July 10, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 3, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Nancy Plum

June 26, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 12, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 22, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 8, 2013

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

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

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

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


May 1, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 24, 2013

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

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

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

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

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


April 17, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


April 10, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 27, 2013

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra paid tribute to both New Jersey composers and music educators this past weekend with a concert of Classical period music—touched with a bit of 20th century New Jersey. NJSO Music Director Jacques Lacombe led the Orchestra in a performance of Mozart, Schubert and Cone works which also showed off the results of effective music education.

The Orchestra began Friday night’s performance at Richardson Auditorium with a demonstration of an NJSO educational initiative. Four members of NJSO’s Greater Newark Chamber Orchestra, violinists Winifred Waters and Rachel Seo, violist Melissa Hollfelder and cellist Nicholas Wu, played an excerpt of a Dvorak string quartet, showing solid technique individually and a well-blended sound among the four players as an ensemble. Under the careful watch of coach Stephen Fang, the Orchestra’s Assistant Principal Cellist, this quartet of young musicians showed their drive and dedication to music with elegant melodic lines played by each instrumentalist and handling well the responsibility of communicating as a quartet.

Mr. Lacombe paired the New Jersey educational initiative with a work by a New Jersey composer.  Edward Cone’s Elegy is a piece NJSO has presented before as part of its New Jersey Roots Project, and is a work with which both conductor and Orchestra becomes more comfortable with each performance.  The combination of haunting oboe and English horn solos played by James Roe and Andrew Adelson, respectively, sounded especially smooth in the hall, and Mr. Lacombe found both a crispness and flow which gave the work direction.

The wind effects of the Cone piece were well paired with another work with elegant wind writing—Franz Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 in B minor, the “Unfinished” Symphony.  Conducting from memory, Mr. Lacombe began the first movement with creeping celli and the familiar theme played lightly with a Viennese touch.  Mr. Lacombe brought out the sforzandi well and effectively used a pair of teasing horns to lead back to the restatement of the theme.  The second movement was marked by a light touch on horn and strings, aided by a light clarinet solo played by Karl Herman and Mr. Roe’s clean and lilting oboe solos. Mr. Lacombe’s concentration and focus in this piece was exceptional, given the unfortunate instances of Richardson house staff seating late-comers (very late-comers) just as he was ready to give the downbeat and a cell phone ringing in one of the quietest moments of the second movement.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is viewed as a height of the Classical period, and his Requiem is seen as a zenith of his compositional powers. Left unfinished at Mozart’s death, the Requiem includes challenging quick passages for the choral singers and opportunities for chorus and orchestra to create an elegant 18th-century Viennese musical palette.   Joining the pared-down NJSO were four vocal soloists and the 60-voice Montclair State University Singers, who had been thoroughly prepared by Heather J. Buchanan.  Bassoonist Robert Wagner provided the dark opening theme, and the basses of the chorus began the Mass for the Dead text with assuredness.

In the more elegant and lyrical movements the chorus provided a very full and blended sound in the hall without having to oversing, and the phrase directions requested by Mr. Lacombe were well executed.  Running passages were well handled by all sections, with the tenors impressively light and clean.  The soprano section was able to float their sound well in the beginning of the piece, but as the mass went on, vibrato began to control the sectional sound.  The tenor and bass sections provided particularly effective bite in the “Confutatis” movement, answered by a sweet “voca me” from the women.

The vocal quartet, soprano Christine Brandes, mezzo-soprano Suzanne Mentzer, tenor Gordon Gietz and bass Robert Pomakov, showed especially solid ensemble in the “Benedictus” section, as well as other moments when all four singers were singing together. Ms. Brandes was consistently a decisive singer with a voice full of color, and Mr. Pomakov showed his best lower range on the “Tuba Mirum” text elegantly accompanied by tenor trombonist Vernon Post. The Orchestra maintained a Viennese lilt to the accompaniment, with very clean brass playing among two trumpets and three trombones in the “Benedictus” movement.  Showing the attentiveness of the chorus, the final fugue was as clean as the first as the Requiem closed in dramatic fashion.

This performance was a solid collaborative effort among New Jersey ensembles as well as student players from within the NJSO organization.  Performing Viennese such staples as Mozart and Schubert no doubt made everyone’s late winter Friday evening just a bit more pleasant.


March 13, 2013

One thing the Princeton University campus has no shortage of is talented student musicians. In the second performance of concerto winners this season (winners of the 2013 Concerto Competition), the Princeton University Orchestra presented a concert this past weekend of two student pianists and a bassoonist who demonstrated the ability to maintain a high level of performance throughout an entire concerto. The three soloists — pianists Paul von Autenried and Jeff Li, and bassoonist Louisa Slosar, no doubt have been heard in smaller venues on campus (and in Ms. Slosar’s case within the University orchestra), Saturday night’s performance (the concert was also presented Friday night) in Richardson Auditorium placed these three individuals front and center with an audience thrilled with every note coming from the stage.

Freshman Paul von Autenried has not been on the University campus long enough to decide a major, yet his keyboard skills and intelligent exuberance at the piano place him way beyond his academic grade. Mr. von Autenried’s concerto with the orchestra was Bach’s Concerto No. 5 in F minor, BWV 1056, a work composed for the harpsichord, but Mr. von Autenried’s interpretation on the piano brought out drama which Bach may well have intended but did not have the instrumental technology to achieve. Conductor Ruth Ochs led a small orchestra accompanying the concerto, which Mr. von Autenried opened with dynamic effects difficult to realize on a harpsichord, with a cleanly ornamented line in the right hand and even running notes. Throughout the work, Mr. von Autenried clearly enjoyed playing, always in control of the music and communicating well with Ochs.

The second movement Largo provided a delicate melody against pizzicato strings providing a typically Bach “walking” bass. Mr. von Autenried found a great deal of expression in the music, always playing with a bit of a smile which permeated what was coming from the keyboard. Strings and piano came together for a lively third movement Presto full of well-executed running notes in the left hand of the solo part.

The other pianist featured on the program, senior Jeff Li, brought a seasoned performing background and four years of varied University musical experience to his interpretation of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major. Mr. Li’s University musical background ranges from the Princeton Composer’s Collective, to the Opera to the Laptop Orchestra. This broad approach to music, as well as clean technical proficiency, enabled Mr. Li to find the breadth of musical innovation into which Beethoven was just beginning to tap when he composed this concerto.

Conductor Michael Pratt opened the symphonic extended orchestral introduction in a crisp Viennese style, and Mr. Li began the solo line gracefully, effectively bringing out the sforzandi of the first movement. A smoothly rolling left hand marked a more lyrical section, and Mr. Pratt returned to the opening statement boldly. Mr. Li’s cadenza to the first movement was a piece unto itself, clearly transcending the early 19th century with its length, drama, and improvisatory nature. Mr. Li essentially toyed with the audience in extending the cadenza with dynamic variation and melodic force.

This was a substantial concerto for a college-age student, but Mr. Li had no trouble with the technical difficulties, musical stamina, or the elegance required to perform a Viennese work of this period. The closing Rondo was marked by chipper thirds and graceful arpeggios in the keyboard solo line against perfectly-matched flute scales played by Marcelo Rochabrun and a pair of oboes played by Katrina Maxcy and Alexa McCall.

