April 17, 2013

For the course “Documentary Film and the City,” Princeton University Urban Studies students have a ready-made laboratory less than 15 miles away: Trenton. The capital city is a gold mine for the kinds of issues they explore — rising crime, failed housing developments, abandoned buildings, and policy problems.

But the urban setting also offers a window into how these problems might be solved. The students have been working on “The Trenton Project,” a collaborative collection of mini-documentaries about housing in the city that will be shown next month as part of an ongoing film series at the School of Architecture’s Betts Auditorium. Interviewing developers, social workers, housing specialists, and residents, the students have seen the proverbial lights at the end of the tunnel.

“Out in the field, they have been really amazed by the dedication of the social workers they’ve been talking with,” says Purcell Carson, a documentary film editor who is teaching the course. “When you think of a welfare office, you don’t normally think of people being totally emotionally invested in their clients. But that’s what they’ve seen, and it’s been eye-opening for them. They’ve also seen that problems of the city are not just public policy, but have to be thought about by individuals as well. They’ve been really interested in the developers, small and large, who see opportunity where others see problems.”

The Urban Studies Film Series has been screening documentaries and other films, followed by talks with various scholars, writers, and filmmakers, since early March. Greetings from Asbury Park is scheduled for April 23, followed by a discussion with the director. On April 30, La Sierra, about Colombia’s bloody conflict, will be shown. Works in progress from The Trenton Project will be screened May 7. The final showing of the Trenton Project will be May 20 at Artworks, in Trenton. All programs are free and open to the public.

This is the first year that “Documentary Film and the City” has been offered to University students. They are working in conjunction with the University’s Community Based Learning Initiative (CBLI), which pairs students with local non-profits to do community-based research. As part of the course, they have learned about issues in Camden, the Mount Laurel decision on affordable housing, and other related subjects. They took part in a history of public housing tour last month.

“They are looking at questions such as ‘How do you come in with this knowledge of a living place, and tell the stories that are unfolding right before you?’” says Alison Isenberg, a professor of history who co-directs the program in Urban Studies. A recent screening of The Pruitt Igoe Myth about a public housing project in St. Louis attracted up to 50 people, who came not just from the University but from Trenton, New Brunswick, and beyond.

“One of the opportunities of a series like this is to take the scholarship embodied in this kind of documentary, and use it to help animate a discussion about a place like Trenton today,” Ms. Isenberg adds. “The turnout, to me, was indicative of exactly the interest in that crossover. What can we learn from both the historical and ongoing efforts at rebuilding? What can we take from this discussion in a living and breathing way, for the very same questions that swirl in the policy decisions that people are making every month? We hope to sustain the discussion of those issues through the next couple of weeks.”

For Ms. Carson, who is contracted to teach at Princeton for three years, the course has a double goal: to educate students about documentary film, and about east coast post-industrial cities and the problems they face today. This semester’s focus on housing is “a way of having each of the short films they make create a broader mosaic portrait together,” she says. “My goal at the beginning of the semester was to find situations and circumstances along the spectrum of housing, and put my students in those situations to make these very short, slice-of-life portraits.”

Working with CBLI, Ms. Carson has paired her students with subjects through the Mercer Alliance to End Homelessness and Greater Trenton Behavioral Healthcare, among other agencies. Some of the students have focused their lens on the former Miller Homes high-rise housing project near the Trenton Transit Station, which will become the Rush Crossing community of townhouses. “They’ve been talking to the local housing authority, the developers, and the people who used to live in those homes and were kicked out when the city decided they were a problem that was unfixable,” she says.

Other students are making films about the thousands of abandoned properties in the city. Their research has paired them with a representative from the Isles organization, a developer, and other members of the community.

“These students are mostly sociologists and public policy people,” Ms. Carson says. “Documentary film is a really interesting way to make big problems legible and expose them through a different lens.”



With the growth of performing opportunities at Westminster Choir College over the past years, one thing which has been missing is a proper hall in which to present non-choral performances. The college now has a solid operatic training program in place, in which vocal students can get roles under their belts before graduation. The Choir College has presented operas at the nearby high school and other venues, but this past weekend, the Westminster Opera Theater poured cast, stage, and a very appreciative audience into the campus’s Playhouse for a presentation of one of the more substantial operas in the repertory. With stage on two sides, a pianist on a third side and conductor at the back of the hall, this was operatic theater in the round, and considering the limitations of the space, the resulting production was nothing short of remarkable.

Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann is a prime example of late 19th century French operettas, combining humor, caricatures, and great melodies into an opera which captivated Paris from the moment of its premiere. Offenbach constructed the three-act (with prologue and epilogue) with major characters who change identity in each act but are sung by the same performer, requiring tremendous vocal stamina from singers of any age, much less in the early twenties.

