Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 41
Wednesday, October 10, 2007
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Princeton Symphony Orchestra Opens First Season of “New Era”

Nancy Plum

The first concert of an ensemble’s new season always brings excitement to the concert hall. The players exhibit a fresh approach to the music after a summer off, and audiences wonder if there will be a new twist to the season’s concerts. For the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, which opened its 2007-08 season Sunday afternoon in Richardson Auditorium, the new concert year began with an aura of surprise and a bit of unsettledness, as the orchestra began its first year without long-time conductor Mark Laycock. The ensemble will present its five-concert classical series this year with guest conductors, from which may well be chosen the orchestra’s next music director.

Shi-Yeon Sung, the first of these guest conductors, honed her conducting skills in Europe, including Berlin, Germany and Stockholm, Sweden. Ms. Sung was recently appointed Assistant Conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra under James Levine and has won several conducting awards, including the 2007 Bamberg Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition. Ms. Sung took on a concert apparently previously programmed, but given that she conducted Schumann’s Symphony Number 2 from memory, it was a program with which she was familiar.

Ms. Sung conducted the opening work, Mozart’s Overture to the Abduction From the Seraglio, with a small, almost imperceptible at times, beat pattern, and at a very quick tempo. Ms. Sung led the orchestra with subtle grace, and for the most part, what came off the baton was replicated by the players. Regardless of the fact that this orchestra has played together for so long (despite some new faces this year) that it could probably play without a conductor, the players were well able to convey Ms. Sung’s concept of the music.

Ms. Sung clearly had a plan for Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D Major, which featured soloist Dan Zhu, one of a new generation of instrumental prodigies coming out of China. Ms. Sung’s design for the concerto allowed soloist and ensemble to interact and respond to one another, and she gave the soloist room to move through the music. Mr. Zhu played the melodic themes with strength and solidity, and with ferocious double stops.

The orchestra maintained an impressive preciseness, especially given the early start to the season; the occasional mistimed entrances were likely from some players having a harder time reading Ms. Sung’s intentions than others. Throughout the concerto, the players were understandably overly intent and not as relaxed as they might have been in the past playing a work such as this, and seemed to be holding back at times in favor of making sure they were reading the conductor’s signals correctly.

Mr. Zhu closed the first movement of the concerto with a cadenza which displayed both intelligence and technical prowess, and saved his sweetest playing for the end of the first movement. Mr. Zhu played the solo passages in the second movement “Adagio” with less vibrato than one might expect, given that this movement is essentially a Brahms song. Instrumental solos from the winds, especially oboist Caroline Park, added to the solid musical effect, and soloist and ensemble came together for a spirited third movement “Allegro” to close the work.

The overall atmosphere onstage was much more comfortable in the Schumann symphony, a work the ensemble has likely performed before. A stately opening began the work, with smooth transitions to internal tempo changes. The orchestra seemed less tentative in this piece, and sections worked well internally, such as the very clean thirds from the horns in the third movement “Adagio.” Wind solos abounded throughout the work, most notably from Ms. Park and bassoonist Roe Goodman, and a very nice duet between the two violin sections marked the third movement. Ms. Sung maintained very clean transitions within the music, especially moving between the Scherzo and Trio sections of the second movement.

The success of a conductor lies not just with the performance, but also in the rehearsals and rapport with the players. One cannot always tell from a performance how the rehearsal weeks have gone, and the Princeton Symphony organization has kept closely guarded who among these guest conductors is actually a candidate for the music director position. Over the past twenty years, the Princeton Symphony Orchestra has become a complex organization, with many internal artistic branches springing out of the core classical series. What will be clear throughout this year of transition is that both players and conductors serve the music, and although it is unclear who is driving the artistic mission of the organization, hopefully all will arrive at the same place at the end of the process.

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