February 13, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 16, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 12, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 5, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 28, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 14, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 7, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

November 6, 2012

Thirty-three years is a long time for a chorus to be under the leadership of one person, and when the reins change hands, there are surely adjustments all the way around. Ryan James Brandau, the new artistic director of Princeton Pro Musica, wisely chose for his first concert with the ensemble pieces which were right in the chorus’s wheelhouse. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Requiem is a work well in the comfort zone of Pro Musica, as is the music of J.S. Bach, and both composers are a good vehicle for the chorus and conductor to become acquainted. Dr. Brandau and the 100-voice Pro Musica presented the first fruits of this collaboration on Sunday afternoon at Richardson Auditorium with a concert of Mozart and Bach which showed that this new relationship is clearly working out.

A work originally composed for a funeral might not seem a good piece to celebrate Brandau’s beginning tenure with Pro Musica, but the one-movement O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht is vintage Bach, especially in the composer’s own second “arrangement” including trumpets. Conducting without a baton, Brandau presented a smooth and peaceful interpretation of this piece, blending strings and trumpets well. He kept the sopranos of Pro Musica restrained with the chorale tune, with the tenor section sounding particularly unstressed. Brandau brought out the lower voices of the chorus, effectively eliciting relaxed phrase cadences from the ensemble, aided by the small and precise orchestral ensemble. Especially subtle trumpet parts were provided by Rodney Mack and Thomas Cook.

As a nod to his predecessor, Brandau programmed an instrumental work to give the chorus a rest and show the more virtuostic side of Bach. Solo violinist Elizabeth Field, well-versed in 18th-century performance practice, joined the orchestra for Bach’s three-movement Violin Concerto in E Major, which could easily have been a seventh “Brandenburg” concerto, containing the same chipper spirit in a bright key. As with concerti of the time, soloist Ms. Field played with the ensemble for much of the time, coming out of the instrumental fabric with clean sequences, rhythms, and melodies. Phrases had elegant direction from all players, and Ms. Field added color to the solo line on cadenzas. In the second movement, Ms. Field played the countermelody with more richness and a bit of Romanticism, showing that Bach was not all about virtuoso playing. Ensemble and soloist maintained a graceful lilt to the third movement rondo, showing especially delicate endings to the instrumental refrains.

Pro Musica had its chance to shine in Mozart’s Requiem, performed from an edition which may not have been familiar to all chorus members and which added new fugal passages to the score. As Mozart aficionados know, the composer died in mid-composition of the piece, and “how would Mozart have finished this” has been one of the great musicological mysteries for the past two hundred years. In the 1990s, scholar Robert Levin presented his version, which gave the chorus additional challenging music, but which may have taken some drama out of the orchestral writing, particularly in the “Benedictus.” This was the version performed by Pro Musica on Sunday afternoon, challenging the audience to pay a bit more attention to a piece they may have thought they knew backwards and forwards.

Throughout the piece, Brandau maintained a well-balanced sound from the chorus, with cleanly articulated fugal lines in the “Kyrie,” “Amen,” the “Lacrymosa,” and “Cum Sanctis Tuis” which closed the work. He is clearly a stickler for detail, and there were very few false entrances or final consonants spilling over. His approach to the piece, with attention to word accents and gradual dynamic builds within the movements would make the work easy to sing for the chorus, with a great deal of musical variety within a well-contained scope of sound. The orchestra continued its precise approach to the music, with especially clean playing from cellists Jodi Beder and Elizabeth Thompson and clarinetists Daniel Spitzer and Rie Suzuki in the Recordare quartet. A trio of trombones, played by Brian Mahany, Richard Harris, and Pat Herb, subtly balanced the lower registers of the orchestra and reminded the audience that Mozart was on his way to the 19th century when he wrote this piece.

The chorus was joined by a quartet of vocal soloists, several of whom have local connections. Soprano Justine Aronson possessed a youthful and clear voice which matched the clarinet color perfectly in some of the quartet passages. Ms. Aronson also showed particular sensitivity to the text, especially on the words “supplicanti parce” (“spare the supplicant”). Mezzo-soprano Amanda Quist blended well with Ms. Aronson, showing the strength of her sound in the “Benedictus” quartet, as did tenor Christopher Hodson. The most unique singer to appear on the Richardson stage recently by far was bass-baritone Dashon Burton, who easily is headed for a great career. With a terrific set of waist-length dreadlocks which breaks the traditional “classical singer” visual mode, Mr. Burton combined self-assuredness, a commanding voice, and precision gained from singing in top-notch choral ensembles to provide a solid foundation to the vocal quartet. One definitely wants to hear more from this singer.

Ryan James Brandau and Princeton Pro Musica performed this concert on the eve of the “frankenstorm” threatening New Jersey. Brandau did not announce his arrival like a hurricane, but rather with a solid performance which foretells great things to come with the chorus.

October 17, 2012

Music aficionados in this area tend to think of New York City when venturing out of home range for high-quality performances, however, equally high level (and often less expensive) ensembles can be found an hour south in Philadelphia. One of the most venerable of these organizations decided that if Princeton would not come to them, they would come to Princeton. The Curtis Institute of Music presented its symphony orchestra in Richardson Auditorium last Friday night in a concert which filled the downstairs of the hall but could easily fill the entire space once the community realizes how extraordinary this orchestra is.

Most colleges and universities have orchestral ensembles to provide training and performing opportunities to their students, some of whom go on to careers in music, and then there is Curtis. It is understood at Curtis that every student in the orchestra will go on to play professionally (many as first chairs nationally and internationally) and the collective discipline, dedication, and commitment to music was clear from the stage, through to the last chairs of the more than thirty violins who played Friday night. Friday night was the Curtis Symphony Orchestra’s first foray into the Princeton area, made stronger by the choice of guest conductor — Carlos Miguel Prieto, who graduated in the class of ’87 and was clearly pleased to share his feelings about being back on the Richardson stage.

Curtis’s first mission is to train “extraordinary gifted young musicians,” and the symphony orchestra wasted no time introducing a young conducting student to the musical community. Kensho Watanabe holds two degrees from Yale and has already several premiere performances under his belt as a conductor. It was clear even from the “Star-Spangled Banner” arrangement which opened the program that Mr. Watanabe is a thoughtful and meticulous conductor, leading the orchestra with easy flowing strokes. It was also clear from the outset that the Curtis Orchestra has a young fresh sound, especially from the brass.

This concert was a collaborative effort with the Curtis Opera Theatre, and Mr. Watanabe led the orchestra in a Tchaikovsky duet based on his orchestral fantasy Romeo and Juliet featuring soprano Sarah Shafer and tenor Christopher Tiesi. Ms. Shafer possessed a lovely presence onstage, conveying a certain frailty as she bid her lover farewell. She communicated well with Mr. Tiesi, who showed intense command of his role and moved through the vocal registers well. The two singers blended particularly well, especially in the unison passages toward the close of the piece, with vibratos that were well matched. Mr. Watanabe varied conducting styles with the different moods of the music, building intensity slowly and bringing out the lighter side of Tchaikovsky when appropriate.

This concert appeared to reflect three of the best assets of Curtis: its singers, instrumentalists, and musical education. Singing was well represented by Ms. Shafer and Mr. Tiesi, the instrumental playing by the orchestra musicians themselves, and music education by the orchestra’s presentation of one of the great pedagogical pieces of the 20th century. Conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto joined the orchestra for a spirited performance of Benjamin Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, narrated by Philadelphia actor John de Lancie. The son of a former Curtis director, Mr. de Lancie has strong ties to Philadelphia music organizations to go with his impressive acting credits, and provided a lively narration to a piece which might be geared toward children but still must be played accurately.

Mr. Prieto led the orchestra in a quick and decisive presentation of the Henry Purcell theme on which the works is based, and each family of instruments stepped up to demonstrate clarity and precision. The winds played with direction and transparency to the melodic line, with the clarinet theme particularly clean and saucy. A solo bassoon played a sultry melody, followed by a rich viola solo. With the number of strings onstage, it was easy for the orchestra to present the final theme with power, setting up the compelling Richard Strauss work which closed the program.

Strauss’s tone poem Ein Heldenleben was in part the composer’s answer to Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, and was designed for lush orchestral playing. Under Mr. Prieto’s direction, the piece started off with rich celli and double bass sound, joined by clean brass. Mr. Prieto kept the music churning with a full and lavish sound, contrasted by elegant solos from a number of players, including solo clarinet and English horn. Concertmaster Nigel Armstrong played several solos throughout the piece, providing intense double stops and taperings to phrases often ending at the height of the melodic line. Key to Mr. Armstrong’s solo success in this piece was his duet playing with a solo French horn, superbly played by Levi Varga. A clean offstage trio of trumpets added to the flow of a battlefield scene, punctuated by snare drums effectively placed in the corners of the back of the stage.

The Curtis Symphony Orchestra may have been new to the Princeton audience, but they are certainly well-known in the orchestral field. Hopefully, the ensemble will be back again soon, to continue introducing the Princeton community to some of the future in great orchestral playing.

October 10, 2012

Organ recitals are not known for drawing crowds of fans leaping to their feet after a number played by an unseen artist on an instrument often a mystery to all but those who play it, but Pennsylvania native Cameron Carpenter is no ordinary organist and his recital on Saturday night at the Princeton University Chapel was far from a staid series of 18th and 19th-century pieces. Organ audiences often have no idea what is going on back there with the keyboards and pedals, but Mr. Carpenter has addressed this problem by making his performances multi-media. For Saturday night’s performance, this included a “picture in a picture” large screen, with cameras trained on his hands and feet. The four keyboard manuals of the University Chapel’s 1928 Aeolian-Skinner organ took up most of the screen, with a smaller view of the pedals, and even the most novice audience member could marvel at Mr. Carpenter’s technical agility and feathery touch on the keys. Many times during the performance, audience members could be seen shaking their heads in amazement at what would have been much less appreciated without the screens. Mr. Carpenter’s concert included only eight pieces (one of which was twenty-five minutes long), but the program included variety between classical and popular music and repertoire which showed Mr. Carpenter’s growth in confidence as an artist since he last played in the chapel.

