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.

June 20, 2012

Since the inauguration of The Princeton Festival five years ago, the Concordia Chamber Players has been an integral part of the musical activities. Currently based locally across the river at Trinity Church, in Solebury, Pa., the Players do not have far to travel for the festival, and many Princeton chamber music aficionados may be wondering why they do not hear more of this ensemble during the year. The Concordia Chamber Players no doubt increased their fan base after their Sunday concert at Miller Chapel as part of The Princeton Festival’s second week. Programming a very contemporary and technically difficult concert, the Players used the intimate space of Miller Chapel to show the audience close-up how challenging repertoire can bring an ensemble together.

Artistic director Michelle Djokic (who also plays cello in the ensemble) bracketed a light-hearted Milhaud piece with two works of extreme intensity. Estonian composer Arvo Pärt spent a portion of his career under Soviet musical repression, developing a style rooted in ancient chant and mysticism. His early music was banned for its 12-tone technique, but his late 1970s Fratres, scored for cello and piano, retains a mathematical structure in its medieval atmosphere. The one-movement work begins and ends with stark and intense passages from the cello, played with obvious passion and concentration by Ms. Djokic. Ms. Djokic was joined by pianist Rieko Aizawa, and the two musicians built the dynamics and energy of the piece together. Ms. Djokic’s solo line may not have been the most melodic, but she always played with direction and an aim to tell the story. Both instruments warmed up their sound as the piece moved along, and Ms. Djokic in particular demonstrated rich double stops toward the end of the work.

Arvo Pärt’s musical effects recur in Oliver Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, an eight-movement work which brought together Ms. Djokic, Ms. Aizawa, violinist Jesse Mills, and clarinetist Igor Begelman. Quartet for the End of Time has its roots in Messiaen’s incarceration in a prisoner-of-war camp in the early years of World War II. Among the other prisoners were a clarinetist, violinist, and cellist, and Messiaen’s Quartet was premiered on broken instruments to an audience of prisoners and guards. Although inspired by texts from the Book of Revelation, the work encapsulates World War II, much of which was still to come in 1941.

It is unusual for a chamber quartet to include sections for solo instruments, and the most notable in this piece was the third movement “Abyss for Birds,” scored for solo clarinet. Mr. Begelman played seemingly endless lines with ease and intensity, holding the audience in rapt attention with extended single notes which seemed to grow from nothing. In the movements in which all instruments played, the musicians showed their parts to be independent, yet fitting together. Mr. Mills seemed to be the leader in this piece, and the four musicians maintained solid communication, leading to precise rhythm in multiple unison passages throughout the work. This quartet had a driving and relentless intensity about it, and its difficulty was clear to the audience. Each instrument told a story at some point, with violin and cello playing movements accompanied by piano. The final movement in particular showcased the violin and piano ascending to the highest point of their registers in the appropriately titled “Praise to the immortality of Jesus.”

Darius Milhaud’s Suite for Violin, Clarinet and Piano broke the extreme intensity of the other works and it was brought to life with a spirited approach and exacting rhythm. A second movement duet between clarinet and violin brought out the French flavor of the piece, as Mr. Mills and Mr. Begelman complemented each other in graceful melodic sound. Throughout the piece, Ms. Aizawa provided solid, bell-like accompaniment in a work clearly influenced by early 20th-century jazz. The Milhaud work not only provided respite from two works born of repression and subjugation, but also showed how clean and accurate the Concordia Chamber Players have become in their history of working together.

June 13, 2012

Some artistic changes in performing ensembles take place with a great deal of fanfare, and others slip under the radar. The Greater Princeton Youth Orchestra has undergone a tremendous artistic change this year, not of their own doing, as Music Director Fernando Raucci temporarily withdrew from the organization for medical reasons. In any organization dealing with children, even a temporary loss of an influential figurehead is difficult, but the GPYO has rallied well to keep its musical family environment together. As the opening event of the Princeton Festival, the GPYO presented its spring concert this past weekend in Richardson Auditorium, showing that its student membership can be flexible under different types of leadership.

The GPYO has several ensembles within its structure representing different instrumentations, and the Concert Orchestra presented several works for strings. Conducted by Arvin Gopal, the Concert Orchestra used the string texture to find contrasting dynamics and colors within the rhythmic drive of three relatively contemporary pieces. Lower strings were a bit in short supply for this ensemble, but solo double bassist Peter Adams and cellists Rachel Asir and Pallavi Velagapudi made their presence known, especially in the contemporary arrangement of Jean Gabriel-Marie’s La Cinquantaine. Saturday night’s performance was a concert of great orchestral melodies, the first of which was head in the ‘Pavane’ of Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite for String Orchestra. By focusing on the rhythmic energy of these pieces, Dr. Gopal, conducting from memory, kept the mood of the music and closed the pieces particularly well.

High-quality music for wind bands is also hard to come by, but Adam Warshafsky, conductor of the GPYO Symphonic Winds, presented two effective late 20th-century pieces from living composers. Most impressive was Frank Ticheli’s Sanctuary, scored for concert band. Mr. Warshafsky brought out the majesty of the piece, aided by solos from oboist Melissa Maslyn and French horn player Anna Clifford.

Pianist Julian Edgren, featured in the GPYO Symphonic Orchestra’s performance of an excerpt from Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, is a triple threat. Concurrently excelling at piano and violin, Edgren serves as Concertmaster for the Orchestra, and when not garnering awards and solos in music, wields a tennis racket for the Princeton High School varsity tennis team, with which he had a most impressive season this past year. Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto is one of the most challenging concerti in the repertory, and Symphony Orchestra conductor Kawika Kahalehoe certainly raised the bar for the players by programming its first movement. Mr. Edgren played the opening deliberately, building a crescendo leading to the Orchestra’s familiar rich string melodic entrance. With a fluid right hand, Mr. Edgren played with a great deal of feeling as the motion never stopped in the piano. Mr. Kahalehoe built orchestral dynamics to a decisive recapitulation of the opening theme, and the music maintained a nice flow, with fresh and youthful-sounding solos from some of the players.

Mr. Kahalehoe balanced the rest of the concert with familiar orchestral movements, including excerpts from Smetana, Borodin and Dvorak. Mr. Edgren rejoined the Orchestra as Concertmaster for these works, whose signature tunes were no doubt familiar to the audience. In the Borodin Polovtsian Dances, elegant solos were heard from oboist Heeyoung Park and English hornist Emma Coleman. Placing percussion on either side of the stage increased the rhythmic drive of the music, and these Dances moved right along.

More recognizable tunes were found in the fourth movement of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, especially from the horns as a section and clarinetist Ray Hou as a solo. The Orchestra demonstrated a great deal of precision in this movement, with graceful changes in dynamics amidst a lively tempo.

All of GPYO’s conductors Saturday night referenced the challenges of forging ahead this past year without their beloved Music Director, which made the performance not only a celebration of the student musicians (especially the graduating seniors) but also a congratulatory event for the organization as a whole for making it through the year. The players no doubt hope that Mr. Raucci returns soon, but in the meantime, the ensembles and music are in good hands.

May 23, 2012

Thirty-three years, or a third of a century, is a long time in any organization’s history. In her pre-concert remarks, Princeton Pro Musica Artistic Director Frances Fowler Slade commented that when she first wanted to start a chorus in Princeton she was told that “the last thing Princeton needed was another music ensemble.” On the contrary, in the past thirty years, the Princeton area has exploded with high-quality musical performances, and Princeton Pro Musica has grown right along with the musical community. After thirty-three years, Ms. Slade has decided to pass on the Pro Musica baton to a new choral visionary, and the chorus honored its founder on Sunday afternoon with a final performance under Ms. Slade’s direction. Choosing what could be the most towering choral work going, Ms. Slade, chorus, soloists and orchestra brought J.S. Bach’s Mass in B minor to spirited life in Richardson Auditorium.

It surely was not easy to conduct the last concert of an ensemble that she has brought up like a child, but Ms. Slade was all business when it came to Bach’s intricate music. Tempi were quick with instrumental soloists finding nuance within the speed, and the chorus showed off three decades of choral discipline in its handling of coloratura runs. Movements which often get bogged down in over-romanticization moved right along, with the pathos and poignancy of the Biblical text conveyed by Baroque phrasing and tapered cadences.

Bach probably never heard all the components of this monumental work performed together as a single unit in his lifetime, but since the 19th-century revival of interest in Bach’s music and evolution of the choral society it has become a staple of choral performance, featuring up to five choral parts and four soloists, accompanied by Baroque orchestra. Soloists for Sunday’s performance included singers who had a history with Pro Musica, as well as newcomers. Soprano Mary Ellen Callahan had her hands full with a very quick “Laudamus Te,” but handled the tempo well without feeling rushed. Ms. Callahan was well matched with mezzo-soprano Alyson Harvey, with whom she shared two duets. These two singers were especially cognizant of each other in the “Et in unum Dominum” duet, as phrases flowed among singers and violins.

Ms. Harvey had two very tough arias, closing phrases particularly well in the mezzo aria from the “Gloria” section. Her phrasing never felt rushed, despite the difficulty of the passages, and she was elegantly accompanied by oboe d’amore player Caroline Park. Ms. Harvey was also key in closing the entire mass, singing a haunting yet crystalline “Agnus Dei” which summed up the imploring text leading up to this point and making the final chorus all the more glorious.

Tenor Robert Petillo brought a long history of Bach performance to this concert, drawing on his experience as a Bach passion evangelist to present the “Benedictus” text with the authority of a preacher, as the flute obbligato, gracefully played by Mary Schmidt, chased the vocal phrases. Mr. Petillo collaborated well with Ms. Callahan in a duet from the “Gloria,” with Mr. Petillo handling well some unusually quirky word placement. Bass Kevin Deas, who has been heard with Pro Musica numerous times, was as commanding as he has been in previous performances, maintaining especially well the long vocal lines of “Et in spiritum sanctum.” In this aria Mr. Deas was accompanied by two oboi d’amore (played by Ms. Park and Nathan Mills), which was a special treat since it is rare enough to hear one oboe d’amore, much less two. In a previous choral section, Ms. Slade wisely re-assigned a very difficult bass choral line to Mr. Deas, who presented the resurrection text with affirmation and conviction.