The bulk of the vocal work falls on the tenor role of Hoffmann (based on the German author and composer E.T.A. Hoffmann) and the Villains (four, sung by the same baritone) and an additional four-part tenor role of the Servants. Westminster Opera Theater double-cast almost all of the roles for performances Friday and Saturday nights (with an additional performance on Sunday cast with the covers to the principals), and Friday night’s cast proved that these singers were well up to the task of high-quality professional opera.

The role of Hoffmann was sung by tenor Rexford Tester, a first-year graduate student. Throughout the opera, Mr. Tester showed remarkable vocal endurance and range of emotion when he rhapsodized about his three loves, both imaginary and vehicles for demonic betrayal. Mr. Tester sang the “Kleinzach” scene with animation and sneering drama, and his love duets with the three separate beloveds were poignant and affecting. Hoffmann was a spent man by the end of the opera, but Mr. Tester never ran out of vocal energy.

The roles of the four Villains are much trickier to sustain through three acts. Although Hoffmann appears in virtually every scene, his character remains relatively consistent. The four Villains, Lindorf, Coppelius, Dr. Miracle, and Dapertutto, vary their scheming techniques or demonic inspirations to trip up Hoffman and the personalities of the characters differ considerably. Baritone Brian Mextorf, currently pursuing a Master of Music at Westminster, has several significant roles to his credit. Mr. Mextorf changed characters substantially for each role, with a voice that resonated well in the space of the Playhouse. As the dollmaker Coppelius, Mr. Mextorf was somewhat geeky; he was sufficiently oily as Dr. Miracle, “curer” of all ills; and he clearly had something going with the Devil as Dapertutto, stealer of souls and reflections.

Interestingly, Offenbach composed the characters of Hoffmann’s three love interests for three separate sopranos. The three roles require very different vocal abilities and present significantly varied personalities and each of the three sopranos on Friday night brought the appropriate vocal treatment to the roles. The character of Olympia, sung by graduate student Madeline Apple Healey, required solid coloratura singing, but unlike the great 18th century coloratura soprano roles, there was a great deal of physicality involved. Ms. Healey was vivacious in doll-like stature, with crystal clean runs and scales, and high E-flats that were right on pitch. Antonia, Hoffmann’s obsession in Act II, was frail and delicate, but Liesl McPherrin sang with a lovely upper register and good ensemble connection with the other singers. Courtesan Giulietta was a schemer, easily swayed by Dapertutto to capture Hoffmann’s reflection for her own gain, and Marissa Mae Chalker proved to be a saucy and seductive, yet decisive singer. Especially elegant was her Barcarolle duet with the character of Nicklausse, solidly performed by mezzo-soprano Laura Elizabeth Davis.

Supporting characters were no less substantial than the leads. Tenor Lucas Levy, clearly a popular singer on the Westminster campus, found humor and energy in his four characters of the “Servants.” As Nicklausse (and the Muse in the prologue and epilogue), Ms. Davis was often the glue which held the act together, always trying to be the voice of reason to Hoffmann. The twenty-member chorus sounded well-blended in the Playhouse and no doubt enjoyed the numerous costume and character changes. With so many characters in this opera, if one did not particularly care for a voice, it was just a matter of waiting a minute for a completely different voice to appear.

Stage Director David Paul made tremendous use of the limited space of the Playhouse, and although the chorus often had no choice but to make their entrances rather noisy, the production elements throughout the space incorporated the audience into the show. Musical Director William Hobbs packed a lot of music into the three-hour time period, assisted by the exceptional Soyoung Kim providing piano accompaniment. This opera was a major production for any college-level institution, but especially notable for Westminster Choir College, whose singers now have one more tool in their arsenals for future performance employment.


April 10, 2013

As part of its residency at Princeton University, the Brentano String Quartet presents a public concert each semester. This semester’s performance paired light and airy music with the beautiful early spring day which the audience at Richardson Auditorium seemed only too happy to give up in favor of music on Sunday afternoon. The Brentano String Quartet, violinists Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin, violist Misha Amory, and cellist Nina Lee, performed standard chamber music of Haydn and Brahms, as well as an appealing piano quintet of a unique American composer.

Haydn’s Quartet in E-flat Major proved to be a sprightly and crisp way to open the program and warm up to the contemporary work which followed. The four-movement Haydn quartet was subtitled “The Joke,” and the members of the Brentano uniformly teased the audience with delayed cadences and playful dialogs among instrumentalists. In spite of the musical humor, the Brentano still provided the required precision and exacting communication, with even trills between the violins and clean interplay so that all players ended up in the same place at the same time. The Trio of the second movement maintained a sense of elegance within its hurdy-gurdy style, and an especially silky duet between cello and viola marked the third movement. The Brentano Quartet effectively closed the work with mischief and humor, teasing the audience into wondering whether or not the piece was really over.

