended up in the same place at the same time. The Trio of the second movement maintained a sense of elegance within its hurdy-gurdy style, and an especially silky duet between cello and viola marked the third movement. The Brentano Quartet effectively closed the work with mischief and humor, teasing the audience into wondering whether or not the piece was really over.

The Brentano Quartet took the opportunity on Sunday afternoon to add to the ensemble’s discography by recording one of the pieces on the program in live performance. Tobias Picker’s Piano Quintet: Live Oaks was a piece with which the Brentano seemed very comfortable, and one which the quartet obviously felt fit in well with the Richardson acoustics. Joining the Brentano in the performance of this work was pianist Sara Rothenberg, who as director of Da Camera of Houston initially commissioned Live Oaks from Mr. Picker.

Ms. Rothenberg showed herself to be a clean and dynamic pianist, providing sharp and crisp octaves contrasting with languid jazz melodies. All of the pieces of this work needed to fit together precisely, and the timing between strings and piano was exact as Ms. Rothenberg exploited the full range of the keyboard. Shimmering upper violins contrasted to the lyrical and jazzlike piano lines, as the players built the intensity to such a point that one could easily imagine this music being a film score. Uniform directional crescendos provided variety in music which could have been pounding at its loudest, and the piece resorted frequently to a languid and relaxed style as the players brought the work to a close in glorious fashion.

Johannes Brahms’ Quartet in A Minor, Op. 51, No. 2 showed elements of grace of a different sort, with Viennese polish and joyfulness. In the opening movement the lower strings played certain passages with poignancy and hope, as concertmaster Mr. Steinberg provided a fervent melody. Ms. Lee took the lead with the cello in the second movement with driving melodic material, contrasted with a solidly supporting second violin and viola. The players approached the third movement portraying the icy Austrian winter, contrasted with a fiery gypsy closing Finale.

The Brentano String Quartet has been in residence at Princeton University since 1999, and seems well at home both on the concert stage and in the department of music. String players on campus and audience members from the community can consider themselves lucky that the Brentano is so accessible in performances and in workshops, often at no charge. This is a musical benefit in the community which no one should take for granted and certainly should enjoy.