September 28, 2022

“THE WOLVES”: Performances are underway for “The Wolves.” Produced by McCarter Theatre, and directed by Artistic Director Sarah Rasmussen, the play runs through October 16 at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre. Above, from left: Teammates 8 (Maggie Thompson), 14 (Isabel Pask), 7 (Jasmine Sharma, 25 (Mikey Gray), 46 (Maria Habeeb), 00 (Renea S. Brown), 2 (Katie Griffith), 11 (Owen Laheen), and 13 (Annie Fox) discuss current events while they practice soccer. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

McCarter is opening its season with The Wolves. The 2016 drama depicts a high school women’s soccer team, whose diverse members discuss current news events — among other, sometimes lighter subjects — as they practice for their games. The Wolves was a 2017 Pulitzer Prize finalist in drama.

Artistic Director Sarah Rasmussen directs the spirited production. Although this marks the McCarter debut of The Wolves, Rasmussen has prior experience staging the play. Her 2019 production at the Jungle Theater earned her a Minnesota Theater Award for Exceptional Performative Direction.

While writing The Wolves, Sarah DeLappe (who played soccer from ages 8 to 14) was tutoring teenage girls. An exhibit in the McCarter lobby quotes her as saying, “I felt very close to the current experience of female adolescence.” In a 2017 Lincoln Center Theater interview that is excerpted in McCarter’s printed program, DeLappe explains that she conceived the play “as a war movie. But instead of a bunch of men who are going into battle, you have a bunch of young women who are preparing for their soccer games.”

Scenic Designer Junghyun Georgia Lee covers the brightly lit Berlind stage with green Astroturf, honoring DeLappe’s opening stage direction that describes an indoor “soccer field that feels like it goes on forever.” The background is white and gray, but this is deceptive; Jackie Fox’s lighting often adds splashes of color.

As The Wolves begins, the lighting moves in rhythm to contemporary pop music procured by Sound Designer Pornchanok Kanchanabanca. As the soccer players enter, they are dancing as though they are in a nightclub. Immediately we know that the play will be infused with youthful energy.  more

By Nancy Plum

Choral music performance has had a real struggle over the past two years. For the first six months of the pandemic, no one in choruses sang at all. Then, choristers sang into their computers for six months to create virtual performances, followed by a year of singing with masks. Now, as a foray into maskless and hopefully unobstructed live performance, the Princeton University Glee Club, conducted by Gabriel Crouch, presented a concert this past weekend with a vocal ensemble based in Zimbabwe, but with strong Princeton ties.

Saturday night’s concert in Richardson Auditorium featured the fruits of a week-long residency by the seven-member vocal ensemble Mushandirapamwe Singers, whose conductor Dr. Tanyaradzwa Tawengwa is a Princeton University graduate. While an undergraduate in Princeton’s music department, Tawengwa established a legacy of founding an a cappella chorus and a senior thesis musical theater work which later became an off-Broadway production. Since graduating, Tawengwa has built a career as a conductor, arranger, and virtuoso mbira musician, performing worldwide while paying tribute to Zimbabwe’s turbulent history and traditions.

Choral music from Zimbabwe other regions of the African continent is distinctive in its pure chordal harmonies and spirited approach to text. A number of the pieces in Saturday night’s concert, all of which were either composed or arranged by Tawengwa, conveyed a sense of infectious joy and hope, demonstrating why audiences cannot help but get caught up in the enthusiasm of the performers. Tawengwa divided the concert into five parts, with the first chikamu calling the concert to order and then taking the audience on a journey through Zimbabwe’s history, literature, and culture.

Mushandirapamwe Singers both welcomed the audience and introduced themselves individually with a spirited “Anchulele,” answered with well-blended singing from the University Glee Club. Tawengwa sang the lead vocal lines in many of the pieces, but the six accompanying singers of the Mushandirapamwe ensemble were all expertly trained performers in their own right, with backgrounds in opera, dance, classical performance, and Broadway. Tawengwa was equally as proficient on the piano, and accompanied herself and the choruses in several numbers.  more

September 14, 2022

By Nancy Plum

Princeton Symphony Orchestra (PSO) opened the 2022-23 season in popular dance style, with a concert subtitled “Fandango.” Led by PSO Music Director Rossen Milanov and featuring guest solo violinist Anne Akiko Meyers, this past weekend’s concerts presented works of Spanish and Latin American influence or origin, exploring the wealth of musical ideas from these regions. All of these works had a personal connection for Milanov, who spent 10 years living in Spain.