The bassoon soloist for the evening provided a different musical experience than the two piano soloists, but showed no less stamina and command of technique. Sophomore Louisa Slosar has provided solos within orchestral works with the orchestra in numerous performances, but demonstrated the true range of her playing in Antonio Vivaldi’s 18th-century Bassoon Concerto in E minor. Vivaldi wrote close to forty concertos for the bassoon, yet one does not often hear this instrument in a substantial solo work. Under the leadership of Ruth Ochs, the strings allowed the music to essentially play itself, while Ms. Slosar offered seamless yet difficult coloratura lines with ease. Ms. Ochs cleanly played the harpsichord to accompany the solo bassoon, as Ms. Slosar played the long melodic lines with musical direction and sensitivity.

Mr. Pratt brought the full orchestra together for the closing excerpts from Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, eliciting a full and rich sound among a large group of winds. Clean horns and especially lush lower strings provided a contrast to a light timpani accompaniment by Karis Schneider and wind solos by clarinetist Ryan Budnick and oboist Bo-Won Keum. From light airy Baroque to opulent 19th century, this concert not only brought out students in droves to support their own but also community residents supporting a University orchestra always playing at a high level.

March 6, 2013

Ryan James Brandau’s concerts with Princeton Pro Musica up to this point have been a process of adjustment — masterworks with which the ensemble is comfortable and performs well to solidify a new relationship between chorus and conductor. Pro Musica’s performance Saturday night in the Princeton University Chapel was a sign of the new direction Dr. Brandau has chosen for the chorus — one which includes early music outside of the ensemble’s usual scope of repertory. Pro Musica’s concert was billed as Poulenc, Faure, “and more,” and it was the “more” which provided some of the most interesting music of the evening.

Dr. Brandau programmed several anniversary pieces on this program, including works of Poulenc (for the 50th anniversary of his death) and a piece by 20th-century composer Arvo Pärt in honor of the death of Benjamin Britten. Dr. Brandau has created a 24-voice chamber chorus out of Pro Musica’s roster of 100, and used this ensemble to perform the Pärt work with two other pieces linked by Gregorian chant.

Pärt’s Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten is built on a single scale, much like a phrase of chant. Dr. Brandau split the chorus on either side of the small orchestra, beginning the work with almost imperceptible upper strings. Pärt’s one-movement work builds in intensity in the same manner as Samuel Barber’s famed Adagio For Strings, effectively jarring the audience with a loud chime to move the piece to its high point. Dr. Brandau moved through the first three pieces on the program without pause, following Pärt’s Cantus with an extended 12th-century Gregorian chant sung from the back of the chapel by four women. Pro Musica has not ventured often into this period of music, and the singers surely appreciated the chance to sing in smaller combinations.

In Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s setting of the same “Salve Regina,” the two halves of the Chamber Chorus answered each other well (with three men providing chant from the back of the hall), effectively handling the chromaticism which marks music of the early Baroque. Through this piece, the University Chapel proved to be a good space for antiphonal singing.

Dr. Brandau pulled the whole chorus together for works by two composers crossing paths in the same century but writing in two very different styles. Francis Poulenc’s Motets pour Un Temps de Pènitence, appropriate for the season of Lent, contain great intensity in dissonance and dynamics, and Pro Musica took an edgy and decisive vocal approach to the text. With the whole chorus singing at full volume, the upper sound was a bit strident at times, with vibrato that seemed a bit out of control in the space. The second motet had more flow, with the reprise of the opening text showing the best choral blend. The soprano sound was more under control in the third motet, with the lower three voice parts particularly well blended.

The seven-movement Requiem of Gabriel Fauré showed Pro Musica at its vocal best. Dr. Brandau kept the opening Kyrie moving right along, with a light but clean sectional tenor sound and an overall choral effect that matched the violas well. It was clear from his previous performance with Pro Musica that bass-baritone Dashon Burton would have no trouble filling the hall with a rich resonant sound. In both the Offertorium and Libera Me movements, Mr. Burton showed great strength in vocal sound, calling especially well for the “dreadful day” of reckoning in the Libera Me.

Soprano Clara Rottsalk also filled the University Chapel’s vast space well with a voice that had a solid core of sound, displaying particular sensitivity to the text. Concertmaster Owen Dalby provided a sweet top to the sound in two movements, especially when joined by harpist Sarah Fuller. A fourth “soloist” was the viola section, which played a consistently rich sound through the entire Requiem.

As in many Pro Musica concerts, the performance included a strictly instrumental work, and Dr. Brandau took full advantage of Pro Musica’s time in the chapel by programming Poulenc’s Concerto for Organ, Timpani and Strings. University Organist Eric Plutz showed the full effects of the five-manual chapel organ with the help of a multi-media screen, apparently the wave of the future in organ performance. Mr. Plutz showed both a light touch in the later part of the concerto and precision in timing the organ with the strings. Dr. Brandau led the orchestra well in lush melodic passages, with elegant solos provided by violist William Frampton and cellist Elizabeth Thompson.

Ryan James Brandau seems to be settling well into his position as artistic director of Princeton Pro Musica, and the chorus is responding in similar fashion. With the final concert of his debut season coming up in May, Dr. Brandau has had no trouble proving that he can take the ensemble into a new era of performance.

February 27, 2013
FEVERISH FANTASIES; Anna (Savannah Hankinson) encounters a mysterious French chef (­Billy Cohen) on her imaginary travels in Europe with her brother, in Theatre Intime’s production of Paula Vogel’s Obie Award-winning “The Baltimore Waltz” (1992), written in response to the death of Ms. Vogel’s brother from AIDS. The “Baltimore Waltz” is playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through March 2.

FEVERISH FANTASIES; Anna (Savannah Hankinson) encounters a mysterious French chef (­Billy Cohen) on her imaginary travels in Europe with her brother, in Theatre Intime’s production of Paula Vogel’s Obie Award-winning “The Baltimore Waltz” (1992), written in response to the death of Ms. Vogel’s brother from AIDS. The “Baltimore Waltz” is playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through March 2.

Inspired by her brother’s death from AIDS and his unfulfilled request near the end of his life that she join him on an excursion to Europe, Paula Vogel wrote The Baltimore Waltz in 1989. It’s a play, Ms. Vogel stated in an interview, “about processing grief. It’s about love between brothers and sisters. And there’s a lot of joy in grief, there’s a lot of celebration to grief, there’s a lot of comedy in grief.”

And, she might have added, there can be a lot of confusion in grief, which this play manifests through the troubled fantasies of Anna, its mostly autobiographical protagonist. Fortunately, Theatre Intime and talented director Emma Watt have assembled an exceptional trio of actors to ensure that the wildly farcical elements hit home, the tenderness of this brother-sister relationship comes across, and the entertainment value here prevails over confusions in plot and tone.

The entire play actually takes place in a hospital in Baltimore, but, more significantly, the action of this play is set in the mind of Anna (Savannah Hankinson), as she envisions the trip to Europe with her brother. First major confusion arises as Anna imagines herself, not her brother, as the terminal patient, and the illness she imagines is ATD, acquired toilet disease, apparently contracted from sitting on the toilet seats used by the children in the elementary school where she teaches.

