January 18, 2023

Princeton Symphony Orchestra Presents Acclaimed Metropolitan Opera Soprano

By Nancy Plum

Each year, Princeton Symphony Orchestra (PSO) recognizes musicologist and philanthropist Edward T. Cone with a performance including a bit of star power, honoring the longtime friend of the orchestra and major supporter of cultural life in Princeton. This past weekend’s PSO Edward T. Cone concerts were scheduled to feature South African soprano Pretty Yende, who is well on her way up in the opera world. Unfortunately, Yende was unable to perform because of illness, but Princeton Symphony Orchestra shifted gears well by bringing in another operatic superstar. Fresh off celebrated performances with the Metropolitan Opera and receipt of the 2022 Richard Tucker Foundation award, soprano Angel Blue filled in as soloist in an entertaining evening of opera highlights and American music.

Saturday night’s performance at Richardson Auditorium (the concert was repeated Sunday afternoon) featured a lean and precise Princeton Symphony both on their own and accompanying Blue in arias showing the soprano’s dramatic and technical range. Music Director Rossen Milanov opened the concert with two works depicting the great American landscape. Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber were two of this country’s leading composers in the mid-20th century, and Copland’s Appalachian Spring suite and Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 showed remarkable similarities in their depictions of the United States in a simpler time.

As a composer, Copland was dedicated to creating a distinctive American musical voice. His 1944 Appalachian Spring suite began as a ballet set in a 19th-century Pennsylvania farmhouse telling the story of a young couple. The condensed orchestral suite followed the same storyline, scored for an ensemble of thirteen instruments. In Saturday night’s performance, clarinetist Pascal Archer set the stage with Copland’s simple intervals, answered by a handful of strings. The second segment in particular showed the sound traveling through the orchestral ensemble, with a solid brass underpinning and dance-like flutes. Copland used percussion very sparingly in this work, with a variety of percussive effects accenting the precise rhythms from the players. Wind solos — including from Archer, oboist Gilles Cheng, and flutist Anthony Trionfo — were elegant, as was a solo melody from concertmaster Basia Danilow. The well-known “Simple Gifts” passages were played in a leisurely tempo, with a lyrical introduction from the winds, rich sectional sound from the violas, and quick and clean brass rendition. Throughout this work, Milanov maintained a spacious texture, well capturing 19th-century American pioneer spirit.

Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 also evoked 19th-century Americana through Barber’s setting of texts by James Agee. Milanov conducted an easy flow to the music, as Angel Blue conveyed Agee’s words well with a rich and clean sound. Throughout the piece, she was always communicating with all members of the audience, as if telling a story to an intimate circle of friends and family. Wind solos reinforced the musical portrait, including especially graceful playing by oboist Cheng.

The second half of Saturday night’s concert was an orchestral and vocal showcase of operatic repertoire. The PSO musicians played Gioachino Rossini’s “Overture” to Il barbiere di Siviglia with a crisp texture and attention to the humor in the music. The “Overture” also served as a teaser for this summer’s Princeton Festival, at which Rossini’s full opera will be a marquee event.

Angel Blue showcased her full operatic force in arias by Giacomo Puccini and Giuseppe Verdi. Blue had the characters well in hand, especially in Verdi’s “Sempre Libera” from La Traviata, in which she depicted a woman determined to live a free life but slowly falling under the spell of a new man. Blue spun off Verdi’s coloratura passages with ease, singing to the whole hall as Milanov and the PSO maintained a quick tempo.

In an unusual closing twist, Blue began a concert encore by asking from the stage if there were any other sopranos in the house, piquing audience interest in what might happen next. Recent Westminster Choir College master’s degree graduate Yasmine Swanson bravely answered the call, and the two sopranos joined together for Giacomo Puccini’s popular aria “O mio babbino caro” from Gianni Schicchi. Blue’s willingness to share the stage and create a memorable experience for a young singer showed her fun side and seemed to demonstrate her appreciation for her own luck and hard work and motivation to pay it forward.

Princeton Symphony Orchestra will present its next Classical Series concerts on Saturday, February 4 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, February 5 at 4 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium. Conducted by Rossen Milanov, these performances will feature pianist Inon Barnatan in Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2, as well as music of Beethoven and Carlos Simon. Ticket information about these performances can be obtained by visiting princetonsymphony.org.