June 17, 2015

There is a line in the movie Amadeus, spoken by the Austrian Emperor, that the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart has “too many notes.” One could easily apply this comment to Mozart’s 1786 opera Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro); with four acts filled with recitative and arias, Figaro is one of the most multi-layered operas in the repertory. Princeton Festival presented this operatic powerhouse this past weekend at McCarter Theatre Centre, leaving the audience wanting more of those “too many notes.”

Le Nozze di Figaro was revolutionary in its time for a variety of reasons. Operas up to the mid-18th century had focused primarily on safe heroic subjects, and in many cases were vehicles for singers to show off their virtuosic abilities. For Figaro, Mozart took on the controversial Beaumarchais play of the same name, which dismantled well-established class lines to create a comedic drama between servants and the aristocracy. Figaro was musically revolutionary in its emphasis on the ensemble, rather than the solo singers, and in its continuous forward movement with the music. Having a number of “hit” tunes in its score also did not hurt in achieving world-wide popularity.

Princeton Festival selected Figaro as its main stage opera for the month-long festival, with opening night last Saturday night at McCarter Theatre Centre’s Matthews Theatre. Festival Artistic Director Richard Tang Yuk assembled a cast with solid national and international credits, and all had the complex and intricate opera well in hand.

The music of Mozart is deceptive. The lyrical melodies and rolling accompaniments look easy on the page, but the expressiveness and musical grace required are not for all singers. One singer in the Princeton Festival production who consistently aimed for Mozartean elegance and style was soprano Haeran Hong, who sang the role of Susanna. Ms. Hong was a sparkling voice from the outset, perfectly in time with the orchestra and even through the vocal registers. Her ariatic high point, and perhaps that of the entire opera, was her Act IV aria “Deh vieni, non tardar,” cleanly sung with refinement and plenty of time with the long lines.

Ms. Hong’s voice was particularly well suited to sing with soprano Katherine Whyte as the Countess, and their “Letter Duet” was full of Viennese sweetness. Ms. Whyte, although an edgier voice and character than other “Countesses,” brought out particular drama in her Act III aria “Dove sono,” and found a great deal of expressiveness in “Porgi amor,” which opens the second act.

The male counterparts to these two strong women were equally in control of their roles. Baritone Jonathan Lasch sang the role of Figaro with resonance and wit, especially in the Act I aria “Se vuol ballare,” and his vocal soliloquy in Act IV, warning the audience against the underhandedness of women was very appealing. Baritone Sean Anderson was imposing from the start as the Count, physically towering over other characters and convincingly making his point with commanding drama.

Pants roles were common in 18th-century operas, initially sung by castrati and later sung by women. The role of the page Cherubino was one of these roles, sung in this production by mezzo-soprano Cassandra Zoé Velasco. Ms. Velasco easily captured the adolescent yearning of the part, singing with quick and light coloratura, especially in the Act I aria “Non so più cosa son,” accompanied by light winds. The role of the gardener’s daughter Barbarina is small, but soprano Jessica Beebe sang it effectively as a saucy spitfire sashaying her way to accomplish her devious agendas. The Princeton Festival cast was filled out by solid singers, including Kathryn Krasovec as Marcellina, Ricardo Lugo as Bartolo, David Kellett as Don Basilio, Paul An as Antonio, and Vincent DiPeri as Don Curzio. A chorus well-trained by Robin Freeman added to the crispness of the ensemble scenes.

Figaro is a very long opera, and its length may have led to some of the breakneck tempi taken by Dr. Tang Yuk and the precise orchestra he had assembled, especially in the recitative sections. Recitative musically replicates spoken dialog, but the speed at which the recitatives were taken in Saturday’s production made it difficult to understand the conversational style. However as the opera went along, its innate lyricism emerged. The music was well enhanced by Peter Dean Beck’s set design and Norman Coates’s lighting design, and director Stephen LaCosse made excellent use of the stage with the singers. Despite Figaro’s length, the audience at Matthews Theatre was engaged until the last note, confirming that one cannot really argue with the music of Mozart.

June 10, 2015

Greater Princeton Youth Orchestra (GPYO) wrapped up its 2014-15 season this past Saturday night with a very full concert at Richardson Auditorium. Presenting three of the ensembles within the GPYO organization, the concert both showcased the graduating senior musicians and demonstrated ensemble musical expertise.

This past year, GPYO added a choral performance element to its activities with the GPYO Choir, for singers grades seven through twelve. Conducted by Jennifer Sengin, director of choirs at East Brunswick High School, the small but very effective vocal ensemble demonstrated good tuning and choral technique in their six selections.

Ms. Sengin is known for her knowledge of diverse and multicultural music, and the six pieces she selected for the GPYO Choir began with a Zambian arrangement and ended with a bit of Broadway. Ms. Sengin taught movement to the 14 members of the choir to go with Andrew Fischer’s celebratory arrangement of Bonsa Aba. Accompanied by drum, the GPYO Choir sang with a clean blend among all the voices. In the second selection, Z. Randall Stroope’s flowing setting of Omnia Sol, the alto section of the women’s parts was particularly strong, topped by a light soprano sound. Through all these selections, it was clear that Ms. Sengin can train voices and impart style. The choir shifted gears again with the Robert Shaw/Alice Parker arrangement of the Italian Renaissance Fa un canzona, in which the irregular accents and odd meters were well handled.

GPYO has two principal orchestral ensembles under its umbrella — the Concert Orchestra and the Symphonic Orchestra. The Concert Orchestra amassed a full stage of players for three unique works. Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture is usually heard outdoors at this time of year, complete with fireworks, but GPYO’s Concert Orchestra made the piece work well within the confines of Richardson Auditorium. Conductor Arvin Gopal kept musical phrases crisp, with a lean string sound and clean winds. A quartet of horns was especially clean, and it was impressive how well the triangle rang in the hall from the percussion section.

Joseph Jay McIntyre’s Ghosts of Antietam captures the atmosphere of the Civil War as spirits of the great battle come to life through music. Beginning with low cello, chimes, and swirling winds, this was a dark piece, which the Concert Orchestra kept precise. McIntyre’s symphonic work incorporates Civil War tunes, passed among instrumental solos. Trumpeter Marie Petitjean provided an effective rendition of “Taps” to close the piece. The Concert Orchestra closed its portion of the evening with a sprightly rendition of Ronan Hardiman’s Music from the Lord of the Dance. This piece, also replete with familiar tunes, was well played by the orchestra, with elegant themes in the flute and brass.

GPYO’s Symphonic Orchestra, conducted by Kawika Kahalehoe, presented the winner of GPYO’s Concerto Competition in a movement from a challenging Chopin piano concerto. Seventeen-year-old Louis Petitjean has studied at some of the finest musical institutions in the country, and shares his talents with the Symphonic Orchestra as a member of the flute section. In the first movement of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in e Minor, the Symphonic Orchestra presented the long dark orchestral introduction with a very clean sound, emphasizing the sinuous Romantic melodies. Chopin wrote no full symphonies, but this work was so close to a symphony one forgot that there was a piano soloist waiting to enter the musical action.

And what an astounding piano soloist he was — Louis Petitjean showed himself to be a very composed performer, taking plenty of time on entrances. Mr. Petitjean was a very strong yet agile pianist, elegantly playing fluid passages with a quick and nimble right hand. Mr. Petitjean demonstrated very strong octaves against the symphonic orchestral accompaniment.

Through the two closing works on the program — an excerpt from Holst’s The Planets and several movements from Rimsky Korsakov’s Scheherazade — the Symphonic Orchestra brought out the bright and chipper orchestration of the pieces, as well as rich playing of the familiar “I Vow to Thee my Country” hymn of Holst’s orchestral suite. Scheherazade in particular showcased a number of the graduating seniors in the orchestra as soloists, most notably cellist Michelle Zhou, clarinetist Anthony Wang and oboist Jennifer Park, as well as exquisite solo violin playing by concertmistress Dallas Noble. The graduating musicians joined the entire ensemble in closing the evening with a solid musical performance.