More than anything else, this performance was about Pro Musica and what Frances Slade has created over the past thirty-three years. The choral movements were full of the trademark Pro Musica blocks of sound, with especially clean runs in very quick tempi. As could be expected, the vocal musicians sang their hearts out, and the sections were always well-balanced. Most energetic among the choral movements was the “Et expecto” section which closed the “Symbolum Nicenum,” with the chorus flying through runs and three trumpets adding a joyous touch. As also should have been expected, all performers, and especially Ms. Slade, were clearly pleased with themselves as the ensemble celebrated its past and looked toward new beginnings.


May 16, 2012

To close its 2011-12 season, the Princeton Symphony Orchestra presented musical roses — two light airy flowers and one sturdy plant with solid roots. It no doubt was very difficult to come indoors on Sunday afternoon, but those who chose to forego gardening for Ravel and Brahms were treated to a Mother’s Day gift of musical lightness and serenity.

Princeton Symphony Orchestra Music Director Rossen Milanov began the concert as if introducing the audience to a garden, surveying all the flowers in one visual gaze. Princeton composer Sarah Kirkland Snider began composing the one-movement Disquiet more than ten years ago, recently revising it for inclusion in this concert. Disquiet was lush, with many orchestral colors, and despite its title, began peacefully with almost imperceptible violins. Mr. Milanov effectively brought out crescendi and descrescendi, as the “agitated restlessness” of the piece was expressed by Jeremy Levine’s precise timpani. An elegant string quartet recurred throughout the piece against harp (played by Barbara Biggers) and clean articulation from the winds and a graceful English horn solo from Nicholas Masterson. Ms. Snider offered some unusual combinations of instruments in this piece, with the sonorities between violas and celli especially nice.

This piece was very audience-friendly because of its sonorities and the many different colors in the texture. The keynote work on the program, Maurice Ravel’s Concerto in G Major for Piano and Orchestra, was also an impressive palette of musical colors, illuminated with clarity by guest piano soloist Rieko Aizawa. Ms. Aizawa began the Ravel Concerto with a quick impressionistic start, playing with precision against jazz-influenced orchestration from the ensemble. Languid when she needed to be, Ms. Aizawa played with a great deal of upper arm strength, playfully adding sauciness for the final movement. Especially mesmerizing was Ms. Aizawa’s refined playing in the second movement Adagio, with an always-steady left hand and just a bit of quirkiness to the piano melody line.

Wind solos abounded in this high-spirited piece, with sweetness added from Mr. Masterson’s English horn and flutist Jayn Rosenfeld. The brass sections were able to provide jazzy effects, including some from principal trumpeter Jerry Bryant and a klezmer-type clarinet solo from Andrew Lamy. Ravel intended this concerto to be lighthearted, and all involved seemed to be having fun in this performance.

Where Ravel’s Concerto was like delicate instrumental lace, Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 in E minor was solid and substantial. The orchestra pared down for this work, showing Brahms’ Classical roots, and Mr. Milanov took a contained and stately approach to the first two movements. Particularly in the second movement Andante, the wind theme was presented nicely against pizzicato strings, with a very clean pair of horns, solo clarinet and bassoon adding to the texture. Mr. Milanov took an especially relaxed approach to this movement, building tension slowly.

The Princeton Symphony took off in the final two movements, conveying the most drama and musical bite. Mr. Milanov kept the theme of the third movement decisive, with a well-blended quartet of horns. Timpanist Jeremy Levine was kept very busy during the final movement providing a martial effect to contrast the lyrical winds and a very clean trio of trombones. Also adding to the clarity of sound were trumpeters Jerry Bryant and Paul Murphy. The closing fourth movement was also marked by a clean flute solo from Ms. Rosenfeld.

Closing Mr. Milanov’s first year as music director of the Princeton Symphony Orchestra with these three works showed the ensemble’s commitment to three musical tenets: the best in orchestral repertoire, new and exciting soloists, and promoting the music of contemporary and local composers. The orchestra also promoted its coming season on Sunday afternoon, and no doubt will continue building its strength in these three areas.

May 9, 2012

The counter-tenor superstar has been undergoing a relatively recent resurgence, yet much of the 17th and 18th century operas — which audiences are familiar with — were written with this voice in mind. Composers from Handel to Mozart and even Wagner wrote for the castrato voice, and in the Baroque era, male sopranos and altos were considered vocal icons. In recent decades, attention has turned back to the counter-tenor in the interest of authentic performance. Despite these roots in the 17th and 18th centuries, David Daniels’ performance last week at Richardson Auditorium journeyed way beyond the traditional Baroque counter-tenor repertory into the vocally rich music of the 19th century. Joined last Thursday night by renowned accompanist Martin Katz and dancers from the esteemed Mark Morris Dance Group, Mr. Daniels demonstrated his versatility and range to a sold-out house at Richardson.

Mr. Daniels has certainly performed his share of late 17th and early 18th century music; his recent performance in a Metropolitan Opera Baroque pastiche validated why he is considered a leading interpreter of this historical period. To open Thursday night’s performance, he stepped back a bit to the earliest days of opera. Jacopo Peri’s 1600 Euridice is one of the earliest surviving operas, employing a number of musical styles dramatically new to the times. The aria “Gioite al canto mio” exemplified the melodic style of singing prevalent in 16th-century Italy. Most likely accompanied by stringed instruments, this aria transferred well to piano, as collaborator Martin Katz maintained a light touch on the short quick scales leading to the sung part. Mr. Daniels brought a vocal richness to the text probably not heard in Peri’s era, but as he showed in this and the next few selections from the early Baroque, he is a master of this period. Mr. Daniels is an advocate of the “give and take” between accompanist and voice, and his performing relationship with Mr. Katz is solid enough to find the ebb and flow in each text. Mr. Daniels put particular weight behind the vocal line in Caccini’s “Amarilli, mia bella” (considered a signature song for counter-tenors) and showed breath control which in the Baroque era would become a staple of male singing.

In the four selections by early 20th-century French composer Reynaldo Hahn, Mr. Daniels soared in the upper registers as Mr. Katz provided light and airy accompaniment. This composer is not well-known, yet his music is equally as effectively impressionistic as the more renowned Debussy and Ravel; one could almost see Monet working on his paintings in the music.

This concert took the audience on a geographic, literary, and musical journey, and Mr. Daniels moved effortlessly into the Austrian music of Johannes Brahms. His vocal sparkle in the five selections of Brahms songs well matched the choreography of Mark Morris which provided a unique element to the performance. The Mark Morris Dance Group is known for a young, fresh, and innovative approach to dance and the six members of the troupe who performed Thursday night added simplicity and elegance, taking the concert beyond the words and music. In his songs, Brahms treated piano and voice equally, and the third song “Nicht mehr zu dir zu gehen” revealed the most dramatic impact in the closing piano accompaniment.

The Mark Morris dancers returned for a very buoyant performance of three songs mostly revolving around spring and love by Hector Berlioz. “Le Spectre de la Rose” in particular covered a wide vocal range, and Mr. Daniels effectively drew out an introspective text considering destiny and fate. The close of this song drew a sparse yet dramatic accompaniment from Mr. Katz. The dancers shone in “L’Ile Inconnue,” with choreography simulating the swells of the sea. Mr. Daniels closed the concert with four folksong arrangements of Ohio composer Steven Mark Kohn. All composers need a performing advocate, and Mr. Kohn has a solid one in Mr. Daniels, who apparently has a long association with Kohn’s three sets of American Folksongs. These arrangements were nicely flowing and Mr. Kohn clearly writes well for the voice. “One the Other Shore” draws from an old American tune, which Mr. Daniels sang expressively, and Mr. Kohn’s Copland-esque musical style was a spirited way to end the concert.

Princeton University scored a coup with Mr. Daniels, also engaging him for a master class with five voice students from the department of music. If Princeton University concerts can continue to build extensive collaborations with major artists, the positive effects will be felt well through the musical community.

May 2, 2012

Princeton University Orchestra’s annual Stuart B. Mindlin Memorial Concerts are a celebration from many standpoints. Besides honoring a former member of the orchestra, these concerts also celebrate the graduating seniors in the ensemble, often include guest vocal artists, and traditionally challenge the orchestra to play some of the most difficult music there is. Friday night’s University Orchestra concert in Richardson Auditorium (the concert was repeated Saturday night) brought together works by two revolutionary composers that drew the best in rhythmic precision from the players.

The gestation of Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck crossed over the entirety of World War I, so it is not surprising that the “three fragments” from the opera that were played by the ensemble were dark, with a somewhat disturbing text for the soprano soloist. Conductor Michael Pratt fielded a colossal number of players for this concert, joined by the always solid Sarah Pelletier. Given the lushness of Berg’s orchestral writing, Ms. Pelletier drew wisely on her previous experience with the opera and a formidable upper range to convey the story. With a well-blended brass accompaniment in the opening “fragment,” Ms. Pelletier took a maternal approach to the text, with the martial text especially well-timed with the orchestra. Ms. Pelletier continually kept the German text clean, saving the most vocal strength for the close of the second “fragment.” The final “fragment” brought the culmination of all that preceded, couched in the simplicity of child’s play, as the orchestra built intensity through melodic scales which seemed to end nowhere.

This piece, as well as the Stravinsky work which followed, provided ample opportunities for the seniors in the orchestra to shine as soloists. In the opening “fragment,” instrumental solos by clarinetist Jeffrey Hodes and cellist Francesca McNeeley punctuated the shimmering strings as the music passed through the sections.

Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring was equally as avant-garde as Berg’s music, especially if the legend of its riot-filled premiere is true. Composed in the decade before Wozzeck, The Rite of Spring ballet score depicts raw and earthy “pictures of pagan Russia,” with pulsating rhythms and emotional intensity which was likely a shock to early 20th-century French audiences. Mr. Pratt and the University Orchestra presented the complete ballet score, consisting of fourteen connected sections divided into two parts. Starting with the opening bassoon solo elegantly played by Louisa Slosar, the orchestra played with a subtle underpinning which made the offbeat accents all the more jarring. Stravinsky’s music kept returning to the solo bassoon, as the orchestra musicians played accents in unison with almost simultaneous physical gestures as the players ended the first movement in an appropriate wild frenzy. Mr. Pratt kept the music flowing well, with conducting gestures precise among changing shifts in material. This music was clearly demanding on the players, with such effects as a long continuous clarinet trill well shared by two players without a gap in the sound.

