October 3, 2018

Princeton Symphony Orchestra Opens Season With Tribute to Leonard Bernstein

By Nancy Plum

There is a lot of Leonard Bernstein in concert halls these days; in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the iconic composer’s birth, performers worldwide are participating in Bernstein at 100, a two-year global celebration. Princeton Symphony Orchestra joined the party this past weekend at Richardson Auditorium by devoting the opening concert of the 2018-19 season to music of the American legend. A clear sign of growth and success, Princeton Symphony Orchestra has expanded its classical series to two performances of several of the classical concerts this season. Saturday night’s performance (the concert was repeated Sunday afternoon) brought several of Bernstein’s more popular works to life, featuring two stellar solo performers.

For this opening concert, Princeton Symphony music director Rossen Milanov chose to focus on Bernstein’s stage works. Among the most popular of these is On the Town, a high-spirited musical Bernstein created while America was in the throes of World War II. Later made into a successful movie starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra, On the Town was derived from a 1944 ballet score. The Three Dance Episodes presented by PSO Saturday night gave the ensemble the opportunity to capture the saucy elements of the music while emphasizing Bernstein’s syncopated rhythms, which always keep both performers and audience off-kilter. Milanov built dynamics in the opening “Dance of the Greater Lover” slowly, with crisp brass punctuating lush string music.

The second “Pax de Deux” Episode, played in a slow and languorous tempo, was marked by elegant solos from trumpeter Jerry Bryant and English horn player Lauren Williams. As evidenced throughout the entire evening; clarinets play a prominent role in Bernstein’s stage music, which clarinetist Phillip Solomon reaffirmed in the third Dance Episode. Aided by jazz color from alto saxophonist Bryan McNamara, Milanov closed the Dance Episodes by whipping the orchestra into a musical frenzy in a raucous yet contained ending.

Bernstein’s most immortal stage production is without a doubt West Side Story, which was represented Saturday night by the West Side Story Suite for Violin and Orchestra, arranged by award-winning Broadway orchestrator William David Brohn. Featured in this performance was guest soloist Daniel Rowland, whose playing exploited all the ranges and characteristics of the violin. Brohn arranged the solo violin part of this Suite in virtuosic fashion, well capturing the melodies and dramatic conflicts of Bernstein’s musical. Rowland’s solo line began in an improvisatory style, but he showed himself just as capable of conveying a sweet love tune as a fiery passage laden with double-stops. Rowland played an especially elegant obbligato line to the dance music of Tony and Maria. “Tonight” was conveyed as a series of graceful duets among Rowland, principal cellist Alistair MacRae, and concertmaster Basia Danilow. Rowland’s closing cadenza was full of virtuosic fireworks and quick double-stops, as Milanov brought the Suite to a close with a spirited recall of the jazzier themes in the music.

Bernstein’s setting of Voltaire’s Candide was first performed in 1956 and since that time has been a popular stage attraction, both in its entirety and through excerpts of the overture and vocal selections. PSO presented a crisp rendition of the overture, and saved the show-stopper for soprano Meghan Picerno, who sang “Glitter and be Gay.” Satirical and comic in its storyline, this aria is loaded with stratospheric ranges for the soprano, including multiple notes above high C. Picerno did not flinch from any of it, casually sauntering onstage in character and gradually becoming mad as a hatter in an aria bordering on insanity. This aria harked back to the era when composers used coloratura writing to convey demonic possession, and Picerno used the whole stage (including a few willing participants in the audience) to convey her obsession with jewelry and the finer things of life. “Glitter and be Gay” is one of the most difficult arias in the repertory, and Picerno clearly has it well within her wheelhouse.

An exuberant Candide Suite, arranged by Charlie Harmon, closed the concert, featuring instrumental solos by MacRae, hornist Douglas Lundeen, and oboist Nathan Mills. Expansion of the classical concert series to Saturday night looked to be a success for Princeton Symphony, and the ensemble is off to a great start for the new season.

Princeton Symphony Orchestra’s next classical series performances will be on Saturday and Sunday, October 27, 28, with performances of Beethoven’s six piano concertos in the two concerts. Conducted by Marcelo Lehninger, they will feature piano soloist Inon Barnatan. For information visit www.princetonsymphony.org.