Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 40
Wednesday, October 6, 2010
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Rossen Milanov Conducts the PSO in a Concert of Power and Grace

Nancy Plum

Princeton Symphony Orchestra’s new Music Director Rossen Milanov announced his arrival this past weekend with a program of “Power, Passion and Grace.” The orchestra’s concert in Richardson Auditorium on Sunday afternoon included several works which embodied all three of those adjectives, but above all made clear that Mr. Milanov is proud of his musicians, and they are equally proud to be playing for him.

Mr. Milanov wisely chose a “warm and fuzzy” piece to musically inaugurate his tenure with the Princeton Symphony. Mozart’s overture to his opera The Magic Flute is a piece designed to warm up the audience, and in this case, bond the community to a new conductor. Mr. Milanov opened the overture with decisive chords (with horns that were even cleaner the second time around) and quick, light eighth notes from the strings. Mr. Milanov led the orchestra through a clean transition to the Allegro sections, and developed the musical drama slowly while capturing the humor in the piece. Mr. Milanov seemed to pay particular attention to the “threes” of the overture, building each repeated sequence in dynamics to create a dramatic effect. Clear lower strings and effective solo work from flutist Jayn Rosenfeld, oboist Caroline Park, and clarinetist William Amsel aided in bringing the overture to a crisp conclusion.

Princeton Symphony Orchestra’s next concert will be on Sunday, November 14 at 4 p.m. and will feature music of Wagner, Sibelius, Strauss, and Debussy. The orchestra, will be joined by the women of the Westminster Williamson Voices in a concert in collaboration with the University Art Museum. Call the Richardson box office at (609) 258-5000 for information.

Reaffirming his commitment to contemporary music and collaborations with local organizations, Mr. Milanov chose for his second work a piece by a local composer, combined with a superstar soloist. Composer Steven Mackey is on the faculty of Princeton University and has been commissioned by a number of prestigious performing ensembles and artists. Mr. Mackey composed Beautiful Passing specifically for violinist Leila Josefowicz, who premiered the work in 2008 with the BBC Philharmonic. Mr. Mackey composed this piece from intense personal experience, creating a dialog between the solo violin and the orchestra. Beautiful Passing was almost two pieces played simultaneously — one a work of well-contained ensemble jazz against another of dreamy and ethereal solo violin. An extensive percussion section added cohesion to the orchestral parts, which were laden with Bernsteinesque jazz. At first hearing the ensemble sections sounded like random instruments playing at the same time, but one could discern melodies and motifs within the thick instrumentation.

Ms. Josefowicz began Beautiful Passing with a high, straight-tone violin solo, gradually adding vibrato as the piece went on. Ms. Josefowicz played with determination; this was clearly a soloist who knew where she was going with the music. The violin part was continuous, against a texture that became quite lush and hymnlike. The virtuosity of the violin solo was not so much in the lightning quick fingerwork (although there was plenty of that) but more in the triple stops and musical effects, including Ms. Josefowicz’s ability to slip through the octave harmonies with impeccable tuning. Despite the complexity of Mr. Mackey’s music, Ms. Josefowicz was not intimidated in the least, and clearly interacted well with both orchestra and conductor.

The first two pieces in this concert were half the length of the piece that comprised the second part —Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in e minor. The size of the orchestra was smaller than for the Mackey piece, reminding the audience that this work, although by a composer who pushed the envelope of musical texture, is firmly rooted in the Romantic symphonic tradition. The two clarinetists of the orchestra opened the work well with a dark wind sound, impressively crescendoing on what is a very low note in the clarinet register. The two bassoonists (Roe Goodman and Damian Primis) joined the clarinets to open the first movement Allegro in a mood that was not all that gloomy, considering the symphony’s focus on the concept of fate. Conducting from memory, Mr. Milanov kept the piece moving forward with a nice flow, aided by clean rhythmic motives from the strings.

The second movement Andante was marked by a sensitive and poignant horn solo played by principal hornist Douglas Lundeen, who paid close attention to the movement’s marking of cantabile. Mr. Amsel and Ms. Park provided effective counter-melodies on their respective instruments, with their gentle lyricism passing on to Mr. Goodman on the bassoon (it’s a pleasant surprise to hear the bassoon with such an expressive melody within a symphony). Mr. Goodman had a very busy day with this work, providing a solidly syncopated melody in the third movement Valse.

Both players and conductor worked hard in this piece, with Mr. Milanov keeping the energy moving until the very end. Tchaikovsky symphonies have great Finale melodies, and this one was no exception, and Mr. Milanov especially succeeded in making repetitions of musical material do something different each time.

With the beginning of Mr. Milanov’s tenure, Princeton Symphony Orchestra has embarked on an ambitious level of activity to reach a number of audiences in different venues throughout the community. Chamber concerts, pre-concert lectures, and “Soundtracks” held at the Public Library all aim to bring audience members further into the music, and thus deeper into the Princeton Symphony organization as a whole. One can even find musician’s favorite recipes in the concert program book. There are obviously some new things happening behind the scenes at the Princeton Symphony, and hopefully the Princeton audience will be able to keep up.

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