March 4, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Social Justice in the Arts and Humanities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 18, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 11, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 21, 2015
Joyce Grenfell

Joyce Grenfell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 14, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 24, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 10, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

December 3, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

November 26, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

November 19, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the past two weeks, two very different piano soloists have tackled very different works on the Richardson Auditorium stage. Last week, 19th century musical pathos and drama was shown by Russian pianist Natasha Paremski in Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto. A more delicate sense of drama was featured last Friday night as the young French pianist Lise de la Salle joined the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra for Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat Major. Led by guest conductor Eugene Tzigane, Ms. De la Salle and the orchestra played a well-balanced and stylish concerto, full of sparkling musical dialog between pianist and instrumentalists.

As piano soloist, Ms. de la Salle showed nicely contained flair, with very flexible trills, strong hands, and the totally right effect for 18th-century piano-forte music. Principal oboist Robert Ingliss was kept busy throughout the night with small solo lines, but particularly in the Mozart work, in which he frequently answered the pianist with completions of phrases or the same lines in a different instrumental color. Especially in the first movement Allegro, Ms. de la Salle demonstrated a great deal of fun in playing, with a very lyrical closing cadenza.

Conductor Tzigane also kept the orchestra nicely contained in 18th-century style, bringing out the martial character of the first movement contrasting against the solemnity of the second movement. The players of the NJSO maintained a particularly effective intensity in the second movement, as Ms. de la Salle brought out the lyricism and sensitivity in the concerto. Both orchestra and soloist emphasized the humor in the third movement Rondo, with the winds adding to the courtly minuet. Throughout the concerto, Ms. de la Salle demonstrated great poise, showing herself to be musically wise well beyond her years.

Mr. Tzigane created an “Evening of Vienna” in combining the Mozart concerto with works by Johann Strauss and Franz Schubert. Both of these composers are known for melodic lyricism and capturing the lightheartedness of late 18th-century and early 19th-century Vienna. The two Strauss works performed — Artist’s Life Waltz and the overture to Die Fledermaus — are inherently lively and spirited. Mr. Tzigane led Artist’s Life Waltz, which opened the concert, in a surprisingly slow tempo, and the work felt like it wanted to speed up throughout the performance. The closing Fledermaus overture was more in the sense of a high-energy operetta excerpt, with Mr. Tzigane well in control of the Viennese flavor.

Schubert’s Symphony No. 3 in D Major is rooted in the Classical tradition of the 18th century, and the significant amount of nimble wind activity added to the character. Mr. Ingliss, as well as flutist Bart Feller and clarinetist Karl Herman, carried the flair in the galloping, dotted-rhythm opening movement. Conducting from memory, Mr. Tzigane clearly enjoyed himself during this work, as themes chased each other in tag-team style around the stage among the players. The second movement Allegretto was particularly graceful, with Mr. Ingliss and Mr. Herman playing sensitive melodies against pizzicato celli and double basses. Mr. Ingliss was joined by principal bassoonist Robert Wagner for a graceful duet in the third movement.

Throughout last Friday night’s performance, Mr. Tzigane showed himself to be very comfortable with audience interaction, as well as the repertory selected for the concert. His familiarity with the music no doubt facilitated his guest conducting role, communicating well with the players throughout. Based on the audience response to Friday night’s performance, Mr. Tzigane would be a welcome guest in Princeton anytime.

 

November 5, 2014

When studying in Bulgaria, Princeton Symphony Orchestra Music Director Rossen Milanov likely found Russian music and culture abundant. Judging from Sunday afternoon’s Princeton Symphony Orchestra’s concert at Richardson Auditorium featuring music of Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky, Mr. Milanov has clearly developed an affinity for the music of that part of the world. Another side of 21st-century Russia was presented in pianist Natasha Paremski, who was featured in Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor.

Ms. Paremski is part of a new generation of Russian performers who have combined the solid classical musical training for which Russia is known with the flair and elegance of contemporary fashion and style. From the opening piano chords of Tchaikovsky’s monumental concerto, Ms. Paremski played with supreme confidence, showing both astounding technique and consummate musicality. Following the very clean horn fanfare that opened the first movement, Ms. Paremski played the concerto as if she owned it (she recorded this work two years ago with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra), perfectly timed with the orchestra and sensitive to musical dialogues with instrumental soloists.

