November 1, 2017

Princeton Symphony Orchestra Pays Tribute To Reformation in Richardson Concert

By Nancy Plum

Princeton Symphony Orchestra’s concert this past Sunday afternoon in Richardson Auditorium was both one of collaboration and also paying tribute to the music of the past. The keynote work on the program was Felix Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony, an appropriate musical commemoration of the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s presentation of his world-shattering 95 Theses, but all three works presented by the orchestra looked back to previous eras. 

Princeton Symphony conductor Rossen Milanov built the concert gradually in intensity, beginning with Respighi’s programmatic Gli uccelli (The Birds). The five-movement work was one of the composer’s lighter and more intimate pieces, full of birdlike characteristics which were passed among the instruments of the orchestra. The Princeton Symphony began the first movement “Prelude” in a stately and courtly manner, with a contrasting middle section of wind parts full of trills. Principal flutist Yevgeny Faniuk’s graceful solo passages emphasized how masterfully Respighi wrote for winds, and oboist Nathan Mills provided a poignant melody in the second movement, which depicted a dove, accompanied by a nimble harp line played by André Tarantiles. In the third movement, the players kept their performance light and precise, as a pair of bassoons effectively captured the freneticism of a hen running around the barnyard until she finally wears herself out. Respighi’s imaginative orchestration was evident in duets between horn player Douglas Lundeen and flutist Faniuk; and harp and celeste, played by Tarantiles and celeste player Elise Auerbach.

Conductor Milanov has maintained a strong commitment to rarely performed 20th-century music during his tenure with the Princeton Symphony, and Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff was an interesting and unique choice for Sunday’s concert. Schulhoff was born in Prague, and served on the Russian front for the Austro-Hungarian Army in World War I. He was branded a “degenerate” composer by the Nazis for his satirical musical pieces, and following his move from Germany to the Soviet Union at the beginning of World War II, he was arrested by the Germans and subsequently died in a Bavarian concentration camp. His all-too-short compositional career included eight symphonies, numerous chamber works and several concerti. Schulhoff’s 1930 Concerto for String Quartet and Winds was rooted in his background as a radio musician, emphasizing the contrast between the ensemble of winds and the string quartet. Schulhoff looked back to the Baroque concerto form for this work’s structural inspiration, but rather than a small ensemble of winds serving as a group of soloists against the orchestra, Schulhoff’s concerto is reversed.

For Sunday afternoon’s performance, the Princeton Symphony was joined by the Lark Quartet, whose second violinist is the symphony’s concertmaster — Basia Danilow. Danilow was joined in the Lark Quartet by violinist Deborah Buck, violist Kathryn Lockwood, and cellist Caroline Stinson, and the Quartet played with uniform intensity and solid communication among the players. The Quartet lines were often melodic and chordal streams of sound with a 20th-century twist, especially in a cadenza-like passage closing the first movement. The winds and brass of the accompanying ensemble were particularly well-blended in the third movement, as Milanov kept both ensembles closely collaborating throughout the work.

Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5 in D Major, known as the Reformation Symphony, was composed 100 years before Schulhoff’s concerto, in honor of the 300th anniversary of the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession, the primary confession of faith of the Lutheran Church. Not published until 21 years after the composer’s death, this symphony paid tribute to the Reformation in its incorporation of Martin Luther’s chorale “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott,” a stalwart hymn of the Lutheran Church. Milanov and the Princeton Symphony began the first movement in a very stately manner, building intensity slowly, as solid brass unison passages contrasted with pianissimo violins. A decisive “Allegro,” with an emphasis on the composer’s marking “con fuoco” (with fire), was marked by consistent rhythmic drive among all the players.

Mendelssohn showed his gift for melody in a very elegant second movement oboe duet played by principal oboist Mills and Jason Sudduth, as well as a mournful first violin melody in the third movement “Andante.” The unison cello sound of the second movement was very lean, and a flute soliloquy played by Faniuk led the Princeton Symphony well into a majestic fourth movement featuring Luther’s chorale. Milanov particularly drew out the dignity and stateliness of this tune as Mendelssohn’s symphony drew to a close.

Princeton Symphony Orchestra’s next Classical Series concert will be on Sunday, November 12. Included in this program will be three works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, including a piano concerto featuring guest soloist Shai Wosner. For information call (609) 497-0020 or visit