Mr. Carpenter’s technical strengths include the incredible power of his hands, with the ability to stretch an interval of a 6th between two fingers; and the speed of his feet, requiring great balance on the bench. The success of his career as an organist is also due to his imagination, shown in the first few pieces he played. Beginning with his own arrangements of popular tunes, it was not until the fourth piece that Mr. Carpenter played a complete piece as it was actually written. His impressionistic fantasias on a theme from The Summer of ’42 and “Hey Jude” capitalized on the dynamic capabilities and stop combinations of the chapel’s organ, with his uncanny ability to extend his hands among manuals. His arrangement of J.S. Bach’s Suite #1 for Unaccompanied Cello (with his own interpolated passages) was played largely on the pedals, and his interpretations of Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue in G Minor found great drama in the work and quick tempi for the fugue.

Mr. Carpenter’s evolution as a performer was seen in his choice of works by Richard Wagner, Charles Ives, and in particular Franz Liszt. Liszt would have liked Cameron Carpenter. A musical renegade himself, Liszt took the polite early 18th-century piano and turned it into a monster virtuoso instrument through performance technique many at the time thought must have come from demonic possession. With similar spell-binding technique (although rooted in his own self-discipline and talent), Mr. Carpenter is presenting the organ as a concert instrument capable of much more than what churches and funeral parlors can provide. Through his registration choices, Mr. Carpenter found humor in the excerpt from Ives’ Piano Sonata Number 2, and his quick and light touch on the Choir Manual depicted the “murmuring forest” of Wagner’s Siegfried excerpt.

Mr. Carpenter saved the most powerful and complex piece for last: Liszt’s Fantasie und Fuge über den Choral “Ad nos, ad salutarem undam” from Giacomo Meyerbeer’s opera Le Prophéte. Liszt originally composed this massive work for organ, but Mr. Carpenter no doubt took the piece to new heights, emphasizing the importance of opera in 19th-century keyboard music and taking full advantage of the organ’s 137 ranks and more than 7,000 pipes. Mr. Carpenter’s performance held the audience through the entire twenty-five minutes, but this was not a piece he necessarily would have done several years ago when he first played recitals at the University Chapel and Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center. Including a work such as this on the program showed that Mr. Carpenter’s reputation as a brilliant and original performer is secure, and audiences are hungry to hear not only complex organ works not often heard but what Mr. Carpenter will do next.

October 3, 2012

MISMATCH OR MADE FOR EACH OTHER?: Doug (Brad Wilson) and Kayleen (Katherine ­Ortmeyer) find themselves drawn together through many calamities over the course of 30 years, in Theatre Intime’s production of Rajiv Joseph’s “Gruesome Playground Injuries” at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through October 6.

Never thought of vomiting together as a bonding experience? Never fancied a romantic date that consisted of touching each other’s wounds? Never thought of “gruesome” and “entertaining” together to describe a play you’d want to see? Well, there’s a first time for everything, and Rajiv Joseph’s Gruesome Playground Injuries (2009), in a captivating production opening Theatre Intime’s 2012-13 season, delivers many surprises.

Eight-year-old Doug and Kayleen meet for the first time in the school nurse’s office. In this scene titled “Age 8: Face Split Open,” Kayleen describes her stomach ache and Doug describes how he injured his face by riding his bike, Evel Knievel-style off the school roof. Kayleen, fascinated, wants to touch his wound, then picks pieces of gravel out of his hands.

The first of eight scenes centered on various injuries sustained by both characters over a thirty-year period, this childhood encounter sets the tone for the rest of the evening and the future relationship between Doug and Kathleen.

Accident-prone and self-destructive, both continue to hurt themselves in an astonishing variety of ways. Doug, seemingly driven by his unrequited love for Kayleen, blows out an eye with fireworks, gets his teeth knocked out in a fight, steps on a nail then breaks his leg while inspecting a damaged building, gets struck by lightning while on his roof, and falls off a telephone pole (“Maybe if I could climb to the top of this telephone pole in the rain at night, like the mast of a ship lost at sea, maybe I’ll see the shine of you, bringing me home again.”) Kayleen, who realizes her pain-based connection and at times even holds a healing power over Doug, is unable to requite his love. She suffers less dramatically but no less devastatingly by cutting herself — legs and stomach — and undergoing “about 25 medications” and psychiatric treatments.

Whether Kayleen and Doug are mismatched or made for each other never becomes clear, but their relationship remains loving, sensual, and unconsummated, full of mental and physical anguish on both sides, much more about pain than happiness or anything approaching conventional romance.

Yes, the play definitely lives up to its title, emphasis on “gruesome.” But this 90-minute, two-character show, skillfully and creatively directed by Princeton University junior Laura Gates and performed with style, focus, and commitment by senior Bradley Wilson and junior Katherine Ortmeyer makes for an entertaining evening.

Mr. Joseph’s dialogue is sharp, realistic, often funny and touching. Though Mr. Joseph, whose Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo was a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize, provides little background beyond Kayleen’s broken home with a harsh father and absent mother, the characters here are richly engaging, intriguing, and surprisingly appealing and sympathetic.

Mr. Wilson’s Doug is charming in his recklessness, honesty, and boyish bravado. His love for Kathleen, manifested in such dramatic fashion, is never in doubt and never diminished as the scenes jump forwards and backwards in time through three decades. Ms. Ortmeyer’s Kathleen is more complex, also increasingly broken physically and mentally as the play progresses, but perhaps even more troubling than her counterpart in her inwardness, her inability to commit, her quiet self-destructiveness.

Despite occasional lines that are difficult to hear, Ms. Ortmeyer creates a rich three-dimensional character, and the relationship established here is fascinating, at times even heartwarming and amusing. The fact that even the vomit scene — the protagonists again in the nurse’s office at school, this time at age thirteen as a school dance is going on in the background (“Our throw up is all mixed together. You wanna see? So awesome.”) — is more sweetly comical than grotesque surely attests to the creative powers of playwright and performers.

Ms. Gates has staged the play with clarity and focus. The eight short scenes, titles for each written on an easel on stage left, move along smoothly, with original music by Mark Watter and Matt Seely helping to set the mood and bridge the gaps. The simple, flexible, functional set by Amy Gopinathan, lighting by Marissa Applegate, and realistic costuming by Annika Bennett are appropriate and on target. As the drama between Doug and Kayleen progresses, between scenes the actors remain on stage, Ms. Ortmeyer stage right, Mr. Wilson stage left, changing costumes and putting on make-up.

The actors’ preparations, sometimes elaborate as they “create” various wounds and transition from age eight through five-year increments to age thirty-eight, add a significant element to the production. The breaks between scenes, the titles and the non-chronological sequence of events, the appearance of the actors “behind the scenes,” all have a certain distancing effect for the audience. Rather than being invited to lose ourselves in the lives of Doug and Kayleen, we are constantly reminded that we are watching actors as they present these characters. Curiously though, watching the actors’ preparations between scenes also adds a certain intimacy, distancing us perhaps from the lives of Doug and Kayleen, but at the same time inviting us into the theatrical process as Mr. Wilson and Ms. Ortmeyer take on these personas, get into character to struggle with the lives and passions of these troubled souls.

Ms. Ortmeyer, Mr. Wilson, Ms. Gates, and the Theatre Intime company team up with the 38-year-old Mr. Joseph here to provide an eccentrically interesting evening, and the promise of worthy future theatrical adventures.

September 19, 2012

For the past several years, the Brentano String Quartet, Resident String Quartet at Princeton University, has kicked off the fall music season in Princeton with a free concert in Richardson Auditorium. Mid-September can be a time when families are getting adjusted to the school year or getting children organized at college, but enough people took a break from early fall activities last Friday night to almost fill Richardson as violinists Mark Steinberg and Serena Canon, violist Misha Amory and cellist Nina Lee  presented their annual concert. This Quartet could easily get away with just playing the classics, but Friday night’s concert proved that these musicians have been thinking imaginatively. The concert was part of a multi-venue commissioning project to assign an unfinished fragment or work of music to a contemporary composer to write a companion piece.

The fragments themselves are works of art. Behind many great masterpieces are the composer’s sketchbooks and unfinished thoughts, and in these days of computerized composition programs, these fragments are gems as one can hear a composer’s thought processes until something interrupted the work or pulled the composer in another direction. Particularly in the case of the Franz Schubert and J.S. Bach fragments, one wondered what was going on in the life and mind of the composer that these pieces ended in the middle of a solo phrase. This was the challenge to the contemporary composer — to pick up where the 18th or 19th-century master had left off and forge a new path for the music.

Charles Wuorinen drew his inspiration for his Marian Tropes from the 15th century sacred music of Josquin and Dufay. Staying true to the early Renaissance contrapuntal and harmonic styles, Mr. Wuorinen interwove open interval sonorities and tapered Josquin cadences into a tonal work with echoing phrases and a drone which might have been heard at the time from a sackbut or low stringed instrument. The occasional jarring glissando or discord reminded the audience that this is the 21st century, and the four members of the Brentano Quartet smoothly passed what would have been vocal lines among their instruments.

Franz Schubert lived such a short time and composed so much seemingly flawless music that an unfinished work of his is like a diamond just needing a bit of polish. It is unclear why Schubert never finished what is now called a Quartettsatz in C Minor, and American composer Bruce Adolphe maintained the lyrical thought of Schubert’s complete “Allegro assai”and fragmented “Andante.” The great Schubertian tune of the first movement was conveyed by Mr. Steinberg as first violinist, and picked up by cellist Ms. Lee in Adolphe’s Fra(nz)g-mentation.  Adolphe incorporated a jagged rhythmic drive into the quick tempo borrowed from Schubert’s first movement, and the musicians easily found the lyricism and musical gentility of Schubert’s style.

The fragment treatment which contrasted most dramatically with its original material was Sofia Gubaidulina’s Reflections on the Theme B-A-C-H, based on Bach’s unfinished “Contrapunctus XVIII” from The Art of the Fugue. Whereas Bach’s peaceful “Contrapunctus” was nicely blended in the Brentano Quartet, with an especially elegant melodic line from second violinist Ms. Canin, Ms. Gubaidulina’s arrangement provided a great deal of variety in dynamics with sharp instrumental lines and driving rhythms, conveying the composer’s well-known unconventional approach to sound.

All of the composers commissioned by the Brentano String Quartet for this “Fragments” project found great challenge in examining unfinished musical art from previous centuries and bringing them into the 21st century. John Harbison, who composes in almost every genre, found humor and sauciness in his “Finale” to Haydn’s unfinished Quartet in D Minor. Amidst the rhythmic drive of the Harbison piece, the members of the Brentano Quartet showed that they were independent players, yet cognizant of one another and always working together. The final Mozart fragment and its follow-up Mozart Effects by jazz composer Vijay Iyer flowed right into each other, with an almost indiscernible end of the old and beginning of the new. It was fitting that the Brentano Quartet ended this inventive musical concert with a work of Mozart, whose final unfinished Requiem has spawned some of the most significant musical mystery discussions of the past two centuries.