From the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, the soloist was accompanied by a variety of well-executed sonorities, including a smooth wind quartet of clarinets and bassoons in the first movement, clarinet and oboe duet in the second movement (played by Pascal Archer and Nicholas Masterson, respectively) and flutist Chelsea Knox playing graceful solos against fiendish passages from the piano. Mr. Milanov kept the three movements of the concerto moving along, adroitly traversing the abrupt changes in mood.

Mr. Milanov kept a Russian theme in the concert by pairing the Tchaikovsky concerto with a Stravinsky work which was more abstract but just as Russian in flavor and background. Stravinsky’s 1947 orchestral suite Petrushka was as intricate as the Tchaikovsky concerto was dramatic, with quirky solos and driving rhythms foreshadowing the more revolutionary later works of Stravinsky.

Petrushka is a set of four tableaux, originally composed as a ballet and later adapted by the composer as an orchestral suite. As one might expect from a Stravinsky work, there was a great deal of activity for the winds, with sonorities that were surely unique for the time. Clarinetist Pascal Archer was joined by bass clarinetist Rie Suzuki Huebner in octaves against pizzicato strings and light percussion, and throughout the suite, edgy solos from English hornist Nathan Mills provided an element of spookiness to the performance. Solo bassoon, played by Brad Balliett, added to the quirky musical palette, especially when combined with a well-played pair of muted trumpets from Jerry Bryant and Thomas Cook. Percussion played a significant role, with drum rolls bridging the tableaux. Timpanist Jeremy Levine and percussionist Phyllis Bitow (playing xylophone) were especially key in keeping rhythms precise.

Although the concert was titled “Classically Russian,” the subtheme was a tribute to the 18th-century commedia dell’arte tradition, and Mr. Milanov introduced this theme with a bit of musical détente — American composer William Bolcom’s Commedia for (Almost) 18th Century Orchestra. Linked with a current Princeton Art Museum exhibit, this work suited the Princeton Symphony well with its unique orchestration. Mr. Milanov used the space of Richardson well, placing horns on either side of the stage and in the balcony to create an antiphonal effect. Bolcom’s music was as quirky as Stravinsky’s orchestral suite, but in a different way — passages of 18th-century refinement were contrasted with dissonance and percussive effects from the instruments. This work, combined with the Tchaikovsky concerto and Stravinsky suite, showed the Princeton Symphony Orchestra to be off to a good start with musical precision this season.

 

October 29, 2014

As Princeton Pro Musica Artistic Director Ryan James Brandau wrote in his program notes to Sunday afternoon’s concert, his first two years with the ensemble deliberately excluded the lush choral music of German Romantic music. Dr. Brandau and the 100-voice Pro Musica Chamber Chorus took a trip through this repertory on Sunday afternoon at Richardson Auditorium, showing the range of compositional style and musical emotion from the turn of the 19th century to the turn of the 20th.

Dr. Brandau warmed up the audience with a solo violinist and orchestra, as Owen Dalby played the Romance in G by Ludwig van Beethoven. Beginning with clean double-stops, Mr. Dalby made the intricate but lyrical melody sound easy, maintaining a graceful dialog with the orchestra. Dr. Brandau kept things within a Classical framework, conducting a well-balanced orchestral ensemble. With Mr. Dalby providing a rich lower register of his instrument and broad musical strokes from the orchestra, this Romance closed in a stately manner.

This season’s Pro Musica Chamber Chorus made their first appearance to sing excerpts from Johannes Brahms’ light and spirited Liebeslieder Walzer. The sound suffered a bit from the space differential; the chorus was at the back of the hall with Eric Plutz and James Sparks playing piano four-hands as Dr. Brandau conducted from the front of the hall. Dr. Brandau maintained the same Classical lilt begun in the Beethoven work, with nicely blended men beginning the first excerpt. The seven of the 18 Walzers performed were not sung too fast, and the men in particular showed precise singing in “Am Donaustrande.” Soprano Blythe Quelin was featured in one of the Walzer, singing with a self-assured rich sound, especially in the lower register. Conducting without a baton, Dr. Brandau elicited clean diction and precise cadences from the chorus.