Stravinsky’s music focused heavily on the winds, with many different colors coming from the clarinet section alone. Ms. Slosar and English hornist Drew Mayfield added grace to the instrumental palette, with very light flute as “icing.” Instrumental soloists scattered throughout the ensemble brought out the folktunes used in this work with clarity. In “The Sacrifice,” a very subtle pair of trumpets punctuated the pulsating winds. Key to the success of this piece was the precision in the strings — each player’s bowing was exactly the same as everyone else’s, giving exactness to the rhythm which is so important in Stravinsky.

Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in particular is characterized as a demonstration of orchestral virtuosity. The Princeton University Orchestra more than showed its mettle in this concert, with Mr. Pratt looking justifiably pleased with the performance and the players clearly enjoying their last few musical weeks of school.

April 25, 2012

There are a number of venues for opera performance in the Princeton area, but one which is often overlooked is the Kendall Hall Theatre on the campus of The College of New Jersey. A relatively recent addition to the arts scene, this hall offers tremendous possibilities for multi-media productions. Boheme Opera NJ has also been often overlooked in the regional opera arena; the early years of the company’s 20-year history moved through several school auditoriums in the county, but the company has grown to offer professional opportunities to both national and local performers. Boheme Opera made good use of the multi-faceted Kendall Hall this past weekend with a full-staged production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. The Sunday afternoon’s performance (the opera was also presented Friday night) was a brisk and clean rendition of Mozart’s always-popular opera, with some excellent singing and pacing that moved the fanciful story right along.

Performed in English with supertitles, this production used a translation which emphasized the Masonic aspects of the libretto — brotherhood, love, and virtue. Spoken dialog was clean from all performers, and the particular vocabulary of this translation substantially enhanced the singing and the mood of the scenes.

The lead performers had strong credits with national and international opera houses, and all were equally comfortable with Mozart. Although her character is onstage less than others, the Queen of the Night’s two arias are show-stoppers and this is the role audiences come to hear. Soprano Lorraine Ernest has made Mozart’s Queen her signature role, presenting a formidable and intimidating character, giving credence to the legend that the Queen may have been the embodiment of every over-bearing woman in Mozart’s life. Ms. Ernest had no trouble spinning off the high and fast coloratura (with the triplets in the “revenge” aria especially clean), and impressively exact timing between soprano and bassoon.

Sympathetic dramatic contrast came from the Queen’s daughter, Pamina, sung by Kristin Vogel. Paminas are sometimes cast as frail characters, but not in this case. Ms. Vogel sang with authority and sensitivity to the phrasing and mood of the text. Tenor James Price ably handled the role of Pamina’s love interest, Tamino. Comic relief came from bird-catcher Papageno, sung by baritone Kenneth Overton. Papageno cleverly played his own panpipe, proving a quirky tuning distinction from Tamino’s answering flute, and Mr. Overton was a warm and rich, yet precise singer. His Papagena, sung by soprano Erica Cochran, was captivating in her sparkle and light voice.

The role of High Priest Sarastro often vexes bass singers by its low register. It was refreshing to hear Tom McNichols, who has made a career out of basso profundo roles and was able to sing the role the way it was written, holding low notes for full lengths and clearly declaiming the text.

From the orchestra pit, conductor Joseph Pucciatti led an ensemble which played cleanly, keeping up well with Mr. Pucciatti’s brisk tempi. The only weak musical aspect may have been the chorus, which although well-trained in voice could have used more vocal bite and volume. Strength throughout the opera could be found in the ensembles (for which Mozart is known), with minor characters (some of whom came up through the Boheme Opera experience) showing solid stage and vocal presence.

One of the best attributes of Kendall Hall is its capability for multi-media, including the big screen at the back of the stage. Through the big screen, Virtual Set Designer J. Matthew Root was able to change scenes instantly, sometimes in the middle of arias, and the physical set onstage was able to stay simplistic against continually moving scenery and lighting. The forest scenes were particularly visual, with Tamino’s flute calling nymphs, rather than the customary forest animals.

Since 1982 Boheme Opera has presented all the greats of opera productions, but this was the company’s first Magic Flute. The days of “paying dues” in school auditoriums has clearly paid off — in its new home in Kendall Hall, the company can embark on a new era of opera performance with the best of technology and music.

April 18, 2012

Every year or two, the Princeton University Department of Music presents a major opera with students in the starring roles. Given the magnitude of this year’s production, it is clear why the department spends at least a year putting these projects together. This past weekend brought Benjamin Britten’s chamber opera Albert Herring to the Richardson Auditorium stage, with most of the technically difficult roles handled by students singing well beyond their years. The designation of this opera as “chamber” is certainly understated — Albert Herring is as vocally complex and demanding as some major 19th-century works.

Friday night’s opening (the opera was repeated Saturday night) demonstrated how a tremendous amount of work had gone into presenting a smooth production with few flaws. University director of choral activities Gabriel Crouch took on a new role, conducting an orchestra comprised of area professionals and students, many of whom performed solos matching a specific character in mood and text. Most notable were flutist Jayn Rosenfeld, oboist Matt Sullivan, and hornist Karen Schubert, all of whom well interpreted Britten’s orchestral concept of opening scenes with extended instrumental solos setting the mood onstage. Britten composed Albert Herring shortly after World War II, when material things were likely scarce in Britain. Designer German Cardenas’ sets represented the era well, with simple furniture shaded in pinks and blues.

Albert Herring is cast with thirteen singers, each of whom must sing intricate vocal lines against an accompaniment that often has nothing to do with the singers’ parts. Of the vocal performers in this production, only one was cast with a non-student — the part of Mrs. Herring, sung by mezzo-soprano Danielle Wright. Ms. Wright brought a vast operatic background to this role, which required vocal power perhaps beyond the college-age range. The tenor role of Albert Herring also extended into a vocal maturity beyond college years, but sophomore Christopher Beard moved through the role well as the opera progressed, especially in a very physical and comical soliloquy. Mr. Beard was well able to hold his own in duets with Ms. Wright as his mother. These two significant roles were joined by elderly autocrat Lady Billows, sung by sophomore Tanyaradzwa Tawengwa. More than any other member of the cast, Ms. Tawengwa sang with vocal skill well beyond her University level, wielding her cane as well as her words and bringing solid comic character to the part. These were all challenging roles, but Lady Billows in particular stretched well into dramatic soprano range.

Lady Billows seemed to be always surrounded by her entourage, comprised of the teacher, the vicar, the mayor and the constabulary. As the vicar, Dan Corica showed himself to be a solid tenor with a great deal of animation. His fellow tenor onstage, Saumitra Sahi performing the role of the mayor, sang with more vocal bite, but equally as much animation. The role of the constabulary was clearly borrowed from Gilbert & Sullivan, with bass Kevin Zhu looking every bit the part of a keystone cop, singing decisively into the lower bass register and registering every comic look of dismay and agitation. Soprano Anna Powell sang the role of Miss Wordsworth the teacher with sparkle going as high into the vocal stratosphere as Mr. Zhu was in the basement. The tough role of Housekeeper Florence, with a great deal of a cappella singing, was well handled by Stella Kim, who particularly came to life in the scene which decided Albert Herring should be the “King of the May.” Katherine Buzard and Matthew Walsh sang the romantic roles of Nancy and Sid, respectively, and were particularly effective in a late Act 1 duet in which they sang very clean octaves against what seemed to be a totally unrelated orchestral accompaniment. Music director Gabriel Crouch kept things well under control in the pit, allowing the thirteen-piece orchestra to build ensemble tension gradually. Like Gilbert & Sullivan, Albert Herring is overly-melodramatic at times, with its instrumental music very appealing and played cleanly.

This was a huge undertaking by the department of music, with tough music requiring supreme confidence from the singers. It is very unusual to hear an opera of this difficulty performed at the collegiate level, and the Princeton University Opera performers were no doubt rightfully proud of their accomplishment.

THE WORKS OF GEORGE BALANCHINE: Principal dancers, Tiler Peck and Andrew Veyette from the New York City Ballet, will return to McCarter Theatre on Tuesday, April 24. The dancers will perform a range of works by Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Christopher Wheeldon, and Peter Martins. For more information, visit www.nycballet.com. (Photo Credit: Paul Kolnik)


At McCarter Theatre last fall, a group of principal dancers from the New York City Ballet took part in a lecture demonstration about the works of choreographer George Balanchine. Presented in conjunction with a course being taught at Princeton University by former City Ballet member Heather Watts, the program was a revelation to audience members. The celebrated dancers — among the finest on stages today — wore practice clothes to perform excerpts from several ballets, giving audience members a rare, behind-the-scenes glimpse into their world.

Many of those same dancers will return to McCarter on Tuesday, April 24, when New York City Ballet MOVES, a kind of farm team for the company, brings a program of works by Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Christopher Wheeldon, and Peter Martins to the Matthews Theatre stage. Tiler Peck, Daniel Ulbricht, Wendy Whelan, and brother-and-sister Megan and Robert Fairchild, all of whom performed in the lecture demonstration, are among this stellar group. They are joined by Tyler Angle, Andrew Veyette, Sara Mearns, Amar Ramasar, Jonathan Stafford, and other well-known members of the company.

Peter Martins, who has led City Ballet since Balanchine died in 1983, came up with the idea for MOVES a few years ago. “It was a vision of Peter’s,” says Jean-Pierre Frohlich, MOVES’ Artistic Administrator/Director and a former principal dancer with City Ballet. “He always wanted to have a small group to be able to tour to venues that normally the company as a whole does not visit. I think it was also a way to get our name out there, giving people a professional company with wonderful ballets. Basically, it’s to get people to get to know New York City Ballet.”

MOVES’ first tour was to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. “It was a very big success,” recounts Mr. Frohlich. “The following year we went to the Vail Dance Festival in Colorado, and then back to Jackson Hole, where quite a few people from other institutions came to see us, liked us, and asked us to come to them.”