Sigourney Weaver and David Hyde Pierce in the world premiere of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike by Christopher Durang at McCarter Theatre Center. Directed by Nicholas Martin, the production, which is produced in association with Lincoln Center Theater, runs through October 14. Photo: T. Charles Erickson

When “Chekhovian”—sadness, regrets, introspection, frustration—meets “Durangian”—wild absurdities, astonishing eccentricities, anarchic comedy—the results turn out to be both moving and hilarious. Christopher Durang’s new play, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, which opened at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre last weekend, populates its contemporary Bucks County setting with a collection of characters loosely based on figures from the turn-of-the-century (1900) Russian playwright’s somber masterpieces.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is full of contemporary references, to its present-day setting and the world of pop culture, and at the same time imbued with Chekhovian nostalgia and memories of a kinder, gentler past, in this case the 1950s and ‘60s, of these characters’ and Mr. Durang’s youth.

The updating and geographical shift work well. Certain artists’ names become adjectives for a reason, something to do with timelessness and universality, as Emily Mann obviously realized four years ago in her creation of A Seagull in the Hamptons, a contemporary adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull (1896). Mr. Durang, now 63, describes in an interview how “a few years ago I was at a place in my life where a lot of Chekhov’s characters are, where they’re looking back and asking ‘did I take the right road?’, ‘oh, I didn’t do that and I should have,’ and ‘I didn’t go to Moscow, should I have?’” Mr. Durang had moved to a farmhouse in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, which further brought to mind the world of Chekhov’s plays and his characters, who “are living in the country and their more glamorous relatives are off doing things out in the world while the people who are living at home feel like they haven’t had lives.”

The distinguished cast here, under the direction of Nicholas Martin, Durang veteran and former director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival and Boston’s Huntington Theatre, delivers with style and poignancy this hybrid of outrageous comedy and sad, moving family drama—“Chekhov in a blender,” as Mr. Durang describes it.

Mr. Durang has written several of the funniest plays of the past 40 years, from The Marriage of Bette and Boo (1973), Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You (1979) and Beyond Therapy (1981) to Betty’s Summer Vacation (1999) and Miss Witherspoon (another McCarter premiere in 2005). Mr. Durang, less acerbic, a bit gentler in his satire and characterizations but no less hilarious than he was in his earlier work, is in excellent form here and this top-flight McCarter production serves the play brilliantly.

Three of the finest, and most celebrated, veteran comedic actors anywhere portray the protagonists here, three middle-aged siblings, given names out of Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters — Vanya (David Hyde Pierce), Sonia (Kristine Nielsen) and Masha (Sigourney Weaver) — because their professor parents were enthusiasts of community theater and Chekhov in particular.

Vanya and Sonia, brother and (adopted) sister, live in the old family farmhouse, beautifully rendered in David Korins’ meticulously detailed set. The action of the play takes place in the sunroom with stairs leading up to the second floor and upstage exit leading to the front door and other parts of the house. From the sunroom, characters can look out on a pond, as they eagerly await — still waiting hopefully at the end of the play — the appearance of an auspicious blue heron.

Their dull, often contentious, lives are interrupted by the arrival of their self-absorbed, movie star sister Masha (Sigourney Weaver), who has been gallivanting around the world being a celebrity. She arrives with her much younger stud boyfriend Spike (Billy Magnussen), a wannabe actor with a penchant for taking off his clothes and parading around in his underpants. She summarily announces — shades of Chekhov — “I’ve decided to sell the house.” Masha is not particularly sensitive to the needs of her siblings or of anyone but herself, but she is the only one making a living and paying the bills.

The histrionic cleaning lady Cassandra (Shalita Grant) appears with a colorful array of moderately reliable psychic powers, blood-curdling prophecies and deft voodoo techniques; and Nina (Genevieve Angelson), a young star-struck neighbor, drops in, to Masha’s chagrin, on invitation from Spike.

The principals go out to a local costume party — Masha is determined to commandeer all attention as Walt Disney’s Snow White and to assign all other roles for her siblings and friends, and the action continues through one evening and into the next day.

The six-member ensemble is wisely, shrewdly cast and brilliantly focused, individually and as an interrelated group, in the creation of these eccentric and diverse individuals.

Mr. Pierce, who made his Broadway debut right out of college in the original production of Beyond Therapy in 1982, creates a character like his namesake in Chekhov, but less anguished, more peaceful, hopeful and happy in his consignment to a quiet life of regrets and only the most modest pleasures. Mr. Pierce’s deadpan style and searingly funny comic gift (renown on Broadway, Off-Broadway, on film, and perhaps most memorably as Niles in Frasier on TV) serve him well here, as he helps to ground his more exuberant sisters and captures both the Chekhovian nostalgia and the Durangian hilarity. He explodes into a show-stopping final-act diatribe on the value of “shared memories” — all lost to younger generations of the twenty-first century. Remember those postage stamps you had to lick? Typewriters? Howdy Doody, The Ed Sullivan Show, Davy Crockett and coonskin caps, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Annette Funicello and The Mickey Mouse Show and Old Yeller, all now replaced by “video games, in some virtual reality, where we would kill policemen and prostitutes as if that was some sort of entertainment “?

As Spike, whose texting during the reading of Vanya’s play set off the declamatory monologue, observes, “Wow, what’s up with him? That was a major flip out.”

Ms. Nielsen’s Sonia provides another unforgettable characterization in her over-the-top, bi-polar miseries and rages and her comical body language and vocal histrionics, as she laments her spinsterhood and her doomed rivalry with her glamorous sister. Even Sonia gets her moment, however, in the second act, as her Maggie Smith-as-Evil Queen at the costume party wins her the modicum of attention and accompanying self-confidence she has so sadly missed in the previous fifty years of her life. Her next-day telephone conversation with a man she met at the costume party is a tour-de-force of Durangian humor combined with Chekhovian poignancy, as we laugh loudly then empathize fondly from moment to tense moment. Durang aficionados will happily recall Ms. Nielsen’s brilliant star turns in Betty’s Summer Vacation and Miss Witherspoon, along with a host of other distinguished stage and screen credits.

Ms. Weaver, in this part created especially for her by Mr. Durang, who has been a friend and often a collaborator since Yale School of Drama in the early 1970s, embodies the role of Masha with flair, obviously delighting in taking on this extravagantly caricatured version of herself. Ms. Weaver (star in, among many other stage and screen appearances, Alien, Ghostbusters, Working Girl, Gorillas in the Mist, Avatar and the upcoming Vamps, in which she plays a vampire) delivers all the right moves to create this ultimate aging prima donna who has been gallivanting around the world. The character does appear as a one-dimensional stereotype, all surface, difficult to identify with, until late in the play when her misfortune — and the fact that she is contemplating a grandmother role in her next movie — brings her down to earth with a certain heartwarming humanity.

The three supporting characters are far from minor. Ms. Grant’s Cassandra, not Chekhovian but straight out of Greek mythology, injects a significant dose of adrenalin into the proceedings with her ominous predictions and her mystical, sassy, high-energy interactions with the main characters. Mr. Magnussen’s sexually charged, narcissistic Spike is another extreme stereotype and one from yet another dimension — certainly out of place in rural Bucks County or Chekhov’s world or amongst any adults, Masha excepted, over the age of 30. Mr. Magnussen makes the most of Spike’s incongruity in this setting to deliver a number of rich comedic moments.

As Nina — more Chekhovian echoes — the youthful Ms. Angelson presents an appealing, sincere and idealistic presence, and more thought-provoking contrast to illuminate the other extravagant figures in this play.

Because of the extensive allusions to Chekhov and also to popular culture of the past sixty years, the best audience for this play, which will move on from McCarter to Lincoln Center at the end of October, would undoubtedly be in Mr. Durang’s late middle-aged age group and preferably familiar with Chekhov’s Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters and Cherry Orchard. But the good news is, even if you don’t qualify on one or both of these scores and even though you might miss some of the jokes, there is still plenty going on in Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Chekhov and Durang, along with Mr. Martin and his wonderful cast, provide a hilarious, lively, entertaining evening for all.

Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike will run through October 14 at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre, 91 University Place in Princeton. For tickets, show times and further information, call 609-258-2787 or visit www.mccarter.org.

August 22, 2012

Music is a dream from which the veils have been drawn! It’s not even the expression of a feeling — it is the feeling itself. —Claude Debussy (1862-1918), from a letter

On a spring morning in 1884 a classroom window at the Paris Conservatoire is open to the racket of horse-drawn omnibuses on the cobblestones of the rue du FaubourgPoissonnière. At the piano sits a “dishevelled” 21-year-old student, “his shock of tousled hair constantly shaking,” as he produces “chromatic groanings in imitation of the buses … all the notes of the diatonic scale heard at once in fantastic arrangements; shimmering sequences of arpeggios contrasted with trills played by both hands on three notes simultaneously.” The performance continues until a supervisor hearing the “strange noises ringing through the corridors” puts a stop to it, branding the pianist “a dangerous ‘fanatic’ “ and ordering the “spellbound” students “to be off.”

In his rich two-volume biography, Debussy: His Life and Mind (Macmillan 1962), Edward Lockspeiser presents this “picturesque episode,” recalled after Debussy’s death by a fellow student, as an example of the way “all sounds must strike at some poetry” in “the mind of a musician.”

The same classroom observer, Maurice Emmanuel, was taking notes on a later occasion, during a conversation between the then-28-year-old Debussy and his former teacher, Ernest Guiraud. Debussy having just played a series of intervals on the piano, Guiraud asks “What’s that?” Debussy replies, “Incomplete chords, floating …. One can travel where one wishes and leave by any door. Greater nuances.” To which Guiraud responds, “I am not saying what you do isn’t beautiful, but it’s theoretically absurd.” Says Debussy, “There is no theory. You have merely to listen. Pleasure is the law.”

“Mystery in Art”

Drawn to that concept of composition, of music as a fluid infinitely malleable element and pleasure as the law, Debussy would surely have appreciated knowing that in a future time his work would be moving through the world at large giving comfort and joy and evoking wonderment and awe in intimate situations and unlikely environments far from the formal boundaries of the salon or concert hall, transmitted in forms undreamed of in his day, with plugged-in listeners walking, driving a car, flying across oceans and continents at 30,000 feet, or in the solitude of home, recumbent with headset in the dead of night, able to leave and return “by any door” with the push of a button, living, breathing, thinking music.

