May 1, 2019

Gustavo Dudamel Ends Princeton Residency in Week of Musical Glory

By Nancy Plum

Los Angeles Philharmonic Music Director Gustavo Dudamel, who has been in residence at Princeton University for this academic year, finished his year-long stay on the campus with a jammed-packed week of multicultural events featuring performing talent both local and international. In a residency centered on “Uniting our World through Music,” Dudamel focused the April activities on exploring art and nature, with particular emphasis on art, politics, and society. The final week of April, which concluded Dudamel’s residency, featured a film screening, performance by international chamber musicians, conversational lecture on The Artist in Society, concerts of El Sistema-based instrumental ensembles, and a culminating event of Dudamel leading the Princeton University Orchestra and Glee Club in two performances reaching more than 2,500 people. Demanding the same expectations of Princeton University musicians as he would the LA Philharmonic professionals, Dudamel set a very high musical bar for the close of the academic year.

Recognizing Dudamel’s impact on music education worldwide through his advocacy of the Venezuela-based El Sistema pedagogy, it was fitting that Princeton University Concerts included performances of local El Sistema-trained ensembles in Dudamel’s last week. Last Wednesday night’s public concert in Richardson Auditorium included a short concert by Harmony Program, a New York City-based El Sistema-inspired organization founded by Princeton alumna Anne Fitzgibbon. The 18 musicians of Harmony Program presented music ranging from Tchaikovsky to Duke Ellington, showing themselves to be poised and well-trained musicians with great attention to musical detail.

Harmony Program set the stage well for the featured performance that night of Ensemble Berlin, comprised of nine members of the Berlin Philharmonic. As Dudamel pointed out in his introductory remarks, the Berlin Philharmonic is a standard-bearer of musical excellence and tradition worldwide, and the four works performed by Ensemble Berlin showed the musicians’ command of both rich Western European musical legacies and cutting-edge composition of the 21st century. The Ensemble Berlin concert included the world premiere of Measuring, a work by Princeton University composer Steven Mackey exploring Mackey’s “bank of metaphors” connecting music to properties of natural law. Mackey’s appealing and textural work fit well with the solidly-performed Wagner and Schubert chamber works representing the 19th century.

The concerts Wednesday night were only an appetizer for one of the key events of Dudamel’s year-long residency — performances of the Princeton University Orchestra and Glee Club led by Maestro Dudamel. Sharing the Dudamel musical wealth with both Princeton and the surrounding area, Princeton University Concerts scheduled last Friday night’s performance at Richardson Auditorium with a free-to-the-public repeat on Saturday afternoon at Trenton War Memorial’s Patriots Theater.

Although the April events of Dudamel’s residency were focused on exploring art and nature, Friday night’s concert by the University Orchestra and Glee Club were also rooted in the literature of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and William Shakespeare. Two of the works performed included chorus, with the University Glee Club (prepared by Gabriel Crouch) split between the men singing Franz Schubert’s Gesang der Geister über den Wassern and the women supplying the voices of fairies in Felix Mendelssohn’s Incidental Music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Originally conceived by Schubert as a piece for voice and piano, the one-movement Gesang der Geister reflected Goethe’s “song of spirits” through scoring for men’s voices and lower strings. Dudamel began the piece warmly with unified celli and double basses, topped off by a light tenor choral sound. The tenor and bass sections each portrayed characters in the poem, ranging from “cliffs” to the “wind,” and Dudamel brought out well Schubert’s diverse musical and textual effects. With a solid underpinning by the lower strings, Dudamel’s interpretation of Schubert’s choral setting demonstrated great flow to the music and a gentle ending.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet fantasy-overture included no words, but was solidly based on Shakespearean drama. In a quick but intense tempo, Dudamel led the Orchestra through the numerous musical transitions without letting the theatrical cat out of the bag. The Montague and Capulet “feud” passages were precise and clean, aided by crisp brass and an elegant contrasting English horn solo played by Vedrana Ivezic. Dudamel rebuilt the musical drama repeatedly throughout the overture, changing conducting gestures from lyrical to sweeping to decisive on a dime, with the Orchestra cleanly responding.

The women of the University Glee Club joined the Orchestra to tell Shakespeare’s story of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in concrete musical fashion. The performance of this piece also included dramatic theatrical narrators Victoria Davidjohn, Jacy Duan, and Kateryn McReynolds, effectively dressed in red to contrast with the musical performers in black. A pair of flutes opened the “Overture,” as Dudamel maintained a chipper and joyful tempo. Clean and flighty strings kept the fairies alive and the music always moving forward, as Dudamel brought out the quirkiness of Shakespeare’s more humorous characters. As in Tchaikovsky’s fantasy, Mendelssohn’s work included numerous dramatic changes, including the familiar “Wedding March,” played in a surprisingly fast tempo with very crisp brass. The women of the Glee Club provided a light and clear choral tone, with two soloists from the chorus featured. Soprano Allison Spann sang with a solid lyrical sound and mezzo-soprano Caroline Zhao displayed a tremendously powerful voice. Both soloists were self-assured and confident in their roles.

Much of Dudamel’s residency this past year was in the public, but equally as much was behind the scenes as he coached student performers, rehearsed ensembles, and provided support to the El Sistema-based programs which he has championed for so long. Dudamel’s immersion into Princeton musical life was captivating and long-lasting, and one which the University and community will likely not forget for a long time.