March 13, 2024

Princeton Symphony Orchestra Joins Forces with Ingenious String Trio

By Nancy Plum

Princeton Symphony Orchestra combined innovative performance with contemporary music this past weekend with a pair of collaborative performances with Time for Three, a groundbreaking ensemble crossing boundaries of classical, Americana, and singer-songwriter genres with virtuosic playing. Led by Princeton Symphony Orchestra Music Director Rossen Milanov, the two ensembles alone and together presented an evening of late 19th-century and early 20th-century ballet, as well as a newly-composed work written for Time for Three. The combined performance of these instrumentalists brought the audience to its feet with the dazzling playing of Time for Three double bassist Ranaan Meyer and violinists Nick Kendall and Charles Yang. 

Princeton Symphony Orchestra opened Saturday night’s concert in Richardson Auditorium (the performance was repeated Sunday afternoon) with music close to Milanov’s heart. The career of Bulgarian composer Marin Goleminov spanned most of the 20th century, and he continues to hold a prominent place in Bulgarian music history. His works are a staple of Bulgarian repertoire, and his legacy is felt to this day in younger generations of composers. Goleminov’s 1940 ballet suite The Fire Dancer musically explored the ancient rite of fire dancing, which takes place in early June in honor of the fourth-century Saint Constantine. A tradition dating back to the eighth century, fire dancing can still be experienced in eastern Bulgaria, and Goleminov infused his descriptive six-movement work with original folksongs he heard as a youth in this region. 

Conducted by Milanov, the Orchestra began Goleminov’s suite (which was receiving its U.S. premiere with this performance) with a full and reverent symphonic sound marked by well-blended brass. Dancing flames could be heard in the winds, especially in Gi Lee’s rich bass clarinet solo. Oboes, clarinets, and bassoons played large roles in The Fire Dancer, with extensive solos from clarinetist Pascal Archer, oboist Lillian Copeland, English horn player Gilles Cheng, and bassoonist Brad Balliett. Bulgarian folk elements were woven into the orchestration throughout the six movements, aided by crisp percussion. Milanov and the players ended the piece majestically, with expressive solos from clarinetist Archer and oboist Copeland, delicately accompanied by the harp playing of André Tarantiles. The closing broad orchestral passages seemed to serve as a benediction, both to the ritual and its host community.

Composer and Missouri native Kevin Puts sought to capture the distinctive energy of Time for Three in his concerto Contact, composed specifically for the trio. When the work’s premiere was canceled during the pandemic, Puts found additional meaning in the piece’s title, discovering new resonance in the word “contact” in a time when so little of it was allowed. 

The musicians of Time for Three began Puts’ four-movement concerto by singing a wordless chorus before the Orchestra launched into the work’s complex instrumentation. All three Time for Three soloists were very physical players, showing a high-energy approach to the demanding technical requirements. Double bassist Meyer took his time on pizzicato lines as violinists Kendall and Yang executed quick rhythms and expansive registers from their instruments. Puts scored this piece with sweet harmonies, sparkling upper winds and subtle wind solos. In the second movement “Scherzo,” both violinists played their instruments as if they were guitars, as a percussive texture soon gave way to Kendall’s rapid-fire playing. Relentless rhythm marked the closing “Convivium,” and the Time for Three players easily finessed the demonic string passages. Throughout the work, Milanov gave the soloists room to create improvisatory effects, and communication between the two ensembles was solid. The Time for Three musicians additionally thrilled the Richardson audience with an arrangement of the 1960s Ben E. King song “Stand by Me” in which Yang showed a light and clear tenor voice, Meyer added a bluegrass twist to the familiar bass pattern and Kendall demonstrated fierce skills in country fiddling.

Although most people first think of Tchaikovsky in musical settings of Romeo and Juliet, Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet of the same story is no less dramatic. Prokofiev composed and revised his ballet in the 1930s, and later created three orchestral suites from the music. Princeton Symphony Orchestra concluded the evening with selections from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, Suites I and II, reordered to capture the characters and scenarios of Shakespeare’s play. Under Milanov’s direction, each movement effectively conveyed an essence of the story, whether it was a quartet of horns setting up the Montague/Capulet conflict or Pascal Archer’s pastoral clarinet solo depicting Juliet’s youth. 

Prokofiev’s orchestration blended the modernism of his time with traditional compositional devices, and the diversity of theatrical moods could be well heard in the 10 excerpts performed. Bassoonist Balliett brought out the regal character of “Friar Laurence” and concertmaster Basia Danilow well expressed the “Dance of the Girls with Lilies.” The set ended with “Romeo at Juliet’s Grave,” and one could easily hear daggers from the second violins and violas as the tragic story came to a close.

Princeton Symphony Orchestra will present its next classical series concerts on Saturday, May 11 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, May 12 at 4 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium. Conducted by Rossen Milanov, this performance will feature Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major with soloist Sara Davis Buechner, as well as music of John Luther Adams and Robert Schumann. Ticket information can be obtained by visiting