Debussy might be appalled at the idea of someone doing menial chores (the dinner dishes, in my case) while master pianist Aldo Ciccolini, born August 15, 1925, seven years after the composer’s death, is playing L’Isle Joyeuse, a work for piano composed in 1904. But this is Debussy, who could hear music in the sound of wheels on pavement while creating chromatic equivalents. Myself, I think he’d be tolerant of such mundane miracles, if not amazed and delighted, based on what evidence we have — the scene in the classroom, the conversation with Guiraud, and other statements, notably the one inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner, “the greatest creator of mystery in art.” Revert from the translation to Debussy’s actual words (“le plus grand créateur de mystère qui soit en art”) and it’s easier to see that he’s describing himself, his dream, his mission, which is how it often is when artists, whatever the medium, use works they admire to express the terms of their own aesthetic.

Admitted, “mystery” is a notoriously open term, but serviceable enough to express strange and wonderful transmissions such as the one from the young English poet who died in 1821, his name “writ in water,” the verse message reaching Debussy two months before his own death, sent by a friend who suggested the line, “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter,” from John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” was “implicitly dedicated” to a composer who once defined music as “the silence between the notes.”

Joy in Jersey

I mentioned L’Isle Joyeuse, which refers to Jersey, in the Channel Islands, where in July 1904 Debussy “eloped” with Emma Bardac (both being already married at the time), who would become his second wife and the mother of his only child. The composition for piano finds its way to La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, where it’s recorded in November 1991 by Ciccolini, one of the 16 pieces I’ve been listening to in August 2012 while the water’s running in the sink as I scrub and scour into the depths of a skillet that begins looking like one of Turner’s storms at sea as Debussy’s joyous Jersey idyll bursts forth from the Bose Wave sounding in the chiming trilling flux of demonically intense invention not unlike the “fantastic arrangements” and “shimmering sequences” that Debussy’s fellow student remembers hearing long long ago in the classroom. Next morning, already feeling worn out, not looking forward to a dreary errand, I get into my trusty four-wheeled stereo, put on the same CD (Piano Works, Vol. V) to a surefire energy source, Tarantelle styrienne (later simplified to Danse), some of the most exhilarating piano music ever written, and I’m revived in an instant, riding high, and what was a chore has become a mission.

Something Amusingly Else

Of course Debussy has much more to offer than morning euphoria and instant energy. Take one of the best-known and most-played of his compositions, Clair de lune, which begins in a state of tender hesitant beauty, builds to an emotional summit, and goes down like a sunset. It’s one thing to hear Ciccolini play it, and something amusingly else to see Spencer Tracy at the keyboard in Without Love, one of the lesser-known movies he made with Katherine Hepburn. If it had been Hepburn swooning elegantly over the keys, no big deal, but that’s Spencer Tracy tucking in the belt of his bath robe as he sits down to play. No ceremony, no airs, the most unceremonious of actors is making beautiful music as Hepburn listens transfixed on the stairs, in her bathrobe, about to dissolve into an amorous mist, just as my own mother did whenever my undemonstrative father played the same music.

The Anglophile

Debussy may not have spoken the language but, as Lockspeiser makes clear, he was thoroughly immersed in the culture of the British Isles, though it should be mentioned that Debussy was very much under the influence of France’s favorite American, Edgar Allan Poe, to the point of planning but never finishing operas based on The Devil in the Belfry and The Fall of the House of Usher. (In November 2009 Opéra Français de New York presented the enhanced remains.) Besides enjoying idylls in Jersey and Eastbourne with Emma Bardac, whom he married in 1908, Debussy hired an English governess for his daughter and was a steadfast admirer of English art (Turner, Whistler, the Pre-Raphaelites, William Morris, Walter Crane, Aubrey Beardsley, Arthur Rackham), poetry (Keats, Shelley, Swinburne), literature (J.M. Barrie, Oscar Wilde, Dickens, and above all Shakespeare). The original role of Mélisande in his opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, belonged to Mary Garden, a Scottish soprano with a voice he had “secretly imagined — full of a sinking tenderness” who sang “with such artistry” as he “would never have believed possible.” Perhaps the most whimsical indication of the extent of his devotion to things English is in Volume Two of the Preludes, the one titled Hommage to S. Pickwick Esq. P.P.M.P.C. [Perpetual President-Member Pickwick Club]. He also composed preludes based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Peter Pan.

“Ever Higher”

“Anywhere out of the world” was Debussy’s half-facetious response to one of the questions (“Where would you most like to live?”) on a printed questionnaire from February 1889 included as an appendix in the first volume of Lockspeiser’s biography. Among Debussy’s more earthly enjoyments: reading “while smoking complex cigars” (les tabacs compliqués), the color violet; Russian cooking; and coffee. His favorite fictional hero and heroine were Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Rosalind. His idea of happiness: “to love,” his motto “Ever higher.”

Twice married, Debussy had numerous affairs. Green-eyed Gabrielle Dupont, who can be seen in all her statuesque glory among the photographs in Lockspeiser’s book, attempted suicide when their ten-year relationship ended, and his first wife shot herself on the Place du Concorde after a letter from Debussy telling her that the marriage was over (she survived). That’s the composer’s 11-year-old daughter, Claude-Emma (Chouchou), sharing a picnic on the grass with her straw-hatted father in the photograph on the cover of Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli’s 1988 recording of the Preludes. You can imagine something of the father-daughter relationship if you to go to “Debussy plays Debussy” on YouTube and listen as Debussy plays “Golliwog’s Cake-Walk,” from the Childrens Corner suite he wrote for Chouchou, whose smiles, he told a friend, “helped him overcome periods of black depression.” In a letter home, he writes of how sad he is “not to hear your songs and your laughter and all that noise which sometimes makes you an unbearable little person.” Before going into surgery in 1915, he tells his wife that she and Chouchou “are the only two beings who should prevent me from disappearing altogether.”

The Last Word

For Lockspeiser, Debussy’s child provides the most reliable eyewitness account of his death from cancer on March 25, 1918, as German artillery bombarded Paris. In a letter to her half-brother, she writes, “When I went back into the room Papa was sleeping and breathing regularly but in short breaths. He went on sleeping in this way until ten o’clock in the evening, and at this time, sweetly, angelically, he went to sleep for ever.” At the funeral, Chouchou did her best not to cry, for her distraught mother’s sake. “I saw him for the last time in that horrible box …. As I almost fell over I couldn’t kiss him.”

Chouchou herself had less than a year to live. Her death, during the diphteria epidemic, was thought to be due to an erroneous diagnosis.

Edward Lockspeiser’s biography was an invaluable resource that would not have been available but for the Princeton Public Library, which also had the Claudio Abbado Wiener Philarmonic recording of Pelléas et Mélisande, a hypnotic experience when listened to with headphones between midnight and three in the morning. I also consulted Debussy On Music, which I found at last year’s Bryn Mawr-Wellesley Book Sale. 

August 8, 2012

Musical events in Princeton always draw a good crowd. Free musical evenings are guaranteed to draw an even better crowd, and such was the case last Tuesday night when a free concert of British string orchestral music was presented in Princeton University Chapel. Announced as a “gift to the Princeton community from Bill and Judith Scheide,” this concert featured late 19th and early 20th-century music suitable for the venue in which it was performed.

The University Chapel is not often used for orchestral music, and while lush choral passages often get lost in the vast Gothic arches, it was remarkable how clean the instrumental sound was. Conductor Mark Laycock, leading a chamber orchestra of local professionals, clearly had a sense of how to work the acoustics so that even the lightest pizzicato from the double basses could be heard in the back of the hall.

The repertoire selected by Mr. Laycock was among the more substantial from British orchestral composers, full of expansive lines and broad orchestral strokes. There was no raised platform in the chapel for the performers, so only those in the front or on the aisles could see well; for many in the audience this was music which would wash over them, however no details were lost in the process. Mr. Laycock conducted with sweeping gestures to bring out grandeur, especially in the two pieces of Sir Edward Elgar. The instrumentalists, led by concertmistress Kimberly Fisher, played decisively from the start, with the hall providing plenty of acoustical room for the sound. String rhythms could clearly be heard, with clean scales in the Allegro of Elgar’s Opus 47 Introduction and Allegro. The Introduction included a lyrical viola solo, gracefully played by Sarah Sutton. Throughout the long first selection of Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, the orchestral sound was well-nuanced, with the pizzicatti especially well heard.

English music of this period is known for its tunefulness, heard in this performance in the music of Peter Warlock and Gustav Holst. In a concert of all string music, tunes can make a difference, and this ensemble was successful in finding the lilt and supple flow in Warlock’s Serenade. Holst’s music can be chipper as well as melodic, and the Air from his Brook Green Suite in particular captured the lute character of 16th-century English music. John Ireland’s Minuet from A Downland Suite moved the evening into a lighter mood, with the orchestra capturing an English countryside feel through graceful upbeats and accents and clean pizzicatti from the double basses. This piece ended with particular charm as the music delicately faded away. The orchestra found a different musical character in Gerald Finzi’s Romance, a piece full of suspensions and contrasts. Mr. Laycock worked to pull the sound through the melancholy yet peaceful ebb and flow of the piece, with Ms. Fisher’s violin solo blending well with the rest of the ensemble.

Mr. Laycock closed the concert with what may have been the most familiar piece — Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. By moving part of the orchestra back in the chancel, Mr. Laycock was able to create a fuller sound, with the especially rich tune in the lower strings. The second orchestra back by the altar was able to achieve an echo effect, contrasted by melodic solos from Ms. Fisher, Ms. Sutton, and cellist Adrian Daurov.

This concert was the Scheides’ gift to the Princeton community, and informality was the word for the evening. People came in a wide variety of summer dress, at times meditating on the music and at times browsing through electronic devices to read to a rich musical accompaniment. Despite this concert being the tail-end of a busy summer musical season in Princeton, the chapel was full, and the evening’s experience included some of the best orchestral playing heard all year in the area.

COURTSHIP AND CONFLICT: Lili (Sarah Paton) and Nick (Andrew Massey) meet and fall in love — it’s 1960, summertime, a lake in the Catskills — but that’s just the beginning of their problems in Princeton Summer Theater’s season finale, Richard Greenberg’s melancholy comedy “The American Plan,” playing at The Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through August 12.