Dr. Brandau has continued the Pro Musica tradition of presenting orchestral works on a choral program, but rather than a large orchestral piece contrasting with a choral/orchestral work, Dr. Brandau interspersed smaller works within the program. Beethoven and Felix Mendelssohn both composed programmatic pieces based on Goethe’s poem “Meeresstille und Glückliche Fahrt” (“Calm Sea and Successful Voyage”) — Beethoven for chorus and orchestra and Mendelssohn for orchestra alone. The accompanying orchestra to Pro Musica presented Mendelssohn’s Meeresstille und Glückliche Fahrt with the calm of the sea evident from the start in the strings. Mendelssohn added winds sparingly, with four-note solos speaking well from the wind players. Dr. Brandau maintained an effective flow to the music, as the sea rose and fell with a finality of a clean trio of trumpets.

In contrast, the calm of the sea in Beethoven’s setting came from the full chorus of Pro Musica, immediately setting the mood as more reverent. The singers of Pro Musica brought out the imaginative setting of the text about the lack of wind on the sea, and came to life as the “waves part and the distance draws nearer.” This piece contained a great deal of drama and tension which was difficult to maintain, especially with the sopranos on a high “A” for an extended period of time.

Dr. Brandau journeyed to the end of the 19th century with Gustav Mahler’s solo song, “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,” sung by guest mezzo-soprano Sarah Nelson Craft. Mahler wrote luxuriantly for mezzo-sopranos, and scored this song particularly sensitively with accompanying English horn, played by Nathan Mills. Mahler’s music often falls into the depths, and Ms. Craft rose well vocally out of the deep, singing reflectively yet without despair. The instrumental combination of Mr. Mills, harpist Andre Tarantiles, and bassoonist Seth Baer brought elegant sonorities to accompany the solo voice. Mahler was a master of orchestration, and the English horn was the perfect sonority to combine with Ms. Craft’s rich voice.

The full chorus of Pro Musica joined forces again to close the concert with Brahms’s orchestrally accompanied choral song Schicksalslied. The lushness of this piece was well suited for Pro Musica’s forces, and the choral sound unfolded well. Although the sopranos sounded a bit stretched in the upper registers, an a cappella cadence was well handled by the entire chorus toward the end of the piece.

This concert was somewhat unusual in that it was not totally about the whole of Pro Musica — the full chorus only sang two small pieces, with a third of the program given over to orchestral works. As this new season embarks, audiences can hopefully look forward to hearing Princeton Pro Musica at its fullest.

 

October 22, 2014
REHEARSAL WOES: Harry (Adam Green), in the title role, is surprised to find that his jilted ex-fiancee Roxanne (Danielle Skraastad) is the stage manager, running the understudy rehearsal - and that's just one of many mishaps that ensue in McCarter Theatre's production of Theresa Rebeck's "The Understudy," playing at McCarter's Matthews Theatre through November 2.

REHEARSAL WOES: Harry (Adam Green), in the title role, is surprised to find that his jilted ex-fiancee Roxanne (Danielle Skraastad) is the stage manager, running the understudy rehearsal – and that’s just one of many mishaps that ensue in McCarter Theatre’s production of Theresa Rebeck’s “The Understudy,” playing at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre through November 2.

Theresa Rebeck’s The Understudy (2008) is a comical, 90-minute, one-act depiction of life in the theater. The setting is a theater during a special rehearsal to help prepare the new understudy for a Broadway premiere of a recently discovered work by Franz Kafka. On the big stage at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre through November 2, The Understudy presents a humorous and affectionate representation of two actors and their stage manager — all under unusual personal and occupational stresses.

From the opening sound of a gunshot until the final curtain, high tension and multiple mishaps, both human and technical, proliferate. It’s a funny play, with some razor sharp wit, clever dialogue, and rich comical situations evolving as rehearsal and personal relationships progress. Ms. Rebeck is also delivering an indictment of the American Theater’s obsession with celebrity and the debilitating, dehumanizing effects of that obsession on the dedicated artists who continue the work they love as actors, stage managers, and other theater artists. The fact that the play-within-the-play is a lost work by Franz Kafka helps to ensure that the comedy served here will at times be dark and satirical.