May 13, 2015
SMALL-TOWN CLAUSTROPHOBIA: Rufus (Nathan Darrow), back home for a visit from New York, and Mary (Kristen Bush), still living in the small town where they grew up, share memories, hopes, frustrations, and gummy worms in McCarter Theatre’s production of Rachel Bonds’ “Five Mile Lake,” playing at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through May 31. © T Charles Erickson

SMALL-TOWN CLAUSTROPHOBIA: Rufus (Nathan Darrow), back home for a visit from New York, and Mary (Kristen Bush), still living in the small town where they grew up, share memories, hopes, frustrations, and gummy worms in McCarter Theatre’s production of Rachel Bonds’ “Five Mile Lake,” playing at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through May 31. © T Charles Erickson

“Where does one get to with your heroes?” Leo Tolstoy complained about his Russian contemporary Anton Chekhov,” from the sofa to the outhouse and from the outhouse back to the sofa again.” And audiences might well make a similar complaint about the characters and plot of Five Mile Lake, Rachel Bonds’ new play (which premiered at South Coast Repertory in California a year ago) now at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through May 31.

Not much seems to happen or change for Ms. Bonds’ five troubled, frustrated, young characters, but the greatness of Chekhov and the power of Ms. Bonds’ play lie not in sensational plot twists or dramatic events, but rather in the subtleties of human behavior and the understated relationships and interactions that can quietly shape people and their lives. Ms. Bonds’ characters, all struggling to work through the demands and disappointments of early adulthood, reveal themselves gradually, realistically, through what looks like casual dialogue, but resonates with realism and emotion.

The richness here lies often in the subtext — what is not said, rather than what is said — as these characters in their gestures, intonation, body language, facial expressions, perhaps a quick glance or movement — display their deepest selves and greatest needs.

Five Mile Lake takes place in a small town near Scranton, Pennsylvania in seven short scenes (just one hour and 40 minutes of uninterrupted running time), that occur over a period of several days in winter. Jamie (Tobias Segal) and Mary (Kristen Bush), both approaching 30, run the local bakery/coffee shop. Jamie never left town because he loves the beautiful lake and he is in love with Mary, and his ambitions lie locally: fixing up his grandfather’s house that he has inherited on the lake, taking care of his mother — and winning Mary’s attention and affection.

Mary, however, still dreams of escape from the claustrophobia of small-town life. She feels trapped, and is currently taking care of her brother Danny, who is back from two military tours in Afghanistan, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and struggling to get a job and lead a normal life. A cross country runner in high school, Mary has found her runs becoming shorter and shorter as her world shrinks and her life becomes more limited. She yearns for an escape.

Near the end of the first scene, Jamie’s brother Rufus (Nathan Darrow) and his girlfriend Peta (Mahira Kakkar) arrive from New York on an unexpected visit that will unsettle the worlds of Mary and Jamie. Rufus is unsuccessfully trying to write his PhD dissertation, and Peta is an assistant magazine editor. They come out to Rufus’ old hometown and the house he co-owns with Jamie (but seldom visits) in order to “work on their relationship.”

Tension is high from the start — Between Jamie and Mary, between the two brothers and between Rufus and Peta, whose relationship, we discover, is seriously troubled. There is an immediate attraction between Rufus and Mary, who share an affinity for the larger world beyond the confines of Five Mile Lake, and that attraction proves seriously upsetting to both Peta and Jamie.

Five Mile Lake is about the difficulties of entering adulthood, about ambitions and about small-town life versus the allure of the big city. It is about memories and regrets, about establishing relationships, and finding a path forward towards fulfillment.

Though “nothing happens” as the scenes move back and forth between Jamie and Rufus’ lake house and the coffee shop, the four protagonists, all convincing, credible individuals, become more and more intriguing as we learn more about their pasts, their present fears, and their dreams for the future.

The character of Peta, the least thoroughly developed of the four principals, would be interesting to know in more depth and detail — as would the relationship between the two brothers. It’s difficult to believe these two actually grew up together in the same home, though maybe that’s the point, as these estranged siblings struggle in vain to make connections with each other in the face of so many barriers and so much time apart.

Near the end of the play, as Mary and Jamie are preparing to open the coffee shop for the first customers of the day, Mary relates a story about a figure skater on TV, who, near the finale of what would have been a spectacular performance, misses her landing. “You can see something breaking in her,” Mary reports, “–it’s like this little crack running down the side of a teacup, just this terrible sense of failure like running across her skin. And she’s thinking, I missed it. I missed it.”

As Ernest Hemingway described in A Farewell to Arms, in the context of World War I, “the world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” The cracks in Five Mile Lake, some more subtle than others, appear in all of the characters — “something breaking,” some wound from the past that does not fully heal, something they’ve “missed.”

Ms. Bonds’ script that, like Chekhov and Hemingway at their best, is rich in its reticence and its unadulterated realism, along with these highly committed, capable, focused actors under the wise, loving, scrupulous direction of Emily Mann, ensure that audiences will care about these people. Even the occasionally arrogant, insensitive Rufus and Mary’s volatile brother Danny (Jason Babinsky), in a supporting role, win over the audience. We care deeply about these characters, worry about them, wonder where they’re heading as the play ends. To establish that degree of audience engagement is an extraordinary accomplishment for playwright, director, and performers.

Production values here are exquisite, most notably Edward Pierce’s meticulously realistic set design, with lighting by Jeff Croiter, to create the detailed scenes inside and outside the bakery shop and also inside and outside Jamie’s lake cabin. The turntable revolves with impressive efficiency and style to shift venues seamlessly and convincingly.

Tolstoy and his preferences for high-action drama notwithstanding, Five Mile Lake provides a moving, memorable evening in the Berlind Theatre. Rachel Bonds is a young playwright whose work will surely be staged frequently in the future.

Rachel Bonds’ “Five Mile Lake” will run at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through May 31. Call (609) 258-2787 or visit www.mccarter.org for tickets and information.

Princeton Pro Musica closed its 2014-15 season this past Saturday night with a work well suited for the ensemble, and in an appropriate acoustical space, but the performance may have missed the opportunity to educate its loyal audience about a unique period in music history. The 100-voice chorus presented 11 movements of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil to a full house at the Princeton University Chapel, but a lack of context for why the chorus selected the movements it did for performance may have left the audience unaware of the unique and historic musical effects Rachmaninoff employed in the piece.

Rachmaninoff composed his setting of the All-Night Vigil in 1915, as Russia was teetering toward revolution and Rachmaninoff was conversely achieving worldwide acclaim as a conductor, virtuoso pianist, and composer. The Vigil, the traditional Russian Orthodox service celebrated before major feasts or on Saturday evenings, combined portions of three daily services. These texts were not foreign to Russian composers; Tchaikovsky also produced a setting in 1882. Rachmaninoff set 12 traditional parts of the Vigil, with the addition of three movements of his own. Like much of Russian choral music, Rachmaninoff set the Church Slavonic text for a cappella chorus, which was tailor-made for the vast acoustics of the University Chapel.

Conductor Ryan James Brandau selected movements 1-8, and 10, 11 and 15 — excluding the movements that Rachmaninoff added, as well as one movement of traditional praise text. With unfortunately no explanatory notes in the printed program, it was difficult to know why specific movements were selected or deleted. The singers of Pro Musica certainly had their hands full; the concert was less than an hour in length, but an hour of music in Church Slavonic would require great preparation. Through much of the piece, the preparation of Pro Musica came through well. There were many passages during which the chorus moved through dynamics uniformly, and diction was consistently clean. The reverberating acoustics of the University Chapel made it difficult to always discern choral precision and when the music split the chorus into as many as 12 parts Brandau maintained good control over ending movements gracefully. There were some unfortunate lapses in tuning in a couple of movements, particularly at the end of the piece, when the choral chords became a little unstable at the close of the work.

Joining Pro Musica were mezzo-soprano Cynthia Cook and tenor Kyle van Schoonhoven. Ms. Cook, featured in the second movement, sang from the Chapel lectern with incredible richness while accompanied by a stream of sound from the chorus (interestingly, this solo was sung by a boy in the work’s premiere). The soprano sectional sound in this movement was especially clean, as Brandau kept the combined sonority of soloist and chorus steady. Kyle van Schoonhoven is a Westminster Choir College graduate who has done well, singing with opera companies throughout the country. From the Chapel lectern, his solid tenor sound fit in well with the upper choral voices that provided the bulk of the responding text in the fourth movement, with the basses answering “Alliluiya.” Both soloist and chorus created more fervency in the text, ending the movement with a joyful character.