In the closing moments of Princeton Summer Theater’s (PST) moving, captivating production of The American Plan, Lili and Nick look back on a romantic relationship that could have been and recall the words of a lullaby that Lili’s mother Eva used to sing: “Happiness exists, but it’s for other people.”

Those words capture the tone of this play and the worldview that it presents. Under the intelligent, inspired direction of Daniel Rattner, The American Plan (1990) by Richard Greenberg (Take Me Out, 2003) provides a multi-layered, beautifully designed finale to Princeton Summer Theater’s outstanding 2012 season.

Set in 1960 at a summer house in the Catskills, The American Plan takes place in a world delicately balanced between hopes and fears of past and future. Her transistor radio plays Bobby Darin’s “Somewhere Beyond the Sea,” as the troubled, 20-year-old Lili (Sarah Paton) dreams of a prince who will come to carry her away from her humdrum, privileged life and her domineering mother.

Right on schedule, as the lights rise on the opening scene, Nick (Andrew Massey), handsome WASP interloper in this Jewish enclave, looking “like nothing ever happened to you,” emerges from the lake where he has been swimming and greets Lili. She is reading on the patio of their house across the lake from the Catskills resort where Nick is staying. A writer and aspiring architect who dreams of creating a new city, Nick describes to Lili “the American Plan” (a hotel package deal that includes three meals a day, but in Nick’s mind and in the author’s title of the play, a metaphor for a disturbed, self-indulgent slice of mid-20th century American society): “What Americans live like that? What Americans eat like this? The breakfasts and the lunches and the dinners and the coffees and the teas and the snacks and the hardly-any-exercise in-between…”

All five characters in this play are outcasts, misfits in a world on the cusp of change. Lili’s mother Eva (Maeve Brady), a refugee from Hitler’s Germany, a wealthy widow with her Central Park West apartment and her summer house in the Catskills, looks down on the Jewish resort community and views life with pessimism and suspicion. “The world has a wish for you,” she warns her daughter, “and it’s never good.” Two supporting characters, Olivia (Miyuki Miyagi), Eva and Lili’s maid and caretaker, and Gil (Evan Thompson), who suddenly appears in the second of two acts, are also set apart from the mainstream of society.

As the plot advances, Nick and Lili’s relationship develops, and complications proliferate. Lili is deceitful, bitter and acerbic, edgy and unstable, subject to panic attacks, desperate to find romance and escape from her mother’s tyrannical control, yet inextricably attached and dependent. Nick also hides truths about his life, which Eva relentlessly proceeds to uncover. This prince is not exactly what he first appears to be.

The chemistry between Lili and Nick is strong, the love is apparent, the romance and the possibilities for happiness are rich and promising. But the vicissitudes of life, the workings of the human psyche and well-intentioned (or not) interventions by Eva and others ensure that this is not to be the fairy tale story that Lili and Nick envision.

PST’s polished, intelligent production brings out the nuances in these complex relationships. Mr. Rattner’s pacing moves the plot along effectively, and slows down, particularly as the lights linger at the end of each scene, to engage the audience in the troubled thoughts and yearnings of these struggling characters. Jeffrey Van Velsor’s set and Alex Mannix’s delicate, evocative lighting create the mood of this world with its pensive inhabitants and its mix of romance and melancholy.

The set — wicker patio furniture, a weathered Adirondack chair, greying boards (like a wharf, or the side of a beach house) for the backdrop — reinforces the wistful mood of the play. A clever, creative transformation for the final scene moves to Eva and Lili’s dark, well-appointed New York apartment ten years later, with political protests raging outside; on the back wall a large flag made of faded jeans stitched together signifies a new phase in the history of the country and in the lives of the play’s protagonists. Production values here and throughout the PST season have been thoroughly professional, first-rate.

As the romantic couple at the play’s core, Ms. Paton and Mr. Massey are appealing and strikingly credible. Both young actors are experienced members of the PST Company, have starred in previous shows this summer, and display significant versatility here in progressing through the many mood shifts of these two characters. From the mannerisms of the attitudinal, sharp-tongued girl of the opening scenes to the more serious and mature adult of the later scenes, Ms. Paton’s Lili grows increasingly convincing and sympathetic. Mr. Massey is charming and conflicted — in character and believable from start to finish. It is not hard to see why these two would quickly fall in love with each other, and why that passionate attachment would cause endless problems for each.

Ms. Brady’s domineering maternal presence as Eva is a strong characterization, unquestionably capable of commanding the stage and the other figures in the play — another credible portrayal despite what seems like a possibly excessive fifty-year age stretch. Ms. Brady’s German accent is effective, but occasionally needs to be clearer in order to communicate this character’s many clever and caustic observations.

Ms. Miyagi and Mr. Thompson provide intelligent, skillful support, detailed and on target in their three-dimensional character delineations.

As director of this production and artistic director of Princeton Summer Theater 2012, Daniel Rattner observes in his program note, “The American Plan is a fitting end to our season because it, somewhat literally, explores what happens at summer’s end — when we are forced to leave a time that feels idle and promising and return to the real world, with its … constant complications.” Fitting, indeed, with its elegiac, end-of-summer shadows and its thought-provoking studies in character and relationships — it’s a worthy conclusion to a rewarding, diverse, and impressively successful 2012 season.

August 1, 2012

William and Judith Scheide could spend their summers in the cool environs of New England, as many Princetonians do, escaping the New Jersey heat. Instead the Scheides have not only chosen to remain in the humidity with the rest of us but also to make the summer months more musically enjoyable. For the past four years, the Scheides have sponsored a concert taking advantage of the singers and instrumentalists in town performing with other ensembles. This past Thursday night, members of Opera New Jersey’s summer roster were joined by the New Jersey Symphony and led by conductor Mark Laycock in a rousing performance of 19th-century powerhouse opera arias, all made possible by the Scheides.

Opera New Jersey strutted out some of its best soloists from this summer’s productions for the concert of operatic excerpts at Richardson Auditorium, with soprano Erica Strauss, tenor Rafael Dávila and bass Young-Bok Kim delving into the Golden Age of German and Italian Romantic opera. Focusing primarily on the works of Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner, this “Midsummer Celebration” easily achieved its goal of bringing the audience to its feet with brass, percussion, and rich orchestration, not to mention great singing.

Conductor Mark Laycock acknowledged the importance of the chorus in 19th-century opera by starting the concert with a Wagnerian bang in a chorus from Tannhäuser. Opera New Jersey compiled a choral ensemble of the company’s “emerging artists” and local professionals who easily captured the sweep and grandeur of “Freudig begrüssen wir die edle Halle,” Tannhäuser’s “Entrance of the Guests.” This being Wagner, brass played a large role, beginning with clean trumpets from an offstage balcony.

Mr. Laycock alternated Wagner with Verdi in programming the evening, but given the musical weight of both composers, there was little difference in the hefty orchestration and demanding vocal requirements among the operatic excerpts. The chorus reined in its sound a bit as the concert progressed, with the sectional basses and altos coming across as the most unified. In the opening Verdi selection from Otello, four character soloists sang from the chorus, most notably bass-baritone John Arnold, with all singers clearly feeling free to unleash a full magnitude of sound.

Mr. Dávila, heard with Opera New Jersey this past summer in Il Trovatore, showed his more lyrical side in his duet with Ms. Strauss — Verdi’s “Love Duet,” also from Otello. Although these two singers could have demonstrated more chemistry and sparks between each other, both brought out the sweetness of the duet, with Ms. Strauss especially floating her sound in the top register. The singers were well complemented by cellist Stephen Fang’s graceful solo.

Mr. Laycock also ventured into the very familiar repertoire, with Wagner’s “Prelude to Act III” of Lohengrin, a selection from Wagner’s Götterdammerung and Verdi’s “Triumphal March” from Aida. A dark and rich English horn, played by Andrew Adelson and subtly accompanied by timpani marked the start of the Wagner excerpt, combined with a lean extended sectional cello solo. Mr. Laycock drew out well the “sunrise” of the “Dawn,” aided by chipper wind solos. The familiar triumphal tune was played with nuance by the brass, and a bit of Verdian gypsy could easily be heard from the winds.

Arrigo Boito’s “Prologue in Heaven” from Mefistofele fit into the theme of the evening with Boito’s role as librettist for some of Verdi’s operas. Although the orchestral “Prelude” was a bit staid, Young-Bok Kim got things rolling as Mefistofele, exuding the confidence of the part and a menacing vocal swagger. Mr. Kim clearly has no trouble commanding a stage in ominous and intimidating roles, and brought the audience right into his world. Mr. Kim was joined in this extended scene by the adult chorus as well as a children’s chorus representing the “Cherubini.” Prepared by Fred Meads and singing from the balcony, the children’s chorus easily handled some very quick “patter” passages of words and held their own well in a section of cross-metered music with the orchestra and other chorus.

Thanks to the generosity of the Scheides, the Princeton musical summer season has been extended right to the edge of July, and the established organizations of Opera New Jersey and New Jersey Symphony, as well as the two choruses, were able to collaborate to create something entirely new and thoroughly enjoyable to the audience. The opportunity to provide more work to musicians in the summer also made this concert more relevant to the community and strengthened Princeton’s role in the New Jersey artistic scene.

July 25, 2012

Throughout music history, the city of Vienna has been a hot spot for musical performance, with Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert among its masters. Two centuries later, Vienna is still exporting great music, and a sample came to Richardson Auditorium last Wednesday night as part of the Princeton University Summer Concert series. The Vienna Piano Trio performed three works for piano, violin, and cello, showing precision and a solid command of 18th and 19th century repertoire.

The other ensembles heard in the Summer Concert series this year have maintained blended repertoires of traditional and contemporary (event, avant-garde) music, but the Vienna Piano Trio is firmly rooted in the classics. Violinist Wolfgang Redik, cellist Matthias Gredler, and pianist Stefan Mendl have compiled a discography of the great masters of chamber music, including the piano trios of Franz Josef Haydn.

The Vienna Trio’s performance of Haydn’s Piano Trio in A Major was clean from the outset, beginning with exacting chords from the piano. Mr. Mendl showed a very light touch on the keyboard, with even fingering on running passages and a subtle left hand. Mr. Mendl demonstrated a great deal of character in his piano accompaniment, complementing a sweet violin sound from Mr. Redik. Haydn’s trio included stylistic musical teasing, which was well executed by the Vienna ensemble.