Her brother Carl (Daniel Rattner), wearing his pajamas with a pink triangle over the pocket throughout the play, has just been fired from his job as children’s librarian at the San Francisco Public Library. Carl decides they will seek a cure for his sister in Europe. After a comical scene of defiant departure from the library and a scene of frustrating medical mumbo-jumbo with the doctor (Billy Cohen, who also plays more than a dozen other parts throughout the evening), they are off to the continent.

The scenes speed by at a feverish pitch — thirty in all, during the hour and forty minutes without intermission — as Anna and Carl travel through France, Holland, Germany, and eventually to Vienna to find the mysterious Dr. Todesrocheln, a urine-drinking urologist. Amidst Anna’s frenetic quest to have as much sex with as many different men as possible and Carl’s entanglement in what seems to be a cloak-and-dagger intrigue out of the 1949 Graham Greene-Joseph Cotton-Orson Welles movie classic The Third Man, the comedy is hilarious and the farcical tone prevails, despite nostalgic reminiscences about the past and fears for the future.

The Baltimore Waltz is replete with bawdy humor, clever movie allusions, sardonic medical satire, and a feast of language. The nature of the subject matter here, as well as the 24-year gap between the world of the AIDS crisis in 1989 and the world of contemporary audiences, accounts for some disjointedness in tone in this play, but the three well cast, energetic, and dynamically engaged actors prevail over all confusions and the script’s occasional excesses in plot and cleverness.

At the center of the play, Ms. Hankinson’s Anna, alternating between trench coat and negligee, is focused, in character, and appealing throughout all the vicissitudes of action and emotion during the course of the evening. She undergoes the Kubler-Ross five stages of grief and much more, creating a sympathetic, warm, credible character in her relationship with her brother and with the vast range of others she meets on her bizarre journey.

Mr. Rattner’s Carl provides a worthy counterpart to his sister Anna. He is thoroughly believable, articulate, and appealing in his affection for his sister, his attempts to help her and his peculiar “Third Man” intrigues—stuffed rabbit (a sexual symbol?) in hand — through their European travels.

Mr. Cohen’s versatility and gift for comedy serve him well as The Third Man, Doctor, and numerous other roles of widely ranging ages, nationalities, and dispositions. With a vast array of costumes, hats, props, and wild wigs, Mr. Cohen delivers a high-powered dose of humor and helps to set the prevailing tone in every scene where he appears. Ms. Watson has directed this abundantly capable, committed trio with a fine sense of pacing, a rich offering of humor, and a deeply intelligent understanding of the right balance of celebration and mourning to bring clarity to much of the confusion in the text.

Set design by Aryeh Stein-Azen and Ben Schaffer establishes an appropriately simple space for this frequently changing, surrealistic comedic drama. A hospital bed is the major set piece, with a rolling hospital curtain, a chair, a table, and a platform upstage. A colorful, scenic backdrop represents highlights of the European sites Anna visits in her fantasy.

Marissa Applegate’s nuanced lighting contributes significantly to the shifting moods and scenes of the play, also to the shocking contrast — most evident at the play’s end — between Anna’s vivid fantasy journeys and the starkly-lit reality of the Baltimore hospital. (A slide show, supposedly of scenes of Europe but actually of scenes of Baltimore, should have appeared mid-way through the play, but apparently misfired on Saturday night. The actors covered skillfully with no apparent disruption in the action.)

Erin Valentine’s costumes and Jack Moore’s props help to create the multiple characters and the whimsical, often exaggerated atmosphere of the play, as the tone fluctuates from hospital sterile to child’s-nursery playful to Third Man noir.

How I Learned to Drive, Paula Vogel’s 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about family and sexual abuse, will probably always be the play she is best remembered for, but Theatre Intime’s superb production of The Baltimore Waltz provides striking evidence of the enduring power and humor in this earlier gem.

There has been a great deal of Handel scholarship going on in Princeton recently. The University’s department of music hosted events of the biennial American Handel Society Conference and Festival, which included presenting concerts of Baroque music and lectures on 18th-century performance practice. As part of the conference, University Director of Choirs Gabriel Crouch pooled the resources of the University Chamber Choir with the Westminster Kantorei to present a concert centered on the music of G.F. Handel. The full house in Taplin Auditorium included not only conference attendees, but also members of the community who were just in the mood to hear great music.

The Princeton University Chamber Choir is comprised of 30 students, and Mr. Crouch pulled ten of them in a select choir to perform a motet of Domenico Scarlatti, a composer more known for his keyboard works. Mr. Crouch drew a connection between Scarlatti and Handel in their same birth years and towering reputations, and linked Scarlatti’s Stabat Mater Dolorosa with the Handel works performed through its continuo orchestration.

Scarlatti’s Stabat Mater was performed essentially one singer on a part, and these ten members of the Chamber Choir demonstrated great poise and command of the music. Abigail Kelly and Stephanie Leotsakos blended well together on the top soprano parts, and Megan Conlon and Emily Sung handled well alto parts that were likely composed for men. The ten voices worked well together in the Taplin space, and Mr. Crouch brought out well an expressiveness recalling early Baroque opera. The piece included interesting shifts from minor to major keys. Continuo accompaniment was provided by Daniel Swenberg playing the stringed theorbo, and Kerry Heimann expertly provided organ keyboard support to the bass line.

Westminster Kantorei is Westminster Choir College’s choral ensemble specializing in early and contemporary music. Conductor Amanda Quist led the 22-voice chorus in four excerpts from Handel’s Chandos anthem Let God Arise, a piece full of quick-moving lines and musical drama one finds in Handel oratorios and operas. Let God Arise dates from 1718, near the height of Handel’s career, and the Westminster Kantorei and accompanying chamber orchestra filled the hall with deliberate choral articulation and a smooth and even ensemble tone. The small orchestra of strings, oboe, and continuo played with clean phrasing, with Jane McKinley’s oboe line speaking well through the string texture. Dr. Quist kept the choral parts precise, closing the anthem with crisp Alleluias.

The attendees of the Handel Society Conference no doubt came to hear Handel at his choral best, and the University Chamber Choir complied, with a full choral sound in a dramatic work. Handel may have composed the nine-movement Dixit Dominus at a young age, but it is no easy work of a youthful composer. Mr. Crouch took the preparation of this piece as a study in Baroque performance practice, aided by members of the Baroque specialty orchestra The English Concert, which had performed earlier in the week. The Chamber Choir used the hall’s acoustic to maintain the vocal lines, which were both difficult and fun to sing. The soprano section in particular sustained the high lines well, and the men maintained a well-blended sound.

A number of singers sang impressive solos, including soprano Anna Zayaruznaya, alto Megan Conlon, and tenor James Walsh. Mezzo-soprano Tessa Romano sang a very smooth rendition of the second movement alto aria, showing exceptional breath control in lines that crossed among registers. With similar poise, soprano Sophie Mocker perfectly matched triplets from the strings in another aria with long lines and little room to breathe. Sopranos Tara Ohrtman, Varshini Narayanan, Diana Barnes and Katie Buzard displayed solid vocal technique in solo ensemble sections, joined by tenors James Walsh and J.J. Warshaw, and bass Elliot Cole.

The overall performance of Dixit Dominus featured very interesting and engaging dynamic shifts, especially the closing “et in saecula saeculorum,” when one was not expecting a piano effect. Mr. Crouch kept the endings to the movements on the dry side, with the orchestral ensemble playing crisply. The tension of the text was well brought out, especially in the “conquassabit” verse in which “He will crush the heads of many on earth.”

