Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXII, No. 4
Wednesday, January 23, 2008
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Princeton Symphony Orchestra Brings Local Composer’s Music to Richardson

Nancy Plum

As the Princeton Symphony Orchestra continues its transition season, Sunday’s guest conductor Mischa Santora had a challenging task — to bring to life a program not only selected by someone else, but one which included a world premiere and second performance of music notated from a handwritten manuscript by a composer who was no longer living. Mr. Santora, whose international career includes a repertoire of both opera and symphonic music, was up to the task. He created a well-blended orchestral sound, inspiring the Princeton Symphony to turn in its best performance yet this season.

Sunday afternoon’s concert in Richardson Auditorium came on the heels of William Scheide’s 94th birthday musical celebration the previous Friday night, so it was fitting that this performance was PSO’s annual recognition of Princeton’s other great philanthropist — Edward T. Cone. Mr. Cone’s vast repertory of music, much of which has never been heard by the general public, has been capably managed since Cone’s death by a musical property executor who has been preparing scores for performance and dissemination. The two pieces PSO selected for this concert have both been seldom or never performed. An Overture for the War was a world premiere, even though the work was composed in 1942. Cone wrote this one-movement piece just before he joined the Army for a competition for “new music composed in response to the country’s entrance into the war.” Although a “student” composition, An Overture for the War is immensely complex and listenable, and is a work which could find a number of new homes in orchestral libraries.

The Princeton Symphony Orchestra’s next classical series concert will be on March 16 at 4 p.m. The orchestra will be conducted by Gunther Schuller and will feature music of Respighi, Schuller, and Hindemith. For information call (609) 258-5000.

In the beginning of this piece, conductor Santora kept his beat pattern small and clean, broadening his conducting strokes as the work built in intensity. The overture opened with a pair of nicely played bassoons, followed by a smooth English horn played by Pavel Morunov. Cone clearly liked the lower instrumental voices, and this piece was heavy on the violas, celli, English horn, and bass clarinet. Mr. Santora kept the piece moving along well with uniform dynamic builds. Although he does not appear to communicate much facially during a performance, Mr. Santora is a student of Curtis Institute’s conducting guru Otto-Werner Mueller, and all Mueller’s students are precise in their conducting gestures.

The second Cone piece in the program, Elegy, was more angular in texture, with numerous changing meters which Mr. Santora easily handled. Conducting from a hand-written score, Mr. Santora brought out the variety in the piece through its dynamics, keeping the instrumental melodic bits and pieces accurate.

The program contrasted the two Cone pieces with a work rooted in the Classical tradition and full of Romantic melody — Schubert’s Rosamunde Overture. Mr. Santora brought out the suspense of the long dramatic first half of the overture, and allowed the Schubertian lilt to flow from the combination of the clarinet, flute, and oboe.

The concert closed with an extensive set of some of Mahler’s most well-known songs. Lieder das Knaben Wunderhorn were composed over a ten-year period, with no specification of the order of performance or exactly who should sing each song. Mr. Santora presented these songs, alternating the more despairing texts with lighter poetry, through the singing of baritone Alexander Tall and soprano Susan Narucki.

As he demonstrated in his title role performance in John Adams’ controversial Death of Klinghoffer opera a few years ago, Mr. Tall knows how to sell a story through song. Both of the “drummer boy” lieder were assigned to him, and he brought out well the plaintiveness and anguish of the texts. Ms. Narucki was not as communicative with her audience or her fellow singer, in the case of the duets, appearing more to be reading through the score rather than conveying a part. In particular, “Das irdische Leben,” a dialog between a starving child and his mother, required two distinct vocal characters, and Ms. Narucki chose to remain on the matronly side. Although duets such as “Der Schildwache Nachtlied” may have required more flirtatiousness on Ms. Narucki’s part, the interplay between the singers in the duets was well appreciated by the audience.

Throughout these songs, the orchestra conveyed both Mahler’s charm and melancholy. The Viennese inflections of “Rheinlegendchen” were well expressed by the ensemble, emphasizing the Ländler grace which Mahler used in several of his major works.

The Princeton Symphony’s classical series has two more performances, the two remaining guest conductors are both heavy hitters who may or may not be candidates for the Music Director position. The ensemble has coped well with the varying styles of the guest conductors thus far, and in looking over the past three performances, Sunday’s performance is a clear winner.

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