In his introductory remarks to the concert, Brandau suggested that the audience “let the music come to you and wash over you.” This was easy to do in the University Chapel, but what the audience missed was listening for the different types of chants Rachmaninoff employed in the piece. Znamenny, the oldest form of unison, melismatic Orthodox chant, figures prominently in this work, contrasted with Rachmaninoff’s use of Greek and regional Russian chant, as well as chants of his own composition. Without knowing the details of the chant setting, the piece runs the risk of becoming a set of homophonic movements with no connection or delineation. However, the audience present at the University Chapel on Saturday night seemed committed to supporting Pro Musica throughout the season, including this concert of challenging Russian choral works.

May 6, 2015

Opera popularity is often in reverse chronological order. Much is made of contemporary works, the most popular of the genre date from the 19th century, and enthusiasm has grown for Baroque opera in recent years. One does not often get the opportunity to hear the “Big Daddy” of them all — Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, which upon its debut in 1607, set opera on its course to what we know today. Thanks to the continuing generosity of Scheide Concerts, Princeton was able to hear the best of the best last Wednesday night as the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists presented L’Orfeo in Richardson Auditorium.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir have spent the last half century exploring the depths of choral music from throughout history, including performing 198 Bach sacred cantatas in Europe. Most recently, the choir has turned its attention to Monteverdi, who changed the course of music history with his staged works, sacred choral music, and secular madrigals. Last year, the Monteverdi Choir celebrated its 50th anniversary performing Monteverdi’s towering 1610 Vespro della Beata Virgine, and this year has been touring L’Orfeo. With this opera, accompanied by the English Baroque Soloists (which Mr. Gardiner also founded), the Monteverdi Choir showed an incredibly rich level of talent within the ensemble.

In his commentary on Wednesday night’s performance, Mr. Gardiner wrote that he views L’Orfeo as a “secular sibling” of the 1610 Vespers. At the turn of the 17th century, opera was emerging from a combination of musical intermedios and stage plays; just seven years before L’Orfeo, Jacopo Peri composed the first official “opera,” also based on the Orpheus and Euridice story. With L’Orfeo, Monteverdi put opera on the map, with his expansive five-act production appearing throughout Italy and inspiring a new generation of composers. Even with this first opera, Monteverdi tested the limits of harmony and sonority at the time, using word-painting and a smooth synthesis of recitative and aria to support the opera’s text and drama.

The soloists for the Monteverdi Choir’s performance, who came from within the choral ensemble, were immediately up to speed with Monteverdi’s style of setting narrative to music. Four Shepherds — tenors Andrew Tortise and Gareth Treseder, alto James Hall, and bass David Shipley — all declaimed recitative text with speed, accuracy, and vocal weight suitable to the period of music. Mr. Hall sang with a rich vibrato in the counter-tenor register, and Mr. Tortise excelled at the voice of reason in a second act recitative. The two tenor shepherds were particularly clean in the climbing harmonies of a later duet.

One of the few female soloists in the opera, soprano Francesca Aspromonte sang the role of the opening narrator Musica with vocal sparkle and a great deal of character to set up the story. Ms. Aspromonte accompanied herself on the guitar in her opening musical monologue, enabling her to draw out the drama in the text. Ms. Aspromonte returned later in the role as Euridice, singing the role with nymph-like flirtation and always being dramatic within the style of the music.

As Orfeo, tenor Krystian Adam sang recitative passages like spoken dialogue, and as a somewhat dark and brooding character, sang the particularly dramatic arias with passion. Mr. Adam was able to shift moods easily, nimbly handling spirited and highly rhythmic passages as well as the lyrical and sensitive love songs.

The English Baroque Soloists provided solid accompaniment to the opera, with the addition of multiple lutes to the string and wind orchestra. The orchestra seemed to be divided into two ensembles: one of strings and lutes and the other of winds and lutes. Playing in Baroque style, the strings were not as loud as modern strings, which required the audience to listen more carefully. A trio of recorders enabled the orchestra to bridge the Renaissance and Baroque musical eras. The Monteverdi Choir sang with as full a sound as any sacred work of Bach, yet was able to be nimble and sprightly as an ensemble of “nymphs and shepherds.”

Wednesday night’s performance was the last concert William Scheide planned with great anticipation of hearing the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists. Early opera maintained an emphasis on spectacular scenic effects; although there were no special effects in this production of L’Orfeo, the enthusiasm of the performers and diversity of talent among the performers was a visual effect in itself in an evening of great entertainment and high quality performance.

April 29, 2015

Opera is a complex musical genre, and sometimes simplicity is the best approach. This past weekend, Boheme Opera NJ used simplicity to its advantage in its production of Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème, presented Friday night and Sunday afternoon at The College of New Jersey. Boheme Opera NJ brought together a cast of experienced and polished singers to make the most of an opera which did not have the best of premieres, but which has become a favorite of the repertory since then.

La Bohème premiered in 1896, when Puccini was at the height of his popularity, but reception to the initial performance was mediocre at best. Audiences found the storylines “inconsequential,” but the 100 or so intervening years have endeared the stories of the four “Bohemians” and the tragic Mimi to opera fans worldwide. Based on an Henri Murger novel, which in turn incorporated characters modeled on real individuals, La Bohème brought these characters to life with Puccini’s rich melodies and lush harmonies.

The four “Bohemians” — poet Rodolfo, painter Marcello, philosopher Colline, and musician Schaunard — have struggled to survive on little money in their Paris loft. To some extent a 19th-century operatic version of Friends, La Bohème follows these four characters and their two principal love interests — Mimi and Musetta. In Friday night’s production, artistic director and conductor Joseph Pucciatti updated the time to 2014, complete with laptop computer props and costumes of jeans and leather jackets. The time may have changed, but the challenges of starving artists have endured, and with a few tweaks to the dialogue, Boheme Opera NJ’s production remained close to Puccini’s original.

Musically, the unusual aspect to the four principal male characters is their voicing. Puccini scored Marcello and Schaunard as baritones and Colline as a bass, saving the tenor voice for Rodolfo, whose ill-fated romance with soprano Mimi forms the dramatic core of the opera. Baritones Eric Dubin (Marcello) and Charles Schneider (Schaunard) were very similar vocally, sounding almost indiscernible when singing together. Mr. Dubin was a bit hard to hear at times over the orchestra, but when called for, soared over the accompaniment. Mr. Schneider played the role of Schaunard with good character, lyrically singing about the mundane details of everyday life. Bass Martin Hargrove proved time and time again the richness of his voice as Colline, especially commanding the stage in the fourth act soliloquy aria Vecchia zimarra. However, by the time Colline decides to sacrifice his favorite coat for the sake of heroine Mimi, it is too late for the fragile seamstress, sung by Erica Strauss.

Ms. Strauss has a solid background in 19th-century opera, including performances with the Metropolitan Opera. She was in total control of the role, proving that she could float high notes well, spinning the sound until the ends of the phrases. Her chemistry with Rodolfo, sung by tenor Benjamin Warschawski was solid, as Mr. Warschawski sang with such ease that one felt his voice could go on forever. He sang his first act aria, Che gelida manina, to Mimi with tender affection, making the most of a tenor range which Puccini used for dramatic impact. Marcello’s love interest Musetta, sung by soprano Sungji Kim, came onstage in Act II as a saucy and presumptuous character, and took the stage immediately with a real vocal edge to her sound. Ms. Kim’s waltz aria Quand m’en vo quickly endeared her to the audience as she lured Marcello into her web.

To accompany the opera, Joseph Pucciatti had assembled a full orchestral ensemble which, although overwhelming the singers at times, kept the musical pace moving along. In return, the lead singers were exact in their rhythms with the players. Boheme Opera NJ has established a new relationship with Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart to provide singers for the children’s chorus, which Erin Camburn had well prepared to sing cleanly and energetically. Digital set designer J. Matthew Root made simplicity work on the stage of the Kendall Theater, with a few pieces of furniture creating a complete scene, aided by a digital screen providing simple but elegant graphics of starlight, snow, and other backdrops.

Boheme Opera NJ is celebrating its 26th anniversary of presenting two full operas each year. Producing opera is a complicated and expensive venture, but in its new home at The College of New Jersey, Boheme Opera should find performance life comfortable.

April 22, 2015

Just a week before the 100th anniversary of the Anzac landing at Gallipoli during World War I, a musical representative of Australia paid a visit to Princeton to present a concert of crisp playing, musical clarity, and joy. The Australian Chamber Orchestra, celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, brought its unique performing style to Richardson Auditorium last Thursday night (as part of Princeton University Concerts) in a program of Prokofiev, Mozart, and innovative English composer Jonny Greenwood.

