A crisp and sunny fall afternoon on Sunday contradicted the unifying theme among the works presented by the Princeton Symphony Orchestra this past weekend. Led by Music Director Rossen Milanov, the Princeton Symphony performed three pieces focused on “notions of death and the eternal,” two by Romantic composer Richard Strauss and one by contemporary American composer Aaron Jay Kernis. Despite the dark themes and intense musical tone, the Princeton Symphony played with sensitivity and continuous focus through some very challenging music.
Aaron Jay Kernis composed the three-movement Colored Field in 1994 as a concerto for English horn and orchestra. Rooted in the tragedy of World War II as interpreted by the composer himself through visits to Auschwitz and Birkenau, Colored Field uses the solo instrument as a voice of anguish. Following the work’s premiere, Mr. Kernis rescored the piece for solo cello and orchestra, and this was the version the Princeton Symphony brought to Richardson Auditorium Sunday afternoon. Joining the Symphony was soloist Susan Babini, principal cellist of The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and soloist in this piece’s East Coast premiere with Mr. Milanov’s other ensemble, Symphony in C. As solo cello has often represented a voice of pathos to composers, Ms. Babini had no trouble conveying the despairing vocal character of Mr. Kernis’ work.
Ms. Babini began Colored Field with a somewhat light but definitely intense tone, conveying simplicity while maintaining a musical dialog with oboist Rita Mitsel. The Princeton Symphony cleanly played the many repeated patterns in the first movement, as the solo cello line blended well into the orchestral fabric, but just a step or two apart from the ensemble in character.
Despite the complexities of the Kernis piece, the audience persevered in catching every nuance and musical gesture. Mr. Milanov kept conducting patterns strict, so that there was no question for the players as to where Colored Fields was going. The sound was rather harrowing at times in effect, and elegant wind solos (including from clarinetist Alexander Bedenko and bass clarinetist Sherry Hartman Apgar) were so well submerged in the texture that one had to look hard to see where the player was. Through it all, Ms. Babini maintained firm control over the intricate music, meeting both the virtuosic demands and the call for sweet melodic lines.
Mr. Milanov paired the Kernis piece with two programmatic works of the pioneering 19th-century composer Richard Strauss. Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration) is one of Strauss’ most well-known symphonic poems, a form which Strauss brought to a zenith with lush orchestrations and unique combinations of instruments. Although based on a somewhat depressing story line (a man’s final days), Death and Transfiguration ends in uplifting fashion.
The symphonic poem began peacefully, with stylish wind solos, especially by Ms. Mitsel, accompanied by harpist Andre Tarantiles. An identical melodic fragment passed among players, from oboe to flutist Chelsea Knox, English horn player Nathan Mills, and concertmistress Basia Danilow. Notwithstanding the lavish orchestration, the work never sounded thick, with melodies clearly heard. This being Strauss, there was a heavy emphasis on brass in the texture, and the brass sections of the Princeton Symphony played cleanly, never allowing the music to become bombastic.
Mr. Milanov kept an even flow to the music, bringing out the heroic character which is inherent in many Strauss symphonic poems. The Princeton Symphony extended this flow into frenzy in the closing work on Sunday’s program — “Salome’s Dance” from Strauss’ opera Salome. This high-spirited operatic excerpt began with a brisk Middle Eastern musical effect, with a snake-charmer melody from Ms. Mitsel, who carried the bulk of the melodic work of the piece. Rich unison upper strings contrasted with steady celli and harp, and Strauss’ unusual percussion effects added to the seductive character. Mr. Milanov whipped the Princeton Symphony into an appropriate frenzy, but the music always gracefully returned to the Middle Eastern melodies from the winds.
These three works may have been rooted in concepts of death, but Sunday afternoon’s program by the Princeton Symphony was subtitled “Eternal Light,” recognizing the optimism beneath each piece. This was a very challenging program for the players, who more than rose to the occasion, but may well have felt they had been through the “Dance of the Seven Veils” themselves by the end.