What followed were engagements in Detroit, Minneapolis, St. Louis, California, and elsewhere, in addition to Princeton. The company will return to Vail this summer, and some European theaters are interested in presenting them.

City Ballet MOVES dances mostly small-scale ballets that require little scenery, but almost always to live music. “Due to our orchestra union contract, we have to perform to live music and cannot use tapes unless the ballet being presented was premiered without live music,” Mr. Frohlich says. “So some of the ballets will have a piano accompanist, or a pianist and violinist, or more. Most of the dancers are principals with the main company, though this time we’re bringing some members of the corps de ballet as well.”

On Tuesday’s program are Balanchine’s Duo Concertant, which debuted at the 1972 Stravinsky Festival; Robbins’ In the Night, danced to piano music by Chopin; Wheeldon’s Polyphonia,” to Ligeti; and Martins’ A Fool for You, to songs by Ray Charles and others (taped). Mr. Frohlich says a new piece is being created for the company by City Ballet dancer Justin Peck. It will premier in Vail this summer.

City Ballet’s regular schedule includes long engagements at Lincoln Center each winter and spring, followed by summer seasons in Saratoga Springs and touring to various parts of the globe. Adding extra work with MOVES might be considered a burden, but Mr. Frohlich says it is quite the opposite.

“The dancers love it,” he says. “A lot of the dancers who haven’t gotten to participate yet are envious of those who have. We try to rotate the group, because this is extra work for them, beyond the guaranteed work week. But they are happy to participate, because it’s more relaxed. They get to experience each other more, and become very good friends. And for the younger dancers in the corps, its especially exciting, because they might get an opportunity to do a role they wouldn’t get the chance to do otherwise.”

April 4, 2012

One only has to attend a local Metropolitan opera moviecast to know that opera is popular in Princeton. What is lesser known to audiences in the area is the process by which an opera comes to be. The Princeton University Music Department, in collaboration with the Lewis Center for the Arts, has spent the past few years immersed in a creative project bringing professionals and students together to produce three one-act operas exploring the relationship among music, text, and the body onstage. The three one-act operas presented this past weekend in McCarter’s Berlind Theater were diverse in theme and musical style, but were bound together in their uniqueness and challenge to the creative process.

Saturday night’s presentation (the performance was also held Friday night) included two extended one-act operas and one of shorter length, but less time did not necessarily mean less material. Director Mark DeChiazza bracketed James Chu’s 10-minute tennis-themed opera, dense in music and dramatic nuance, with works by two well-established composers, the first was Anthony Davis’s Lear on the Second Floor. Throughout his extensive compositional career, Mr. Davis has drawn his operatic storylines from some of America’s darker political moments, and Lear on the 2nd Floor brought the Shakespearean story of King Lear into the modern-day dilemma of Alzheimer’s diagnosis and caregiving. Mr. Davis consulted with medical experts during the work’s composition to get the details right, and incorporated visual and aural effects to emphasize a range of confusion. The lead character, transplanted into a high-powered 21st-century neuroscience career, was dramatically sung by soprano Susan Narucki. Although occasionally overpowered by the small orchestra, Ms. Narucki demonstrated solid command of a very complex role. Opera is full of characters who descend into madness (usually played by sopranos), but Ms. Narucki’s Nora Lear wandered among a wide range of mental uncertainties, including seeing visions of her dead husband, decisively sung by bass-baritone Justin Hopkins. Nora Lear’s daughters, all vying for custodial rights, were effectively sung by Tara Naoko Ohrtman, Katherine Buzard, and Tessa Romano. Ms. Buzard in particular demonstrated a strong vocal sound as a defiant daughter. Humor came into this dark theme in the character of the hospital nurse, sung by Jorrell Williams.

Next to an opera about Alzheimer’s, a work taking place in a tennis club might seem like a theatrical piece of cake, but Princeton University student James Chu’s one-act Off Court was full of more political nuance than initially met the ear. Soprano Katherine Buzard (who had a very busy evening) turned in a very different character as the reluctant wife whose husband (sung by Jonathan Choi) desperately wanted to gain acceptance to the very exclusive tennis club. Mr. Chu’s music was underscored with unspoken plotlines about exclusion and compliance, with unique instrumental sonorities from a small orchestra placed onstage as part of the action.

The most theatrically complicated production was saved for last — Barbara White’s Weakness. Based on the Celtic story of The Curse of Macha, Ms. White’s music and libretto introduced one character whose voice and body were separated into two performers: soprano Sarah Davis and dancer Leslie Kraus. With brilliant hair (also matched by the dancer), Ms. Davis showed a spectacular range of vocal styles and intensity, backed by a multi-aged chorus and an unusual orchestration of electric guitar, clarinet, bass clarinet, percussion and shakuhachi, a Japanese bamboo flute. The soaring quality of Ms. Davis’ sound was matched by the litheness and agility of Ms. Kraus, with sections of the opera being positively eerie in mood. No matter what the demanding vocal requirement, Ms. Davis hit every note right, and her regal demeanor was a good contrast to Ms. Kraus’ lightness on the stage. Throughout all three operas, Rachel Hauck’s set design and Jane Cox’s lighting design made the most use of the limited amount of stage at the Berlind.

The Princeton University One-Act Opera Project was a long time coming in preparation, but has certainly focused on something entirely new for the University. A great deal of thought clearly went into selecting these works and figuring out how these pieces could “live together” on the same stage and on the same evening, but all three achieved a goal of taking the form of opera in new directions.

March 28, 2012

Musical ensembles in Princeton have presented a number of fine soloists over the years, and when a superstar passes through, it is immediately noticeable. Pianist André Watts has been a legendary performer long enough to be familiar to an entire generation of concert-goers. The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) brought Mr. Watts to Princeton this past weekend in a Brahms concerto performance that thrilled both players and audience.

Music Director Jacques Lacombe preceded the American legend with a taste of the next generation of talent by starting Friday night’s concert in Richardson Auditorium with three young students in the orchestra’s education and community engagement program. The three musicians played a lively flute trio, showing poise and musicianship. It was also fitting that the NJSO followed this educational outreach sampler with Edward T. Cone’s Music for Strings, given Mr. Cone’s commitment to students over his life.

Music for Strings proved to be a block of concentrated string sound, with players uniform in their intensity and meter changes. Mr. Cone clearly liked lower strings, with the dense sound of the celli and double basses contrasted by a lyrical violin solo by concertmaster Eric Wyrick. Mr. Lacombe maintained solid control over the changing textures, bringing the piece to nothingness at the end.

André Watts joined the orchestra for Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, a towering late 19th-century work combining keyboard virtuosity with a luxuriant orchestral palette. Mr. Watts was seated almost directly behind the conductor, but it was clear from the outset that both conductor and soloist had the piece well in hand and needed only occasionally to check in with each other. The first movement’s opening paired principal hornist Lucinda-Lewis with Mr. Watts in a perfectly timed duet. What set Mr. Watts well above other excellent soloists was the exact timing and rhythmic symbiosis between the soloist and orchestra. Mr. Watts’s precise dialogues with the ensemble no doubt come from familiarity, at times seeming to play just for himself, yet keeping solid communication with the orchestra. He took complete charge of tempo changes, with skips in the left hand and phrasing that always seemed to be going somewhere. Mr. Watts in particular exhibited fierce contrary motion between hands and forceful double trills to close the first movement.

The concerto was primarily about the orchestra and pianist, with a few wind solos interspersed, including from flutist Bart Feller and oboist James Roe. The third movement featured an extended duet between piano soloist and solo cello, gracefully played by principal cellist Jonathan Spitz. This movement gave the pianist a bit of a break, as the music moved languorously among several solo instruments. Mr. Watts returned to constant piano motion in the closing movement, accompanied by well-nuanced phrasing from the orchestra.

Equally as towering as the Brahms Concerto was Schumann’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, known as the Rhenish Symphony because of the influence on the composer of Europe’s Rhine River. Through the four movements of the symphony, Mr. Lacombe kept the tempi moving along at an exuberant clip, giving the impression of the Rhine rolling along. Clearly very familiar with the work, Mr. Lacombe allowed the first movement to state its point from the beginning while building dynamic swells and elegantly tapering wind phrases. The second scherzo movement maintained a rather heavy lilt with a bit of teasing in some of the internal cadential passages. Mr. Roe demonstrated delicate playing in oboe solos in the first movement, and an augmented brass section blended well with clarinets and bassoons in the fourth movement.

The nearly full house at Richardson no doubt thought it was a truly special evening to hear a soloist of this caliber, as Mr. Lacombe and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra continue to make their mark around the state.

March 21, 2012

Over this past season, the Princeton Symphony Orchestra (PSO) has been expanding the simple concert presentation format to creating a multi-day performance experience with pre-concert lectures, open forums with composers and soloists, and discussions of music related to the concert repertory, held in a variety of venues around town. The orchestra’s Sunday afternoon concert in Richardson Auditorium was the culmination of several public events centered on the flute concerto and other symphonic music performed, with the featured composer and soloist very involved in the process.

For this spring concert, PSO Music Director Rossen Milanov selected music related to Shakespeare, including works of three major 19th-century composers. Felix Mendelssohn composed an Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the age of seventeen for no other reason than that he liked the play. Although it was sixteen years later that Mendelssohn incorporated this music into a commission, the overture retained a youthful spirit, beginning with the well-tuned thirds in the flutes which opened the piece. Mr. Milanov maintained a light pizzicato from the strings as precise dotted rhythms moved the music forward. There was a great deal of humor and fun in this overture, such as Gary Cattley’s tuba solo representing Bottom’s transformation into a donkey. Especially lean violin playing was notable before the closing coda.

Tchaikovsky also musically addressed Shakespeare plays, with his Romeo and Juliet fantasy overture familiar to orchestra audiences. Less well known is his tone poem Hamlet, which is much darker than the Mendelssohn work, with ample opportunity for the orchestra to build drama and theatricality. The lower strings effectively set the mood, punctuated by clean trombones. This one-movement piece was a dramatic workout for the strings, with convincingly fierce playing as things got rolling. Oboist Caroline Park provided emotional contrast with a lyrical and melodic solo full of rich sound. Mr. Milanov wisely allowed Ms. Park to end her solo freely as the mood changed to a lush orchestral sound. Also impressive was the timing of the brass accents exactly with the snare drum, played by percussionist Phyllis Bitow.

