Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXII, No. 40
Wednesday, October 1, 2008
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Princeton Symphony Opens New Season With Solid Performance and Fiery Soloist

Nancy Plum

The Princeton Symphony is in its second transition year of searching for a new music director, and with each new candidate, the ensemble gets closer to clarifying its musical identity for this new period in the orchestra’s history. The first candidate of this second year, Andrew Grams, brought a very detailed performance of the compositions of 3 “Bs” — Berlioz, Barber, and Brahms — to the stage of Richardson Auditorium on Sunday afternoon, and the Princeton Symphony demonstrated its flexibility and attention to detail.

Andrew Grams came to this opportunity with the Princeton Symphony by way of a residency with the Florida Orchestra and three years as Assistant Conductor with the Cleveland Symphony. Also trained as a violinist, he was a natural to conduct Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto, Opus 34, the centerpiece of Sunday’s program. Mr. Grams opened the concert with a spirited rendering of Hector Berlioz’ Roman Carnival Overture, in large part a reworking of Berlioz’ own music from a previous opera. Mr. Grams reversed the stage placement of the second violins and the celli-double basses, and throughout the overture, maintained command of the tempi and musical effects.

The next Princeton Symphony concert will be on Sunday November 9 at 4 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium. Featured will be music of Verdi, Haydn, and Shostakovich, with guest conductor Tito Muñoz and cellist Steven Isserlis. Ticket information can be obtained by calling (609) 258-5000.

Keisuke Ikuma opened the one-movement work with a rich English horn solo against very clean violins. Mr. Grams clearly emphasized the grace of the music and through well executed crescendo and tapering of phrases, the symphony found a characteristic French elegance. The violas also provided a very rich sectional solo, and wind flourishes were clean.

Mr. Grams seemed to enjoy cranking the piece up, without allowing the orchestra to become overbearing at its fullest sound.

The Barber concerto featured a young yet poised soloist, Canadian violinist Karen Gomyo. Ms. Gomyo, playing on a 1703 Stradivarius, continually gave direction to the long lines of the first and second movements of the concerto, and easily switched to the more virtuosic style of the third movement. As might be expected from Samuel Barber, the background strings of the scaled-down orchestra also had a life of their own, and throughout the first movement, the soloist was answered precisely by the winds. Ms. Gomyo played definitively, controlling the pace and expecting the orchestra to follow. Also notable in this movement was a fine clarinet solo by principal David Sapadin, and the close of the first movement was particularly clean among the soloist, clarinets, and flutes.

The second movement Andante was marked by a clean oboe solo by principal Caroline Park, with conductor Grams allowing the oboe to take the lead over the orchestra. Mr. Grams followed Ms. Park and Ms. Gomyo well, closing the movement in a grand and dramatic manner. Ms. Gomyo further proved her decisiveness in the third movement, in which she took off like a rocket with nonstop fire, and it was up to the orchestra to keep up, which they did nearly flawlessly. Through the precision of the players, the audience was able to hear the Copland and Bernstein effects which are also in this work.

Mr. Grams chose a standard to close the concert: Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 is always good for this ensemble to play, and the players responded well to Mr. Grams’ attention to detail and ability to bring out the Austrian flair of the work. The first movement in particular had a great deal of ebb and flow, with the celli playing the second theme smoothly and the horns playing cleanly throughout. Phrase crescendos and decrescendos were particularly evident in the third movement and both the ensemble and audience responded well to Mr. Grams’ interpretation of this work.

Although his continual mouth gestures might drive brass players a bit crazy, Mr. Grams certainly had a good rapport with the Princeton Symphony and was well schooled in his music. His command over the Berlioz and Brahms works was evident by the fact that he never turned from the first page of the scores during the performance. He expected a great deal from his players in terms of details, and they delivered with refinement and finesse.

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