The piano works of Sergei Prokofiev are not well-known to concert audiences and orchestral transcriptions of these works even less so. Prokofiev’s Visions fugitives, a collection of 20 short piano pieces composed between 1915 and 1917, capture the composer’s concise harmonies and rhythmic treatments. Beginning in the mid-1940s, arrangers and conductors began to transcribe these short works for string ensembles. The Australian Chamber Orchestra presented 16 of the 20 pieces on last week’s program, including one orchestrated by Chamber Orchestra conductor and concertmaster Richard Tognetti.

The Prokofiev pieces were musical miniatures of precision, and the Chamber Orchestra played the transcriptions with a lean and well-unified string sound. With all players except the cellos playing from a standing position, the Australian Chamber Orchestra demonstrated that all members of the ensemble were soloists, yet could play solidly together with a fresh and vibrant sound. Throughout the Prokofiev selections, the string players showed unified bowings and an ability to change styles in unison.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra was joined by New York clarinetist Charles Neidich for a historically informed and elegant performance of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A Major. So accurate was his performance historically that Mr. Neidich had an instrument built to replicate an 18th-century “bass clarinet.” Unlike the modern bass clarinet, the 18th-century version played in an extended treble register, and Mr. Neidich played with richness and transparency throughout all the ranges. The clarinet was still evolving as an instrument in the 1790s, and it was both entertaining and enlightening to see and hear as close to what the instrument might have been like as one can get in this century.

Mozart’s clarinet concerto dates from the last year of Mozart’s life, and in this work one could easily hear the lyricism of vocal duets from The Marriage of Figaro and the fiery coloratura of the Magic Flute’s “Queen of the Night” aria in the concerto’s three movements. As in Mozart’s most challenging vocal works, there were large intervallic skips and long melodic runs in the solo clarinet line, and Mr. Neidich handled all aspects of the concerto with ease. Playing with the orchestra at times and then breaking out for the solo lines, Mr. Neidich articulated cleanly and led the ensemble through both the drama and humor of the music. Teasing yet elegant cadenzas closed both the first and third movements, as Mr. Neidich drew out the poignant melodic lines and extended trills.

The Chamber Orchestra returned to Mozart later in the concert, but first turned their attention to an unusual work by a composer familiar with a number of genres. Jonny Greenwood made his career as lead guitarist and keyboard player of the band Radiohead, but maintained a parallel career as a composer of orchestral and film music. Greenwood scored the acclaimed films There will be Blood and The Master, and collaborated with Krzysztof Penderecki on the renowned Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima. Greenwood was commissioned by the Chamber Orchestra last year, and composed Water, a one-movement work for orchestra and the unusual twist of tanpura, an Indian string instrument. The overall musical effect of this piece was indeed that of water, with the violin sounding like raindrops. The tanpura, played by Vinod Prasanna, provided a drone to underpin the music, and added the exotic effect of running fingers around the edge of a glass filled with water. Even in string cacophony, the music of Water was accessible, in endless streams of color and sound.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra closed Thursday night’s program with a clean and quick performance of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor. Playing with great direction in the melodic lines, the players brought out the “question and answer” aspects of Mozart’s spirited music, with the second movement played as a study in suspensions, resolutions, and graceful appoggiaturas. The Chamber Orchestra maintained a consistent Viennese lilt through all four movements, especially in the delicate Trio of the third movement. Throughout the symphony, the Australian Chamber Orchestra proved that it is a performing treasure from the Land Down Under, and one that may not be heard in Princeton that often.

March 18, 2015

Princeton Symphony Orchestra called their late winter concert this past weekend “Soulful Reflections,” presenting lush meditative music with a bit of virtuosity attached. Conductor Rossen Milanov began Sunday afternoon’s performance at Richardson Auditorium with a quirky yet rich orchestral work by a 21st-century American composer, followed by three works displaying the musical opulence of mid to late 19th-century Europe. Mr. Milanov and the Princeton Symphony chose to share the stage with a star American cello soloist Zuill Bailey.

Composer Sebastian Currier described his Microsymph as a “large-scale symphony squeezed into only ten minutes.” Within those ten minutes, Currier’s music crosses a number of different instrumental palettes, and conveys a wide range of musical effects from almost all the instruments possible in an orchestra. At times sounding like a lively accompaniment to an animated feature, Microsymph was comprised of five movements of different character. Most notable in the Princeton Symphony’s performance were a pair of melodic clarinets played by Anton Rist and Sherry Hartman-Apgar, three flutists doubling on piccolo, and a clean horn solo played by Douglas Lundeen.

Cellist Zuill Bailey has appeared with major orchestras throughout the United States, and his performance of Robert Schumann’s Cello Concerto in A Minor mesmerized the Richardson audience from the opening dark yet warm solo melody. Mr. Bailey demonstrated a lovely tone from the start, playing on a 1693 Venetian instrument which could produce both the clarity of the 17th-century and the richness of 19th-century repertoire.

In the give-and-take of the first movement, Mr. Milanov allowed Mr. Bailey to create his own musical spaces while maintaining strong communication between conductor and soloist. This was a concerto performance in which the soloist was clearly in charge, and as the three movements of this work melded together, Mr. Bailey held the audience’s attention with tender melodic lines and very light fingers changing notes in the fast sections. Mr. Bailey was joined by principal cellist Alistair MacRae to create a very smooth duet, finding variety in repeated passages. Mr. Milanov wove the three movements of the concerto together seamlessly, transitioning well to the closing movement.

Mr. Bailey and the Princeton Symphony treated the audience to a second musical gem in Jules Massenet’s “Meditation” from his opera Thaïs. With a crystal clear harp accompaniment provided by Sarah Fuller, Mr. Bailey drew out the familiar melody. Mr. Milanov built dynamics well within the ensemble, while Mr. Bailey showed himself to be a player of strength.

Mr. Milanov may have selected Jean Sibelius’s Symphony No. 1 in E Minor to fit into the afternoon theme of “Reflections,” but it could just have easily been to show off the Princeton Symphony’s new principal clarinetist, Anton Rist. Sibelius’s symphony opened with an extended clarinet soliloquy, which Mr. Rist played smoothly over a musically icy terrain of jagged violins. The music of Sibelius is nationalistic, capturing Finland’s terrain in spacious orchestration and instrumental moments resembling icicles and ice crystals, while richness of instrumentation links this late 19th-century work to the rest of Europe. Jaunty winds and pure flute thirds played by Jake Fridkis and Amy Wolfe marked the first movement, which ended like the aftermath of an avalanche.

The quartet of horns led by Douglas Lundeen were consistently well blended throughout the symphony, and Mr. Milanov well maintained a sustained pastoral character in a musical winter wonderland marked by wind solos and a very solid brass ensemble of trumpets, trombones, and tuba. Furious string pizzicato marked the third movement scherzo, as a seven-note motive was passed around the orchestra in perfect time. Sibelius scored more for solo bassoon in this work than one normally hears, and Brad Balliett and Seth Baer conveyed these parts well. In the closing finale, Mr. Milanov led the lush orchestration with long conducting strokes as the Princeton Symphony brought the work to an opulent close.

 

March 11, 2015

In recent years, a number of Princeton University graduates have turned up performing on the nation’s leading concert stages. These students’ success is a credit to the musical training they received at the University, but also to one particular showcase of their collegiate musical experience. The annual Princeton University Orchestra Concerto Competition is as serious as any professional competition, and when the winners are presented each year in concert, audiences can be sure they are hearing the musical stars of tomorrow.

This year’s Orchestra Concerto Competition was adjudicated by individuals accustomed to hearing the finest in musical performance —  Princeton’s Marna Seltzer, Dena Levine of Seton Hall University, Francine Storck of New Jersey Symphony, and David Hayes of Mannes College of Music. The University Orchestra presented this year’s three winners this past weekend in Richardson Auditorium in a program which interestingly progressed from earliest to latest in repertoire, but the soloists performed in order from oldest to youngest.

Countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen will graduate from Princeton this year, and will have no trouble walking from campus into a vocal performing career. Like recent graduate Anthony Roth Costanzo, currently on the roster of the Metropolitan Opera, Mr. Cohen has made a specialty of music of the castrato era, one of music history’s more insidious traditions, but one which produced some spectacular music. Castrati were the superstars of their time. Physical and musical anomalies — with the physique of a grown man combined with the range of a boy soprano — castrati and the composers who wrote for them created works with vocal tessituras and coloratura fireworks the likes of which 18th-century audiences had never heard.