A conference of the magnitude of a national American Handel Society meeting demands the highest level of scholarly performance, and the Princeton University and Westminster Choir College ensembles were well up to the task. For those interested in this period of music, the conference sessions open to the public were well-hidden gems of musicology on the University campus.

Gabriel Crouch will conduct the Princeton University Glee Club on Sunday, March 3 at 3 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium on the campus of Princeton University. Featured in this performance will be Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt. Ticket information can be obtained by visiting the “Music at Princeton” calendar website at www.princeton.edu/music/events.

February 20, 2013

The Richardson Chamber Players has always been an ensemble exploring the outer edges of chamber repertoire. Now more than 15-years-old, the Players has become a presenter of music audiences may not hear anywhere else. Sunday afternoon’s concert at Richardson Auditorium focused on two decades of European and South American music, presenting works rarely heard in general, much less in Princeton.

Sunday’s concert featured a comparatively large number of instrumentalists and singers, both professionals and students. The cover of the concert program referred to “this exaltation, this splendor, this bliss,” but Richardson Chamber Players co-founder and conductor Michael Pratt labeled the four pieces on the program as “fun.” Bassoonist Robert Wagner, principal bassoonist with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra; and Jayn Rosenfeld, principal flutist with the Princeton Symphony Orchestra started off the “fun” with selections from the Bachianas Brasileiras Suite No. 6 of Heitor Villa-Lobos. In the opening Aria, Ms. Rosenfeld took her time on the long melodic line, with Mr. Wagner complementing the flute line with a subtle but steady bassoon. Reflecting the work’s Bach influence, Mr. Wagner’s bassoon playing was as solid as any Baroque continuo, closing the movement with Ms. Rosenfeld in a tapered unison.

Music of Villa-Lobos also closed the afternoon’s program, but in between were two works linked by their roots in 1920s and 1930s Europe. Kurt Weill and Paul Hindemith were composing in a similar political climate, yet these two works were very different. Weill is most known for his music for the stage, and his sets of vocal songs are just as interesting. Soprano Martha Elliott sang the seven-movement Frauentanz, a setting of poems from the Middle Ages. Ms. Elliott always maintained a saucy approach to the teasing and romantic texts, singing with innocence yet a smile of knowing something secret behind the words.

Ms. Elliott was accompanied by solo flute, viola, clarinet, horn, and bassoon, in varying combinations and music effects. Hornist Chris Komer and Mr. Wagner provided a chipper accompaniment to the first song, while clarinetist Jeffrey Hodes (a recent Princeton graduate and veteran of the University Orchestra) played a smooth dancing obbligato to the second song. Especially nice to hear was Danielle Farina’s elegant viola playing, especially against the wind ostinato in the third movement. Ms. Farina also accompanied Ms. Elliott in an expressive interpretation of a haunting text in the fourth song. Throughout this set, Weill’s unique orchestration and combination of instruments created a unique musical palette and made Ms. Elliott’s conveying of the text that much more accessible.

Princeton University faculty member Barbara Rearick offered a very different text interpretation and vocal approach in Paul Hindemith’s Die junge Magd, a set of six songs. Composed for mezzo-soprano to the poetry of Georg Trakl, this cycle is dark, with a six-instrument accompaniment of string quartet, flute, and clarinet. Ms. Rearick sang with a rich and plaintive character, emphasizing a musical lavishness which came from the playing of the string quartet: violinists Ruotao Mao and Dean Wang, violinist Ms. Farina and cellist Alberto Parrini. The instrumental ensemble created two characters, between the strings and the winds, with icy word-painting when appropriate. In the fourth song in particular, the strings played a “hammering” pizzicato while the winds and voice depicted the character and mood. Ms. Rosenfeld’s solo flute matched Ms. Rearick’s voice perfectly in the particularly disturbing text of the fifth song.

Ms. Elliott returned to the stage to close the concert with selections from another suite from Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras, singing the familiar vocalise introduction at a nice pace. Ms. Elliott’s difficult vocal humming was especially impressive in the closing of the cantilena Aria. The very quick-moving Dança was presented with rapid text from Ms. Elliott and effortless cello playing from Mr. Parrini leading an ensemble of seven other celli.

Sunday afternoon’s performance was a big undertaking for the Richardson Chamber Players, but by augmenting the ensemble with excellent instrumentalists from the campus, the ensemble proved more than up to the task, and a very appreciative audience came away with appreciation for some new repertoire.

February 13, 2013

In mid-19th-century Italy, when attending opera was as popular as going to the movies today, Gaetano Donizetti turned out operas at a remarkable rate. In his fifty-year lifetime, he composed more than sixty-five operatic works, with the comic Don Pasquale one of his most popular. Boheme Opera NJ, celebrating its 24th season, presented this comic classic at the Mayo Concert Hall of the College of New Jersey Center for the Arts this past weekend. Sunday afternoon’s performance (the opera was also performed Saturday night) offered the audience an unassuming yet crisp production, which while maybe a bit low-tech, showed all-around solid singing with one clear break-out star.

The stage in Mayo Hall is indeed a concert hall, with no pit for the orchestra or apparatus from which to fly backdrops. Boheme Opera set the stage in a chamber-like atmosphere, with the orchestra onstage behind the singers, and minimalistic furniture dividing the stage into two “scenes.” The effect was that of seeing an opera in someone’s living room, with a chamber instrumental ensemble augmented by piano. Conductor Joseph Pucciatti led the small ensemble in a clean overture with an especially elegant cello solo from Katrina Kormanski.

With only four principal characters, Don Pasquale is a substantial opera to be carried by a few people. Bass-baritone Edward Bogusz had no trouble reacting to the small stage (and did not seem a bit surprised to find an orchestra in his character’s living room) and sang the title role with great animation and a very solid voice, especially in the lower register. Although there were times when the full orchestral sound overpowered the singers a bit, Mr. Bogusz sang the quick recitative sections well, projecting the English text to the back of the hall, and clearly seemed to enjoy himself.

The inherent trouble-maker onstage was Dr. Malatesta, sung cleanly by baritone Kevin Grace. Mr. Grace was also solid with diction, forming a good vocal combination with David Gagnon, singing the romantic lead role of Ernesto. Mr. Gagnon presented some of the most expressive music of the opera, including a lyrical first act aria and the refined and graceful Act III aria to his beloved. Mr. Gagnon commanded audience appeal with sensitive and thoughtful singing, causing members of the audience to comment after his arias on the beauty of his voice.

A continual pleasure to see onstage was soprano Sungji Kim, who found a strong depth of character in Norina, Ernesto’s intended who was always contriving to get her way. Ms. Kim played the role as a smart cookie who pulled out all the stops when necessary. With a voice that spun off high coloratura with ease, Ms. Kim was especially impressive with her ease with fast-moving passages, breath control, and dramatic vocal tone. Currently a doctoral candidate at Rutgers University, Ms. Kim clearly has a future in 19th-century lead soprano roles.