The Brentano Quartet took the opportunity on Sunday afternoon to add to the ensemble’s discography by recording one of the pieces on the program in live performance. Tobias Picker’s Piano Quintet: Live Oaks was a piece with which the Brentano seemed very comfortable, and one which the quartet obviously felt fit in well with the Richardson acoustics. Joining the Brentano in the performance of this work was pianist Sara Rothenberg, who as director of Da Camera of Houston initially commissioned Live Oaks from Mr. Picker.

Ms. Rothenberg showed herself to be a clean and dynamic pianist, providing sharp and crisp octaves contrasting with languid jazz melodies. All of the pieces of this work needed to fit together precisely, and the timing between strings and piano was exact as Ms. Rothenberg exploited the full range of the keyboard. Shimmering upper violins contrasted to the lyrical and jazzlike piano lines, as the players built the intensity to such a point that one could easily imagine this music being a film score. Uniform directional crescendos provided variety in music which could have been pounding at its loudest, and the piece resorted frequently to a languid and relaxed style as the players brought the work to a close in glorious fashion.

Johannes Brahms’ Quartet in A Minor, Op. 51, No. 2 showed elements of grace of a different sort, with Viennese polish and joyfulness. In the opening movement the lower strings played certain passages with poignancy and hope, as concertmaster Mr. Steinberg provided a fervent melody. Ms. Lee took the lead with the cello in the second movement with driving melodic material, contrasted with a solidly supporting second violin and viola. The players approached the third movement portraying the icy Austrian winter, contrasted with a fiery gypsy closing Finale.

The Brentano String Quartet has been in residence at Princeton University since 1999, and seems well at home both on the concert stage and in the department of music. String players on campus and audience members from the community can consider themselves lucky that the Brentano is so accessible in performances and in workshops, often at no charge. This is a musical benefit in the community which no one should take for granted and certainly should enjoy.

March 27, 2013

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra paid tribute to both New Jersey composers and music educators this past weekend with a concert of Classical period music—touched with a bit of 20th century New Jersey. NJSO Music Director Jacques Lacombe led the Orchestra in a performance of Mozart, Schubert and Cone works which also showed off the results of effective music education.

The Orchestra began Friday night’s performance at Richardson Auditorium with a demonstration of an NJSO educational initiative. Four members of NJSO’s Greater Newark Chamber Orchestra, violinists Winifred Waters and Rachel Seo, violist Melissa Hollfelder and cellist Nicholas Wu, played an excerpt of a Dvorak string quartet, showing solid technique individually and a well-blended sound among the four players as an ensemble. Under the careful watch of coach Stephen Fang, the Orchestra’s Assistant Principal Cellist, this quartet of young musicians showed their drive and dedication to music with elegant melodic lines played by each instrumentalist and handling well the responsibility of communicating as a quartet.

Mr. Lacombe paired the New Jersey educational initiative with a work by a New Jersey composer.  Edward Cone’s Elegy is a piece NJSO has presented before as part of its New Jersey Roots Project, and is a work with which both conductor and Orchestra becomes more comfortable with each performance.  The combination of haunting oboe and English horn solos played by James Roe and Andrew Adelson, respectively, sounded especially smooth in the hall, and Mr. Lacombe found both a crispness and flow which gave the work direction.

The wind effects of the Cone piece were well paired with another work with elegant wind writing—Franz Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 in B minor, the “Unfinished” Symphony.  Conducting from memory, Mr. Lacombe began the first movement with creeping celli and the familiar theme played lightly with a Viennese touch.  Mr. Lacombe brought out the sforzandi well and effectively used a pair of teasing horns to lead back to the restatement of the theme.  The second movement was marked by a light touch on horn and strings, aided by a light clarinet solo played by Karl Herman and Mr. Roe’s clean and lilting oboe solos. Mr. Lacombe’s concentration and focus in this piece was exceptional, given the unfortunate instances of Richardson house staff seating late-comers (very late-comers) just as he was ready to give the downbeat and a cell phone ringing in one of the quietest moments of the second movement.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is viewed as a height of the Classical period, and his Requiem is seen as a zenith of his compositional powers. Left unfinished at Mozart’s death, the Requiem includes challenging quick passages for the choral singers and opportunities for chorus and orchestra to create an elegant 18th-century Viennese musical palette.   Joining the pared-down NJSO were four vocal soloists and the 60-voice Montclair State University Singers, who had been thoroughly prepared by Heather J. Buchanan.  Bassoonist Robert Wagner provided the dark opening theme, and the basses of the chorus began the Mass for the Dead text with assuredness.

