December 5, 2018

Princeton University Concerts Presents First Performances of Gustavo Dudamel Residency

By Nancy Plum

Venezuela-born conducting wunderkind Gustavo Dudamel is known to audiences in the United States primarily as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, a position he has held for 10 years. However, Dudamel’s reach and effect on musical performance and education worldwide has been much more, and Princeton is now part of this impact through an artist-in-residency collaboration between Dudamel and Princeton University Concerts, as part of the University Concerts’ 125th Anniversary year-long celebration. In a three-part residency entitled “Uniting Our World Through Music,” beginning this past weekend and continuing into the spring of 2019, Dudamel will be in residency at the University, coaching both campus and off-campus ensembles, conducting the University Orchestra and Glee Cub, and participating in panel discussions on the impact of music on social change. The first of these concerts took place this past Saturday night and Sunday afternoon in Richardson Auditorium.

Dudamel credits his musical success to the Venezuelan El Sistema, a publicly-financed national music education program for youth which has exploded worldwide over the past 40 years and which has taken on an additional mission of “Music for Social Change.” Princeton University Concerts titled the December events of the Dudamel residency “Exploring Art, Education, and Social Change,” and presented events Saturday and Sunday introducing the community to the music of Latin America.

The cornerstone concert of the weekend musical activities of the residency was a performance Sunday afternoon by Quartet 212, preceded by a “musical preview” by the Boston String Academy, a nonprofit organization based on El Sistema with 120 students in three programs. Dudamel has known a number of these players since they were young children, and the Academy’s 30-member string ensemble was a fitting vehicle to showcase the impact of Dudamel’s music education initiatives. Led by conductor Jorge Sosa, the Boston String Academy ensemble performed five works representing both Europe and Latin America with precision, a lean yet rich ensemble sound and very clean tuning. Sibelius’ Andante festive showed expressive melodic lines, and Vivaldi’s orchestral suite “Winter” from The Four Seasons was especially sparkly and refreshing.  

The keynote performance of the evening was the string ensemble Quartet 212, named in part after New York City’s area code and comprised of leading players from the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. The four musicians of Quartet 212 are connected to the Princeton residency through Dudamel’s upcoming conducting debut at the Metropolitan Opera. Violinists David Chan and Catherine Ro, violist Dov Scheindlin, and cellist Rafael Figueroa played four works ranging from 18th century to a world premiere, paying tribute to Dudamel’s reputation for musical excellence and commitment to contemporary music.

Quartet 212 began with a standard from the master of the string quartet genre in Franz Joseph Haydn’s String Quartet No. 41 in D Major, nicknamed “The Frog” quartet. With a graceful entry into the first movement, Quartet 212 well brought out Haydn’s Classical Viennese style and abrupt musical surprises. This work contained a number of technically-demanding passages, particularly well-executed by Chan and Figueroa. Mezzo-soprano Emily D’Angelo joined the quartet for an operatic journey through a vocal motet by Italian composer Ottorino Respighi. Setting the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Il Tramonto (“The Sunset”) gave D’Angelo the opportunity to show a dramatically rich mezzo voice, with solid presentation of the text in a commentary to the atmosphere created by the string players.  

As part of the Dudamel residency, Princeton University Concerts commissioned three University composers for new works to be premiered at each of three performances during the year. Associate Professor of Music Donnacha Dennehy composed the string quartet Strange Folk with both technical challenges for the players and a flavor of his Dublin, Ireland background. The one-movement work began with jig-like passages between the two violins, with sharp bowed strokes from all the players. Dennehy writes he is “obsessed with luminosity in music,” and Strange Folk was relentlessly driving in rhythm and timbre, with melodic fragments heard from individual instruments. The players of Quartet 212 kept the music moving forward with driving playing and see-saw rhythms, well handling Dennehy’s technical and harmonic demands.  

Quartet 212 closed the concert with a rarely-heard string quartet from Giuseppe Verdi, a composer more known for opera, and composer of the Otello Dudamel will be conducting at the Metropolitan Opera later this month. The musicians of the quartet well brought out the shades of opera within each movement of Verdi’s 1873 String Quartet in E Minor, with especially graceful melodies in the second movement and precise musical figures in Verdi’s characteristic dramatic passages.  A fiery violin part and continuous musical motion from all players closed the Quartet in operatic fashion, and one could imagine Verdi had a great deal of fun with the final movement.