Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXV, No. 4
Wednesday, January 26, 2011
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Princeton Orchestra Juxtaposes Old, New; Introduces a New Concerto Instrument

Nancy Plum

Princeton Symphony Orchestra presented a concert of multiple “juxtapositions” on Sunday afternoon, treating the nearly full Richardson Auditorium to a program linking a master 19th century composer with a 21st century emerging concerto instrument. Guest conductor Alasdair Neale, currently Music Director of the Sun Valley and Marin Symphonies in California, brought a clean, no-nonsense conducting style to the Princeton Symphony in two works of Beethoven and a fairly new concerto for marimba and orchestra.

Mr. Neale opened the concert with a standard work by Beethoven as a “juxtaposition” against the concerto. Beethoven composed incidental music to a ballet based on the story of Prometheus in 1801, on the heels of the Classical pinnacle of Haydn and Mozart. The one-movement “Overture” to the Prometheus ballet employs many Beethoven musical “signatures” which the Princeton Symphony brought out well. Mr. Neale took a great deal of space between the opening chords, creating a “juxtaposition” with the quick tempo of the subsequent “allegro.” Clean strings and playful winds added to a solid connection between conductor and ensemble.

Pierre Jalbert’s Concerto for Marimba and Orchestra could not seem further from the masterpieces of Beethoven, but the concerto form is certainly one Beethoven knew well. The marimba was unheard of in Beethoven’s orchestra; it had its roots in Africa and is now considered the national instrument of Guatemala. However, throughout the 20th century, a number of folk instruments from around the world have made their way into the percussion sections of orchestras, and a few have been singled out for concerto treatment by innovative performers and composers. Percussionist Svet Stoyanov, a native of Bulgaria and concert artist on a number of instruments, has taken the marimba to the forefront of the orchestra stage to show that the instrument can be played as virtuostically as a violin.

Mr. Jalbert composed his Concerto in 2005, with its premiere in Japan by percussionist Makato Nakura. Mr. Jalbert was in the Princeton Symphony audience on Sunday afternoon, and was no doubt pleased with Mr. Stoyanov’s performance of the four-movement work. Throughout the piece, Mr. Stoyanov used a variety of mallets to create musical effects ranging from subtle to a glass-like wind chime sound. In the first movement, the orchestra provided a percussive accompaniment against the soloist’s jazz motives. Mr. Jalbert clearly likes alternating duple and triple meters, and the Concerto was full of both metallic and shimmering passages.

Like the hammered dulcimer, the marimba achieves much of its characteristic sound through the soloist playing “rolls” on particular notes which build in intensity. However, unlike other instruments played with mallets or sticks, the challenge of the marimba lies in the soloist holding two mallets in each hand and playing different notes with each one. Mr. Stoyanov demonstrated exceptional technique with both hands, including playing with the sides of the mallets on the edges of the keys. Mr. Stoyanov’s focus and attention to mood was unending, playing with fierceness in one moment and peacefully the next.

The Princeton Symphony Orchestra closed the concert with Beethoven’s Symphony #3 in Eb Major, another work full of changing characters and impressions. Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony set a new course for the form in its massive scope and orchestral colors. Mr. Neale conducted the four-movement work from memory, and was clearly very comfortable with the piece. He brought out the flow of the first movement “Allegro con brio,” keeping his conducting light and at times allowing the music to play itself. These opening chords were much quicker than in the Prometheus “Overture,” allowing the piece to remain in the Classical mode, but clearly on the verge of something inventive. Oboist Carolyn Park, clarinetist William Amsel, and flutist Jayn Rosenfeld were well matched in the short solos, together with consistently delicate and understated horns.

Mr. Neale took a regal approach to the second movement’s funeral march, and Ms. Park excelled again in sensitive and graceful oboe solos. Mr. Neale was clearly not looking to be overly dramatic, saving the most intensity for the end of the movement. He kept the third movement “Scherzo” crisp, as the horn section effectively conveyed the hunting calls.

Mr. Neale conducted the fourth movement with a bit of humor, drawing out the Viennese “lifts” at the ends of phrases and keeping the opening syncopation among instruments clean. Throughout the movement, the strings played with little if any vibrato, contrasted by lyrical oboe, clarinet, and bassoon solos.

The Princeton Symphony is well into its first season with new Music Director Rossen Milanov, but Mr. Neale’s turn as a guest conductor was by no means killing time in the Music Director’s absence. The marimba concerto in particular brought something new to the hall and no doubt taught the audience a thing or two about an instrument usually relegated to the back of the stage.

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