In the more elegant and lyrical movements the chorus provided a very full and blended sound in the hall without having to oversing, and the phrase directions requested by Mr. Lacombe were well executed.  Running passages were well handled by all sections, with the tenors impressively light and clean.  The soprano section was able to float their sound well in the beginning of the piece, but as the mass went on, vibrato began to control the sectional sound.  The tenor and bass sections provided particularly effective bite in the “Confutatis” movement, answered by a sweet “voca me” from the women.

The vocal quartet, soprano Christine Brandes, mezzo-soprano Suzanne Mentzer, tenor Gordon Gietz and bass Robert Pomakov, showed especially solid ensemble in the “Benedictus” section, as well as other moments when all four singers were singing together. Ms. Brandes was consistently a decisive singer with a voice full of color, and Mr. Pomakov showed his best lower range on the “Tuba Mirum” text elegantly accompanied by tenor trombonist Vernon Post. The Orchestra maintained a Viennese lilt to the accompaniment, with very clean brass playing among two trumpets and three trombones in the “Benedictus” movement.  Showing the attentiveness of the chorus, the final fugue was as clean as the first as the Requiem closed in dramatic fashion.

This performance was a solid collaborative effort among New Jersey ensembles as well as student players from within the NJSO organization.  Performing Viennese such staples as Mozart and Schubert no doubt made everyone’s late winter Friday evening just a bit more pleasant.


March 13, 2013

One thing the Princeton University campus has no shortage of is talented student musicians. In the second performance of concerto winners this season (winners of the 2013 Concerto Competition), the Princeton University Orchestra presented a concert this past weekend of two student pianists and a bassoonist who demonstrated the ability to maintain a high level of performance throughout an entire concerto. The three soloists — pianists Paul von Autenried and Jeff Li, and bassoonist Louisa Slosar, no doubt have been heard in smaller venues on campus (and in Ms. Slosar’s case within the University orchestra), Saturday night’s performance (the concert was also presented Friday night) in Richardson Auditorium placed these three individuals front and center with an audience thrilled with every note coming from the stage.

Freshman Paul von Autenried has not been on the University campus long enough to decide a major, yet his keyboard skills and intelligent exuberance at the piano place him way beyond his academic grade. Mr. von Autenried’s concerto with the orchestra was Bach’s Concerto No. 5 in F minor, BWV 1056, a work composed for the harpsichord, but Mr. von Autenried’s interpretation on the piano brought out drama which Bach may well have intended but did not have the instrumental technology to achieve. Conductor Ruth Ochs led a small orchestra accompanying the concerto, which Mr. von Autenried opened with dynamic effects difficult to realize on a harpsichord, with a cleanly ornamented line in the right hand and even running notes. Throughout the work, Mr. von Autenried clearly enjoyed playing, always in control of the music and communicating well with Ochs.

The second movement Largo provided a delicate melody against pizzicato strings providing a typically Bach “walking” bass. Mr. von Autenried found a great deal of expression in the music, always playing with a bit of a smile which permeated what was coming from the keyboard. Strings and piano came together for a lively third movement Presto full of well-executed running notes in the left hand of the solo part.

The other pianist featured on the program, senior Jeff Li, brought a seasoned performing background and four years of varied University musical experience to his interpretation of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major. Mr. Li’s University musical background ranges from the Princeton Composer’s Collective, to the Opera to the Laptop Orchestra. This broad approach to music, as well as clean technical proficiency, enabled Mr. Li to find the breadth of musical innovation into which Beethoven was just beginning to tap when he composed this concerto.

Conductor Michael Pratt opened the symphonic extended orchestral introduction in a crisp Viennese style, and Mr. Li began the solo line gracefully, effectively bringing out the sforzandi of the first movement. A smoothly rolling left hand marked a more lyrical section, and Mr. Pratt returned to the opening statement boldly. Mr. Li’s cadenza to the first movement was a piece unto itself, clearly transcending the early 19th century with its length, drama, and improvisatory nature. Mr. Li essentially toyed with the audience in extending the cadenza with dynamic variation and melodic force.

This was a substantial concerto for a college-age student, but Mr. Li had no trouble with the technical difficulties, musical stamina, or the elegance required to perform a Viennese work of this period. The closing Rondo was marked by chipper thirds and graceful arpeggios in the keyboard solo line against perfectly-matched flute scales played by Marcelo Rochabrun and a pair of oboes played by Katrina Maxcy and Alexa McCall.

The bassoon soloist for the evening provided a different musical experience than the two piano soloists, but showed no less stamina and command of technique. Sophomore Louisa Slosar has provided solos within orchestral works with the orchestra in numerous performances, but demonstrated the true range of her playing in Antonio Vivaldi’s 18th-century Bassoon Concerto in E minor. Vivaldi wrote close to forty concertos for the bassoon, yet one does not often hear this instrument in a substantial solo work. Under the leadership of Ruth Ochs, the strings allowed the music to essentially play itself, while Ms. Slosar offered seamless yet difficult coloratura lines with ease. Ms. Ochs cleanly played the harpsichord to accompany the solo bassoon, as Ms. Slosar played the long melodic lines with musical direction and sensitivity.