Throughout the three movements, the strength of Mr. Mendl remained the evenness of his hands, which enabled a concise and well-timed dialog between piano and violin. Mr. Gredler drew a rich sound from the lower register of the cello, especially in the darker second movement. The Vienna Trio also demonstrated their quick playing in the third movement as they brought the Haydn work to a fast and furious close.

The Viennese work paired with the Haydn Trio was Franz Schubert’s Piano Trio in B-flat Major, composed less than a year before the composer’s death. Despite Schubert’s physical suffering at the time, his late works, including this trio, were infused with expressive melodies and a bit of playfulness. The Vienna Trio brought out well the lyrical second subject of the first movement, allowing the silences between musical thoughts to become a bit longer each time. The second movement, Andante, resembled a typically Schubertian lieder for cello and piano, with Mr. Gredler deriving the most from the phrases, evenly accompanied by Mr. Mendl. The full ensemble sound and musical drama showed Beethoven’s presence in the same city (he died shortly before Schubert began work on this trio) and the Vienna ensemble illuminated the saucy refrain of the closing Rondo with its especially Beethoven-esque dash to the finish.

French musical impressionist Maurice Ravel is not a composer one normally associates with Vienna, but he did travel to the city many times, and had a great regard for Viennese musical heritage. From this tradition Ravel may have borrowed the piano trio form, but his Piano Trio in A Minor was colored by a far darker influence than light-hearted Viennese court life. From the time of this trio’s beginnings in 1913 to its premiere in 1915, France moved from the joie de vivre of the early 20th century to immersion in World War I. Ravel was forced to rush completion of this trio in order to enlist in the military, and the four movements of this work are almost a pastiche of world-wide musical influence.

In this work, Ravel took an old form and added a new harmonic twist, and the Vienna Trio brought out well all the nuances and impressionistic musical tricks. Mr. Mendl began the work with a very liquid piano character, soon joined by unison violin and cello. Mr. Gredler’s cello part showed more range than the other two works, with long melodic lines in both stringed instruments and more use of vibrato. An elegant dialog between the violin and cello smoothed out the Basque irregular meter of the movement.

The second movement, Pantoum, drew its structure from Malaysian poetry, with a great deal of rise and fall in the music and jagged rhythms. This movement was more demanding of the players, and the Vienna Trio moved smoothly into the third movement Passacaille. Mr. Mendl well intoned the funeral march theme in the lowest register of the piano, and the three instruments built intensity well as the movement arched and returned to its funereal roots from the keyboard.

In all three of these works (as well as the Schumann excerpt which served as an encore), the Vienna Piano Trio paid tribute to the precision of the Classical era, while stretching their range into Ravel’s muted instrumental colors. This was clearly an ensemble rooted in the great traditions of the history of music.

July 18, 2012

The Princeton University Summer Concerts series continued its popular season last week with a performance by the Chiara String Quartet, which presented a concise and well-balanced program to a very appreciative audience. These free summer chamber concerts have become the thing to do on hot summer nights in Princeton, and the audience at Richardson Auditorium last Monday night was not disappointed by the Chiara Quartet’s level of play or choice of repertoire. The quartet, comprised of violinists Rebecca Fischer and Julie Hye-Yung Yoon, violist Jonah Sirota, and cellist Gregory Beaver, presented two chamber standards and a work by a composer with whom they have had a long association.

Franz Josef Haydn’s string quartets were the model for the genre during the 18th and a good part of the 19th centuries. His Opus 76 was a courtly set of quartets, and the fifth of this set was particularly joyful. Led by first violinist Ms. Fischer, the first movement was a refreshing start to the Chiara’s concert. Ms. Fischer drew out the phrase cadences especially well, with Mr. Beaver playing with a rich and mellow sound when the cello had long solo passages.

Throughout the four-movement work, the Chiara String Quartet demonstrated excellent communication with one another, building simultaneous dynamic swells and crescendi. Mr. Beaver was well in control in the third movement Menuetto, providing a solid foundation to the ensemble sound. The final Presto was high-spirited, with a quick melody traded between violin and cello, and precision among the players as the work came to a close.

Like the Chiara Quartet, Massachusetts-born composer Jefferson Friedman is young, and his String Quartet No. 2 had an energetic exuberance and contemporary intricacy about it. The Chiara Quartet has a long-standing partnership with Mr. Friedman (he has written three quartets for them) and clearly had his second String Quartet well in hand. From the outset the four instruments maintained simultaneous intensity through the very rhythmic and canonic movement. Mr. Friedman’s work had a great deal of motion, interspersed with haunting and expressive solos. The three movements had no descriptive subtitles, but were different in character, with the Chiara ensemble bringing out well the stylistic variety. In the hymn-like second movement, Mr. Friedman created a soothing texture with two violins and viola against a subtle cello accompaniment, and the ensemble showed its expertise in working together with collective silences and reaching points of rest together. The third movement contained an unusual texture, with the viola being the only instrument bowed against sharp pizzicatti from the other players. The Chiara Quartet maintained focus and intensity well as this difficult yet appealing work drew to a close.

The quartet showed its full strength in Brahms’s String Quartet in B-flat Major, the last of the composer’s three quartets. Brahms composed many of his violin works for a specific performer, as evidenced by the lyrical song played by first violinist Ms. Fischer in the second movement. The Chiara ensemble played this piece from memory, which enabled the players to fully communicate with one another unencumbered by music stands. The players seemed to lean in more, playing with ease and sensitivity, and the audience was definitely intrigued by how much more one can see in a performer when they are playing from memory.

The Chiara players could feel instinctively when to move from resting point into motion, especially in a second movement which could easily have come from Brahms’s sacred repertoire. The players brought out well the gypsy-like syncopation in the third movement Agitato, with the muted first violin matching the dark color of the viola. The charming Viennese fourth movement which closed the work reminded the audience of the chamber roots of the string quartet genre and sent the audience off into the summer night feeling as though they had been to a delightful and intimate soirée.

July 12, 2012

MARITAL MANIPULATIONS: Manningham (Evan Thompson) subtly deceives his wife (Sarah Paton) into thinking she is going insane, in Princeton Summer Theater’s production of Patrick Hamilton’s “Gaslight” (1938), playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through July 15.

A creative work whose title becomes a part of the common cultural vocabulary must strike a resonant chord in our social and psychological worlds, and the indomitable Princeton Summer Theater’s (PST) polished, intelligent production of Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 Gaslight presents a vibrant case in point. Our society has recently been struggling to come to terms with the complex psychological ramifications and destructive effects of bullying. “Gaslighting” — a power play which involves manipulating the victim into doubting his or her memory and perceptions — is certainly one of the most insidious forms of that kind of psychological abuse. Unsurprisingly, despite a certain quaint predictability and Victorian-style domestic familiarity, this classic melodrama maintains its power to engage and intrigue audiences almost 75 years after its original production.

Most famous is its 1944 movie version directed by George Cukor and starring Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotten and an 18-year-old Angela Lansbury in her screen debut, Gaslight, set in London in the 1880s, is the story of a villainous husband and his calculating emotional and psychological torture of his wife, as he drives her to the brink of insanity.

Under the guise of the most caring and kindly paternalism in this traditional Victorian upper-middle class household, he deceives her into believing that she is misplacing valuable objects, neglecting her responsibilities as dutiful wife, and gradually losing her mind in forgetfulness. One of his ruses that make his wife question her senses and sanity is his clandestine raising and lowering of the gas lamps that give the play its title and light the couple’s Victorian living room. The Victorian world and male-dominated marriages of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879) and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892) come to mind, as does the victimized wife consigned to a 1860s mental institution in Emily Mann’s Mrs. Packard (2007).

The PST cast of five principals, all undergraduates or recent college graduates, under the direction of Princeton English and theater professor R.N. Sandberg, is excellent — credible and engaging in making significant character stretches to portray this curious assemblage of characters from a distant world.

In the central Ingrid Bergman role of the beleaguered wife Bella, Sarah Paton is convincing and sympathetic. She portrays a fluctuating fragility that shifts rapidly and credibly from happiness in response to her husband’s feigned affections to desperation and manic hysteria in the face of her fears and desperation in confronting what she is led to believe is her declining mental state. This overly dependent, neurotic stereotype of a Victorian wife is certainly a ripe subject for feminist scrutiny, as is her misogynist husband, though suspense and melodrama are Mr. Hamilton’s priorities rather than social commentary here.

Evan Thompson as Jack Manningham takes on the villain’s role with spirit and poise. His proud posture, thinly veiled insincerity, roguish demeanor, sexist commentary, and inappropriately suggestive overtures to the maid (Ariel Sibert) lucidly reveal his duplicity to the audience, if not to his wife, early on in the play. The audience, realizing Jack’s machinations, then identifying with Bella as she first spirals into distress and fear, then gradually begins to realize her husband’s treachery, enjoy watching as husband and wife match wits in mortal combat.

Ms. Sibert’s impertinent Nancy exudes the brazen spirit and style of the saucy, lascivious maid, and Jack’s flirtations with her become part of his psychological abuse of his wife, as the two women compete for his attentions.

As the elderly house servant Elizabeth, Maeve Brady makes an impressive stretch in age and creates a memorable character, watching closely the suspicious actions of her master and the alarming behavior of her mistress and helping in the end to resolve the tangled plot. Andrew Massey’s avuncular, witty, and determined detective contributes irony and dark humor to the proceedings, eventually winning Bella’s trust and allegiance in opposing the treacherous husband and sorting out his complex schemes and actions. Mr. Massey creates a quirky, believable, and likeable three-dimensional character.

Jeffrey Van Velsor, professional local set designer, in collaboration with talented lighting designer Alex Mannix, has successfully created the Manningham’s living room and this ponderous world of Victorian domestic life. In sharp, welcome contrast to the multiple settings of the 1944 movie version, the audience here stays focused in the single, darkly paneled, increasingly claustrophobic room. As the plot develops throughout the evening, the single setting intensifies the suspense and fear that the audience shares with the panicked Bella. “Gaslight” sconces on the wall further enhance the atmosphere and admirably serve the plot.

Mr. Sandberg has directed with skill and careful attention to detail. The action, even the rather long first-act exposition and set-up, moves swiftly, drawing the audience into this eerie world of intrigue and drama. The performers are well rehearsed and communicate the complexities of this tale with clarity and conviction. Ben Schaffer’s expert technical direction and period costuming by Julia Bumke and Ms. Sibert are also on-target and effective.