The third Shakespeare-inspired work on the program was another Romeo and Juliet treatment by Sergei Prokofiev. The three selections from two Prokofiev suites performed by the orchestra were not at all in the composer’s classical vein, but closer to the dramatic late Romantic Russian style, and Mr. Milanov did well to keep the sound as full as possible without falling into the range of cacophonous. Mr. Milanov drew significant tension out of the strings during the familiar marching music of the first “Montagues and Capulets” from Suite No. 2, aided by some very nice flute work from Jayn Rosenfeld and Mary Schmidt. Prokofiev scored these pieces to include saxophone, effectively played by Ron Kerber for contrast against the orchestral palette. The three selections from Prokofiev’s two suites featured elegant instrumental solos, including English hornist Nick Masterson, violinists Basia Danilow and Valissa Willwerth, and violist Stephanie Griffin. Mr. Milanov maintained good control over this very disjunct music, bringing the final selection to a particularly ominous close, foreshadowing the drama to come in the play.

Lowell Liebermann’s Concerto for Flute and Orchestra may not have had anything to do with Shakespeare, but in this work the solo flute seemed to be a character, wandering through the opening movement’s pastoral scene against a clocklike pizzicato from the strings. Flute soloist Eugenia Zukerman (who was kept very busy that afternoon doubling as narrator for the other three works on the program) played the nonstop line with ease, achieving very nice duets with members of the orchestra, including clarinetist Gi Li and bassoonist Roe Goodman. Ms. Zukerman played with a light touch and very even agility, as other winds joined her in elegant instrumental combinations. Ms. Zukerman had her work particularly cut out for her in the third movement, as a nonstop flute line speeded along. This concerto was a very appealing work, with particularly entertaining use of such unusual percussion instruments as sleigh bells, triangles, and a ratchet.

Princeton Symphony Orchestra has made a particular point of linking concerts this season with the community. With Shakespeare, there is a great deal to work with on the Princeton campus and in the town, and the orchestra seemed justifiably pleased with the results on this initiative.

March 7, 2012

Tour “homecoming” concerts of college performing ensembles are fun to watch. Usually held within a few weeks of the ensemble’s return, these performances have an underpinning of fresh memories, inside jokes among the musicians, and an overall sense of pride. The Princeton University Glee Club recently returned from a tour of Paris and its environs, and it was very clear from Friday night’s concert in Richardson Auditorium that the 80-voice chorus was very proud to give the audience a taste of the music presented in Europe. Glee Club conductor Gabriel Crouch programmed the concert to show the depth of choral activities at Princeton, both in the level of music performed and the talent within the ensemble. The tour repertoire featured a cross-section of European sacred and secular music which the Glee Club used to demonstrate precise choral skills and a rich sound.

Double chorus works have traditionally been a product of continental Europe, but Mr. Crouch found an intriguing example from contemporary Britain. John Tavener’s choral works usually include edgy chord streams and harmonies, which the Glee Club sang effectively in Tavener’s Hymn to the Mother of God. Mr. Crouch followed this piece with a more traditional double chorus work from the late Renaissance, and the Glee Club sang Ruggiero Giovanelli’s Jubilate Deo with the same color and bite as the Tavener, paying particular attention to word accents and the multiple transitions among meters. This period of double chorus anthem was full of vocal lines running up and down scales, and the Glee Club brought out the rolling passages cleanly. Both the Tavener and Giovanelli pieces would have worked well in any of the Glee Club tour’s French cathedral venues, rich with centuries of choral music embedded in the rafters.

Mr. Crouch focused much of the rest of the concert on music of less familiar regions of Europe. Moving to the back of the Richardson stage, the Glee Club was able to produce a sound which reverberated well in the stone shell, demonstrating a nice melodic women’s sound and, in the Cyrillus Kreek psalm setting, appropriate Russian chording. Music from former Eastern European nations resurfaced later in the concert, with folksong settings from Bulgaria and Romania in pieces full of speedy texts and rhythms sung with some of the vocal edge one hears from choirs of this region. Mr. Crouch gave a former student a chance to shine as conductor, as Emily Sung directed a very nice setting of an Italian folk song, and Mr. Crouch joined the chorus. The Glee Club was joined onstage for one selection by the University Chamber Choir, which performed Sir William Harris’s Faire is the Heaven with clarity and good attention to the harmonies and lyrical internal lines. There were many languages represented in this concert, and both choral ensembles had the variety of texts well in hand.

The Princeton University Music Department has committed to “composition, performance, and scholarship,” and the Glee Club furthered this mission this past year by sponsoring a composition contest within the ensemble. Sophomore Ryan McCarty won this year’s competition with a setting of texts from the 11th-century Cambridge Songs. Mr. McCarty retained the medieval nature of Carissima by beginning the piece with chant-like music at intervals of octaves and fifths, sung by the men, as it would have been in the 11th century. Sound built with each vocal entrance, leading to a clear dialog between men and women on the text “noli tardare” (“make haste”). Mr. McCarty composed this piece with a fresh style and refreshing sound, and with an easy flow to the music, ending the piece on a joyous high note. Creating this choral competition not only gave the Glee Club an opportunity for its members to stretch themselves creatively, but in the case of Mr. McCarty’s work, also resulted in a piece which could go far in the choral arena.

The Princeton University Glee Club seems to be touring overseas every two or three years. With its clean singing and precise choral techniques, the ensemble has proven to be yet another solid representative of the University’s music program.

All of life’s pleasure consists of getting a little closer to perfection, and expressing life’s mysterious thrill a little better.

—Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

For the last four years of his life Maurice Ravel, who was born 137 years ago today, suffered from a form of aphasia so severe that he could only dream of expressing “life’s mysterious thrill.” After witnessing a performance of his great “symphonie choréographique,” Daphnis et Chloe, he’s said to have lamented, through tears, “I still have so much music in my head, I have said nothing. I have so much more to say.”

It’s painful to imagine what Ravel went through, exiled from his genius, his will in limbo, apparently the delayed result of a blow to the head suffered in a taxi accident in 1932. That he would be dealt this ultimately mortal injury in a car makes for a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction coincidence, given his fascination with mechanical devices, a quality inherited from his father, whose inventions included an internal-combustion engine and an automatic loop-the-loop circus machine known as “the Whirlwind of Death” that was popular at the Barnum & Bailey Circus — until it resulted in a fatal accident.

A Debonair Wizard

Ravel was intensely, severely handsome, 5’4, slightly built, and sensitive about his small stature. In his prime, he cultivated an enlightened dandyism inspired by Baudelaire’s ideal, which was to combine simplicity and elegance while carrying out “a dignified quest for beauty.” LéonPaul Fargue described him at the time as “a sort of debonair wizard … telling me endless stories — he could tell an anecdote as well as he could compose a waltz or an adagio.” He was a heavy smoker, a serious gardener, a bird-watcher (he excelled at bird calls), with a fondness for spicy, exotic dishes, cocktails, fine wines, Spain, Morocco, books (he had a large library), and Siamese cats. He never married, though he is said to have proposed to and been refused by violinist Hélène Jourdan-Mourhange (apparently he returned the disfavor when the situation was reversed). He did, however, enjoy playing with the children of his friends and would tell them fairy tales. One such child said that when she heard the news of his death it was like losing her own father for a second time.

Ravel’s ideas on the nature and meaning of art were primarily based on his reading of Baudelaire and Edgar Allan Poe. During his highly successful concert tour of the U.S. in 1928 he made a pilgrimage to Poe’s home in the Bronx, visited 25 cities from New York to California, enthused about skyscrapers and jazz (“I am seeing magnificent cities and enchanting regions,” he wrote to Jourdan-Morhange). He began a lecture at Rice Institute in Houston with reference to the “singular importance” for him of “the aesthetic of Edgar Allan Poe, your great countryman.” In the same lecture, he talked about the blues “one of your greatest musical assets,” and mentioned the blues element in the second movement of his sonata for violin and piano.

In fact, American music took more from Ravel than the other way around. Listen to the orchestral pieces, notably Daphnis and Chloe, and you know that Hollywood composers like Miklos Rosa and Bernard Herrmann have been there, not to mention bandleader Stan Kenton, whose signature theme, “Artistry in Rhythm,” borrows from the ballet’s opening sequence, “Invocation to the Nymphs.” You can hear echoes of Ravel in the mood-drenched music of film noir and 1940s classics like Hitchcock’s Spellbound, and numerous rock and heavy metal barn-burners have fed on the hypnotic rhythms of his Bolero, which spawned the 1934 film of the same name wherein Carole Lombard and George Raft (and their long-shot doubles) perform to Ravel’s music what may be the most erotic dance sequence in all of pre-code Hollywood.

Pilgrim’s Progress

Jazz pianist Bill Evans openly declared his debt to Ravel, and turned Miles Davis on to A.B. Michelangeli’s recording of the piano concerto in G, which eventually “became something of an obsession with Davis,” to the point where he “proselytized about it for years,” according to John Szwed’s So What: A Life of Miles Davis.

“When he plays something,” Davis said of Michelangeli’s interpretation,” it sounds like he’ll never play it again.” The words “never play it again” have a poignant resonance, for this work was first performed in 1932, the year Ravel suffered the blow that extinguished his career. The endgame quality is best heard in the original recording by Ravel’s friend, Marguerite Long, the French pianist to whom the work was dedicated. In the world of beauty created by the Adagio assai, the pianist seems to be tracing a pilgrim’s progress through dark woods shadowed by a vague furtive menace, the right hand’s walk through the shadows at times nearly thwarted, halting, almost wavering, before thoughtfully, steadfastly moving on, then simply ascending, beautifully buoyed by strings and woodwinds, to a blissful extinction, with the orchestra, reportedly conducted by Ravel himself, swooning into silence at the gates of the heavenly city.

Linking Melodies

It’s said that Ravel composed the Bolero by picking out the melody on the piano with one finger and commenting approvingly on its “insistent quality,” which he decided to try repeating a number of times “without any development, gradually increasing the orchestra as best I can.”