Mr. Pratt brought the full orchestra together for the closing excerpts from Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, eliciting a full and rich sound among a large group of winds. Clean horns and especially lush lower strings provided a contrast to a light timpani accompaniment by Karis Schneider and wind solos by clarinetist Ryan Budnick and oboist Bo-Won Keum. From light airy Baroque to opulent 19th century, this concert not only brought out students in droves to support their own but also community residents supporting a University orchestra always playing at a high level.

March 6, 2013

Ryan James Brandau’s concerts with Princeton Pro Musica up to this point have been a process of adjustment — masterworks with which the ensemble is comfortable and performs well to solidify a new relationship between chorus and conductor. Pro Musica’s performance Saturday night in the Princeton University Chapel was a sign of the new direction Dr. Brandau has chosen for the chorus — one which includes early music outside of the ensemble’s usual scope of repertory. Pro Musica’s concert was billed as Poulenc, Faure, “and more,” and it was the “more” which provided some of the most interesting music of the evening.

Dr. Brandau programmed several anniversary pieces on this program, including works of Poulenc (for the 50th anniversary of his death) and a piece by 20th-century composer Arvo Pärt in honor of the death of Benjamin Britten. Dr. Brandau has created a 24-voice chamber chorus out of Pro Musica’s roster of 100, and used this ensemble to perform the Pärt work with two other pieces linked by Gregorian chant.

Pärt’s Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten is built on a single scale, much like a phrase of chant. Dr. Brandau split the chorus on either side of the small orchestra, beginning the work with almost imperceptible upper strings. Pärt’s one-movement work builds in intensity in the same manner as Samuel Barber’s famed Adagio For Strings, effectively jarring the audience with a loud chime to move the piece to its high point. Dr. Brandau moved through the first three pieces on the program without pause, following Pärt’s Cantus with an extended 12th-century Gregorian chant sung from the back of the chapel by four women. Pro Musica has not ventured often into this period of music, and the singers surely appreciated the chance to sing in smaller combinations.

In Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s setting of the same “Salve Regina,” the two halves of the Chamber Chorus answered each other well (with three men providing chant from the back of the hall), effectively handling the chromaticism which marks music of the early Baroque. Through this piece, the University Chapel proved to be a good space for antiphonal singing.

Dr. Brandau pulled the whole chorus together for works by two composers crossing paths in the same century but writing in two very different styles. Francis Poulenc’s Motets pour Un Temps de Pènitence, appropriate for the season of Lent, contain great intensity in dissonance and dynamics, and Pro Musica took an edgy and decisive vocal approach to the text. With the whole chorus singing at full volume, the upper sound was a bit strident at times, with vibrato that seemed a bit out of control in the space. The second motet had more flow, with the reprise of the opening text showing the best choral blend. The soprano sound was more under control in the third motet, with the lower three voice parts particularly well blended.

The seven-movement Requiem of Gabriel Fauré showed Pro Musica at its vocal best. Dr. Brandau kept the opening Kyrie moving right along, with a light but clean sectional tenor sound and an overall choral effect that matched the violas well. It was clear from his previous performance with Pro Musica that bass-baritone Dashon Burton would have no trouble filling the hall with a rich resonant sound. In both the Offertorium and Libera Me movements, Mr. Burton showed great strength in vocal sound, calling especially well for the “dreadful day” of reckoning in the Libera Me.

Soprano Clara Rottsalk also filled the University Chapel’s vast space well with a voice that had a solid core of sound, displaying particular sensitivity to the text. Concertmaster Owen Dalby provided a sweet top to the sound in two movements, especially when joined by harpist Sarah Fuller. A fourth “soloist” was the viola section, which played a consistently rich sound through the entire Requiem.

As in many Pro Musica concerts, the performance included a strictly instrumental work, and Dr. Brandau took full advantage of Pro Musica’s time in the chapel by programming Poulenc’s Concerto for Organ, Timpani and Strings. University Organist Eric Plutz showed the full effects of the five-manual chapel organ with the help of a multi-media screen, apparently the wave of the future in organ performance. Mr. Plutz showed both a light touch in the later part of the concerto and precision in timing the organ with the strings. Dr. Brandau led the orchestra well in lush melodic passages, with elegant solos provided by violist William Frampton and cellist Elizabeth Thompson.

Ryan James Brandau seems to be settling well into his position as artistic director of Princeton Pro Musica, and the chorus is responding in similar fashion. With the final concert of his debut season coming up in May, Dr. Brandau has had no trouble proving that he can take the ensemble into a new era of performance.