This production, under the resourceful direction of Adam Immerwahr, in his first time directing on a McCarter main stage, merges a dynamically interesting, energetic, and talented cast of three with an extravagantly engaging set design and dazzling production values. What the script may lack in depth or development of plot and characters, this vibrant trio of experienced young actors, along with Eugene Lee’s fascinating, frequently moving set as a fourth character, provide to successfully capture the audience’s attention and interest.

The central metaphor here compares these anxious, isolated actors to characters from Kafka’s stories, particularly The Trial and The Castle — placed in mysterious, surreal situations, controlled by irrational forces in a dark, absurd world where there is no choice but to forge ahead. In The Understudy those tyrannical, invisible, offstage forces include not just the Hollywood-driven financial powers of the acting hierarchy and the whims of the businessmen producers, but also the erratic behavior of a stoned light board operator with her abundant supply of wheeling and flying scenery and special effects. Roxanne, the stage manager character, and her two actors, Harry and Jake, are, of course, also subject to the vicissitudes of human behavior in the tangles of a romantic triangle of sorts.

As the McCarter program points out, however, “everything you need to know about Kafka to enjoy The Understudy is “nothing at all …” Despite Kafka’s brooding black and white visage and a greatly enlarged page from an edited manuscript hanging over the stage, profundity, character exploration, and plot development are not priorities here. Comedy and a fascinating, quirky glimpse at the creative process of theater are the order of the day for this show, and the opening-night audience responded with abundant laughter from start to finish.

In the role of Harry the understudy, Adam Green establishes a winning rapport with the audience in his brilliantly funny, satiric, psychologically-revealing opening monologue. He continues to navigate skillfully the difficulties of the journeyman actor confronting first Jake (JD Taylor), his rival “Hollywood” scene counterpart, then Roxanne (Danielle Skraastad), his stage manager/boss, who also happens to be the woman he jilted just two weeks before their scheduled wedding. Mr. Green, who played Figaro in last spring’s acclaimed McCarter productions of The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro, is charming and sympathetic in his frustrations (“I mean it’s not — and it’s not that I’m bitter. People look at you; they say oh he’s an actor who’s not liked so he must be kind of bitter, and I am, I am bitter, but that doesn’t mean that movies don’t suck …”) — an ideal guide to lead us into the crazy backstage world of actors and the rehearsal process.

Mr. Taylor’s Jake, a screen star known for his roles in action movies, commands $2 million for his film roles, yet remains at the mercy of bigger Hollywood names and ruthless producers. His conventional good looks and dashing presence have gone a long way for Jake, who knows how to draw a gun with panache and apparently reached the apex of his career with his recent movie line: “Get on the truck!” Mr. Taylor persuasively embodies both the much mocked matinee idol/action movie star and also a more sympathetic actor coming to terms with a challenging stage role, two psychologically complex colleagues and the realities of life in the theater.

Ms. Skraastad’s Roxanne is commanding and larger than life as stage manager and woman scorned. She battles valiantly against the forces of fate and theatrical mischance to try to keep the rehearsal and her life moving forward. Harry explains that “the stage manager is the one person in the theater you’re supposed to be able to count on to keep her head. That’s the job description: to always have six kinds of duct tape, a pencil sharpener, Band-Aids, and a cool head” — but under the circumstances the cool head is too much to expect. Roxanne is understandably, comically flummoxed in her struggles with the intoxicated light board operator, the actors and the producers on the phone — not to mention the unexpected appearance of her ex-fiancé. With her air of authority, barely covering fierce anger and hysteria, she is funny and admirably convincing.

Mr. Lee’s set uses the immense Matthews stage and many of its accessories to full advantage, representing, and at the same time exaggerating and satirizing, the excesses of the big-budget Broadway show. With dozens of lighting instruments on all sides, a giant wind machine, melodramatic music and sound effects, picturesque onstage precipitation, a ghost light at center stage, a vast “Broadway-style” proscenium arch complete with golden-harp motif, along with a variety of set pieces wheeling on and off, and huge backdrops of a study, a tavern, and a dungeon — this animated set creates a comedy of its own. And of course there’s the face and manuscript of Kafka hanging at center stage above this Kafka-esque world. A large, well-equipped stage manager’s table in the front section amidst the orchestra seats provides Roxanne with a command post from which she vainly attempts to rein in the chaos of this rehearsal. The much acclaimed Mr. Lee, designer of The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and at Saturday Night Live since 1974, has designed many Broadway shows, including the current long-running musical Wicked.