The seemingly random simplicity of that moment at the keyboard, the composer, in effect, taking baby steps on the way to a work of epic grandeur, suggests an analogy for the series of conundrums and coincidences that led to the writing of this anything but epic column. The wonder of music is that it can catch and disarm you in the most unlikely places, for instance when you’re being ministered to by a dentist who suddenly expresses his fondness for an album that contains a Billy Strayhorn composition you feel especially close to but whose title you can’t remember. So while the dentist is busy threading your gums with stitches, you’re racking your brain for the name of one of the moodiest and most classically nuanced numbers Strayhorn ever wrote. At this point, somewhere in the internet of your mind, a link is forming, with Strayhorn the primary subject, the bait that helps you reel in Ravel, whose mere name brings you closer to the music itself; you can almost hear Ben Webster’s tenor brewing and serving it up with a melodic sibling from Ravel that means more to you than it should because it briefly illuminates a distant scene involving a grand piano, and presto, that ghostly fragment of Ravel conjures up “Chelsea Bridge,” the title you’ve been trawling the web for. Returning home, you go straight to the most credible authority, Gary Giddins’s Visions of Jazz, and find that when composing “Chelsea Bridge,” Strayhorn “turned for instruction” to “Maurice Ravel.” Case closed? Not a chance. What about that “ghostly fragment of Ravel?”

A week later, looking ahead to the March 7 issue of Town Topics, I find that Maurice Ravel was born on March 7, 1875. No less important for the solving of the second mystery is the fact that he died on December 28, 1937, three days after my parents were married. Now the “distant scene” I saw in the dentist’s office comes into focus on the shiny black grand piano that was the great game-changer of my parents’ marriage, for whenever the tension reached the danger level, my cool, remote father would sit down at the keyboard and flood the living room with the warmth and power of his playing, pulling out the stops, unloading every weapon in his arsenal as he melted my sulking, formidably emotional mother. And what was one of my father’s primary weapons? A piece by Ravel, of course. That phantom fragment. But what was it?

The Thrill Is Not Gone

The first jazz record I played incessantly enough to provoke disparaging remarks from my parents was Chet Baker’s initial solo EP on Pacific Jazz. I was 14 and so enamoured of the music that I asked my father to give me piano lessons, a prospect that horrified him. He did, however, teach me how to pick out “Isn’t It Romantic,” my favorite song on the album.

Knowing what I know now, I wonder what his reaction would have been had I asked him to teach me my next favorite number, “The Lamp is Low”? Surely he’d have recognized one of his primary weapons in the melody, which was borrowed from Ravel’s Pavane for a Dead Princess, otherwise known as “Pavane pour une infante défunte” and dedicated to the Princesse de Polignac, a.k.a. Winnaretta Singer, heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune.

That’s it. Mystery solved. After listening to numerous renditions of Ravel’s Pavane, I have no doubt that it’s the melody I was looking for, the one my father played. But there’s still another link to open, the one leading to “life’s mysterious thrill” in its purest form, which is when beauty appears unexpectedly in an unlikely place and in the guise of a dubious medium.

Working the internal internet again, I pull up my first summer in Europe. The student tour that had begun two months before in June is almost over and I’m sharing a moment with a fellow I’ve only really begun to know — a shambling, wisecracking Phil Silvers type, a sort of playful Teddy Bear who has let on that he’s a musician. We’re in an empty recreation room on a rainy day at a student hostel in the Lake District town of Patterdale and he’s at the piano playing an elaborate, astonishingly accomplished composition of his own based on a viscerally familiar melody. Speaking musically, the tour has been two months of drunken dissonance, which gives this moment with the rain pattering at the misty windows in Patterdale a special provenance, for it turns out that this amiable Teddy Bear isn’t just a gifted musician in a realm well beyond my father’s, he’s a genius who will go on to a recording and recital career in Europe accompanying famous lieder singers, and the theme he’s built his version of a “mysterious thrill” around is the phantom melody from Ravel’s Pavane that has been haunting me ever since that day with the dentist.


Of the quantities of Ravel material online, I’ve consulted and sometimes quoted from Roger Nichols’s biography, Ravel (Yale University Press 2010), Arbie Orenstein’s A Ravel Reader (Dover 2003), and Deborah Mawer’s Cambridge Companion to Ravel (Cambridge University Press 2000). The version of “Chelsea Bridge” referred to is from the album, Ben Webster Meets Gerry Mulligan. Although the music I’ve referred to is available online, notably Marguerite Long’s historic performance of that chillingly beautiful Adagio, the Princeton Public Library provided the CDs I’ve been listening to, the stand-out being Claudio Abbado and the London Symphony Orchestra’s Daphnis and Chloe, which filled my humble CRV with with its orchestral power and choral glory from here to Lambertville and back.

February 8, 2012

The Princeton Symphony Orchestra gave its sold-out audience on Sunday afternoon a comprehensive lesson in Russian history. The ensemble’s winter concert in Richardson Auditorium was titled “Simply Russian,” but there was nothing simple about the music performed. Each of the three pieces presented was infused with Russia’s rich past — both the jubilant and the intensely dark.

Princeton Symphony presented the three works by Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich slightly out of chronological order, beginning with the piece with the most wide-ranging orchestration. The ensemble’s performance of Prokofiev’s Suite from his opera Eugene Onegin was a preview of the PSO collaboration with several Princeton University departments to present the world premiere of the composer’s complete opera.

Prokofiev’s 20th-century compositional style had roots in the Classical period, shown in the 1936 Eugene Onegin Suite by the incorporation of two harpsichords contrasted against the modern and unorthodox orchestral use of saxophones. Princeton Symphony Orchestra Music Director Rossen Milanov presented the incidental music to the sixteen operatic scenes deriving a full and lush sound from the orchestra, beginning with Caroline Park’s opening oboe solo through the rich melodies in the violins against undulating violas. Mr. Milanov allowed the music to flow, lulling the audience with sweet wind solos from Ms. Park, clarinetist Pascal Archer, and flutist Jayn Rosenfeld, saving the striking contrast for the dramatic entry of the horns. The effect of two solo harpsichords was quirky for this transitional time between two world wars (they may well make more sense in the complete opera) but keyboardists Wendy Young and Steven Ryan communicated well with each other and Mr. Milanov, no doubt piquing the audience’s interest in how all this fits together.

Tchaikovsky’s 1876 Variations on a Rococo Theme is firmly planted in Tsarist Russia, and its elegance and light orchestration defer both to the Classical period and to the relative calm of life in Russia before the decline of the reign of Tsar Alexander II. Tchaikovsky’s work is an homage to Mozart, and perhaps fitting in this performance was featured cello soloist Joshua Roman, who is also youthful and prodigious. Mr. Roman showed unusual poise and respect for his collaborating musicians, constantly communicating with the orchestra players and teasing them with a saucy playing style and solid technical control. Mr. Roman handled the wide-ranging solo lines with ease, drawing a lean rich sound from the lower register and an amazingly pure tone from the highest register of the instrument. Particularly impressive was a series of 5ths and octaves in the solo cello line, played with purity by Mr. Roman. This cello soloist may have had the audience fooled a bit by his youthfulness and unassuming manner, but it was clear Mr. Roman was able to pull a tremendous range of musical effects from his bag of tricks.

The Princeton Symphony Orchestra closed the concert with a work from the depths of Russia’s darkest moments. Dmitri Shostakovich composed Symphony No. 5 in D minor in part to save himself from Josef Stalin, whose party looked for “heroic classicism” from the nation’s composers. Growing up in Bulgaria before the fall of the Iron Curtain, Mr. Milanov may well have been aware of the dire straits of Russian composers and the significance of this piece. Shostakovich seemed to take no chances with this symphony, building the orchestral sound majestically, yet still managing to pay homage to his contemporaries who did not survive the Stalin regime.

Mr. Milanov conducted this work forcefully, bringing out an air of desperation which always permeated the music. The orchestral fabric still left room for poignant wind solos, such as that of clarinetist Pascal Archer, accompanied by solo bassoonist Roe Goodman in the first movement. The music was occasionally jarring (as life surely was as well) and the terror of the times came through well. Shostakovich scored unique combinations of solos which were well played by the orchestra, including flutist Jayn Rosenfeld and hornist Douglas Lundeen and a very graceful series of sequences between clarinet and oboe. Mr. Milanov brought out well the varied and contrasting styles of the symphony, especially in the third movement, richly infused with Russian church music. A haunting exchange between harp, played by Andre Tarantiles and two flutes, played by Ms. Rosenfeld and Mary Schmidt added to the emotion of the movement, aided by almost imperceptible playing by the violins. The brass excelled at the closing moments, as Mr. Lundeen provided a calm and reassuring solo and the symphony closed gloriously.

Princeton Symphony Orchestra has had a busy week preparing this performance and the premiere of Prokofiev’s opera. The orchestra is clearly healthy and growing — certainly a pleasure to see in these tough economic times.

February 1, 2012

It is late January — it is cold, it may snow and William Scheide invited the town to his musical birthday party. These annual celebrations, presented by the Scheides and benefitting a local non-profit organization, have become a happening in Princeton, and last Friday night’s concert in Richardson Auditorium was sold out several days ahead of time — a celebration for all involved. In true Scheide fashion, the concert was not just about the birthday celebrant, and as this year’s beneficiary, the Princeton Public Library was rightfully enthusiastic.

As in past years, the visiting Wiener KammerOrchester and conductor Mark Laycock provided the music, beginning with an overture by the evening’s other birthday boy, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who turned 256 on Friday. The overture to Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro gave the Wiener KammerOrchester many opportunities to show grace and precision with Viennese flair, and the ensemble did not disappoint. The strings were very clean on the opening instrumental swirls and the flute and oboe lines could clearly be heard. Mr. Laycock maintained a nice ebb and flow to the phrases, and the KammerOrchester demonstrated a full and rich sound without becoming out of control dynamically.

These Scheide birthday celebrations have often included guest soloists, and this year the KammerOrchester was joined by the legendary husband-and-wife team of violinist Jaime Laredo and cellist Sharon Robinson. Two-thirds of the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio, Mr. Laredo and Ms. Robinson have also had successful careers as soloists and teachers.

