September 21, 2016

Princeton Symphony Orchestra Opens Season With Two Sparkling Versions of “Seasons”

There is always an air of freshness at the start of a new musical season — the night air is crisp with the coming of autumn and audiences are eager with anticipation of what the new season will bring. Princeton Symphony Orchestra began its 2016-17 season a bit early this year with a concert last Thursday night which was definitely a breath of fresh air — and an approach to Antonio Vivaldi which Princeton audiences likely have not heard before.

Last Thursday night’s performance at Richardson Auditorium featured 20 instrumentalists of the Princeton Symphony, led by conductor and solo violinist Daniel Rowland, performing the four three-movement concerti which comprise Vivaldi’s Le Quattro Stagioni (The Four Seasons), interspersed with a four-movement work on the same theme by 20th-century Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla. Mr. Rowland led the Symphony with energy and verve, showing the contrasting styles of works two centuries apart and the capabilities of the Symphony strings in what was definitely high-speed Baroque.

Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons is one of the most beloved works in orchestral repertory, and a hallmark of the Baroque period of music. Chipper melodic themes and colorful programmatic orchestral writing make these concerti lively and challenging for players. Conversely, Piazzolla’s orchestral music is rooted in the rich Argentine dance tradition and is particularly geared toward the bandoneon, a Latin American concertina used extensively in tango ensembles. Piazzolla originally composed Las Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas (The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires) for bandoneon, describing the work as “musical portraits of Buenos Aires throughout the year, its buildings, its grey skies, its nostalgia and its crowded alleys.” Piazzolla’s Seasons was transcribed for solo violin and strings in the 1990s, and Mr. Rowland has spent the past ten years showing audiences worldwide how well Piazzolla’s and Vivaldi’s seasonal works go together.

Rather than pair “Spring” with “Spring” and so forth, Mr. Rowland kept the seasonal cycle moving forward by opening the concert with Vivaldi’s “Spring,” followed by Piazzolla’s “Summer in Buenos Aires.” The members of Princeton Symphony, accompanied by harpsichordist Raphael Fusco and led by Mr. Rowland, began Vivaldi’s “Spring” very quickly — almost too quickly at times. Soloist Mr. Rowland and concertmaster Basia Danilow chased each other with melodic motives and quick themes, accompanied by fast and furious playing from the lower strings. Throughout all the works on the program, Mr. Rowland found drama in the music, encouraging the Symphony to take time at cadences and emphasize ornaments not often heard in Vivaldi’s Seasons.

Conversely, Piazzolla’s “Summer in Buenos Aires” had a feeling of nostalgia which was well conveyed by the Princeton Symphony, with an immediate atmosphere of a lively city. Mr. Rowland’s solo line was more jagged than that of the Vivaldi work, and the overall orchestral palette was rich and full of color. Each of the movements of Piazzolla’s Seasons ended with an homage to Vivaldi in melodic phrases orchestral texture, providing an opportunity for the Symphony musicians to be a bit playful.

As the musical “seasons” rolled along, Mr. Rowland maintained solid communication with the ensemble players, often moving around the stage to home in on a particular instrumental section. The quick passages of both composers’ works were very quick, and the song-like contrasting sections were soft and intense, with solo lines the audience had to reach to hear. Mr. Rowland particularly drove the other players through the fast rhythms and unified jazz style of the Piazzolla movements. As soloist, he was often paired in elegant musical duets with principal cellist Alistair MacRae, especially in Vivaldi’s “Autumn.” Harpsichordist Mr. Fusco had a chance to shine in the middle movement of Vivaldi’s “Autumn,” leading the string players in what seemed to be a musical soliloquy for harpsichord.

Princeton Symphony Orchestra played these two works as an unintermissioned concert, maintaining impressive intensity and flow throughout the performance. When the final movement of Piazzolla’s “Spring” closed the concert, linking back to the opening Vivaldi “Spring,” Princeton Symphony brought out well Piazzolla’s fiery melody, contrasted with the composer’s quirky Vivaldi recollection on the harpsichord, as the lights in Richardson went down to bring this dual-century and timeless seasonal survey to a close.