January 9, 2012

For the past four years, William H. Scheide has celebrated his birthday by indulging two of his passions: Music and philanthropy. This year, the noted nonegenarian (he turns 98 January 6), adds another of his interests to the mix. Mr. Scheide is a famed bibliophile, and he and his wife Judith McCartin Scheide will donate the proceeds of this year’s birthday concert on Friday, January 27, to the Princeton Public Library.

“It’s a perfect fit,” says Linda David Pizzico, who is producing the concert. “It’s a marriage between his love of books and his love of music.”

Tickets are $35 for the 8 p.m. concert, which will be led by Mark Laycock, former conductor of the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, with stellar soloists Jaime Laredo on violin and Sharon Robinson on cello. The Vienna Chamber Orchestra and the Russian Chamber Chorus of New York complete the bill, which will feature the Overture to Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, Brahms’s Concerto for Violin and Cello in A Minor, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 and Mr. Laycock’s special birthday arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.

Mr. and Mrs. Scheide are longtime benefactors of the Princeton Public Library. Books have been a passion for Mr. Scheide since childhood. His family founded the Scheide Library, which includes books and manuscripts collected by three generations. Today, the Scheide Library is housed at Princeton University’s Firestone Library, and it contains copies of the first four Bibles ever printed, materials on the invention and history of printing, and prized musical manuscripts by Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, and Wagner, to name a few.

Mr. Scheide has also made gifts to libraries at Princeton Theological Seminary, Westminster Choir College, and the Seed School in Washington, D.C. as well as the Bodleian libraries at Oxford University.

Music came into Mr. Scheide’s life early. His father played piano and his mother sang. He began piano lessons at age six, and soon took up the organ as well. He graduated from Princeton University in 1936 and earned a master’s degree at Columbia University four years later. His thesis topic was “What Happened to Bach’s Music in the First Century After his Death.” Mr. Scheide taught at Cornell University for two years, playing the oboe with a group of amateur musicians who performed an all-Bach repertory. He founded the Bach Aria Group in 1946 to bring some of his music that was virtually unknown to a wider audience, and was its director until 1980.

A concern for human rights has also figured highly in Mr. Scheide’s life. He played a vital role in advancing the goals of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Past concerts honoring his birthday have benefitted Princeton Healthcare System, the Arts Council of Princeton, Centurion Ministries and Isles, Inc.

The Scheides don’t limit their sponsorship of arts events to the annual January concerts. The couple also host musical events each summer. But the birthday concert is clearly a highlight and a focus. “They do this instead of throwing a birthday bash, and every year a community organization is selected as a recipient,” says Ms. Pizzico. “This is going to be a great concert, with a packed stage. We’re hoping for packed seating as well.”

December 15, 2011

In his more than twenty-five years conducting the Princeton University Orchestra and directing the Program in Musical Performance, Michael Pratt has no doubt seen a number of his students go on to undertake careers in music. One of the department’s early success stories has been Hobart Earle, a 1983 graduate of the University (only six years after Pratt’s arrival) and now an international conductor with a long-term post in the Ukrainian city of Odessa. Mr. Earle returned to Princeton this past weekend to conduct his alma mater’s orchestra in a program of expansive symphonic works.

Mr. Earle programmed three works composed within twenty years of one another, and each one painted a picture of a geographic region or musical era. The selections from Edvard Grieg’s music from Peer Gynt were likely more familiar to the audience from their piano transcriptions, and effectively told a story from Norwegian folklore. This music was characterized by the playwright as reflecting “apathy,” but there was nothing apathetic about the orchestra’s performance on Friday night in Richardson Auditorium (the concert was repeated on Saturday night). Mr. Earle proved right off to be a very decisive conductor, conducting without the score but with very broad conducting strokes. In the opening excerpt, he focused on the lament, emphasizing that it was clear something had happened beforehand. Steady timpani provided by Karis Schneider kept the rhythm moving forward, aided by clean upper flutes, cellos, and double basses. The melodic “Morning Mood” tune was well played by the flute, answered by oboist Drew Mayfield, and kept instrumentally lush by Mr. Earle. Flexibility was the key in the “Hall of the Mountain King” excerpt, with the staccato passages played cleanly and with direction by the ensemble.

Erik Satie’s three Gymnopedies were also originally composed for piano, with two later orchestrated by Satie’s great friend Claude Debussy. Being Debussy, one might expect a multi-palette orchestration with many winds, but in fact, the pieces are scored for strings, one oboe and two flutes. In presenting these works, Mr. Earle kept the focus on simplicity and a gentle approach, allowing the sound to float along. Crucial to Friday night’s performance was the exemplary oboe playing of Alexa McCall against a pair of horns. The second Gymnopedie was titled “Lent et grave,” with subtle shifts in effect that were well brought out by Mr. Earle and the orchestra.

Mr. Earle brought the orchestra to full volume with Johannes Brahms’s Symphony No. 3 in F Major, a monumental work with a great deal of dynamic variety in the writing. Conducting from memory (as he did all the pieces on the program), Mr. Earle maintained an easy flow to the music (aided by very subtle and precise brass), bringing the dynamics up at the end of the movement to be solid but not overwhelming. Clarinetist Jeffrey Hodes delivered an elegant melody in the first movement, in conjunction with very smooth flute playing by the section.

The second andante movement opened with very delicate playing by Mr. Hodes and fellow clarinetist Matt Goff and bassoonists Louisa Slosar and Tiffany Huang. Wind playing excelled in this movement, especially from the four oboes and perfect unison playing between Mr. Hodes and oboist Lija Treibergs. Mr. Earle kept the melody of the third movement flowing with emphasis on the offbeat phrasing, bringing out the warmth of the movement with well-blended instrumental solos. Throughout the concert, Mr. Earle held a baton, but often put it aside to move the music more effectively with his hands. This was especially the case in the allegro fourth movement, in which he allowed the orchestra to play almost on its own.

