January 17, 2024

Princeton Symphony Orchestra Presents Concert of Princeton Connections

By Nancy Plum

Princeton Symphony Orchestra continued this season’s focus on composers and musicians associated with Princeton this past weekend with performances of works by Princeton-educated composers, one sung by a University graduate now an opera superstar. On Saturday night and Sunday afternoon in Richardson Auditorium, Princeton Symphony Music Director Rossen Milanov led the musicians in an imaginative program of music ranging from the 18th century to current times. 

Princeton University’s compositional Ph.D. program has launched some of the most innovative creators of new music working today. Nina Shekhar, currently a Ph.D. candidate in music composition at the University, has already achieved acclaim and awards for her work. The one-movement orchestral Lumina, performed by Princeton Symphony in this weekend’s concerts, well demonstrated Shekhar’s inventive approach to instrumental music. Beginning with long notes from bowed xylophone and glockenspiel, followed by periods of silence in which the residual sound echoed through the hall, Lumina was full of suspense and contrasts between light and dark. Shekhar used the full orchestra in the instrumentation, with solos from clarinetist Pascal Archer and flutist Scott Kemsley emerging from the orchestral palette. Shekhar’s piece possessed a pulsating feel, both from natural acoustics and musical effects, and was rich in majestic symphonic sound. 

Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, who graduated from Princeton a decade ago, has quickly become a performing phenomenon. His years since Princeton have been filled with operatic premieres, recordings and bringing neglected repertoire to the forefront via an other-worldly voice. Costanzo’s talent recalls the 17th and 18th centuries, when male sopranos ruled performing stages, and music was composed to show off an unusual combination of vocal power and an ability to sing into a stratospheric range. One composer immersed in this tradition was George Frideric Handel, composing operas and oratorios in London in the 18th century. Handel’s 1737 Arminio originally featured the Italian castrato Gioacchino Conti, known as “Gizziello” as the character Sigismondo, caught in a complicated family drama in the midst of Germanic-Roman conflict. 

In Saturday night’s concert, Costanzo performed “Quella fiamma,” Sigismondo’s aria to his beloved, accompanied by a polished ensemble of solo oboe, strings, and harpsichord. The aria was a contemplative dialog between oboe and voice, and oboist Lillian Copeland matched Costanzo note for note in drama and technical facility. In operas of Handel’s time, words were often merely a vehicle for showing off the voice, and Costanzo took full advantage of the vocal fireworks, racing up and down to high “Cs” with ease. 

Costanzo and Copeland timed their phrasings exactly together, with Copeland playing an expressive “mini-cadenza” at the end of the first section, and the two soloists teasingly performing “dueling” cadenzas to close the piece. A continuo section of violinists Elizabeth Fayette and Qianru Elaine He, violist Stephanie Griffin, cellist Alistair MacRae, bassist John Grillo and conductor Milanov playing harpsichord provided refined accompaniment to Costanzo’s vocal power and agility, uniformly tapering phrases in stylistic baroque fashion. 

Costanzo was additionally showcased in a piece by Gregory Spears, who also achieved a Ph.D. from Princeton University. Commissioned by the New York Philharmonic in 2021, Spears’ Love Story for countertenor and orchestra set verses by poet Tracy K. Smith in four different ways. Costanzo’s emotional rendition of the text created a vocal layer above the orchestral texture, shifting back and forth between very high and low vocal registers. Spears’ symphonic treatment ranged from melodic orchestration for winds and brass to stark instrumentation as the narrator accepts the finality of a relationship. Milanov conducted the music broadly as the piece became cinematically lush, ending with Costanzo singing in low resignation. 

Princeton Symphony Orchestra closed Saturday night’s concert with the towering Symphony No. 4 in F Minor of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Opening with Tchaikovsky’s memorable brass “Fate” theme, Milanov and the players created drama with the silences inherent in the music, building tension well. Clarinetist Archer and bassoonist Joshua Butcher added an elegant duet to the opening movement, as Milanov brought the strings down to almost nothing dynamically at points. Conducting from memory, Milanov clearly knew the score extremely well, maintaining both romantic drama and traditional classicism. 

Oboist Copeland led the second movement “Andantino,” emphasizing the music’s roots in the Renaissance instrumental canzona. Short crisp scale passages from solo clarinet, oboe, bassoon and flute contrasted against rich playing of the theme by the strings. The third movement “Scherzo” featured nonstop pizzicato string playing leading to a playful wind and brass “Trio.” Even within the pizzicato passages, the players were able to find a range of dynamics and direction in the melodic line. Copeland’s graceful oboe playing brought out the Russian folk song of the final movement; once again the Orchestra made full use of silences in the music to bring the Symphony to a strong and intense close.