Other 18th and 19th-century composers have featured two solos instruments in concerto format, but Johannes Brahms was the first to combine violin and cello in his Double Concerto for Violin, Violoncello and Orchestra in A minor. This was an unusual concerto in its introduction of the opening material in a cadenza played by the cello soloist. Ms. Robinson started right off with double stops in a somewhat disjunct line answered by clean winds and a very sweet violin solo by Mr. Laredo. Mr. Laredo has an especially remarkably appealing sound in the upper register of the instrument, and he and Ms. Robinson complemented each other as they traded cadenzas and triplet passages. A very nice sonority was heard as the solo cello was accompanied by sectional violas, and the numerous instances of “question-and-answer” between the soloists were cleanly handled by the players. The gypsy-flavored vivace finale showed sauciness and flair from both soloists and orchestra, with timpanist Klaus Zauner, who had remained very subtle during the Mozart, coming to life to close the Brahms decisively.

The Scheides have maintained a long commitment to education, and the second half of the concert featured an emerging pianist playing the product of one of William Scheide’s favorite past-times — collecting rare musical scores. In his youth, Brahms apparently provided a short piano solo work to an “autograph book” of a 19th-century conductor and collector Arnold Wehner in Germany. Mr. Scheide recently acquired this book, and excerpted Brahms’s short untitled piece (titled by the Scheides Albumblatt in A minor) for New York University student Andrew Sun to play. Particularly fun was the Scheide’s printing of the piece as a program insert, enabling the audience to follow along. A student of a student of Vladimir Horowitz at NYU, Mr. Sun kept the internal running eighth notes very steady, with nice phrase direction, bringing out the suspensions which remind performers that this was a composition by a young Viennese.

Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A Major has been considered one of his more “upbeat” works, yet the circumstances of its premiere were more poignant than carefree. This symphony is also celebrating a birthday; composed between 1811 and 1812, it was premiered at a concert benefitting “Austrian and Bavarian soldiers disabled at the battle of Hanau, part of the Napoleonic Wars.” Beginning with a lilting oboe solo played by Hannes Strassl, the KammerOrchester was well-restrained but ready to unleash the powerful orchestral scales and sectional trills of the first movement. Mr. Laycock capitalized on the rise and fall of dynamics, bringing the orchestra to its fullest sound on the main theme. This was a spirited and joyful performance, suitable for the occasion, with excellent solo playing from Mr. Strassl and flutist Renate Linortner.

Beethoven composed the very familiar second movement in an andante tempo, but eventually changed this tempo to allegretto. Mr. Laycock and the KammerOrchester took the tempo on the faster side of allegretto, keeping the ostinato a bit on the dry side, contrasting with the lyrical and poignant tune from the violas and celli. Flutes and oboes played perfectly together on the melody, and one could hear the Classical counterpoint of the movement. The KammerOrchester closed the symphony well, bringing the ensemble to full sound and showing off the clean playing of the brass.

As in past years, Mr. Laycock topped off the concert with his own “discovery” of a work by a well-known composer which happens to include “Happy Birthday” interspersed into the familiar music. This year the composer was Tchaikovsky, and after weaving a convoluted tale of how this work remained hidden for the past 100 or so years, Mr. Laycock presented his version of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, also a Napoleonic work. One cannot underestimate the amount of work it takes to rearrange this piece to include “Happy Birthday” in clever and witty occurrences, and a special treat came in the way Mr. Laycock handled the Russian tunes in the overture. Joining the KammerOrchester was the excellent Russian Chamber Chorus of New York singing the opening Slavic Orthodox Troparion of the Holy Cross (usually assigned to violas and celli). Mr. Laycock also incorporated a sung Russian folk song into the overture, which includes a Russian folk dance. As an arranger, Mr. Laycock clearly had control over Russian harmonic changes, and nothing seemed out of place musically as bits and pieces of “Happy Birthday” wandered through the score. The audience was clearly in rapt attention, listening for the next appearance of the song, as Princeton wished William Scheide yet another great year.

January 25, 2012

CULTURE CLASH: Chilford (LeRoy McClain), Bible in hand, spreads the Roman Catholic faith in 1895 Rhodesia (present day Zimbabwe), as his unconverted servant Mai Tamba (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) looks on, firmly rooted in the beliefs of her ancestors, in the world premiere production of Danai Gurira’s “The Convert” at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through February 12. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Danai Gurira’s new play at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre, The Convert, is an historical drama, set in 1895-97 in what is now Zimbabwe. In her introduction to the play, Ms. Gurira describes the historical and political background: “the iron claw of colonization” with its “Western cultural impositions,” including “taxes, menial labor, and Judeo-Christian morals imposed by an uninvited lord,” clashing violently with the African people and their traditions.

Beyond history and politics, however, are the human stories that this production brings to life with riveting intensity, emotion, and unforgettable drama. There is the protagonist Jekesai (Pascale Armand), given the Christian name Ester, the young woman “convert,” who leaves the village of her family and joins the world of the Roman Catholic Church; her aunt Mai Temba (Cheryl Lynn Bruce), “mother of the earth,” who brings her niece under the protection of the Catholic Church but remains herself unconverted, wedded to ancient pagan rituals and beliefs of the Shona tribe; the dedicated catechist Chilford Ndlovu (LeRoy McClain), long ago uprooted from his family and African heritage, determined to serve the white man’s church and to convert Ester, her aunt and any other Africans he can win over; Tamba (Warner Joseph Miller), Mai Tamba’s son and Jekesai’s cousin, a young mine worker, unhappy with his lot and ready for rebellion; Chancellor (Kevin Mambo), translator for the white men, friend of Chilford, an opportunist who finds himself drastically caught between white and black worlds; Jekesai’s unscrupulous Uncle (Harold Surratt), who wants Jekesai back under his possession so he can marry her off for a rich bride price to an older man with ten other wives; and Prudence (Zainab Jah), a well-educated, outspoken woman, fiancée of Chancellor and wise friend to Jekesai.

The thirty-one-year-old Ms. Gurira, born in the U.S. to Zimbabwean parents and raised in Zimbabwe, has created a rich array of complex, three-dimensional characters — engaging, passionate, mostly likeable individuals that the audience cannot help but care about. All Africans — none of the priests or other European characters mentioned appear on stage, these characters, throughout the three-hour play — three acts, nine different scenes, all set in the modest central room of Clifford’s home — find themselves caught up in the deadly personal and societal conflicts, of 1890s Rhodesia.

The Convert, Ms. Gurira’s third play, is a finely crafted, bold combination of traditional playwriting and striking innovation, of warm humor and stark tragedy, of harsh politics and touching humanity. Ms. Gurira tells her story with captivating detail and increasing suspense, keeping a tight grip on the audience’s interest and emotions and maintaining a delicate balance between the comedic and the deeply serious from start to finish.

The Convert does make unusual demands on its audience as the plot unfolds and the characters reveal themselves. Many of the lines, in whole or in part, are spoken in the characters’ native Shona language, and the English spoken is often heavily accented. This carefully rehearsed language contributes a vital air of authenticity to the production and the world of the play. These uses of language, in their variety and shifts, also reflect the deepest issues of the play, the struggle to achieve identity and the conflict between the imposed British world and the Shona world of the ancestors. Language is also a significant source of humor here, as characters try to take on the expressions of their British masters, and the malapropisms abound.

The problem for the audience of understanding the Shona dialogue and the heavily accented English remains significant, despite consistently superb acting and diction and some helpful repetition of lines. As I struggled to pick up the exposition and plot details and to hear every exchange between characters — you won’t want to miss what these fascinating characters are saying, I occasionally wished for the clarification of supertitles or a bit less heavy accents, even if at the cost of authenticity.

McCarter’s lovingly polished, swiftly paced, highly entertaining production, with first-rate cast and crews under the direction of Emily Mann, does full justice to Ms. Gurira’s original, powerful voice. Daniel Ostling’s beautifully simple, evocative set design, subtle lighting by Lap Chi Chu, and authentic costumes by Paul Tazewell contribute richly to the world of the drama.

With the Berlind Theatre’s limited seating and just three more weeks in the run before The Convert moves to Chicago’s Goodman Theatre then to the Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles, you might want to order your tickets quickly before the word gets around and this one sells out.

Ms. Gurira has declared her interest in George Bernard Shaw and has acknowledged an indebtedness here to Shaw’s Pygmalion (transformed later into My Fair Lady). The similarities and contrasts between The Convert and Pygmalion are noteworthy. Both Jekesai and Eliza are high-spirited young women enlisted to be shaped and “converted” by strong-willed older men. Both seem at first to be willing, subservient followers of their masters, but later clash with surprising results.

The Convert, however, is definitely not Pygmalion (even less My Fair Lady). Though language, specifically learning English and the language of church scripture here, is crucial to Jekesai’s conversion and to Ms. Gurira’s plot, the world of segregation and white oppression for black Rhodesians is a long way from the world of upper crust London society. In the context of the Ndebele-Shona uprising in southern Africa in 1896-97, Jekesai is driven to far more extreme measures than Eliza’s in her battle to reconcile her heritage with her assimilation into the world of white Roman Catholicism. The Convert takes on a decidedly more serious tone than its Shavian comedic counterpart.

This historical drama with its strange language, its African setting, and characters so far removed from our own, will nonetheless resonate powerfully with contemporary audiences — not just because so many peoples in so many nations of the world today are battling to forge their national and personal identities in the conflict between past and future, but also because Jekesai and her world are thoroughly universal. As Ms. Gurira says, “The more specific you get in your cultural expression, the more human you’re going to get.” The Convert is a moving human drama not to be missed.

The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) focused its Winter Festival this year on the theme of “Fire,” including a well-received performance of the rarely-heard complete ballet score of Stravinsky’s The Firebird. Winter is by no means over, and the NJSO brought its festival to Richardson Auditorium this past weekend with a concert described as “Fire: Light and Legend.” Music Director Jacques Lacombe accomplished several of his stated goals with the orchestra in this concert while staying within the “Fire” theme, including presenting lesser-known works of familiar composers and promoting the music of important composers of our time. The Richardson audience at Friday night’s concert came away hearing the music of Haydn and Beethoven in a new way, as well as becoming familiar with a significant leader in new music.

