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Vol. LXII, No. 47
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
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Revolutionary Performance in Richardson Presented by Princeton Symphony Orchestra

Nancy Plum

The sign of a good music director, whether permanent or interim, is the ability to motivate the players to reach beyond themselves to present the music to the audience. Princeton Symphony Orchestra had such a director this past weekend, as guest conductor Tito Muñoz led the ensemble in a concert with many revolutionary overtones in leader, soloist, and music.

Mr. Muñoz chose a program rooted in nationalism for the most part: Giuseppe Verdi’s overture to his opera La Forza del Destino, followed by Dmitri Shostakovich’s monumental Symphony No. 10. These two somewhat activist works sandwiched a charming Haydn cello concerto featuring a soloist whose performance and music education activities are extremely innovative and pioneering. Mr. Muñoz himself was a revolutionary choice as conductor because he is so young to have held the conducting positions he has held.

Both the Shostakovich and Verdi works are laden with subliminal nationalistic messages to the native underground, and although the overture to La Forza del Destino is not one of the more obvious of these works, it is full of typical Verdi drama and operatic story.

The Princeton Symphony began the overture right off with very clear and solid brass, and Mr. Muñoz impressively brought out the phrase lines in the violins.

Mr. Muñoz is an exacting conductor, demanding precision from the wind sectional solos, yet he never forgot that this is an overture to an opera, and the sections flowed well together. Mr. Muñoz seemed to take all the time he needed with the melodic lines, aided by a very clean brass chorale and elegant wind solos, especially from clarinetist David Sapadin. The orchestra impressively picked up speed considerably in the coda without missing a beat.

If the Verdi overture was an exhilarating way to begin the concert, the Haydn Cello Concerto in D Major which followed was charming and delightful. Guest cello soloist Steven Isserlis is clearly well schooled in the performance practices of the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and his approach to the work captured the flair and sauciness of the times.

Mr. Isserlis had no trouble playing along with the orchestra at times, giving the impression he was following the 18th century Kantorei tradition, but when it was time for him to play the theme, it was played sweetly and tastefully. He was very flexible with the ornaments and demonstrated a great deal of flexibility in the phrasing. His solo in thirds with the viola section was particularly refined. Mr. Isserlis’s instrument, a 1730 Stradivarius, was particularly well suited to this music.

Mr. Isserlis was clearly listening to the orchestra in his non-solo passages, at time looking around at the players. He also impressively brought the dynamic levels of phrases down so low that the audience had to really listen to hear the musical nuances. With a bit of flair and musical teasing, Mr. Isserlis closed the concerto well, bringing out the burgeoning Sturm und Drang effects.

The orchestra closed the concert with Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10, a work full of references to the Stalinist era in Russia. Mr. Muñoz brought out well the intensity of the work, again with well blended brass and a particularly effective duet between clarinetists Mr. Sapadin and Sherry Hartman Apgar. Other exceptional wind soloists included flutist Amy Wolfe, oboist Caroline Park, English horn player Arthur Sato, and bassoonist Roe Goodman. A fierce Scherzo was followed by the closing movement featuring haunting violin playing by concertmistress Basia Danilow, playing which was made all the more stark by playing most of the notes as upbows.

This was a conductor who derived the best from the ensemble, easily raising the instrumentalists to their most dynamic playing. Princeton Symphony Orchestra sold out this performance, indicating that even in this period of transition, the organization has a strong and solid following.

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