February 27, 2013
FEVERISH FANTASIES; Anna (Savannah Hankinson) encounters a mysterious French chef (­Billy Cohen) on her imaginary travels in Europe with her brother, in Theatre Intime’s production of Paula Vogel’s Obie Award-winning “The Baltimore Waltz” (1992), written in response to the death of Ms. Vogel’s brother from AIDS. The “Baltimore Waltz” is playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through March 2.

FEVERISH FANTASIES; Anna (Savannah Hankinson) encounters a mysterious French chef (­Billy Cohen) on her imaginary travels in Europe with her brother, in Theatre Intime’s production of Paula Vogel’s Obie Award-winning “The Baltimore Waltz” (1992), written in response to the death of Ms. Vogel’s brother from AIDS. The “Baltimore Waltz” is playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through March 2.

Inspired by her brother’s death from AIDS and his unfulfilled request near the end of his life that she join him on an excursion to Europe, Paula Vogel wrote The Baltimore Waltz in 1989. It’s a play, Ms. Vogel stated in an interview, “about processing grief. It’s about love between brothers and sisters. And there’s a lot of joy in grief, there’s a lot of celebration to grief, there’s a lot of comedy in grief.”

And, she might have added, there can be a lot of confusion in grief, which this play manifests through the troubled fantasies of Anna, its mostly autobiographical protagonist. Fortunately, Theatre Intime and talented director Emma Watt have assembled an exceptional trio of actors to ensure that the wildly farcical elements hit home, the tenderness of this brother-sister relationship comes across, and the entertainment value here prevails over confusions in plot and tone.

The entire play actually takes place in a hospital in Baltimore, but, more significantly, the action of this play is set in the mind of Anna (Savannah Hankinson), as she envisions the trip to Europe with her brother. First major confusion arises as Anna imagines herself, not her brother, as the terminal patient, and the illness she imagines is ATD, acquired toilet disease, apparently contracted from sitting on the toilet seats used by the children in the elementary school where she teaches.

Her brother Carl (Daniel Rattner), wearing his pajamas with a pink triangle over the pocket throughout the play, has just been fired from his job as children’s librarian at the San Francisco Public Library. Carl decides they will seek a cure for his sister in Europe. After a comical scene of defiant departure from the library and a scene of frustrating medical mumbo-jumbo with the doctor (Billy Cohen, who also plays more than a dozen other parts throughout the evening), they are off to the continent.

The scenes speed by at a feverish pitch — thirty in all, during the hour and forty minutes without intermission — as Anna and Carl travel through France, Holland, Germany, and eventually to Vienna to find the mysterious Dr. Todesrocheln, a urine-drinking urologist. Amidst Anna’s frenetic quest to have as much sex with as many different men as possible and Carl’s entanglement in what seems to be a cloak-and-dagger intrigue out of the 1949 Graham Greene-Joseph Cotton-Orson Welles movie classic The Third Man, the comedy is hilarious and the farcical tone prevails, despite nostalgic reminiscences about the past and fears for the future.

The Baltimore Waltz is replete with bawdy humor, clever movie allusions, sardonic medical satire, and a feast of language. The nature of the subject matter here, as well as the 24-year gap between the world of the AIDS crisis in 1989 and the world of contemporary audiences, accounts for some disjointedness in tone in this play, but the three well cast, energetic, and dynamically engaged actors prevail over all confusions and the script’s occasional excesses in plot and cleverness.

At the center of the play, Ms. Hankinson’s Anna, alternating between trench coat and negligee, is focused, in character, and appealing throughout all the vicissitudes of action and emotion during the course of the evening. She undergoes the Kubler-Ross five stages of grief and much more, creating a sympathetic, warm, credible character in her relationship with her brother and with the vast range of others she meets on her bizarre journey.

Mr. Rattner’s Carl provides a worthy counterpart to his sister Anna. He is thoroughly believable, articulate, and appealing in his affection for his sister, his attempts to help her and his peculiar “Third Man” intrigues—stuffed rabbit (a sexual symbol?) in hand — through their European travels.

Mr. Cohen’s versatility and gift for comedy serve him well as The Third Man, Doctor, and numerous other roles of widely ranging ages, nationalities, and dispositions. With a vast array of costumes, hats, props, and wild wigs, Mr. Cohen delivers a high-powered dose of humor and helps to set the prevailing tone in every scene where he appears. Ms. Watson has directed this abundantly capable, committed trio with a fine sense of pacing, a rich offering of humor, and a deeply intelligent understanding of the right balance of celebration and mourning to bring clarity to much of the confusion in the text.

Set design by Aryeh Stein-Azen and Ben Schaffer establishes an appropriately simple space for this frequently changing, surrealistic comedic drama. A hospital bed is the major set piece, with a rolling hospital curtain, a chair, a table, and a platform upstage. A colorful, scenic backdrop represents highlights of the European sites Anna visits in her fantasy.