For his portion of Friday night’s Concerto Competition Winner showcase (the concert was repeated on Saturday night), Mr. Cohen presented two of the tamer castrato operatic arias in terms of vocal virtuosity. Composer Nicola Porpora wrote some of the most extravagant operas of the 18h century, mostly for his brother, the renowned castrato Farinelli. His aria “Alto Giove” from the 1735 Polifemo stressed long vocal lines and dynamic intensity, both of which Mr. Cohen handled expertly. Accompanied by a small orchestra of strings and continuo, Mr. Cohen managed well phrases composed for a singer with a seemingly endless lung capacity, providing elegant ornamentation and flexibility in the closing cadenza. Conductor Michael Pratt kept the University Orchestra in a clean Baroque framework, tapering the sound when appropriate to accommodate the solo line.

Mr. Cohen’s second selection, “Scherzo Infida” from Handel’s Ariodante was in a similar style to the Porpora aria, and Mr. Cohen showed the same strengths with a more decisive vocal tone. Mr. Cohen was particularly attentive to the text, and despite the despairing nature of the words, took a gentle approach to the ornaments and cadenza. Although the Handel and Porpora operas were from the same 18th-century decade, the addition of a bassoon to the orchestra (gracefully played by Louisa Slosur) seemed to move the Handel aria historically ahead in orchestration.

Princeton University junior Edward Leung certainly has maintained a busy student career, studying at the Woodrow Wilson School and performing solo piano at a world-class level. Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Major is a work one expects to hear from a high-level professional orchestra, and its complexity and technical demands were a challenge well-met for both the University Orchestra and keyboard soloist.

Following the familiar horn introduction, Mr. Leung took immediate command of the piano. His well-timed chords fit right in place in the first movement, holding together the orchestral sound. Throughout the concerto, Mr. Leung never forgot he was part of an orchestra, but still managed to control a great deal of the musical suspense and dazzle the audience with riveting runs. The orchestra provided a solid accompaniment throughout, with Mr. Pratt taking a very Classical approach to the late 19th century concerto. Winds were particularly precise, with solos provided by flutist Marcelo Rochabrun and oboist Tiffany Huang.

The third soloist for the evening, sophomore violinist Emma Powell, was poised and calm as she tackled the demanding yet lyrical solos passages in Jean Sibelius’s Violin Concerto in D minor. Beginning the first movement with a crystalline sweet melody, Ms. Powell played excellent extended trills and was precise in both the lowest and highest registers of the instrument. Ms. Powell particularly took charge in the final Allegro, playing cleanly with timpani in the beginning and holding her own through the rollicking movement.

Mr. Pratt showed off the University Orchestra on its own to close the concert with a clean and bright playing of Ottorino Respighi’s The Pines of Rome. A very precise ensemble of trumpets and trombones played from the balcony, with trumpet solo played by Junya Takahashi. Mr. Pratt built the tension in this early 20th-century work in an impressionistic fashion, bringing the work to a joyous closing in the final tribute to the “Pines of the Appian Way.”

March 4, 2015

The coronation of a monarch is not an event to which the American public has much exposure. However, throughout the past four centuries, these events in England have produced some of the greatest choral music ever written. Several of Princeton University’s choral ensembles took the opportunity this past weekend to musically honor both the tradition and some of the monarchs in the annual Walter L. Nollner Memorial Concert.

2014 marked the 300th anniversary of the coronation of King George I, but Princeton University Glee Club conductor Gabriel Crouch paid tribute to monarchs starting from 1685 and leading up to the most recent, that of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. Mr. Crouch began Friday night’s concert at Richardson Auditorium with this most recent coronation, graciously handing over the podium to student conductor James Walsh, who led the University Glee Club in Ralph Vaughan Williams’ O Taste and See. With fluid conducting gestures, Mr. Walsh elicited a well-blended sound from the chorus, with soprano Kaamya Varagur singing intermittent solo lines with a pure voice perfectly in tune.

Taking the podium back, Mr. Crouch led the chorus, with organ accompaniment, in a crisp performance of William Walton’s Coronation Te Deum. Alternating the full choir with two semi-choruses, this anthem was sung by the Glee Club with a clean and well-contained choral sound. The men’s sections were especially well-blended, answered by equally as precise soprano and altos. The third composition in honor of Elizabeth II’s coronation was Herbert Howells’ Behold, O God our Defender, sung as a study in choral color, with one lush chord after another.

The music of Henry Purcell is synonymous with royal events, and there was plenty of Purcell’s joyous and majestic music to be had in Friday night’s concert. Although C. Hubert Parry’s I Was Glad is the most recognizable setting of the Psalm text, Purcell also composed an a cappella setting for the 1685 coronation of James II. Sections of the piece corresponded to the choreography of the event, and the Princeton University Chamber Chorus Choir kept the joyful dotted rhythms crisp and clean. Again, the tenor and bass sections were lean, with phrases well tapered by the whole ensemble and the words appropriately stressed. The vocal clarity of the closing Doxology made it easy to imagine the architecture and acoustics of Westminster Abbey. Purcell’s My Heart is Inditing served the same role in royal choreography for James’ Queen Mary; accompanied by the Nassau Sinfonia, the Chamber Choir demonstrated a light choral texture and effective phrase echoes. Two semi-choruses were heard clearly through the orchestral texture.

The 1714 coronation of George I also inspired William Croft’s The Lord is a Sun and a Shield, for chorus and counter-tenor, tenor, and bass soloists. Princeton alumnus and counter-tenor Tim Keller was joined by tenor James Kennerley and bass-baritone Jacob Kinderman to provide a smooth male semi-chorus of soloists against the Glee Club. The Nassau Sinfonia, including valveless trumpets, captured the Baroque flavor of this piece well.

The Glee Club would never have let the evening go by without Parry’s monumental I Was Glad, composed for Edward VII in 1902 and revised for George V in 1910. For this performance, the Glee Club was joined by the newest addition to Princeton’s choral program: the William Trego Singers. As organist Eric Plutz cranked up the onstage instrument (which rang well throughout the hall), the combined choruses brought out well the strong melodic lines and lush harmonies.

Mr. Crouch closed the concert with one of royalty’s musical highpoints — the 1727 coronation of George II, for which Georg Frideric Handel composed four coronation anthems. The Glee Club closed the concert with Handel’s stately Zadok the Priest, which Mr. Crouch began with restrained choral sound to maintain the suspense until the piece reached its zenith. The coloratura runs in the piece were well executed by the chorus (most impressively from the bass section), and the spaces in the choral texture were well articulated.

This performance by the Princeton University Glee Club, Chamber Choir, and Trego Singers combined history, royalty, and music, offering a bit of something for everyone in the audience. What was consistent was the flexibility of the ensembles and the secure knowledge that Mr. Nollner would have enjoyed the repertoire and the concert.

February 25, 2015
LESSONS FOR LEARNING: Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath is the focus of a week-long series of events that begins at The College of New Jersey Monday, March 2 and ends Saturday, March 7. A highlight will be performances of the 65-minute dramatic song cycle for orchestra and voice “Katrina Ballads” by Ted Hearne on Friday, March 6, at 8 p.m. and Saturday, March 7, at 1 p.m. The piece will be performed by X Trigger, a contemporary music ensemble based in the greater Princeton area and founded by TCNJ Director of Bands David Vickerman.(Photo by Lynda Rothermel, Courtesy of TCNJ)

LESSONS FOR LEARNING: Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath is the focus of a week-long series of events that begins at The College of New Jersey Monday, March 2 and ends Saturday, March 7. A highlight will be performances of the 65-minute dramatic song cycle for orchestra and voice “Katrina Ballads” by Ted Hearne on Friday, March 6, at 8 p.m. and Saturday, March 7, at 1 p.m. The piece will be performed by X Trigger, a contemporary music ensemble based in the greater Princeton area and founded by TCNJ Director of Bands David Vickerman. (Photo by Lynda Rothermel, Courtesy of TCNJ)

Next week The College of New Jersey (TCNJ) will focus on the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina with a variety of interdisciplinary events open to the campus community and the general public.