Franz Joseph Haydn’s symphonies are frequently heard on orchestra programs, but often they are the same pieces — ignoring much of the composer’s more than 100 symphonic works. Mr. Lacombe found an early Haydn symphony which fit with the idea of “Fire,” and the ensemble’s performance of Symphony  No. 59 in A Major was as crisp and chipper as a crackling winter blaze.

The presence of a harpsichord onstage indicated the symphony’s roots in the early Classical period and its connection to the previous Baroque ear. The opening movement had unusual rhythmic gestures which Mr. Lacombe brought out decisively, accompanied by a well-unified string sound. Mr. Lacombe demonstrated an elegant touch to the more lyrical second phrases, keeping the movement’s “development” section light. The customary third movement, menuetto, was unusually forceful, contrasted by a flowing solo string quartet for the “trio” section and a graceful ending to the movement. A pair of horns, led by principal hornist Lucinda-Lewis, provided strong hunting calls in the fourth movement.

As music director of the New Jersey Symphony, Mr. Lacombe has made a strong commitment to contemporary music, including European composers who may not be as familiar in the United States. Kaija Saariaho is well-known in her native Finland and is clearly respected enough in the United States to be named composer-in-residence at Carnegie Hall. Ms. Saariaho has collaborated with Finnish cellist Anssi Karttunen for a number of years, and the NJSO brought both together with a performance of Saariaho’s Notes on Light —a concerto for cello and orchestra.

Saariaho scored this five-movement work for standard orchestra, with the addition of unusual percussion instruments and unconventional playing styles. Mr. Karttunen began the opening “Translucent, Secret” finding the quarter-tones in the solo line, and throughout the work he derived a variety of musical effects from the cello against a palette of orchestral colors. Mr. Lacombe kept a steady beat pattern on which the players could focus, and it was clear that the solo cellist had the piece well under control. Four flutes and piccolo excelled in the second movement, and in all movements Mr. Lacombe built dynamic intensity without allowing the piece to become strident.

Like Haydn, Beethoven is a popular composer on orchestral programs, and his 1800 Opus 43 ballet The Creatures of Prometheus is recognizable to many from its often-played overture. For Friday night’s concert, Mr. Lacombe chose to approach the familiar music as a multi-disciplinary performance, inviting two actors and a dance ensemble to convey a more complete story, accompanied by eight movements from the complete ballet score.

The story of Prometheus connects to fire in that fire brings the two central characters — clay statues — to life. In Friday’s performance, the two live characters were Zeus and Prometheus, acted by André de Shields and Claybourne Elder, respectively. Both actors conveyed their lines vividly, tying the story together around the musical vignettes. Acting the parts of the “Creatures” were dancers of The Francesca Harper Project.

Making room for actors and dancers required the orchestra to be more closely placed together on the stage, which brought out a very compact sound, especially from the winds. Flutist Kathleen Nester and oboists James Roe and Andrew Adelson played elegant solos in the overture, with Ms. Nester providing another clean solo in a later movement against pizzicato strings. A poignant duet was played late in the performance by Mr. Roe and clarinetist Andrew Lamy playing a basset horn, with a nice Viennese lilt maintained by the rest of the orchestra. Mr. Lacombe led a smooth transition to the coda as the work closed and Zeus seems to have his way at last.

The performance of the Beethoven ballet was visually interesting to look at, and with an additional libretto and lighting effects, was certainly a new way of approaching the work. Designing creative ways to present familiar music will no doubt work in the New Jersey Symphony’s favor in bringing people back to their concerts to see what is new.

January 18, 2012

The Princeton University Orchestra treated its audience to a warm winter musical treat this past weekend with a concert dedicated entirely to the music of George Frideric Handel. Sometime during this academic year, the orchestra conducted a student vocal competition, and seven winners were presented in Richardson Auditorium on Saturday night, accompanied by chamber ensemble and harpsichord. The seven winners, representing all four undergraduate classes, showed themselves to be poised and self-assured singers, and proud to share their vocal skills.

Handel composed forty operas in his career, in an age when the vocal soloist was the star of the show. Arias ruled the day, and often the opera’s plot was merely a vehicle to show off a singer’s ability to race up and down scales, with extensive ornamentation. Contrasting the vocal fireworks were extended arias of sensitivity or pensiveness, giving singers the chance to pour their hearts out to the audience. The University Orchestra Handel Competition winners were capable of both styles, beginning with soprano Tanyaradzwa Tawengwa, who opened the concert with the very popular “O had I Jubal’s lyre” from Handel’s 1747 opera Joshua.

Ms. Tawengwa sang the sprightly aria with lightness and little vibrato, showing no trouble with the rungs and articulating the 16th notes well. University Orchestra guest conductor Ruth Ochs kept the chamber ensemble crisp and agile, with a very steady continuo of cello, double bass, and harpsichord. With violins placed on both sides of the podium, the instrumental themes easily passed back and forth across the stage and the instrumentalists were able to musically talk to one another.

Ms. Ochs excels at putting performers at ease, a helpful skill when presenting emerging competition winners. The second singer on the stage, however, seemed to need no assistance in showing himself to be a vocalist capable of a real career down the road. Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen grew up singing with an excellent and high-profile youth chorus, and was lucky enough to be identified as a counter-tenor in high school, when he could develop his vocal technique from the start. He has been performing solos and singing in competitions since high school, and has clearly incorporated understanding counter-tenor history and legacy into his training. “Ombra mai fu” is Handel’s most well-known aria from the 1738 opera Serse (this aria was later arranged for orchestra) and was composed for the renowned castrato Caffarelli. These arias often do not sit well in women’s registers, but a counter-tenor, with notes at the height of his register, can bring a new level of emotion to the text. Mr. Cohen started right in with the recitative to the aria, and his voice took off into the upper register with the plaintive text of the aria. With Ms. Ochs sustaining the largo tempo in the accompaniment, Mr. Cohen showed exceptional control over expressiveness and vibrato as the upper notes blossomed. It is unusual enough to come across a counter-tenor at this age, but to find one with this solid a technique shows great promise for Mr. Cohen’s musical future.

Handel left the vocal pyrotechnics to the upper voices, composing lyrical arias for the tenor voice. The two tenor competition winners controlled the lyricism of their arias well — Saumitra Sahi singing “Total eclipse” from Samson and Christopher Beard performing “Where’er you walk” from Semele. Mr. Sahi sang with thoughtfulness, and Mr. Beard performed a clean version of the popular aria with careful ornamentation and attention to detail. It was particularly interesting to note that Mr. Beard’s vocal performance background covers a wide range, from Sondheim to Carousel’s nefarious Billy Bigelow to Benjamin Britten.

Sopranos Katherine Buzard and Lieve Hendren both showed great commitment to future musical careers and operatic training, and both selected challenging pieces with dramatic requirements in high registers. Ms. Buzard sang “Ombra pallide” from Alcina with good control over very difficult runs and a solid upper register. Ms. Hendren presented the Ariodante aria “Neghittosi, or voi che fate?” with an ability to toss off the top notes and convey the dramatic mood of the text. The lone bass on the program, Torin Rudeen, sang two selections from the oratorio Messiah with a relaxed sound and good diction in arias which are tough for any bass, much less one of college age.

Ms. Ochs rounded out the vocal program with a concerto for two violins, cello, and orchestra, showing herself to be an accomplished harpsichordist as well as conductor. Violinists Dean Wang and Sophia Mockler, joined by cellist Nathan Pell, communicated well among one another in a performance which was refined from all players, especially in the well-matched instrumental ornaments.

The Princeton University Music Department focuses its attention on “composition, performance, and scholarship,” offering a seemingly never-ending array of opportunities for students to strut their skills and try new things. The seven winners of this year’s Handel Vocal Competition certainly had plenty to be proud of, and the very appreciative audience in Richardson on Saturday night could not argue with an evening of Handel.

January 9, 2012

The State Theatre presents the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra with Conductor Jeffrey Tate on Wednesday, January 18, at 8pm. The program includes Vaughn Williams, Wasps: Overture; Johannes Brahms, Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77; and Dvorák, Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 70, B. 141.  Tickets range from $36-$58.

Mr. Tate originally studied medicine at Cambridge University and  practiced three years as an eye surgeon in London before he started his professional artistic career by joining the music staff at the Royal Opera Covent Garden in 1970. He assisted Sir George Solti in London, Sir John Pritchard in Cologne, Pierre Boulez for the centenary Ring at the Bayreuth Festival, and Herbert von Karajan in Salzburg. He made his conducting debut with Carmen at Gothenburg Opera in 1978.

Mr. Tate has since worked with most of the major orchestras in the world. He has recorded a vast number of landmark recordings, and  regularly conducts in the world’s leading opera houses and festivals. He is a specialist in the music of Wagner and Strauss, of core classical and romantic repertoire, of British music of the late 19th and 20th century and of classical modern and contemporary music. Since 2001, he has been Honorary Director of the National Italian Radio Orchestra. He was appointed Principal Conductor of the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra in 2009.

Violinist Guy Braunstein was born in Tel Aviv and studied the violin under Chaim Taub, Glenn Dicterow, and Pinchas Zuckerman. He started performing as an international soloist and chamber musician at a young age and has since played with orchestras such as the Israel Philharmonic, the Tonhalle Orchestra in Zurich, the Bamberg Symphony, the radio orchestras in Copenhagen and Frankfurt, the Filarmonica della Scala, and the Berlin Philharmonic.

He has collaborated with musicians such as Isaac Stern, András Schiff, Zubin Mehta, Maurizio Pollini, Vladimir Fedosejew, Yefim Bronfman, and Daniel Barenboim, among others. Mr. Braunstein was the youngest person ever to be appointed concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic in 2000, a position which marked his debut as an orchestral member and which he currently retains, working with the Berlin Philharmonic for four months of the year.

The State Theatre is located at 15 Livingston Avenue in New Brunswick. For tickets or more information, call the State Theatre ticket office at (732) 246-7469, or visit www.StateTheatreNJ.org.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 15, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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