In commenting on Gaslight, Mr. Hamilton, who wrote several popular psychological dramas and novels in the first half of the twentieth century, once remarked, “It has a sort of genuineness in its very bogusness — it is sincere good fun theater.” Princeton Summer Theater makes the most here of Mr. Hamilton’s fascination with a rich psychological struggle and his fine sensitivity to the playwright’s art of keeping audiences on the edges of their seats.

In the ten years since Opera New Jersey’s founding, the company has grown from a vehicle for student performance to a mentoring program incorporated into high quality operatic production. In these tough economic times, Opera New Jersey has managed to expand in quality if not quantity (this season sees a marked increase in number of productions and venues) while somehow keeping the wolves away from the door. Like its sister summer musical celebration The Princeton Festival, Opera New Jersey is branching out into educational initiatives, as well as venues in other parts of the state, but its core programming remains operatic production at McCarter Theatre — and nothing says opera more than Giuseppe Verdi.

Opera New Jersey opened its 10th anniversary season with Il Trovatore, one of Verdi’s most successful operas and one which can pack audiences in. Just about three hours long and cast for little more than a handful of principals, Il Trovatore is not for the faint-hearted opera company, but Opera New Jersey cast its net to the highest musical levels to find singers who could stand up to the demanding and dramatic score.

Refreshing to see onstage again was baritone Young-Bok Kim, who has performed with Opera New Jersey in past seasons. Mr. Kim remains a phenomenal singer and is spreading his wings a bit with other companies in the country. As the officer Ferrando, Mr. Kim sang solidly with a voice full of color, ringing out the lyricism of the narrative “Di due figli vivea padre beato” aria and singing cleanly against the orchestra’s gypsy rhythms.

Verdi incorporated many different styles of music into this opera to match the characters, and the heroine Leonora was well accompanied by strings in her opening scene. Joined onstage by her confidante Ines (sung by JoAna Rusche), soprano Erica Strauss brought a tremendous amount of vocal stamina to the role of Leonora, soaring with ease into the coloratura stratosphere for which Verdi is known. Ms. Rusche is a member of Opera New Jersey’s “Emerging Artists Program,” yet she impressively complemented the voice of Ms. Strauss, completing her phrasing and vocal color as the two singers carried on a musical dialogue. Ms. Strauss demonstrated great control in the cavatina and cabaletta of her opening scene (Verdi was experimenting with forms other than arias) handling the quick coloratura of the show-stopping cabaletta well. Particularly as the opera progressed into more dramatic and theatrical territory, Ms. Strauss proved that she is a soprano who can sing forever, never losing strength, even as Verdi saved the most difficult singing for the final scene.

Leonora’s beloved Manrico does appear, lightly accompanied by harp to replicate his lute (he is the trovatore, or troubadour of the title), and tenor Rafael Dávila brought passion and vocal strength to the role. Whatever vocal overpowering he may have started with quickly dissipated as the opera went along (it would be impossible to oversing for that amount of time) and Mr. Dávila found the “serenade” quality and innocent passion of his arias. Baritone Marco Nisticò provided a suave contrast in the Count di Luna, pouring his heart into “Per me ora fatale” as he also vies for the love of Leonora.

All of these vocal roles were demanding in stamina and energy, but the role of Azucena combined these requirements with the nastiness of a witch’s character. Mezzo-soprano Margaret Mezzacappa, fresh off of a performance of Beethoven’s equally demanding ninth symphony with The Philadelphia Orchestra, proved that McCarter’s Matthews Theatre was a great space for her — easily heard with just a shade of the demonic. Ms. Mezzacappa showed her lyrical and sensitive side with the trio with Leonora and Manrico in the final prison scene, singing expressively and with control while lying on the floor. Opera New Jersey cast some of its “Emerging Artists” in the smaller roles of this opera, and these young artists showed no difficulty keeping up with the very experienced principals.

Conductor Victor DeRenzi (artistic director of the Sarasota Opera) led the New Jersey Symphony in the orchestra pit, keeping a good balance between voices and instruments even as the opera went into its third hour (a tough haul for any orchestra). The orchestra opened the opera with clean brass and handled Verdi’s martial passages well. There were disconnects between singer and orchestra at times in rhythmic clarity, but when the two came together with precision the effect was very clean. The chorus of “Studio Artists of the Emerging Artists Program” provided solid singing in the well-known choruses from this opera.

Scenic Designer Boyd Ostroff (for the Syracuse Opera) made the most of simplicity, keeping a minimum of structure onstage with a backdrop of changing hues to depict the sky. There were many costume changes in this opera, and costume designer Howard Tsvi Kaplan emphasized the Spanish flavor of the storyline, incorporating a wide range of costumes for the principals and chorus members.

So where does Opera New Jersey go from here? With a wide array of musical offerings this summer (conducted and directed by a variety of people and accompanied by different ensembles) one wonders if the next decade will include an artistic director to pull these factions together with one resident artistic thread. Whatever the next decade brings, Opera New Jersey seems to be on solid footing going forward.

July 3, 2012

There are a number of ways an opera company can tie works together for a multi-opera production: by composer, plot theme, or perhaps as a vehicle for a particular singer. For its principal operatic production this season, The Princeton Festival joined two one-act operas together based on literary source material. Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Francesca da Rimini draws its storyline from the early cantos of Dante’s 14th-century epic poem Divine Comedy. To round out the evening, Princeton Festival Artistic Director Richard Tang Yuk pulled Giacomo Puccini’s comic Gianni Schicchi away from its usual trilogy companions, exploiting the opera’s Dante source material to create an operatic evening reminding us all why we should behave. This “double bill” premiered June 23 and was repeated to a packed Matthews Theatre house this past Saturday afternoon.

Rachmaninoff composed his one-act setting of Francesca da Rimini at the turn of the 20th century, during Russia’s revolution. Rachmaninoff composed the crucial love duet between Francesca and Paolo first and then put the opera aside. During those ensuing years, he became acquainted with the music of Richard Wagner, which considerably influenced the orchestration of the opera. The rich orchestral fabric is a character unto itself, full of leitmotifs and dark sonorities. The action in this opera moved slowly at times, and The Princeton Festival Orchestra brought out every nuance (including some very creepy string effects). Rachmaninoff’s ability to mesmerize through orchestration was particularly evident when Paolo and Francesca finally give in to their desires over a lush 51-measure orchestral passage.

Princeton Festival stage director Steven LaCosse cleverly further embedded the Dante link into the evening by staging Dante (played by Samuel Green) at a writing desk as text from Divine Comedy floated above the stage. In this first of the double bill of operas, Dante and his companion, the ghost of Virgil (played by Nathaniel Olson) had the tough job of staying animated onstage for the entire opera, observing the action.

The most commanding voice of the evening belonged to baritone Stephen Gaertner, who sang both the roles of Malatesta in the Rachmaninoff and Gianni Schicchi in the subsequent Puccini opera. Mr. Gaertner is a veteran of the Metropolitan Opera, and had no trouble taking over the stage and convincing the audience of his torment. Soprano Caroline Worra, also a past Met singer, particularly excelled at floating the very high passages of her role, which was full of pathos at being married to the wrong man. Tenor Rolando Sanz handled well his role as the “other man,” somehow knowing that Francesca would eventually come around.

Key to the success of this opera, full of long orchestral interludes, was Graham Lustig’s choreography, setting four dances as other condemned souls. This production also created great opportunities for lighting and technology, fully exploited by set designer Mark Pirolo and lighting designer Norman Coates. With this teamwork, The Princeton Festival managed to balance a heavily symphonic work with visuals and vocals.

The operatic mood shifted considerably with Gianni Schicchi — a character referenced briefly in Dante’s Inferno, but rooted in 13th-century Florentine history. Puccini was highly successful when he set the story of Gianni Schicchi in the 16th-century commedia dell’arte tradition, with all the patter and vocal intricacy Italian audiences were used to hearing from the time of Rossini. Mr. Gaertner returned in the title role, still commanding the stage, but relaxed in intensity and clearly enjoying the comedic physicality as he elaborately scammed the rest of the family. Ms. Worra also returned as one of the related wives, showing a slightly different singing style than the first opera. By the time this opera premiered, audiences were likely expecting great melodies from Puccini, and one of the most peculiar moments in the opera is when amidst all the comedic patter comes one of the great melodic gems of opera. Soprano Jodi Burns delivered “O mio babbino caro” with a touch of innocence in a relaxed but quick tempo. A cast of underhanded and conniving relatives (performed animatedly all around) swarmed around Schicchi, also enjoying the chance to cut loose a bit (and have fun making a huge mess onstage). Soprano Jamie Van Eyck was particularly well made up and dressed to portray La Ciesca with elaborate snootiness.

The Princeton Festival operatic “double bill” was an impressive handful for the one evening alone, but combined with the more than thirty events the festival produced in three weeks no doubt made the Princeton community appreciate all the more how much work it was to put these two operas together and bring them to the stage. The Rachmaninoff opera in particular is rarely heard, and the two works together cemented the Festival’s reputation as a high-level opera presenter.

June 27, 2012

Princeton University Summer Concerts kicked off its season in high gear last Tuesday night with a full house performance of the Daedalus String Quartet, a young and fresh chamber ensemble. The Daedalus players seem to work in all periods of music, with attention to particular current composers. Their concert Tuesday night at Richardson Auditorium focused on the turn of the 19th century and a composer whose work was commissioned for the ensemble.

Violinists Min-Young Kim and Matilda Kaul, violist Jessica Thompson and cellist Thomas Kraines showed great ability to carry on a musical dialog among instruments, starting with Mozart’s String Quartet No. 23 in F Major. Composed within two years of the composer’s death, this last of Mozart’s string quartets paid homage to Haydn but also showed the playfulness and humor of the Magic Flute.

The first movement, led by a sweet cello melody, featured delicate little phrases and sforzandi which were effectively brought out by the ensemble. Ms. Kim demonstrated very quick fingers in lively exchanges between the violin and cello. Mr. Kraines had a predominant role throughout the quartet, as evidenced in a long second movement melodic line. The Daedalus Quartet paid a great deal of attention to dynamic detail, which paid off in conveying the poignancy of the second movement and the clean parallel thirds between the violins. This work contained dynamic and musical suspense, showing the evolution of the genre that Beethoven would eventually claim as his own, but the four members of the Daedalus ensemble maintained a freshness to their sound, ending movements especially gracefully.

