May 15, 2024

Princeton Symphony Orchestra Enthralls Audience with Spellbinding Piano Soloist

By Nancy Plum

Instrumental concertos have been audience blockbusters for centuries. Such composers as Mozart and Beethoven cast themselves as leading stars in their own compositions, and contemporary performers have made stellar careers of exploring the repertory. Princeton Symphony Orchestra presented one of Ludwig van Beethoven’s challenging piano/orchestral works this past weekend, featuring a soloist who maintains an active repertoire of more piano concertos than almost anyone. Led by conductor Rossen Milanov and with soloist Sara Davis Buechner at the keyboard, the musicians of Princeton Symphony Orchestra brought Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major to life, bracketed by a contemporary work honoring nature and a towering Schumann symphony.

American composer John Luther Adams has written his commitment to nature into his pieces, inviting audience members to reflect on their own relationships with the natural world. Princeton Symphony opened Saturday night’s performance at Richardson Auditorium (the concert was repeated Sunday afternoon) with Adams’ Become River, part of the composer’s instrumental trilogy devoted to the environment. In this performance, the piece began as if from afar, with bowed percussion and imperceptible violins. The effect was as if hearing a river from far away, and upon going nearer to investigate, the complexity and volume of the music increased. Instruments were added to the orchestration and melodic fragments emerged, just as activity around a river would become more apparent.

A river musically “became” onstage in this performance, with the help of rich strings, precise brass, and winds providing unique orchestral coloring. Each instrument was responsible for its own part but was well woven into the fabric. With the Orchestra split into two ensembles, the minimalistic sound traveled across the stage, with conductor Milanov maintaining a steady beat and delineating major sections. Just as it had built intensity well to start the piece, the Orchestra diminished the texture as the river flowed away, ending with the sturdy foundation of lower strings.

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 was revolutionary for its time as a piece intended for the concert hall, rather than a private or small audience. The work’s premiere, with Beethoven at the keyboard, employed as large an orchestra as had ever been used to that point, and was more expansive and grander than the composer’s previous keyboard repertoire. Soloist Sara Davis Buechner took the stage fully in charge of a score she clearly knew extremely well. From the outset, she absorbed the orchestral passages at the piano, playing chords at cadences and conducting along with Milanov as a way to immerse herself in the music before her entrances. With a captivating presence, Buechner presented an image of a performer from Beethoven’s time, when soloists conducted from the keyboard.

Princeton Symphony Orchestra began Beethoven’s work with 18th-century flair, expertly executing arpeggio scales. Buechner demonstrated a decisive touch to convey drama, with a lithe left-hand and deftly-played rapid-fire triplets and extended double trills. Playing close to the keyboard, Buechner showed herself to be a no-nonsense player, skillfully bringing out the fire of Beethoven.

The second movement “Largo” was marked by dramatic dynamic contrasts, with clarinets and horns leading the way in orchestral color. Clarinetist Pascal Archer played especially sensitive solo lines in a dialog with pianist Buechner. Even with the nonstop piano lines of the closing movement, Buechner was able to find elegant phrase endings as the Orchestra built the tension necessary to effectively close the work.

Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 4 in D Minor, which closed the concert, showed the Orchestra at its lushest, as Milanov introduced the drama of the work immediately in the opening to the first movement. The familiar first theme overshadowed an equally as appealing second theme, with a smooth transition to the second movement “Romanze.” Oboist Lillian Copeland and violinist Basia Danilow both played graceful solo passages in this movement. The “Scherzo” was well punctuated by Jeremy Levine’s clean timpani playing, as Milanov and the players found a Viennese lilt to the contrasting lyrical “Trio” within the movement. The Orchestra returned to Schumann’s personal struggle within the score in the final “Langsam,” aided by clean horns and lilting passages from the winds, leaving the audience to savor an evening of both musical reflection and virtuosity.

Princeton Symphony Orchestra will open this year’s Princeton Festival performances on Friday, June 7 at 8 p.m., when soprano Angel Blue will appear with the Orchestra for a program of operatic arias at the Performance Pavilion at Princeton’s Morven Museum & Garden. Ticket information for this and all Princeton Festival events can be obtained by visiting