Boheme Opera’s production of Don Pasquale was a model of elegant simplicity, and making the most use of the stage available. Mayo Hall’s wood paneling and solid color painted walls created a 19th-century backdrop, and unadorned furniture at the front of the stage made the audience quickly forget that there was an orchestra right behind. Costuming placed the plot in an unambiguous modern time (especially with Pasquale’s checking the time on his wristwatch), and the focus for the production was clearly on entertainment and good singing. Given that entertainment and singing were likely also the goals of Donizetti’s original productions, it seems that Boheme Opera’s Don Pasquale was a success.

January 30, 2013
PRECARIOUS BALANCING: Tobias (John Glover) struggles with a difficult marriage, an angry daughter, unexpected house guests and the existential terrors of existence, in Edward Albee’s “A Delicate Balance” (1966) at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through February 17. (Photo by Richard Termine)

PRECARIOUS BALANCING: Tobias (John Glover) struggles with a difficult marriage, an angry daughter, unexpected house guests and the existential terrors of existence, in Edward Albee’s “A Delicate Balance” (1966) at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through February 17. (Photo by Richard Termine)

Towards the end of the first act of Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance (1966), currently playing in a stunning revival at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre, Tobias (John Glover) late middle-aged, upper- middle-class suburbanite, reminisces about a pet cat he had owned and loved for many years. One day he realized that “she didn’t like me any more. It was that simple …. I resented having a … being judged. Being betrayed.” So he took her to the veterinarian to be put to sleep.

Some forty years later Tobias lives in a precariously balanced marriage with his wife Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant). Agnes’ alcoholic sister Claire (Penny Fuller) has taken up permanent residence, and, before long, best friends Harry (James A. Stephens) and Edna (Roberta Maxwell) move in, followed soon afterwards by Tobias and Agnes’ 36-year-old daughter Julia (Francesca Faridany), returning home from the break-up of her fourth marriage. Tobias’ cat story may be a metaphor for the human relationships in this play, but there is no vet available to provide a simple way out for any of these tortured characters. They must live with the losses inflicted by time and the existential terrors of human life.

A Delicate Balance, the first of three Albee plays — also Seascape (1974) and Three Tall Women (1991) — to win the Pulitzer Prize, resonates with a striking immediacy and timelessness in this brilliant, thoroughly engaging production. Emily Mann, McCarter artistic director and a longtime friend and collaborator of Mr. Albee, has directed here with authority and wisdom, bringing out the full horror and the full tenderness of these thoroughly mundane yet bizarre proceedings. Ms. Mann has assembled an ideal cast, and together they deliver richly deep, complex individual characterizations and an array of relationships that are utterly credible, intriguing, and three-dimensional.

Despite the familiar surfaces in this drama, with an opulent, deceptively conventional upper-class suburban living room setting, beautifully and realistically designed by Daniel Ostling, this is a difficult play for audiences and actors. There are frequent moments of humor, but the themes here are dark, the loquacious dialogue requires close attention, and the play — at least by contemporary standards — is long, about three hours. And nothing happens, or at least not much seems to change from beginning to end for these despairing characters.

A Delicate Balance might be just as mean and deadly as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1961), considered by many to be Albee’s greatest play, but A Delicate Balance is more subdued, more civilized. In the world of Agnes and Tobias, who were to some degree modeled after Mr. Albee’s adoptive parents, the proprieties of upper class WASP society, that “balance” that Agnes has dedicated her life to preserving, are mostly, except for one or two major outbursts, maintained. “There is a balance to be maintained, after all,” Agnes declares, ” though the rest of you teeter, unconcerned, or uncaring…”

All three acts of A Delicate Balance take place in Agnes and Tobias’ living room. Mr. Ostling’s set is rich in detail, from Oriental rugs to high white molding, beautifully upholstered furniture, sconces, chandeliers, archway leading to front hallway, stairs, and dining room on stage left, adjoining room and backstairs on stage right. At first glance you might want to move right in. After watching the events that transpire during the course of the drama, you will change your mind. A well-supplied liquor table sits at center stage, and alcohol — brandy, cognac, anisette, gin, martinis — serves as a frequent topic of conversation and a motif throughout the play. Claire’s alcoholism is a constant issue and alcohol is a means to help all to escape unpleasant truths and memories and to maintain the “delicate balance” in their lives.

The difficult relationship between Agnes and Tobias quickly becomes apparent in the first act. The intrusions on their shaky domestic scene rapidly ensue. First Claire, who may have had an affair with Tobias in the past but in any case poses a constant threat to her sister’s need for order and control, enters the scene from upstairs. Then Harry and Edna suddenly appear at the front door, with no explanation except that “WE WERE FRIGHTENED … AND THERE WAS NOTHING.” They insist on taking refuge with Agnes and Tobias. They act as if they belong there. By the start of the second act, the angry, self-centered Julia, furious that her childhood room is occupied by Harry and Edna, has joined the volatile mix.

The odd presence of Harry and Edna, and the terror they bring with them threaten to upset the status quo, the social equilibrium of the household. The terror is never specified, never explained, but it is completely credible. Is it the existential fear of loss, the terrible compromises of life, the doubts brought on by contemplation of old age and death? A Delicate Balance is certainly about the needs and requirements of friendship, but it is also about the despair of the human condition and, as Mr. Albee is quoted in his biography by Mel Gussow, ”the isolation of people who have turned their backs on fully participating in their own lives and therefore cannot participate fully in anyone else’s life.”

Ms. Chalfant’s Agnes is elegantly controlled, stern, judgmental, and eloquent in her defense of her way of life. Much celebrated star in Angels in America on Broadway and Wit Off-Broadway, Ms. Chalfant’s Agnes sees herself as the fulcrum of the balance in the family, and is determined to “keep this family in shape. I shall maintain it; hold it.”

Mr. Glover (Tony Award winner in Love! Valour! Compassion! along with numerous other Broadway, Off-Broadway and film credits) provides a worthy counterpart and foil to Ms. Chalfant’s Agnes. He is often passive, attempting to be conciliatory with his wife, sister-in-law, daughter, and friends, trying to do the right thing with his intrusive friends, and suffering visibly and sympathetically in “the dark sadness” he inhabits throughout the play.

As Agnes’ alcoholic sister Ms. Fuller injects energy and a needed breath of candor, humor, and fresh air to the household and the events of the play. Ms. Faridany is utterly believable in her characterization of Julia, and even easy to identify with in her anger and resentment at the loss of her childhood and her inability to reclaim her old room.

Ms. Maxwell and Mr. Stephens, as embodiments of the inexplicable fear that pervades the proceedings, are suitably restrained yet dynamic, ominous yet worthy of sympathy, kindness, and pity, from us and from Tobias and Agnes. These character portrayals are other-worldly yet entirely down-to-earth and realistic.

The six-member ensemble, meticulously, seamlessly directed by Ms. Mann, is intensely focused, in character and convincing. The relationships here are endlessly fascinating and thought-provoking, as this extraordinary cast artfully delivers both the dazzlingly eloquent surface and the terrifying depths of Mr. Albee’s play.

Mr. Albee, who was in the audience for last Friday night’s opening, explained, at the time of the last major revival of the play, in 1996, that A Delicate Balance “concerns — as it always has, in spite of early-on critical misunderstanding — the rigidity and ultimate paralysis which afflicts those who settle in too easily, waking up one day to discover that all the choices they have avoided no longer give them any freedom of choice, and that what choices they do have left are beside the point.” That message and the enduring power of this disturbing play and its troubled characters continue to resonate richly seventeen years later in Ms. Mann’s memorable production.