Kafka, who, supposedly, actually wrote a play that no longer exists and whose aura does pervade The Understudy and the play-within-the-play, once stated: “There is plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope in the universe — but not for us.” In the end, however, Ms. Rebeck’s indomitable characters and her comedic perspective on the underbelly of the theater world, succeed in transcending the hopelessness and leaving us with a joyful affirmation of life and theater.

With a sea of musicians on the Richardson Auditorium stage, the Princeton University Orchestra launched its new season this past weekend with a concert of lush and Romantic music featuring two exceptional soloists. By the end of Friday night’s concert (the performance was repeated Saturday night), conductor Michael Pratt was understandably proud of how the students rose to the challenge of this year’s opening night.

The works on the program were linked by their use of indigenous music as well as concerto structure. The piano concerto of Edvard Grieg and bass clarinet concerto of Jonathan Russell were clear in the role of the solo instruments, but more veiled was the structure of George Gershwin’s Cuban Overture as a concerto for the unique percussion instruments Gershwin encountered in his travels to the Caribbean nation. Collectively, the members of the orchestra clearly had a good time as the musical school year got off to a joyous start.

Sophomore Marc Fishman was a winner of last year’s Princeton University Orchestra Concerto Competition, saving his prize-winning performance for this season. With its opening chords and flowing arpeggios, Edvard Grieg’s 1868 Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16 is recognizable, and challenging for a performer of any age. From the start, Mr. Fishman took his time on the decisive chords and sinuous solo passages, maintaining a thoughtful and exacting approach to the music. Grieg was inspired by Schumann in the composition of this three-movement work, and the music well reflects the luxurious orchestral writing and keyboard virtuosity of the late Romantics of northern Europe and Russia. Mr. Fishman executed light playing of the opening passages and found the playfulness of the second theme, with both drama and delicacy in the cadenza which closed the first movement.

Mr. Pratt wisely allowed the piano soloist to dictate some of the pacing of the concerto, and built the accompanying orchestral swells effectively. The University Orchestra showed itself in strong form throughout the concerto, from a lyrical sectional cello melody in the first movement to the majestic and lush third movement. Within the orchestra, elegant instrumental solos were provided by flutist Marcelo Rochabrun and hornist Bryan Jacobowitz.

A different kind of concerto style was heard from Jonathan Russell’s Concerto for Bass Clarinet, performed by the orchestra in a world premiere. Mr. Russell, currently a PhD candidate in composition at Princeton, has composed a work which seeks to show a “virtuostically wide range of colors and approaches to the instrument.” In composing this work, Mr. Russell emphasized all the bass clarinet’s unique musical effects, including the instrument’s “altissimo” passages and the use of “throat harmonics,” a technique he describes as “changes in throat position to create buzzy overtones of the fundamental pitch in the manner of a throat singer.”

Mr. Russell began the solo line of his concerto with a single held note, played with minimal vibrato, hauntingly accompanied by strings. The concerto proved to be an appealing work to hear, often with a melancholy reminiscence of Samuel Barber’s orchestral works. Mr. Russell moved easily through all the registers of the instrument, incorporating funk and jazz styles in long melodic lines. The orchestra played a solid rhythmic ostinato, broken by occasional instrumental solos. With an extended cadenza that was more of a meditation than a standard 19th-century cadenza, this work succeeded in introducing the audience to the full capabilities of a unique instrument.

Bracketing these two concerti were sprightly works by Antonin Dvorak and George Gershwin. In the opening work of the program, the University Orchestra brought out well Dvorak’s gift for melody in Carnival Overture, Op. 90, and the augmented percussion section seemed to have the best time in Gershwin’s Cuban Overture. After three lush works, Gershwin’s one-movement Overture was as fun as it should have been, with maracas, bongos, a gourd, and claves spicing up the rhythm. This piece seemed to be a concerto for Cuban instruments, and Mr. Pratt and the players took a sufficiently saucy approach to close the concert in high spirits.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 24, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

 

September 18, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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