January 10, 2024

New Chamber Concert Series Features Princeton University Students, Alumni

By Anne Levin

Per Tengstrand

For several years, Per Tengstrand has led Music on Park Avenue, a chamber music series held at Scandinavia House in Manhattan. A few seasons ago, he discovered a group of musical talents at Princeton University and invited them to perform as part of the series.

“It turned out that the top players in that group were absolutely fantastic,” said Tengstrand, an award-winning pianist who plays internationally and lives in Princeton. “So we continued.”

Along the way, Tengstrand has been hoping to feature these talented players closer to home. He has finally made that idea a reality with the Princeton Chamber Music Series, which debuted last weekend in Channing Hall at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Princeton on Cherry Hill Road. The series will continue throughout the spring with three more concerts and a screening of a film by Tengstrand, Beethoven: Freedom of the Will.

“For many years, it felt a little silly that we were all in Princeton and we went to New York City, but did not play in Princeton,” Tengstrand said. “There was not a venue I found here that would fit. Then all of a sudden on a sunny Saturday morning, I checked out the Unitarian Church. Channing Hall has fantastic acoustics and a big Steinway piano. And it’s eight minutes from my home.”

Tengstrand put a plan into action and applied for some grants. “Finally, after so much work, it will be such a relief to just sit down and start playing,” he said last week, before the inaugural concert, which featured his arrangement for piano and string quartet of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 23 as well as works by Paganini, Bach, Polish composer Grazyna Bacewizc, and Handel-Halvorsen.

The series continues with “Schubert, Chopin and Beethoven” on February 20, “The Appassionata” on March 26, the film screening on April 9, and the season finale, “The Kreutzer Sonata,” on May 7.

With their packed schedules, Princeton University students who take part in the concerts — many of whom major in subjects other than music — can be had to pin down.

“Sometimes it has been a hassle to rehearse with the groups because of all their obligations at different timings,” said Tengstrand. “When I showed a little frustration, one of them showed me their weekly schedule. And I thought, this is not normal for a human. They are busy from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day with labs, classes, and everything else. The amount of workload they carry, and the small amount of sleep sometimes, certainly take a special personality. But I find it very rewarding to play with people who are not locked into a musical practice room eight hours a day, but are aware of other things in life. That makes them better musicians.”

Tengstrand, 56, grew up in Sweden. In 1997, he won first prize in the prestigious Cleveland International Piano Competition. He made his New York debut soon after. “I was very fascinated by America,” he said. “I moved to New York, but then settled with my wife in Princeton, and have been living here awhile. I travel around a lot, especially playing in Sweden. I do appreciate that with this series, instead of taking a plane to Europe, I can take an eight-minute car ride.”

Part of the challenge in planning the series was fitting the concerts in between Princeton’s busy schedule of musical events. “I had to wait and see what dates Princeton University Concerts and other presenters were having their concerts,” Tengstrand said. “I had to program mine so that they wouldn’t be on the same day as any of those.”

Tengstrand’s repertory includes his transcriptions of piano concertos for orchestra into pieces for piano and string quartet. “It takes some months to make an arrangement, but it’s very nice,” he said. “We play piano concertos in chamber music settings.”

Part of what makes the Princeton Chamber Music Series unique is its accessibility. “As with our New York series, we provide really, really good performances that are more personal than most classical concerts,” Tengstrand said. “We always present the pieces and then talk to the audiences. Musicians are available to chat with the audience. It’s a very friendly atmosphere.”

Tengstrand hopes to make people aware that Princeton’s music scene consists of home-based talent as well as famous performers who visit.

“It is easy to live in Princeton and be a classical music consumer and see all these concerts with great artists who come from far away and are big stars,” he said. “It can be easy sometimes to overlook the talent that is right here, at home. I feel a bit of passion for that. People can discover the talent that is right here. These musicians deserve to play and be heard.”

For more information on the concert series, visit princetonchambermusic.org.