The series begins with a free screening of Spike Lee‘s 2006 documentary film, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, on Monday, March 2, at 7 p.m., and culminates with a full day of workshops for high school students on Saturday, March 7.

A highlight of the activities will undoubtedly be the two performances of composer Ted Hearne’s award-winning Katrina Ballads by X Trigger, a contemporary music ensemble based in the greater Princeton area.

The group’s founder, artistic director, and conductor David Vickerman is TCNJ’s director of bands and a champion of contemporary music.

A 65-minute dramatic song cycle for orchestra and vocalists, Katrina Ballads is set entirely to primary-source texts from the week following Hurricane Katrina. It uses the words of politicians and celebrities, survivors and relief workers, taken directly from media footage as experienced by those outside the Gulf Coast, as it unfolded via a constant and real-time stream of national media. The performance will be accompanied by a film created by Bill Morrison.

Performances will take place on Friday, March 6 at 8 p.m. and Saturday, March 7 at 1 p.m. Composer Ted Hearne will be the guest speaker at a free public brown bag lecture in the Mayo Concert Hall on Friday, March 6, from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m.

Sometimes raw and shocking, the Katrina Ballads text draws upon commentary from Anderson Cooper, Barbara Bush, Kanye West, and Dennis Hastert and includes George W. Bush’s “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.” The score is a multi-stylistic combination of gospel, jazz, classical, and electronic elements.

A call to remember shared history, Katrina Ballads conjures anger, shame, rebuilding, and a commitment to truth. The work, which premiered at the 2007 Piccolo Spoleto Festival, received the 2009 Gaudeamus Prize for composition. It premiered in New York in 2008 and was included in the New York City Opera’s 2009 VOX Festival.

In 2010, when a full recording was released on New Amsterdam Records (distributed through Naxos of America), the work garnered rave reviews including a place on The Top 10 Classical Albums of 2010 of The Washington Post and Time Out Chicago.

Social Justice in the Arts and Humanities

According to a press release from the The Institute for Social Justice in the Arts and Humanities, Mr. Hearne’s work ties into TCNJ’s 2014-15 justice theme by “exploring how justice is perceived and defined across time or cultures, if justice is contextually bound or if it represents a universal truth, and how justice is related to notions such as fairness, equality, generosity, opportunity, and love.”

“In 2015 TCNJ was selected by the Carnegie Foundation to be a Community Engaged Campus, as part of that we have chosen to focus on the theme of justice for the year and established an Institute for Social Justice, which will focus on the issues raised by the responses to Hurricane Katrina,” explained Dean of the School of the Arts and Communication John Laughton.

Part of that focus includes the “Teaching the Levees” curriculum that was developed in response to Katrina’s devastation to promote democratic dialogue and civic engagement. It uses Mr. Lee’s documentary about the devastation of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina to prompt discussions about citizenship, economics, democracy, media, and systemic injustice. The film will be shown again in the Kendall Screening Room on Tuesday, March 3, at 7 p.m.

“We want our students to engage in a dialog about race and class and have the ability to articulate well-informed judgments rather than mere opinion about where they stand in relationship to these issues,” said Mr. Laughton.

The college is working with local educators to develop a corresponding K-12 curriculum.

Among the other activities are a visit to the campus by a New Orleans chef who will cook a regional specialty for the community to enjoy on Wednesday, March 4, from 11 to 4 p.m. in the Eickhoff Dining Hall. Tickets, $8, for “Cooking Cajun: Celebrating Creole Culture,” a lunch buffet celebrating the food and music of the people of Louisiana can be had at the door. Later that evening, there will be a panel discussion in the library auditorium from 6 to 7:30 p.m. with the contributing authors of the “Teaching the Levees” curriculum.

A public lecture by Katrina Ballads producers David Vickerman and Colleen Sears will take place in the Mayo Concert Hall, on Tuesday, March 3, from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m.

TCNJ’s Institute for Social Justice engages multiple disciplines to draw attention to the ways in which the arts and music can contribute to economic and social development and awareness.

Tickets for performances of Katrina Ballads in the Mayo Concert Hall on Friday, March 6, at 89 p.m. and Saturday, March 7 at 1 p.m. are free and available from the TCNJ Box Office, www.tcnj.edu/boxoffice.

For more information and the full schedule of events, visit tcnj.edu/katrinaballads, facebook.com/isjahTCNJ, or call 609-771-2065.

February 18, 2015

Although there are many fine higher education institutions training choir directors in the country, two choral powerhouses have remained at the top of the heap for decades. For many years it was an unwritten tradition in the field that students who wanted to be choral conductors and wished to attend school on the East Coast came to Westminster Choir College. In the Midwest, students have been trained at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. These two institutions have maintained a friendly rivalry for the better part of a century while producing choir trainers who formed the backbone of the choral arena throughout the 20th and into the 21st centuries. Rather than view each other as competitors, the Westminster and St. Olaf Choirs have shared their individual choral personalities, and occasionally have turned up in the same neighborhood at the same time.

The Snowmageddon that wasn’t — at the end of January — cancelled the Westminster Choir concert, however the St. Olaf Choir came to Princeton last Monday night as part of a 19-concert tour through the midwest and the east coast. Monday night’s performance in the Princeton University Chapel showed the full house why the St. Olaf Choir has been a drawing card for its resident college for more than a century.

Large choruses can have a difficult time in the expansive University Chapel. Listeners in the front tend to hear mass choral sound more clearly than those in the back of the Chapel, but the sound of the St. Olaf Choir was so well blended in this performance that the overall effect was clean throughout the hall. Conductor Anton Armstrong, only the fourth conductor in the Choir’s more than one hundred year history, is currently celebrating his 25th anniversary directing the choir. Dr. Armstrong approached the repertoire for this concert as a tribute to the legacy of the choir, with the first half of the program focusing on the music of his predecessors.

Bach has been a part of their repertory since the beginning, and Dr. Armstrong used Bach’s fourth motet, Fürchte dich nicht, as an opportunity to show off the St. Olaf Choir’s crisp diction and clean Baroque phrasing. The choir has been renowned for its ability to unfold sound in endless streams of chords, and Robert Stone’s The Lord’s Prayer and William Byrd’s I Will not Leave You Comfortless demonstrated this skill well. Throughout these pieces, the soprano sectional sound in particular was careful and well controlled, as the choir swelled together to close pieces with purely tuned chords.

The music of Felix Mendelssohn and Leonard Bernstein was also part of the performing repertoire of Dr. Armstrong’s predecessors — Kenneth Jennings and the father and son team of F. Melius and Olaf Christiansen. Mendelssohn’s Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe began with a men’s sectional sound reminiscent of the historic Glee Club sound of the past. Mendelssohn composed this work in the tradition of Bach, and the St. Olaf Choir sang with clean texts and solid chords. Kenneth Jennings’ own piece, The Lord is the Everlasting God brought out the well-mixed sound of the choir, while F. Melius Christiansen’s setting of 16th-century composer Philipp Nicolai’s Wake, Awake for Night Is Flying was a clever off-beat arrangement of a conventional text showing clean vocal coloratura and musical effects. In this set of pieces, violist Charles Gray provided elegant obbligato accompaniment. Soprano Chloe Elzey added a rich solo line to Ralph Johnson’s Evening Meal.

Dr. Armstrong devoted the second half of the program to the choir’s next chapter — the legacy of looking forward. Several of the pieces in this part of the program were composed for Dr. Armstrong by colleagues, and these works confirmed St. Olaf’s commitment to discovering the newest in choral music. All of these pieces were written in the past 50 years, and included two premiere performances. One of the most intriguing works was Kim André Arnesen’s Flight Song, composed as a birthday present for Dr. Armstrong. Arnesen writes effectively for chorus, with tunes that stay on the mind, and the choir sang the appealing music well, with a soprano obbligato that topped off the sound like icing. The American Boychoir (of which Dr. Armstrong was a member in his youth) joined the St. Olaf Choir for the St. Olaf Choir’s signature piece, Melius Christiansen’s setting of the 18th-century hymn Beautiful Savior.

During the concert, Dr. Armstrong acknowledged his debt, in inspiration and musical training, to the three choral organizations which had a large presence in the chapel that night: the American Boychoir, Westminster Choir, and St. Olaf Choir. The ongoing collaboration among these three ensembles can only serve to strengthen each one and the choral field as a whole.