In his 19 years with the Odessa Philharmonic Orchestra in the Ukraine, Mr. Earle has been credited with introducing the region to the great symphonies of composers the rest of the world may take for granted but which may have been unknown to the closed musical circles of Ukraine. Mr. Earle seems to be one of the unknown conducting gems in this country, and as a representative of Princeton, the University could not ask for a better musical ambassador.

December 8, 2011

The PavilionCraig Wright’s The Pavilion, currently playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus, is a play about time. At their 20th high school reunion, Peter (Matt Seely) and Kari (Katherine Ortmeyer), who were voted “cutest couple” before she got pregnant and he left while she stayed in town and settled down, encounter each other for the first time since graduation.

Peter wants another chance. Kari, living in a loveless marriage, is still bitter and angry at Peter. “Listen,” Peter addresses the Narrator (Uchechi Kalu) of the evening’s events, “can you start the universe all over again?” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s hopelessly romantic Gatsby in the 1920s — “Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!” — and Thomas Wolfe’s George Webber in You Can’t Go Home Again in the 1930s and countless others in fiction and life have wrestled with the same problem. Mr. Wright, writer for several TV series including Six Feet Under and author of Recent Tragic Events, presented at Intime last year, is a seasoned hand at mixing serious and light, the cosmic and the comic.

The Pavilion is the story of the 37-year-old Peter and Kari, but through the persona of its versatile and talented narrator this bittersweet romantic comedy also populates the stage with a rich assortment of eccentric old friends and classmates, including such colorful characters as Kent, the cuckolded police chief on a mission for revenge; the pot-smoking Cookie; Pudge, who mans the profit-making 900-number suicide hotline; and the tough-talking Carla, who readily offers Kari the unsolicited advice: “You want some words to live by? Here’s two: NEVER FORGIVE.”

Though two-dimensional, in many cases caricature-like, and almost, in some cases, too weird to be true, these characters add a generous dose of humor and humanity — resonating particularly for anyone who can remember living in a small town or attending a class reunion.

Ms. Kalu, casually attired in blue jeans, with bare feet, partially unbuttoned white shirt and a conspicuous pocket watch to chart the passage of time throughout the evening, fulfills her multiple roles with skill and strikingly energetic magnetism. As she observes and interacts with the two protagonists and slides seamlessly into and out of a dozen or more characters, she effectively commands the stage. Hers is also the philosophical voice of the play as she eloquently delivers lengthy poetic and philosophic reflections on mortality, missed chances, lost opportunities, and the inevitability of sorrow and regret.

The philosophy here is most effective when most down-to-earth and concise. At times it becomes long-winded and more pretentious than poetic — Mr. Wright’s fault not Theatre Intime’s. Ms. Kalu is at her best when bringing to life the odd menagerie of Pine City, Minnesota celebrators and moving along the engaging story of Kari and Peter.

Mr. Seely’s Peter, tall, dark and disheveled, is appealing — to the audience and, despite herself, to Kari too — in his genuine remorse, and his naive determination to turn back the clock and replay their past. Mr. Seely is convincing throughout, effectively in character in delivering the moments of pain, romance, and comedy, not to mention his moving performance, as part of the reunion evening program, of a guitar ballad, “Down in the Ruined World,” with original music and lyrics by Mr. Wright.

Ms. Ortmeyer as Kari provides a strong counterpart, austere and highly sympathetic as she reveals the details of her life and her sad marriage to the local golf pro. Ms. Ortmeyer is not always as clear, focused, and convincing as her two first-rate colleagues in this production, but she succeeds in creating a memorable characterization.

Set design by Elise Rise, with lighting by Will Gilpin, adopts an appropriately minimalist approach, with only two chairs and a table stage right, an additional two benches and an oval two-level platform center stage. The simplicity here is powerful as the multi-colored lighting complements the actors’ actions and words to create apposite mood shifts throughout the evening. A string of white lights above the audience to represent starlight and a disco ball for the final dance add a captivating touch to the proceedings. The apron of the stage signifies the lake’s edge in the second of two acts, as Peter and Kari sit together to work through the painful processes of memory, regret, and moving forward.

Emma Watt, Princeton University junior, has directed this production with taste and intelligence. The action moves swiftly, the interweaving movements of Peter, Kari, and the narrator are smooth and meaningful. Comic, serious, and romantic elements of the play all receive appropriate emphasis.

The pavilion that gives its name to this play is nothing more than an old dance hall, waiting to be torn down and replaced by a sports-entertainment complex, but that pavilion, holding many memories of high school dances of the past, resembles the past itself in its fragility and ephemeral nature.

“And so we have to say yes to time,” the Narrator reminds Peter near the end of the play, “even though it means speeding forward into memory, forgetfulness, and oblivion. Say “no” to time; hold on to what you were or what she was; hold onto the past, even out of love … and I swear it will tear you to shreds. This universe will tear you to shreds.”

The Pavilion, acclaimed by one critic as ”an Our Town for our time,” does indeed share many themes and concerns with Thornton Wilder’s 1938 American classic. Small town life, simple truths, and familiar romantic material predominate in both works. Our Town may provide a richer panorama of the world it depicts, but The Pavilion benefits significantly from its condensation, with only three actors instead of twenty-three, a more trenchant edge to the humor, and the entertaining virtuosity of Mr. Wright’s narrator, who must play all those other roles by herself.