The Daedalus Quartet has long championed the music of American composers and recently premiered New York composer Joan Tower’s one-movement White Water. Like the water for which it was named, this work alternated between moving and staid music — tension and resolution. Ms. Thompson opened the work with a rich viola sound, as the other three instrumentalists employed languid glissandi up to a collective union. Intervals were exact, even when dissonant, and the ensemble drove repeated passages forward. As the pulsating chords moved together, it was clear to see why the Daedalus ensemble enjoyed performing this complex and intriguing work.

By the time Beethoven got a hold of the string quartet form, the genre had expanded to include a wide emotional range. Beethoven composed a number of his quartets in sets, one of which was Opus 59, dating from the height of the composer’s middle period. The Daedalus ensemble presented the first quartet of the Opus 59 set, with Mr. Kraines opening the piece with a rich cello sound. Especially after the fury of the Tower piece, Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 7 in F Major seemed to be intimate and personal to the players. The quartet was marked by an unusually fast second movement, with the same rhythmic drive and motivic intensity as the composer’s Symphony No. 5. The Daedalus players kept this movement heading forward, ending with a bit of Beethoven humor.

In the introspective third movement, the players seemed to be in their own worlds, yet cohesively together. An elegant and extended violin I trill led to a joyous fourth movement full of sparkle as the two violins blended together. The Daedalus Quartet moved smoothly through a typical series of false endings leading to a final flourish to close the work.

Among the many string quartet ensembles that spring up all the time, the Daedalus String quartet in particular possesses a youthful and buoyant sound which would make any concert of theirs enjoyable. Princeton audiences have become accustomed to hearing elegant chamber music in the summer, and they were certainly not disappointed with this start to the summer concerts season.

ANTICIPATION AND MEMORY: The flirtatious maid (Katrina Michaels, on left), the middle-aged lawyer Fredrik (Evan Thompson), and Fredrik’s very young wife Anne (Miyuki Miyagi) anticipate, with wildly disparate fears and desires, a romantic “Weekend in the Country” in the first act finale to Princeton Summer Theater’s production of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s musical comedy, “A Little Night Music,” playing through July 1 at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus.

Stephen Sondheim acknowledged some conflict in his collaboration with the director Harold Prince on the original 1973 production of A Little Night Music: “Hal had described the show as being ‘whipped cream with knives,’ but he was more interested in the whipped cream and I was more interested in the knives.”

A Little Night Music, music and lyrics by Mr. Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler, is more than replete with both “whipped cream” and “knives,” and Princeton Summer Theater’s current production, playing for just one more weekend at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus, delivers both the light and the dark, farce and tragedy, with unerring balance, taste, and sophistication.

Set in Sweden at the start of the twentieth century and based on Ingmar Bergman’s film Smiles of a Summer Night, Night Music ran for 601 performances in its original Broadway production, starring Glynis Johns, Len Cariou, and Hermione Gingold, became a movie in 1978 with Elizabeth Taylor, Mr. Cariou, and Ms. Gingold, then was successfully revived for 425 performances on Broadway three years ago with Catherine Zeta-Jones, later replaced by Bernadette Peters, and Angela Lansbury, later replaced by Elaine Stritch. It is, along with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), Sweeney Todd (1979) and Into the Woods (1986), one of Mr. Sondheim’s most popular musicals, but in its depth, complexity of music, plot, theme, and subtle shifts of tone, it does pose formidable challenges for performers and audiences.

This youthful and ambitious Princeton Summer Theater Company — with seasoned professional director Adam Immerwahr at the helm, a dynamic and experienced cast of undergraduates, and recent college graduates from Princeton University and elsewhere, a first-rate, professionally-led design and technical crew, and a talented pit orchestra of nine — is up to the challenges and delivers a lucid, richly nuanced, thoroughly entertaining performance.

A Little Night Music is all about love, with themes and variations; perspectives from youth, middle age and old age; love eagerly anticipated, love fulfilled, and love remembered.

Three is the magic number here, as the show progresses in threes. The music is mostly in triple time — a sort of waltz musical — and the plot follows a series of no fewer than six shifting triangles of desire and romance. The music is complex. More typical of operetta than Broadway musical A Little Night Music, created in the style of late nineteenth century Viennese operettas, has been revived twice by the New York City Opera, in addition to its multiple productions in various venues throughout the world.

A Little Night Music is a tantalizing mix of bedroom farce and psychological tragedy, of bright romantic comedy and bitter reflection on the realities of male-female relationships, of true love and wistful regret, of human folly, and the wisdom of age and experience.

When Desiree (the luminous Sarah Anne Sillers), after a show-stopping rendition of “Send in the Clowns,” asks her middle-aged lover Fredrik (Evan Thompson), “Was that a farce?” and he replies “My fault I fear,” they seem to be referring to their problematic relationship. But she could just as well be asking about the whole show and its views of the human comedy of love and life.

The plot focuses on the story of Desiree, a touring actress, and her meeting after many years with her old flame Fredrik, who, intent on “renewing his unrenewable youth,” has recently married the lovely 18-year-old Anne (Miyuki Miyagi), who (somewhat implausibly) remains a virgin eleven months after their wedding.

The attraction between Fredrik and Desiree is rekindled. In their cleverly ironic duet “You Must Meet My Wife,” the two ex-lovers move quickly from uneasy propriety into a renewed romantic entanglement. But Desiree’s married current lover, the blustery, belligerent Count Carl-Magnus (Andrew Massey), is furious and seeks revenge on Fredrik.

Mr. Massey is not a singer, but renders the comical Carl-Magnus with convincing poise and swagger, as he talks and sings his way through his sexist “In Praise of Women” in act one, then clashes directly with Mr. Thompson’s Fredrik in act two for a cleverly choreographed, deftly timed, humorous confrontation in “It Would Have Been Wonderful.”

The two deceived wives, Carl-Magnus’s determinedly outspoken Charlotte (Maeve Brady), and Fredrik’s wife Anne, renew an old acquaintance and plot together to confound Desiree and end their husbands’ adulterous affairs. Their memorable duet “Every Day a Little Death,” offers an unsurprisingly cynical assessment of their husbands, their marriages and the state of love — “Men are stupid, men are vain,/Love’s disgusting, love’s insane,/A humiliating business!”

The plotting and the triangular liaisons multiply further as Fredrik’s impulsive nineteen-year-old son Henrik (Mark Watter), a scholarly seminary student and cello player, after a sexual dalliance with Petra (Katrina Michaels) the maid, finds himself desperately in love with his stepmother. Petra moves on to more satisfying fulfillment for her erotic passions in the form of the butler Frid (Patrick Morton). Ms. Michaels’ Petra expresses her colorful, forthright character and lusty outlook on life in a rousing solo, “The Miller’s Son.”

From beginning to end, Desiree’s daughter Fredrika (Emma Watt) and Desiree’s mother Madame Armfeldt (Carolyn Vasko), one too young and the other too old to be involved directly in the erotic dances of desire playing out on the stage before them, observe and comment on the proceedings. Ms. Vasko makes a sixty-year stretch in age to portray the elderly matron in her wheelchair, a sharp-tongued, commanding figure of strength and wisdom in the role made famous first by Ms. Gingold, then Ms. Lansbury and Ms. Stritch. Ms. Watt’s Fredrika is also memorable and consistently convincing as the inquisitive young granddaughter. Their relationship is intriguing and moving to witness.

In Ms. Vasko’s solo number, “Liaisons,” she may miss a few notes of the melody, but she forcefully delivers the meaning of the lyrics and the essence of character, as Madame Armfeldt nostalgically reminisces about her colorful past and laments over the declining standards in the art of love: “Where’s discretion of the heart, where’s passion in the art, where’s craft?”

Also providing perspective throughout the show is a quintet of waltzing singers, lovers — Mr. Lindquist, Mrs. Nordstrom, Mrs. Anderssen, Mr. Erlanson, Mrs. Segstrom (Sam Eggers, Abigail Sparrow, Emily Verla, Brian Hart, Jessica Anne Cox respectively) — who, as Mr. Immerwahr writes in his program note, “haunt the space, each with their own variations on the themes of the musical.” Like a late romantic Viennese version of an ancient Greek chorus, this polished ensemble observes, enhances the rapid transitions between scenes, and helps to establish the background and tone of the show.

The sturdy, functional set design by Jeffrey Van Velsor, with its Scandinavian elegance and simplicity, and complex, nuanced lighting by Alex Mannix serves this show admirably. Necessary furniture — bed, tables, chairs, desk — is wheeled on and off efficiently as the scene shifts from one residence to another and eventually to the Armfeldt country estate gardens, terrace, dining room, hallway, and bedroom. Three steps upstage lead to a wall of windows and French doors, behind which is the orchestra pit, lit in varying colors and degrees of clarity to suit the mood of the scene — all in all a striking visual effect. The close quarters and intimacy of the Hamilton Murray Theater lend themselves admirably to the delicacy and human scale of the drawing-room comedy enacted here.

Ben Schaffer brings an experienced, professional hand to the challenges of sound design and technical direction. Music director Kevin Laskey, another local professional and recent Princeton university graduate, leads the excellent nine-piece pit orchestra with poise and precision through the tangled and demanding Sondheim score.

Pulling this major production together, Mr. Immerwahr has cast the show with unerring intelligence and directed with distinction. The pace moves rapidly from start to finish. Every moment seems carefully, precisely rehearsed; with scenes shifting smoothly; diction, projection, and balance between actors and orchestra, between comic and serious, making all the witty shades of meaning and complex dialogue clear and accessible.

Costume designers Julia Bumke and Ariel Sibert have assembled a rich array of formal wear befitting the individual characters and helping to create the appropriate world of the Swedish upper class in 1900.

Madame Armfeldt promises her granddaughter at the start of the play that “the summer night smiles. Three times … at the follies of human beings, of course. The first smile smiles at the young, who know nothing. The second at the fools who know too little, like Desiree. And the third at the old who know too much — like me.” A Little Night Music, in this dazzling Princeton Summer Theater production, transcends the time and place in which it is set, transcends its farcical plot, transcends the difficulties of Mr. Sondheim’s sometimes cerebral music, and it transcends the discord of these characters’ lives. It delivers a striking commentary on the human condition, the frailty of love and life. Mr. Immerwahr and his richly talented company offer an exciting opening to PST’s diverse summer season. Don’t miss it.