February 11, 2015

When one thinks of an organ recital, the first thought that comes to mind is a church setting, listening to an organist with his back to the audience, playing music for the most part written by classical composers. Cameron Carpenter, whose Princeton roots go back to his student days at the American Boychoir School, is trying to change all that. Along with his prodigious technical ability at the piano as a child, his first concept of what an organ should be was not the church-based instrument, but the theater organ, originally used to add a musical backdrop to a silent film. Mr. Carpenter has long stated that one of the frustrations of being an organ recitalist was adjusting to a different instrument in each venue. A decade ago, Mr. Carpenter began to address this issue by designing a transportable organ which can be taken anywhere and which would allow the organ repertoire to move in more compelling directions. For the past year, Mr. Carpenter has been unveiling his imaginative musical instrument across the United States, and last Friday night was Princeton’s turn.

Cameron Carpenter’s Princeton recital last Friday night took place not in a venue such as the University Chapel, with its majestic Skinner organ, but at McCarter Theater, where his five-manual International Touring Organ filled the stage of Matthews Theater. This instrument represents a fusion of Mr. Carpenter’s performing career, incorporating sonorities from his favorite musical experiences, with a goal of “innovating the relationship between organ and organist.” Built by Marshall & Ogletree, the Touring Organ includes modular console, numerous speakers, supercomputer/amplifier unit and LED lights to provide uplighting.

Mr. Carpenter’s organ recitals are usually a combination of classical repertoire and improvisation, and Friday night’s performance was a highly entertaining amalgamation of music history, visual media, and Mr. Carpenter’s imagination. Beginning with back-to-back Bach and Shostakovich works, Mr. Carpenter demonstrated the more fluty registrations of the Touring Organ, aided by his own dexterity among the five keyboard manuals.

The Bach pieces were richer and louder than Bach likely heard in his own time, with abrupt shifts in registration that Bach could not have imagined. The Touring Organ has a great spectrum of dynamics, and Mr. Carpenter’s own fascination with being able to “teeter on the edge of audibility” was clear.

Mr. Carpenter has made a career of transcribing orchestral works for the organ, and his treatment of Isaac Albéniz’s piano suite Iberia toyed with soft dynamics and heavy use of the lower two keyboard manuals and pedals. Oliver Messiaen’s God Among Us, one of the more difficult pieces in the repertory, was played with devilish virtuosity, force, and conviction, with the dissonances all the more discordant when heard digitally.

Mr. Carpenter’s own work, Music for an Imaginary Film, showcased some of his more astounding technical capabilities, including playing scale passages with one thumb while the rest of his fingers are playing on the manual above. At one point, Mr. Carpenter’s arms and legs all seemed to be going in different directions, creating a myriad of sonorities in the process.

As a tribute to his inspiration from silent film, Mr. Carpenter spent a highly enjoyable 20 minutes or so accompanying the Buster Keaton 1920 comedic film One Week. Playing with a great deal of vibrato and tremolo suitable for the time of the film, Mr. Carpenter provided an improvised accompaniment that included such sounds as train whistles and drumbeats that one would never hear from an organ. Throughout the film, he maintained solid musical control over the action on screen, and one could easily just have listened to the accompaniment and be just as entertained as watching the film. Mr. Carpenter further demonstrated his improvisational skills with the encore to the performance — his own interpretation of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide Overture, recreating the orchestral sonorities in almost unrecognizable form through unique registrations.

Cameron Carpenter is one of a kind. His musical training, whether in his hometown in western Pennsylvania, at the American Boychoir School, North Carolina School for the Arts, or Juilliard, provided him with technical abilities to take his chosen instrument into new realms (not unlike what Liszt did with the 19th-century piano). Along the way, he also picked up an understanding of interacting with audiences, becoming a “cross-over” artist who will bring new appreciation for all the genres of music he touches.

January 28, 2015
PASS BOOK OPPRESSION: Buntu (Atandwa Kani, left) helps Sizwe Bansi (Mncedisi Shabangu) survive in apartheid South Africa through taking another man’s pass book and giving up his own identity, in McCarter Theatre’s production of Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona’s “Sizwe Bansi is Dead” (1972), playing at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through February 15.

PASS BOOK OPPRESSION: Buntu (Atandwa Kani, left) helps Sizwe Bansi (Mncedisi Shabangu) survive in apartheid South Africa through taking another man’s pass book and giving up his own identity, in McCarter Theatre’s production of Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona’s “Sizwe Bansi is Dead” (1972), playing at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through February 15.

“You have to understand,” Styles, in his photo studio in the black township of New Brighton outside Port Elizabeth, South Africa, tells us, “we have nothing except ourselves. We own nothing except ourselves. This government and its laws leaves us with nothing except ourselves. Even when we die, we leave nothing behind except the memories of ourselves. That is my job.”

As the culmination of his genial, chatty opening monologue, Styles’ comments about the role of the photographer strike central themes of identity, who we are as human beings, and appearance vs. reality in Sizwe Bansi is Dead. Created by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona in 1972 at the mid-point of South Africa’s four and a half decades of apartheid government, the play shifts back and forth in tone between low-key, light, humorous and intensely, painfully serious. It delivers a scathing indictment of the harsh system of racial discrimination and segregation imposed by the white South African government on its majority dark-skinned population.

Seeing this production of Sizwe Bansi, at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre, more than 20 years after the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa, is a different experience from seeing the original on Broadway, where Mr. Kani and Mr. Ntshona shared Tony Awards for best actor, after its 1972 opening in South Africa and subsequent run in London. I remember feeling the political tension at that time. There was the sense that this controversial play was doing something dangerous. Mr. Kani, who played the role of Styles in the original and has directed this production with his son Atandwa Kani as Styles here, and Mr. Ntshona had, surprisingly in 1974, been allowed to travel outside of South Africa, but only with the official designation as servants to Mr. Fugard. After a subsequent performance of the play in South Africa, Mr. Kani and Mr. Ntshona were jailed for 23 days.

Unsparing in its detail of the world of apartheid South Africa, Sizwe Bansi presents a vivid, memorable picture of three characters, played by the two actors. But, though this production may have lost its specific political immediacy after 43 years, it reveals the rich universality and timelessness of human beings struggling to assert their identity against the oppressive forces of a society that would deny them that right. Along with blacks in apartheid South Africa, think of blacks in the segregated U.S. South (The recently released movie “Selma” comes readily to mind.) or of recent demands that African-American lives in Ferguson, New York and elsewhere matter and must be recognized and treated with dignity, or of other oppressed peoples throughout the world.

In the spirit and style of South African township theater, sets and costumes (designed by John Kani), props and staging are minimal. The two seasoned, brilliantly captivating actors create the world of Sizwe Bansi with their actions and their words. John Kani’s direction is focused, intelligent and on-target. The pacing is swift and nuanced, and the 90-minute show holds its audience from start to finish.

Atandwa Kani’s Styles is a dynamically personable, appealing character. In his opening monologue he reflects shrewdly, pointedly on events of the world and he describes working for the Ford Motor Company in South Africa, preparing the plant for a visit from the big boss, telling his white employers what they want to hear. But Styles has since persevered to surmount some of the bureaucratic and financial obstacles that the apartheid society placed in his way, and he has acquired his own tiny photography studio. With his irrepressible affability, his sharp sense of humor and his broad smile, he readily wins over the audience, even welcomes two audience members on stage to see his photos.

People come to him for passbook photos, family photos—selfies of 20th century South Africa?—in the hopes of creating and asserting their identities and preserving those identities into the future. “This is a strong-room of dreams,” he boasts. “The dreamers, mightiful…These are the people that would have been forgotten with their dreams, their hopes, their aspirations if it wasn’t for me, Styles.”

Sizwe Bansi (Mncedisi Shabangu) enters the photo studio, dressed in a white double-breasted suit and fedora, with both pipe and cigarette, seeking a single snapshot to send to his wife in King William’s Town to show her how he is doing. But, clearly, he is unsure of his own identity. His suit seems too large for him, and he is uncomfortable as he hesitates before telling Styles his name is “Robert Zwelinzima.” In the form of a letter to his wife, who had to stay in far-off King William’s Town with their four children while Sizwe went to find work in Port Elizabeth, Sizwe tells the audience the story of his transformation. “Sizwe Bansi, in a manner of speaking, is dead.”

