May 17, 2023

Princeton Symphony Orchestra Closes Season with Journey through Paris and Italy

By Nancy Plum

One does not often hear concertos for viola — an instrument often hidden within the orchestra. However, Hector Berlioz’s Harold in Italy is much more than a concerto; its form is that of a programmatic symphony, with each of the four movements describing scenes of the southern region of Italy. Princeton Symphony Orchestra, led by conductor Rossen Milanov, brought Berlioz’s symphonic work to Richardson Auditorium this past weekend to close the 2022-23 orchestral season. Joining the Orchestra for this season finale was guest violist Roberto Díaz, a veteran performer and noted educator.

Princeton Symphony Orchestra preceded the Berlioz work with two pieces just as descriptive. Julia Perry was one of a cadre of internationally-known 20th-century American composers whose works have been underperformed but are now receiving new attention. Perry’s Study for Orchestra was premiered in 1952 under the name Short Piece for Orchestra and has become popular for its appeal and innovative approach to orchestration. In Sunday afternoon’s performance, Princeton Symphony Orchestra presented this short and concise work emphasizing its jazz style, which was consistent with American music of the time. A number of instrumental soloists were showcased, including flutist Anthony Trionfo and concertmaster Claire Bourg. Milanov kept the orchestral sound lean, aided by very clean trumpets.

The Perry work was well-paired with George Gershwin’s An American in Paris, also a study in orchestration in its musical depiction of the City of Lights. The piece began with a refreshing and light string sound, with the several sections of the work well portraying the different moods of the city. Clarinetist Pascal Archer often set the atmosphere with solo lines, at times with a bit of a jazzy wail to his playing. Other expressive solos were provided by bass clarinetist Gi Woo Lee, English horn player Gilles Cheng, and tuba player Jonathan Fowler. The trumpet section and a trio of saxophones had the chance to show their saucy sides, as Milanov effectively brought out the lushness of the orchestration.

Inspired by a Lord Byron poem as well as Berlioz’s own memories of Italy, Harold in Italy was a commission from virtuoso violinist Niccolò Paganini, in a desire to show off a new Stradivarius viola. Paganini rejected the work as not being flashy enough, and Harold in Italy is in fact more lyrical than virtuosic. Guest violist Roberto Díaz, former principal viola of The Philadelphia Orchestra, proved to be an unassuming yet confident soloist, pensively waiting through the long introduction of the first movement for his first solo passages. Delicately accompanied by harpist André Tarantiles, Díaz introduced the character of Harold well. Quicker passages showed why this work may have been intended for Paganini, and Díaz effectively executed double stops and fast-moving lines. In the second movement “March of the pilgrims,” Díaz played almost imperceptibly at times, as if not to intrude on the evening prayer the character had come upon in his travels.

Berlioz’s approach to orchestration was revolutionary in its time, and this piece showed imaginative combinations of instrumental solos. English horn player Lillian Copeland’s solo was well paired with oboist Gilles Cheng in the third movement “Serenade,” and Berlioz combined two cornets with two trumpets in the brass section for unusual color. Berlioz also highlighted the viola section in the scoring, and the violists of Princeton Symphony brought shepherd’s dance passages to life in the third movement, balancing Díaz’s contemplative solo. Díaz caused great audience curiosity by leaving the stage during a long orchestral interlude in the fourth movement to play final passages from a balcony alcove, providing musical calm amid complex and dramatic orchestration.

Among Berlioz’s novel musical achievements in this work was turning the viola, somewhat neglected by the early 19th century, into a featured voice within the orchestral texture. Sunday afternoon’s performance by Princeton Symphony Orchestra showed the range and depth of the instrument while taking the audience on musical journeys through Paris, Italy, and the orchestra itself.

Princeton Symphony Orchestra is currently preparing for the annual Princeton Festival, which begins June 9 in the Performance Pavilion at the Morven Museum & Garden. Information about the Princeton Festival, as well as the Orchestra’s 2023-24 season, can be obtained by visiting