January 16, 2013

Each year at this time, the Princeton University department of music presents a concert showcasing a performance aspect of the department. This year the class Music 214, Projects in Vocal Performance, offered its members the opportunity to put a semester’s work onstage, and rise to the challenge of the performance practices they had been studying. Nine members of the class, accompanied by seven classmates (with one singer also playing violin) presented nine works from the late 17th and early 18th century in a concert of “Baroque Solo Cantatas.” Many of these students regularly perform with other University ensembles, but taking a complex Baroque piece of music from study to formal performance was a totally new experience.

The two faculty instructors for the class, vocalist Martha Elliott and harpsichordist Wendy Young, left repertoire choices up to the students, who combined themselves into appropriate instrumental and vocal combinations. Keyboard players who were unfamiliar with Baroque performance techniques learned the art of playing from a figured bass on the harpsichord, an instrumental which may have been totally new to them. The resulting concert Saturday night at Richardson Auditorium was a smoothly-flowing performance of opera excerpts and cantatas displaying impressive vocal talents and abilities for University-level singers.

Ms. Elliott and Ms. Young constructed the concert with the first half featuring mostly the sopranos and bass/baritones. Soprano Sophia Mockler performed one of the earlier pieces on the program, with two arias and a recitative from an opera by Alessandro Scarlatti. Accompanied by flute and harpsichord, Ms. Mockler was well poised, singing with a clean sound, light vibrato, and a voice which filled the hall well. Flutist Alison Beskin, principal flutist of the University orchestra, demonstrated especially elegant phrasing. Given that the flute is a principal obbligato instrument of the 18th century, Ms. Beskin was busy on Saturday night, accompanying several singers and always playing with refinement and accuracy.

Bass/baritone Edward Wang and tenor James Walsh chose cantata excerpts of J.S. Bach, among the trickiest to perform for both singers and instrumentalists. Mr. Wang sang with graceful low notes and well-handled runs, with great potential for a big sound down the road. Graduate student Stephen Raskauskas showed notable fluidity on the harpsichord, obviously very comfortable with the instrument. Mr. Walsh comes from an extensive choral background, which was evident in his polished rendition of a Bach aria. The only tenor on the program, Mr. Walsh demonstrated that he has clearly been around the professional choral arena, even at his age.

The music of Jean-Philippe Rameau is part of the bridge to the Baroque era, and is often difficult to perform because of its rapid shifts in harmony and texture. Soprano Heather O’Donovan sang with just the right amount of vibrato and phrase endings which tapered in the upper register. Flutist Ms. Beskin and violinist Brianna Leary played the difficult transitions with precision, especially with simultaneous trills which recurred throughout the short recitatives and airs. Ms. Leary effectively led the way through the next piece as baritone Dale Shepherd sang a selection of Telemann with a smooth baritone sound and an easy flow to the recitative passages. Music of Handel was represented by baritone Robert Kastner, who handled well the technical difficulty and runs of Handel’s vocal cantata as Derek Wu played some of the most challenging harpsichord passages of the evening.

The second half of the concert showed that there is no shortage of mezzo voices on the University campus, with music that was likely performed for the unique castrato voice. Mezzo-sopranos Marie-Gabrielle Arco and Tessa Romano showed that they are both experienced singers, with Ms. Arco alternating the emotional recitative style of Giovanni Battista Ferrandini with the sensitivity of Ferrandini’s cavatinas. Ms. Romano sang with a rich lower register and smooth shifts among the registers as two violins, cello, and harpsichord provided lilting accompaniment. Counter-tenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, a star of last year’s concerto competition, proved that this past year only strengthened the brilliance of his upper register and his own confidence in the unique instrument that he has. The Clerambault aria performed by Mr. Cohen was clearly a soprano aria, reaching high into the upper register of the voice. Mr. Cohen had no trouble with the highest notes, and clearly enjoyed himself as he spun off melodic lines.

The Princeton University Music 214 class clearly worked hard on the performance practice techniques and repertoire presented in the curriculum. However, this was much more than a class — as the young performers on Saturday night proved, this class could easily rival vocal education in any top music conservatory.

December 12, 2012

The Princeton University Music Department is accustomed to showing off its orchestra, but it is not often the community gets the chance to hear from the composition program. The University Orchestra, led by conductor Michael Pratt, presented an unusual collaboration with a University composer, combining vocal and orchestral performance with imaginative literature to create a full evening of music. The University Orchestra’s concert on Friday night (the program was repeated Saturday night) linked an innovative theatrical piece with three late 19th and early 20th-century giants.

Gilad Cohen, whose world premiere Dragon Mother opened the concert, is currently a Ph.D. candidate in composition at the University. It was fitting that the orchestra’s concert was started a bit earlier than usual to accommodate Dr. Cohen’s participation in the nearby Lewis Center for the Arts production of Kiss Me, Kate, as it was quite evident from the start of Dragon Mother that Cohen has a way with musical theater. The term “Dragon Mother” conjures many images these days, most recently as a mother pushing children to succeed at any cost. This was not at all the type of Dragon Mother librettist Sean Patterson had in mind; the fierce mother portrayed by soprano Martha Elliott was more over-protective than driven, surprised at her own overly-defensive qualities. Mr. Patterson’s text was very visual, and Ms. Elliott sent the text to the back of the hall, showing no trouble with the extensive and dramatic musical scenes. Uncharacteristically miked, Ms. Elliott sang with her usual clarity of tone and command of contemporary music, accompanied by a very rich orchestration. Especially at the end of the first section of text, one could imagine “spinning” visuals as the mother reflected back on her life and raising her daughter.

Cohen’s somewhat jazzy orchestration required precision from the instrumentalists, especially the winds. Principal oboist Bo-won Keum played an introspective solo in the opening section of the text, and lyrical trombone playing contrasted the more intense third section of text. Cohen gracefully depicted the passage of time on an English horn, played by Katrina Maxcy.

The Cohen piece in itself was a major accomplishment for the orchestra, but the ensemble did not stop there. Also featured in this performance were winners of the orchestra’s 2012 concerto competition. The concerti selected by the two winners, horn player Max Jacobson and violinist Caitlin Wood, were also challenging for the players and spellbinding for the audience. Mr. Jacobson, a senior at the University, played Richard Strauss’ Horn Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major as if he had known the piece all his life. With a father who was a horn player, Strauss composed well for the instrument, and the horn plays major roles in his tone poems. Mr. Jacobson started the concerto with clean hunting calls, following up with a lyrical, almost Mozartean melodic line. Ruth Ochs guest conducted this piece and she kept the tempo moving along, maintaining a triumphal character as light strings provided a subtle accompaniment. Mr. Jacobson played the solo line seamlessly as principal cellist Nathan Haley led the section in elegant playing which added to the orchestration. The solo line required a tremendous amount of air, but one would never have known it from Mr. Jacobson’s effortless playing.

Strauss’ orchestration can be bombastic in its rich Romantic texture, but not in the case of this concerto. The second movement in particular was marked by clean winds against pizzicato strings and a clean sectional cello line. In the third movement Allegro, Mr. Jacobson moved well through the quick solo line against playful interplay between two flutes.