As he tells his story, illustrating so dramatically the destructive effects of the pass book laws, the scene changes in a flashback, and we observe Sizwe’s struggles with the repressive conditions of living as a black man under the South African apartheid government. Soon after Sizwe arrived in New Brighton outside Port Elizabeth, where he stayed with a friend, the police raided his friend’s house and put a stamp in Sizwe’s pass book demanding that he leave Port Elizabeth immediately. He could have found work in Port Elizabeth, but would surely have been arrested and either jailed or forcibly returned to King William’s Town where he could not find work to support his family except in the dangerous, back-breaking job of mining gold and diamonds.

Sizwe moves into hiding with a man named Buntu (also played by Atandwa Kani), who explains to him the harsh pass book system, but is unable to help him until, late at night, after a drunken visit to the local bar (the shebeen), Buntu and Sizwe come upon the body of a dead man in an alley. The dead man’s pass book is in order. Sizwe can take the book, assume the identity of Robert Zwelinzima, then live and work in Port Elizabeth.

In a world that treats people as pass book numbers rather than human beings, the decision for Sizwe, Buntu argues, is a simple, practical one. But Sizwe, confronting the existential dilemma of what it means to be a human being, protests, “I don’t want to lose my name…How do I live as another man’s ghost?” Echoing Shylock’s angry declaration of his humanity as a Jew in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, Sizwe asserts his pride and dignity as a man: “Am I not a human being? I’ve got eyes to see. I’ve got ears. I’ve got a head to think good things. Am I not a human being?”

The final scene of the play returns to Styles’ photo studio and the present, as Sizwe, now Robert Zwelinzima, smiles for the camera.

“Survival can involve betrayal of everything—beliefs, values, ideals—except Life itself,” Mr. Fugard wrote in his Notebooks 1960-1977. In Sizwe Bansi is Dead the title character lives in a world where, to survive, he must give up his very name and identity as a human being. It’s difficult to imagine a more powerful, moving depiction of a racist society that inflicts such devastating, pernicious effects on individuals and families.

McCarter Theatre’s production of “Sizwe Bansi Is Dead,” co-produced with the Market Theatre of Johannesburg and Syracuse Stage, will run through February 15 at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre at 91 University Place in Princeton. Call (609) 258-2787 or visit mccarter.org for tickets and further information.

One can never get too much J.S. Bach on a winter Sunday afternoon. The Dryden Ensemble brought some rarely-heard works to Miller Chapel on the campus of Princeton Theological Seminary this past weekend, and the full house at Miller Chapel recognized that they were listening to something special.

The Dryden Ensemble built Sunday afternoon’s program as a “Cantata Fest” featuring two extraordinary singers. Soprano Ah Young Hong sang with a full and pure sound which was well under control. Her voice warmed up as the concert progressed, and Ms. Hong knew exactly how to send her voice to the rafters of the Chapel. Particularly in the closing Cantata No. 49, Ms. Hong’s powerful yet straight tone was reminiscent of the boys’ sound for which Bach composed so many of these cantatas. Throughout her singing, Ms. Hong demonstrated tremendous breath control while spinning out phrases, and she showed an expressive command of the texts.

Ms. Hong was paired with baritone William Sharp, who brought drama and expression to Bach’s cantata arias. Clearly at ease with the music of Bach, Mr. Sharp was a picture of reassurance in vocal duets in which he portrayed Jesus and Ms. Hong as “a soul.” Mr. Sharp demonstrated the epitome of vocal technique in the coloratura sections of the aria selection from Cantata No. 57. In his assigned arias and recitatives, Mr. Sharp sang with a great deal of character and showed himself to be a real storyteller.

The strength of this concert was also in the instruments of the Dryden Ensemble. Playing on original or replicated Baroque instruments, the musicians of the Dryden settled quickly into accompanying the singers with style and accuracy. Daniel Swenberg played a variety of unique instruments, including his usual theorbo, and both an archlute and Baroque lute. Mr. Swenberg came out from the continuo section to play the one piece not by Bach — a Tombeau sur la mort de M. Conte de Logy by Silvius Leopold Weiss, a German composer and lutenist who was a contemporary of Bach and the most important lutenist of his day. The Tombeau form was developed by French composers to pay tribute to those who had gone before, and Weiss’s Tombeau was typically tuneful and in Mr. Swenberg’s hands, resounded clearly in the hall. Playing on a Baroque lute, an instrument with at least 30 strings, Mr. Swenberg effectively introduced the audience to an instrument and repertoire rarely heard.

Oboist Jane McKinley had a number of passages in several cantata arias which required dexterity on the oboe, and her performance on the oboe d’amore accompanying Ms. Hong in the closing Cantata No. 49 was smooth and elegant. Bach created an unusual sonority in this cantata by combining voice with the oboe d’amore, the five-string violoncello piccolo (played by Lisa Terry), and the lute. Webb Wiggins, usually heard on the harpsichord in these performances, played a chamber organ which, in Cantata No. 49, provided lively solo passages (with a bit of chromaticism) closely related to Handel’s sprightly organ concerti.

Violinists Vita Wallace and Dongmyung Ahn, as well as violist Andrea Andros, moved well with the vocal passages, with solid string continuo from cellist Lisa Terry and Baroque double bass players Motomi Igarashi. The instrumentalists consistently communicated well, effectively handling transitions among sections.

January 21, 2015
Joyce Grenfell

Joyce Grenfell

Princeton resident and talented local actress Diana Crane will discuss and perform selections from the works of two very English notables, Noël Coward (1899-1973) and Joyce Grenfell (1910-1979), in “A Taste of Coward and a Spoonful of Grenfell” this Sunday, January 25, at 3 p.m., in the Lawrenceville School’s Kirby Art Center. The program is part of a regular series of events hosted by the English-Speaking Union.

Ms. Crane, who holds a certificate from The London Academy of Music and Drama, is well-known to Princeton audiences for her popular work with the PJ&B Productions and The Inn Cabaret some years ago. She is Professor Emerita of German and Fine Arts at Westminster Choir College, and has worked as a dialect coach at McCarter theater and for several Rider University theater productions.

She’s also been known to tread the boards herself. “Diana has performed in regional theaters, numerous cabarets and one-woman shows of her own creation,” said president of the English-Speaking Union, Princeton, Dulcie Bull.

On Sunday, Ms. Crane will present a selection of pieces by the well-loved Mr. Coward and equally popular but perhaps lesser-known, at least in the United States, Joyce Grenfell. “I’ve selected pieces from the 20s to the post-war 40s and I hope there will be some audience participation,” she said.

Asked about combining the works of the flamboyant English playwright, composer, director, actor and singer and the comic monologuist, Ms. Crane said: “I greatly admire both these brilliant writers, musicians, and performers and like to keep their legacy alive; I was inspired to combine the works of both after reading Grenfell’s letters to her mother in the United States, in the book Darling Ma: Letters to her Mother 1932-44.” 

Ms. Grenfell’s mother, Nora Phipps, was the youngest sister of Lady Astor. After divorcing Ms. Grenfell’s father, she married a former Yale football hero and moved to North Carolina.

In the book there are at least 20 references to Noël Coward’s works and lifestyle,” said Ms. Crane. “Not only did Noël know Joyce’s mother Nora when Joyce was little, but when Joyce began performing, their social and theatrical paths crossed frequently. They also encouraged one another to travel and entertain the troops during the Second World War.”

Ms. Grenfell, who was once a radio critic for the U.K.’s Observer newspaper, was a very popular performer on the British stage and screen. Her cheery and gossipy letters convey a sense of the English social scene during the Depression and World War II — about life on the London stage and at the Astors’ country estate, Cliveden, as well as snippets on her friends Coward, Myra Hess, Beatrice Lillie, and Stephen Potter.

The Princeton Branch of the English-Speaking Union (E-SU) is one of 68 local branches of the E-SU in the United States. A non-profit, non-political, educational organization, its primary goal is one of educational outreach and the usage of the English language to promote international understanding, friendship and goodwill. It meets once a month from October through June and holds events on Sunday afternoons with a speaker on a topic of interest and an opportunity to socialize with sherry, soft drinks, and finger eats afterward.

For more information, contact: princeton@esuus.org, or visit: www.esuus.org.

“A Taste of Coward and a Spoonful of Grenfell” will be held at the Lawrenceville School’s Kirby Art Center. All are welcome and for non-members of the English-Speaking Union, a contribution of $10 is suggested.

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

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

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

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

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

January 14, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 24, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 10, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

December 3, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

November 26, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

November 19, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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