February 14, 2024

Princeton Festival Returns in June with Opera, Gospel, Ballet, and More

NEW SEASON: Back in the big tent on the grounds of Morven, Princeton Symphony Orchestra (PSO) plans an eclectic mix of programming for the Princeton Festival June 7-22. PSO Artistic Director Rossen Milanov will lead several performances. (Photo by Carolo Pascale)

By Anne Levin

It has been three years since the Princeton Symphony Orchestra (PSO) first staged the annual Princeton Festival in a spacious tent atop the parking lot of Morven Museum & Garden. There were certain logistical challenges in year one. But by last summer, things had fallen into place.

“We actually had no idea what it would be like when we were planning it. And all things considered, year one was an unbelievable success,” said Marc Uys, PSO executive director. “Year two was actually really fun.”

The festival returns for year three on June 7 with Metropolitan Opera star soprano Angel Blue and the PSO in a program of favorite arias, and continues through June 22 with a varied roster of performances including a Tina Turner tribute, the Mozart opera Cosi fan tutte, American Repertory Ballet in works by Arthur Mitchell and Meredith Rainey, a Juneteenth celebration led by Vinroy D. Brown and anchored by the Capital Singers of Trenton, an evening with Broadway star Sierra Boggess, and additional events.

The venue’s openness to the air and proximity to Morven’s gardens in full bloom are part of what make the festival unique. But figuring out what works inside the tent was an initial hurdle. In the first season, Uys and colleagues quickly realized that reconfiguring the space for offerings of different sizes and scope meant moving hundreds of chairs and scenery — not a good idea.

“We did that the first year, but it almost killed us to move everything,” Uys said. “So last year we simplified it by going to one audience configuration, and I think it was a good move. Now in year three, we are really understanding our priorities as an organization, what our audience wants, and how to balance that with what has become a rather inflexible space. We need to fill at least a few hundred seats at each performance.”

This year’s lineup builds, in part, on what has worked in the past. Last summer’s tribute to Aretha Franklin was a major success, leading to this summer’s “The Music of Tina Turner” on June 8 with American Idol finalist LaKisha Jones as the late rock star.

“We know it’s a very high-quality show,” said Uys. “I do think audiences love something like that, especially when there is a chance to hear music in a real symphonic setting.”

The anchor production of the season is the opera. The same creative team that was behind last year’s The Barber of Seville is returning this year for Cosi fan tutte on June 14, 16, and 18. “In addition to the director James Marvel, scenic designer Blair Mielnick, and costume designer Marie Miller, we have a great cast of singers,” said Uys. “It’s going to be a wonderful mix of traditional and modern. It should satisfy everyone, whatever kind of opera productions they like.”

Uys is also looking forward to the June 19 “Honoring Black Choral Music” program in recognition of Juneteenth, conducted by Brown of Westminster Choir College. “We wanted to involve a big chorus,” he said. “The Capital Singers of Trenton will form the core of a mass chorus that we’ll build from community groups all around. He’ll lead them, and then the different constituent groups will perform.”

Family Day on June 9 offers activities geared to children, culminating with a concert of Latin American family music with Grammy nominee Sonia De Los Santos and her band, singing in Spanish and English. Empire Wild on June 21 is a Juilliard-trained ensemble of cellos, pianists, and vocalists doing original music.

Across Stockton Street at Trinity Church, the Abeo Quartet performs works by Beethoven, Shostakovich, and Esmail on June 13. Also planned for the church, on June 20, is “The Sebastians: Brandenburgs and More.” Music by Bach, Telemann, and Vivaldi is on the program.

The festival’s proximity to Morven’s historic garden is a selling point. “We were able to build significantly on that setting from year one to two,” said Uys. “This year, we anticipate many more food vendors prior to the show, so people can picnic. You can really take advantage of the gardens. But even if you don’t, and just go to the show, you’re outdoors. And that is special.”

Visit princetonsymphony.org/festival for tickets.