The second soloist for the evening, sophomore violinist Caitlin Wood, who played Bartok’s Violin Concerto No. 2, commanded the stage like a real pro. Pratt started the concerto with a low rich sound in the violins and steady harp playing. The solo violin lines were disjunct, but did not sound it as Ms. Wood played with confidence. A gracefully climbing bassoon line was played by Louisa Slosar, with equally as agile lines from English horn player Drew Mayfield and hornist Kim Fried. The close of the first movement featured an impressive solo cadenza which picked up speed as Ms. Wood executed clean double stops.

These were two hefty concerti for the evening, and Mr. Pratt wisely chose to close the evening with a musical chance for the players to relax a bit in Copland’s El Salon Mexico. The trumpets had their chance to demonstrate crisp playing to infuse the work with its Mexican flavor, as the clarinets and bassoons played the rhythmic lines cleanly. As with any Princeton University Orchestra performance, the audience was heavily cheering on their friends, especially the soloists, as Mr. Pratt and the players brought this evening of challenging works to a close.

December 5, 2012

In every musical community there are unsung heroes who do not necessarily take the spotlight, but who, through their teachings over a long period of time, influence countless musicians. The Westminster Community Orchestra honored one of these individuals in a performance this past Sunday afternoon at Richardson Auditorium. Led by Conductor Ruth Ochs, the Community Orchestra presented music of Mozart and Brahms and paid tribute to long-time Westminster Choir College faculty member Phyllis Alpert Lehrer. A member of the Westminster piano faculty for the past 40 years, Ms. Lehrer showed her impressive performance capabilities in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor.

Throughout her 40-year association with Westminster Choir College, Ms. Lehrer has surely taught exactly the kind of musician who plays in the community orchestra. Often trained as professional musicians and working in other fields, these players rise to the challenge of the great orchestral masterworks. The collaboration between the orchestra and Ms. Lehrer brought out the best in everyone.

Ms. Lehrer began the first solo lines of the C minor concerto thoughtfully, with clean phrasing and chords. Deceptively delicate and reserved at the keyboard, Ms. Lehrer took off with the music in short order to display even fluidity in both hands over very rapid passages. Every note of the rolling lines was clear and audible, with elegant ends to phrases. Ms. Lehrer’s freely-composed cadenzas to the movements showed strength of hands, building drama through lyrical passages and interpolating a harmonic flavor leaning clearly toward Beethoven.

Ochs led the orchestra in an exacting accompaniment in which the players were exactly in time with the piano soloist. The wind sections gained confidence as the first movement progressed, with especially graceful playing from oboists Helen Ackley and Sandra Moskovitz and bassoonists Greg Rewoldt and Linda Balavram. Ms. Ackley and Mr. Rewoldt also had a number of solo passages which were well executed.

Ochs paired the Mozart work with another piece of celebratory nature, as well as a classical orchestral piece which the orchestra clearly enjoyed playing. Olga Gorelli’s Celebration was a one movement piece on an appropriate theme from a local composer, but was probably the hardest for the audience to grasp. Seemingly in two keys at once at times, Celebration had a joyous feel well conveyed by Ochs to the players. The more substantial and familiar work was Brahms’s Symphony No. 2 in D Major, a piece which the orchestra could sinks its collective teeth into with vigor.

Opening with a nice pastoral pair of horns played by Deborah Crow and Jan Fish Lewis, the Brahms symphony was full of rich melodies and Viennese lilt. In the first movement, the violas and celli presented the third melody smoothly, with a well-handled transition to passages of clean wind and pizzicato strings. Brahms symphonies require a great deal of musical intensity and stamina, and tuning did start to fade a bit in the middle movements, but the orchestra came back to life in the closing Allegro, taking the con spirito marking to heart. Throughout the symphony, the winds were very solid, ranging from oboes and bassoons to flutists Judy Singleton and Alexander Lissé, and clarinetists Daniel Beerbohm and Russ Labe. Ms. Singleton had a number of solo passages well played on the flute, joined by hornist Ms. Crow playing long Brahms melodies.

The Westminster Community Orchestra gives local musicians a chance to spread their wings a bit as a musical reprieve from their other lives. The chance to perform with a classic performer like Ms. Lehrer no doubt made the afternoon that much more special.

November 28, 2012

This season, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra has had a sponsorship partnership with Novo Nordisk, the Copenhagen-based pharmaceutical company. Given the location of Novo Nordisk’s home base in Denmark, it was fitting that the orchestra’s post-Thanksgiving concert would feature music from Scandinavia. Friday night’s concert at Richardson Auditorium included the winteresque music of Norwegian Edvard Grieg and Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, with a violin soloist who was anything but icy.

The orchestra set the scene for the Sibelius Concerto in D minor with a rich yet stark sound for Grieg’s In Autumn, a one-movement work depicting sighs of impending winter.  The winds in particular provided a warm sound, especially from oboist James Roe. Crisp rhythms from Mr. Roe and two flutes, as well as a trio of hunting horns, gave the impression of an open space of glacial scenery.

Young German violinist Augustin Hadelich took the Sibelius Concerto in D minor by storm, showing virtuosity and clarity in a performance which mesmerized the Richardson audience. Guest conductor Hans Graf began the concerto with a soft orchestral underpinning as Mr. Hadelich played a shimmering melody as if hovering over ice and snow. Playing a 1723 Stradivarius violin, Mr. Hadelich imparted a great deal of feeling into the first movement solo line, taking ample opportunity to put his individual stamp on the music. The solo violin was clearly the star of this concerto, joined by a very subtle clarinet solo by Karl Herman.

The grace and elegance of Mr. Hadelich was aided by the magnificent instrument he was playing. Clarity of tone rang up to the top of the register, allowing Mr. Hadelich to draw the audience into his web, especially during extended trills combined with double stops. When not playing, Mr. Hadelich intently listened to the music from the other musicians, closing the first movement with a lively and hypnotic cadenza. Through the rest of the concerto, pairs of instruments provided elegant contrast to the solo line, including from horn players Lucinda-Lewis and Andrea Menousek, clarinetists Karl Herman and Andrew Lamy, and oboists James Roe and Andrew Adelson.

Mr. Hadelich was popular enough with the Richardson audience to offer an agile Paganini encore, after which the orchestra moved on to a substantial piece in Johannes Brahms’s Symphony No. 3. The brass section announced the arrival of the symphony and Mr. Graf kept the tempo of the opening Allegro moving at a fast clip. The second iteration of the opening was stronger, contrasted by lighter and nimbler passages which showed Brahms’s Viennese roots. Mr. Graf closed the expansive first movement quietly, setting up well the pastoral Andante.

This second movement was mostly for the winds, with graceful celli and viola accompaniment. Mr. Graf and the orchestra brought out the familiar phrasing of this work well, taking little time between movements to keep the drama moving along. New Jersey Symphony closed the beloved Brahms work with crisp winds and horns in the quick-moving closing Allegro.

These day-after-Thanksgiving concerts by New Jersey Symphony have been as much a part of the holiday weekend as cranberry sauce for many years. For a brief couple of seasons, the orchestra chose not to present a Princeton concert on this weekend, but returned to the tradition, with great appreciation from the audience. It is clear that sometimes individuals just need a break from football and food to hear some great music.