Marissa Applegate’s nuanced lighting contributes significantly to the shifting moods and scenes of the play, also to the shocking contrast — most evident at the play’s end — between Anna’s vivid fantasy journeys and the starkly-lit reality of the Baltimore hospital. (A slide show, supposedly of scenes of Europe but actually of scenes of Baltimore, should have appeared mid-way through the play, but apparently misfired on Saturday night. The actors covered skillfully with no apparent disruption in the action.)

Erin Valentine’s costumes and Jack Moore’s props help to create the multiple characters and the whimsical, often exaggerated atmosphere of the play, as the tone fluctuates from hospital sterile to child’s-nursery playful to Third Man noir.

How I Learned to Drive, Paula Vogel’s 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about family and sexual abuse, will probably always be the play she is best remembered for, but Theatre Intime’s superb production of The Baltimore Waltz provides striking evidence of the enduring power and humor in this earlier gem.

There has been a great deal of Handel scholarship going on in Princeton recently. The University’s department of music hosted events of the biennial American Handel Society Conference and Festival, which included presenting concerts of Baroque music and lectures on 18th-century performance practice. As part of the conference, University Director of Choirs Gabriel Crouch pooled the resources of the University Chamber Choir with the Westminster Kantorei to present a concert centered on the music of G.F. Handel. The full house in Taplin Auditorium included not only conference attendees, but also members of the community who were just in the mood to hear great music.

The Princeton University Chamber Choir is comprised of 30 students, and Mr. Crouch pulled ten of them in a select choir to perform a motet of Domenico Scarlatti, a composer more known for his keyboard works. Mr. Crouch drew a connection between Scarlatti and Handel in their same birth years and towering reputations, and linked Scarlatti’s Stabat Mater Dolorosa with the Handel works performed through its continuo orchestration.

Scarlatti’s Stabat Mater was performed essentially one singer on a part, and these ten members of the Chamber Choir demonstrated great poise and command of the music. Abigail Kelly and Stephanie Leotsakos blended well together on the top soprano parts, and Megan Conlon and Emily Sung handled well alto parts that were likely composed for men. The ten voices worked well together in the Taplin space, and Mr. Crouch brought out well an expressiveness recalling early Baroque opera. The piece included interesting shifts from minor to major keys. Continuo accompaniment was provided by Daniel Swenberg playing the stringed theorbo, and Kerry Heimann expertly provided organ keyboard support to the bass line.

Westminster Kantorei is Westminster Choir College’s choral ensemble specializing in early and contemporary music. Conductor Amanda Quist led the 22-voice chorus in four excerpts from Handel’s Chandos anthem Let God Arise, a piece full of quick-moving lines and musical drama one finds in Handel oratorios and operas. Let God Arise dates from 1718, near the height of Handel’s career, and the Westminster Kantorei and accompanying chamber orchestra filled the hall with deliberate choral articulation and a smooth and even ensemble tone. The small orchestra of strings, oboe, and continuo played with clean phrasing, with Jane McKinley’s oboe line speaking well through the string texture. Dr. Quist kept the choral parts precise, closing the anthem with crisp Alleluias.

The attendees of the Handel Society Conference no doubt came to hear Handel at his choral best, and the University Chamber Choir complied, with a full choral sound in a dramatic work. Handel may have composed the nine-movement Dixit Dominus at a young age, but it is no easy work of a youthful composer. Mr. Crouch took the preparation of this piece as a study in Baroque performance practice, aided by members of the Baroque specialty orchestra The English Concert, which had performed earlier in the week. The Chamber Choir used the hall’s acoustic to maintain the vocal lines, which were both difficult and fun to sing. The soprano section in particular sustained the high lines well, and the men maintained a well-blended sound.

A number of singers sang impressive solos, including soprano Anna Zayaruznaya, alto Megan Conlon, and tenor James Walsh. Mezzo-soprano Tessa Romano sang a very smooth rendition of the second movement alto aria, showing exceptional breath control in lines that crossed among registers. With similar poise, soprano Sophie Mocker perfectly matched triplets from the strings in another aria with long lines and little room to breathe. Sopranos Tara Ohrtman, Varshini Narayanan, Diana Barnes and Katie Buzard displayed solid vocal technique in solo ensemble sections, joined by tenors James Walsh and J.J. Warshaw, and bass Elliot Cole.

The overall performance of Dixit Dominus featured very interesting and engaging dynamic shifts, especially the closing “et in saecula saeculorum,” when one was not expecting a piano effect. Mr. Crouch kept the endings to the movements on the dry side, with the orchestral ensemble playing crisply. The tension of the text was well brought out, especially in the “conquassabit” verse in which “He will crush the heads of many on earth.”

