Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 46
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
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Princeton Symphony Orchestra Concert Celebrates Women in Art and Music

Nancy Plum

Princeton Symphony Music Director Rossen Milanov is slowly becoming acclimated to the Princeton community, and on a recent visit to the Princeton University Art Museum, Mr. Milanov was taken by an exhibit of paintings representing women in art and music. Based on his impressions of this collection, which includes paintings by Dutch and French artists, Mr. Milanov programmed a concert for the Princeton Symphony of works depicting women and in some cases also inspired by art. Mr. Milanov and the Princeton Symphony presented this program on Sunday afternoon in Richardson Auditorium to a nearly full house of appreciative audience members. Mr. Milanov linked music, art, and literature in this concert, also making good on his promise to collaborate with other Princeton music ensembles, including one of the choirs of Westminster Choir College in two of the concert works.

The music of Richard Wagner is renowned for its rich and lush orchestral texture, but the excerpts from Tannhäuser, performed on Sunday afternoon, dates from the mid19th century, with its roots in classical structure and refinement. Mr. Milanov brought out the clarity in the overture and Venusberg Music from Tannhäuser, aided by the women of the Westminster Williamson Voices, a select chorus of the Choir College conducted by James Jordan.

The Tannhäuser overture started with a stately slow beginning from pairs of clarinets, bassoons, and horns. Mr. Milanov built the long continuous lines and dark theme well, allowing the strings to play full out on the descending figures. Mr. Milanov took a very dramatic approach to the music, creating sweeping arches marked by clean entrances by the clarinets, bassoons, and horns. Flutes and oboes were more chipper, and the trumpets were precise as the orchestra shifted well between sections. Concertmistress Basia Danilow and clarinetist William Amsel provided effective solo work against the clarity in the texture.

Princeton Symphony Orchestra’s next concert will be in Richardson Auditorium on Sunday, January 23, 2011 at 4 p.m. Featured will be music of Beethoven, as well as an unusual “Concerto for Marimba” by Pierre Jalbert. For information call (609) 497-0020 or visit

The twenty singers of the polished Williamson Voices joined the orchestra as a chorus of sirènes mythical creatures (which reappeared later in the program), singing with solid diction and an even collective vibrato. The orchestra ended the Wagner work with a very subtle pair of horns and an elegant bassoon solo from Roe Goodman.

The rarely heard one movement Luonnotar, Opus 70 of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius also started with a shimmering beginning, all the better to set off the work’s featured vocal soloist, Icelandic soprano Dísella Làrusdôttir. A winner of several prestigious international awards, Ms. Làrusdôttir performed in 2008 with the Philadelphia Orchestra (of which Mr. Milanov is associate conductor) and has also performed with Mr. Milanov’s South Jersey-based Symphony in C. She began the Sibelius piece with a rich voice, in a register not overly high for soprano. Although the Finnish language of the text was likely unfamiliar to the audience, making following the words a bit difficult, there was no mistaking the tension in the music and the pathos in the vocal line. Ms. Làrusdôttir brought out all of the word painting in the text, especially words depicting the waves of the sea, and ended the piece angelically.

Ms. Làrusdôttir returned to the stage later in the concert to perform two songs of Richard Strauss rooted in literature and giving the singer the chance to explore a range of emotions. “Morgen” was delicately orchestrated with solo violin, harp, and singer against a very light string accompaniment. The text underlay was straight-forward with the beauty in the tune, played first by solo violinist Ms. Danilow and then picked up by the singer and the harp (played by Andre Tarantiles). Ms. Làrusdôttir continued to prove to be a graceful singer, but really showed off her virtuostic capabilities in “Amor,” the second Strauss song on the program. Strauss set the strophic song unleashing the soloist’s coloratura on such words translated as “laugh” and the final “sly” child, and Ms. Làrusdôttir was clear and decisive in her conveying of the story.

Claude Debussy’s Nocturnes were inspired by art, primarily the composer’s admiration of paintings by American artist James Abbott McNeil Whistler. The three movements are an exercise in orchestral transparency, shimmering through various combinations of instruments. Unusual solos, such as English hornist Nicholas Masterson and violist Sarah Sutton gave the first movement “Nuages” a unique color depicting the “slow, solemn motion of the clouds.” The second movement “Fêtes” includes the same kind of rhythmic and harmonic tension found in Ravel’s popular Bolero, premiered in 1928. Mr. Milanov allowed the tension to build, aided by a trio of well-played muted trumpets. The Williamson Voices sirènes returned for the closing movement to depict the varying rhythms of the sea. Mr. Milanov was successful in stretching out phrases and giving the impression of the sirens rising from the sea. Vocal jumps to the high register were well handled by the sopranos, and the chorus conveyed well the undulating and pulsating effect.

This performance was one of several concerts recently linking music and the art in the University Museum’s collections. Such collaboration can only serve to strengthen all organizations involved, as well as giving art and music aficionados the chance to explore the “other side,” perhaps learning something new in the process.

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