November 14, 2012

The Westminster Choir spends much of its time on the road, and Princeton concerts of the select chamber ensemble from Westminster Choir College are rare treats. Conductor Joe Miller and the 40-voice chorus presented a diverse concert this past Sunday afternoon in their home base of Bristol Chapel on the Choir College campus. This year’s roster of the Westminster Choir showed that the ensemble is as precise and well-balanced as ever and showcased some talented soloists, but also showed that the vocal power of the chorus may be outgrowing the acoustics of Bristol Chapel.

November 22 is the feast day of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music, and Dr. Miller chose as a tribute one of the best settings of Cecilian texts in Benjamin Britten’s Hymn to St. Cecilia. As Dr. Miller explained in his introductory remarks, the tripartite piece reflects Britten as organist, choral composer, and orchestrator, and the Westminster Choir conveyed all three of these musical personalities well. The women’s sections were well-tuned from the start, with pure octaves between sopranos and tenor on the “Blessed Cecilia” refrain which divides the sections.

This piece includes five solos, the most extensive of which was sung by soprano Madeline Apple Healey with a clear sound floating above the soprano and alto parts. Soprano Anna Lenti had the honor of singing the highest solo, lightly reaching up toward high “Cs” with ease. Bass Brandon Waddles and alto Mary Hewlett sang with confidence and assurance, and tenor Jeffrey Cutts displayed an impressive body of sound. Throughout Britten’s Hymn, the chorus showed precision in text and nice dynamic touches, although the bass sectional sound was just a bit unrefined in the lower registers compared to the other sections (this sound smoothed out in later selections on the program).

The Westminster Choir warmed up for the Britten on pieces well within the ensemble’s choral wheelhouse. An emphasis on consonants and well-matched soprano sections marked Tomas Luis de Victoria’s “Kyrie” from Missa Alma Redemptoris, which flowed seamlessly into Gustav Holst’s Nunc Dimittis. The highest notes of the Holst piece were sung with such vocal force that one got the impression that maybe the choir could use a venue with more spacious acoustics (certainly one with more seating, based on Sunday’s turnout). The choir’s performance of Bach’s motet Der Geist hilft unsrer Schwachheit auf sustained a nice flow, aided by John Hudson playing the continuo part on the piano.

Despite all the professional engagements of the Westminster Choir, these are college students, and students like to have fun. Dr. Miller gave the singers a chance to let their hair down in a set of French pieces which provided opportunity for a bit of acting. In the set of six French songs by four diverse composers from different ages, the choir created a storyline, dividing themselves into three different groups and interpreting the text with humorous characterization. Sung from memory, all of these pieces were performed with well-tapered phrases and crisp diction, with the Lauridsen “En Une Seule Fleur” and familiar Renaissance “Mon Coeur se recommande à vous” smoothly performed. In the closing Jean Rivier piece (arranged by Dr. Miller), Myles Glancy provided a suave baritone to convey the 16th-century text. The choir closed the set with a lively arrangement of a 1920s cabaret tune.

Westminster Choir programs tend to close with very upbeat selections, geared toward leaving tour audiences something high-spirited with which to go home. The most unique of the closing selections on Sunday was Haitian composer Sydney Guillaume’s “Kalinda,” a rousing song designed to incite the crowds to dance. Haitian choral arrangements tend to include a great deal of text and instrumental effects and the choir demonstrated both effectively. Most impressive about the last number on the program was its composition by a Westminster student; Brandon Waddles’ Ride in the Chariot was an uplifting and spiritual arrangement sung with great enthusiasm to audience response akin to a football game. Tenors Kyle von Schoonhoven and Justin Su’esu’e led the chorus with full and rich voices to close the concert in a more than upbeat mood.

November 7, 2012

No one can argue that Princeton has had a rough time this past week. Numerous events in the community were cancelled, with future concerts and lectures in doubt. Princeton Symphony Orchestra put on a Herculean effort this past week to gather its musicians together, and with the cooperation of Princeton University, presented its November concert as scheduled this past Sunday afternoon at Richardson Auditorium. Where the orchestra rehearsed this program remains a mystery, with all the power outages in the area, but with a few adjustments to the repertoire and the tremendous commitment of the players, Princeton residents were offered a musical respite from sitting in dark unheated houses. Sunday afternoon’s concert was originally to include Aaron Jay Kernis’ cello concerto Colored Field, paired with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. Because of the limited rehearsal time, Music Director Rossen Milanov replaced the Kernis work with two smaller pieces reflecting the lush, Romantic, yet high-spirited mood of Scheherazade.

Scheherazade tells the story of a brave Persian queen and in keeping with music about women who can stand on their own, Mr. Milanov began the concert with a one-movement “Bacchanale” about one of the greatest women of the Bible. Camille Saint-Saëns “Bacchanale” from his 1877 opera Samson and Delilah suggests debauchery and sensuality and oboist Rita Mitsel opened the piece with a slinky exotic instrumental solo. Ms. Mitsel, English horn player Nathan Mills, clarinetist Alexander Bedenko, and flutist Jayn Rosenfeld provided a transformed opening theme full of such exotic flavor that one expected a snake charmer to appear. Especially light strings came into their own with the full and rich second theme, contrasted by harp. Mr. Milanov led the players through clean transitions among sections, building the complexity of the piece to a closing frenzy.

Refocusing the concert on 19th-century European music with Eastern influence, Mr. Milanov included a work with which he is thoroughly comfortable and which was probably relaxing for the musicians to play in a week full of stress. Alexander Borodin’s “Polovtsian Dances” from the opera Prince Igor began with gentler winds than the previous work, and the familiar “Stranger in Paradise” tune elegantly played by oboist Ms. Mitsel. This tune recurred in several solo instruments, including clarinet and English horn, with the orchestra moving smoothly from one dance to the next. Throughout this piece, and certainly in the subsequent Rimsky-Korsakov work, clarinetist Alexander Bedenko showed himself to be an understated yet very intent player, providing very quick phrases in the “Dances.” Percussion plays a large role in both this work and Scheherazade, and the six-member percussion and timpani section was precise with rhythms and exact in punctuating other instrumental playing.

Scheherazade is also full of great tunes, but scored in a much more forceful manner. The brass sections of the Princeton Symphony immediately set the tone of “The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship,” while the character of Scheherazade recurred as a violin solo, played by concertmistress Basia Danilow. Ms. Danilow’s mournful opening solo emerged elegantly out of the orchestral texture, accompanied by Andre Tarantiles on the harp. Throughout the piece, Ms. Danilow took all the time she needed for rubato and ends of phrases, becoming saucier as Scheherazade manipulated the Sultan to spare her own life. Mr. Tarantiles’s delicate harp accompaniment played a large role throughout the piece, and a number of instrumental soloists stepped up with very clean playing. One does not often hear bassoon solos, which Seth Baer provided in the second movement, and Ms. Mitsel and Mr. Bedenko continued their effective playing. An elegant second trombone solo (also unusual orchestration) was heard from Tom Hutchinson, and cellist Alistair MacRae provided very clean solo passages.

In the four movements of this work, Ms. Danilow played with character and style, including numerous double stops in the fourth movement around swirling winds. Mr. Milanov conducted this piece from memory, showing his comfort zone with the work. Getting this performance to the actual stage may have been a challenge, but once performers and audience were in place, everyone seemed to be very glad to be there.