A conference of the magnitude of a national American Handel Society meeting demands the highest level of scholarly performance, and the Princeton University and Westminster Choir College ensembles were well up to the task. For those interested in this period of music, the conference sessions open to the public were well-hidden gems of musicology on the University campus.

Gabriel Crouch will conduct the Princeton University Glee Club on Sunday, March 3 at 3 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium on the campus of Princeton University. Featured in this performance will be Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt. Ticket information can be obtained by visiting the “Music at Princeton” calendar website at www.princeton.edu/music/events.

February 20, 2013

The Richardson Chamber Players has always been an ensemble exploring the outer edges of chamber repertoire. Now more than 15-years-old, the Players has become a presenter of music audiences may not hear anywhere else. Sunday afternoon’s concert at Richardson Auditorium focused on two decades of European and South American music, presenting works rarely heard in general, much less in Princeton.

Sunday’s concert featured a comparatively large number of instrumentalists and singers, both professionals and students. The cover of the concert program referred to “this exaltation, this splendor, this bliss,” but Richardson Chamber Players co-founder and conductor Michael Pratt labeled the four pieces on the program as “fun.” Bassoonist Robert Wagner, principal bassoonist with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra; and Jayn Rosenfeld, principal flutist with the Princeton Symphony Orchestra started off the “fun” with selections from the Bachianas Brasileiras Suite No. 6 of Heitor Villa-Lobos. In the opening Aria, Ms. Rosenfeld took her time on the long melodic line, with Mr. Wagner complementing the flute line with a subtle but steady bassoon. Reflecting the work’s Bach influence, Mr. Wagner’s bassoon playing was as solid as any Baroque continuo, closing the movement with Ms. Rosenfeld in a tapered unison.

Music of Villa-Lobos also closed the afternoon’s program, but in between were two works linked by their roots in 1920s and 1930s Europe. Kurt Weill and Paul Hindemith were composing in a similar political climate, yet these two works were very different. Weill is most known for his music for the stage, and his sets of vocal songs are just as interesting. Soprano Martha Elliott sang the seven-movement Frauentanz, a setting of poems from the Middle Ages. Ms. Elliott always maintained a saucy approach to the teasing and romantic texts, singing with innocence yet a smile of knowing something secret behind the words.

Ms. Elliott was accompanied by solo flute, viola, clarinet, horn, and bassoon, in varying combinations and music effects. Hornist Chris Komer and Mr. Wagner provided a chipper accompaniment to the first song, while clarinetist Jeffrey Hodes (a recent Princeton graduate and veteran of the University Orchestra) played a smooth dancing obbligato to the second song. Especially nice to hear was Danielle Farina’s elegant viola playing, especially against the wind ostinato in the third movement. Ms. Farina also accompanied Ms. Elliott in an expressive interpretation of a haunting text in the fourth song. Throughout this set, Weill’s unique orchestration and combination of instruments created a unique musical palette and made Ms. Elliott’s conveying of the text that much more accessible.

Princeton University faculty member Barbara Rearick offered a very different text interpretation and vocal approach in Paul Hindemith’s Die junge Magd, a set of six songs. Composed for mezzo-soprano to the poetry of Georg Trakl, this cycle is dark, with a six-instrument accompaniment of string quartet, flute, and clarinet. Ms. Rearick sang with a rich and plaintive character, emphasizing a musical lavishness which came from the playing of the string quartet: violinists Ruotao Mao and Dean Wang, violinist Ms. Farina and cellist Alberto Parrini. The instrumental ensemble created two characters, between the strings and the winds, with icy word-painting when appropriate. In the fourth song in particular, the strings played a “hammering” pizzicato while the winds and voice depicted the character and mood. Ms. Rosenfeld’s solo flute matched Ms. Rearick’s voice perfectly in the particularly disturbing text of the fifth song.

Ms. Elliott returned to the stage to close the concert with selections from another suite from Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras, singing the familiar vocalise introduction at a nice pace. Ms. Elliott’s difficult vocal humming was especially impressive in the closing of the cantilena Aria. The very quick-moving Dança was presented with rapid text from Ms. Elliott and effortless cello playing from Mr. Parrini leading an ensemble of seven other celli.

Sunday afternoon’s performance was a big undertaking for the Richardson Chamber Players, but by augmenting the ensemble with excellent instrumentalists from the campus, the ensemble proved more than up to the task, and a very appreciative audience came away with appreciation for some new repertoire.

February 13, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 16, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 12, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 5, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 28, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 14, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 7, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

November 6, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 17, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 10, 2012

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

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

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

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

October 3, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 19, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 22, 2012

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

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

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

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

“Mystery in Art”

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

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

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

Joy in Jersey

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

Something Amusingly Else

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

The Anglophile

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

“Ever Higher”

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

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

The Last Word

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

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

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

August 8, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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