March 21, 2012

Shakespeare’s Works Inspired Three Composers In Spring Concert at Richardson Auditorium

Over this past season, the Princeton Symphony Orchestra (PSO) has been expanding the simple concert presentation format to creating a multi-day performance experience with pre-concert lectures, open forums with composers and soloists, and discussions of music related to the concert repertory, held in a variety of venues around town. The orchestra’s Sunday afternoon concert in Richardson Auditorium was the culmination of several public events centered on the flute concerto and other symphonic music performed, with the featured composer and soloist very involved in the process.

For this spring concert, PSO Music Director Rossen Milanov selected music related to Shakespeare, including works of three major 19th-century composers. Felix Mendelssohn composed an Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the age of seventeen for no other reason than that he liked the play. Although it was sixteen years later that Mendelssohn incorporated this music into a commission, the overture retained a youthful spirit, beginning with the well-tuned thirds in the flutes which opened the piece. Mr. Milanov maintained a light pizzicato from the strings as precise dotted rhythms moved the music forward. There was a great deal of humor and fun in this overture, such as Gary Cattley’s tuba solo representing Bottom’s transformation into a donkey. Especially lean violin playing was notable before the closing coda.

Tchaikovsky also musically addressed Shakespeare plays, with his Romeo and Juliet fantasy overture familiar to orchestra audiences. Less well known is his tone poem Hamlet, which is much darker than the Mendelssohn work, with ample opportunity for the orchestra to build drama and theatricality. The lower strings effectively set the mood, punctuated by clean trombones. This one-movement piece was a dramatic workout for the strings, with convincingly fierce playing as things got rolling. Oboist Caroline Park provided emotional contrast with a lyrical and melodic solo full of rich sound. Mr. Milanov wisely allowed Ms. Park to end her solo freely as the mood changed to a lush orchestral sound. Also impressive was the timing of the brass accents exactly with the snare drum, played by percussionist Phyllis Bitow.

The third Shakespeare-inspired work on the program was another Romeo and Juliet treatment by Sergei Prokofiev. The three selections from two Prokofiev suites performed by the orchestra were not at all in the composer’s classical vein, but closer to the dramatic late Romantic Russian style, and Mr. Milanov did well to keep the sound as full as possible without falling into the range of cacophonous. Mr. Milanov drew significant tension out of the strings during the familiar marching music of the first “Montagues and Capulets” from Suite No. 2, aided by some very nice flute work from Jayn Rosenfeld and Mary Schmidt. Prokofiev scored these pieces to include saxophone, effectively played by Ron Kerber for contrast against the orchestral palette. The three selections from Prokofiev’s two suites featured elegant instrumental solos, including English hornist Nick Masterson, violinists Basia Danilow and Valissa Willwerth, and violist Stephanie Griffin. Mr. Milanov maintained good control over this very disjunct music, bringing the final selection to a particularly ominous close, foreshadowing the drama to come in the play.

Lowell Liebermann’s Concerto for Flute and Orchestra may not have had anything to do with Shakespeare, but in this work the solo flute seemed to be a character, wandering through the opening movement’s pastoral scene against a clocklike pizzicato from the strings. Flute soloist Eugenia Zukerman (who was kept very busy that afternoon doubling as narrator for the other three works on the program) played the nonstop line with ease, achieving very nice duets with members of the orchestra, including clarinetist Gi Li and bassoonist Roe Goodman. Ms. Zukerman played with a light touch and very even agility, as other winds joined her in elegant instrumental combinations. Ms. Zukerman had her work particularly cut out for her in the third movement, as a nonstop flute line speeded along. This concerto was a very appealing work, with particularly entertaining use of such unusual percussion instruments as sleigh bells, triangles, and a ratchet.

Princeton Symphony Orchestra has made a particular point of linking concerts this season with the community. With Shakespeare, there is a great deal to work with on the Princeton campus and in the town, and the orchestra seemed justifiably pleased with the results on this initiative.