Saturday night’s performance at Richardson Auditorium (the concert was repeated Sunday afternoon) opened with a piece by an early 20th-century composer with musical roots in both Spain and France. Originally composed for piano, Joaquin Turina’s Danzas fantásticas, Op. 22 began with dissonant strings over low brass and winds. The melody of the first movement jota, a dance from the Spanish region of Aragon, was elegantly presented on English horn by Gilles Cheng.

Under Milanov’s direction, the piece became quite lively with French impressionistic rhythms within the lush orchestration. The somewhat cinematic musical palette was aided by clean horns and well drawn-out cadences. The second movement zortziko, from the Basque region, was conveyed with a relaxed musical flow, complemented by oboist Lillian Copeland’s solo playing and a well-blended trio of flutes. The closing movement, infused with the Andalusian farruca, presented the melodic material in the winds, including a saucy flute solo by Brendan Dooley and solid lower brass playing.

Milanov and American violinist Anne Akiko Meyers have collaborated a number of times in the past, and she personally invited Mexican composer Arturo Márquez to write a violin concerto. The resulting Fandango, premiered by Meyers in August 2021, is three movements reflecting the evolution of the fandango dance form, with the solo violin line cutting no corners in technical challenges.  more

“THE WOLVES”: McCarter Theatre Center will present “The Wolves.” Written by Sarah DeLappe, and directed by Artistic Director Sarah Rasmussen, above, the play will run September 17-October 16 at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre. (Photo by William Clark)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

McCarter will open its season with The Wolves. Written by Sarah DeLappe, the 2016 drama depicts a high school women’s soccer team. Artistic Director Sarah Rasmussen directs the production, which starts performances September 17.

On August 30 the Princeton Public Library hosted a “Live at the Library” discussion about the production. McCarter’s Artistic Engagement Manager Paula Alekson moderated a conversation between Rasmussen and actor Katharine Powell.

A September 7 “Director’s Cut” offered a glimpse into the rehearsal process. As a perk of membership at McCarter, the audience was given an opportunity to watch Rasmussen direct the actors until they were dismissed for the day, after which McCarter’s BOLD Associate Artistic Director Nicole A. Watson hosted a conversation with Rasmussen. more

August 10, 2022

By Nancy Plum

Remembrance seemed to be the order of the day this past weekend at a concert paying tribute to both a renowned composer and the choral tradition of Westminster Choir College. Comprised of Westminster alumni and conducted by Westminster professor and conductor James Jordan, the professional vocal ensemble The Same Stream Choir returned to Princeton last Saturday night to present a concert honoring the legacy of composer and longtime Choir College friend Roger Ames. The ensemble was to perform at Bristol Chapel on the former Westminster campus; when the Chapel’s air conditioning system chose not to cooperate, the concert was relocated to All Saints’ Church in Princeton, an acoustically perfect venue for the chorus. The 20 members of The Same Stream ensemble sang a number of choral pieces and opera excerpts by Ames, as well other works which fit the evening’s theme of healing and hope.

Although Saturday’s concert focused on Roger Ames, the performance began with another piece in the same vein of faith and optimistic prayer. Latvian composer Peteris Vasks’ 2013 The Fruit of Silence, based on “the voice of Mother Teresa,” immediately set the choral tone for the evening. James Jordan’s choruses exemplify everything Westminster Choir College stands for in musical excellence — precise tuning, well-blended harmonies, and careful attention to text, and The Same Stream Choir sang Vasks’ chordal meditation as a clean and well-tuned expanse of sound, with the text well phrased and articulated. Same Stream Associate Conductor Corey Everly provided sensitive and adept piano accompaniment throughout the evening, beginning with this piece.

In a century when music can come across as overcomplicated and inaccessible, the simple melodic lyricism of Roger Ames’ compositional style seems to take audiences to a new comfort zone. Nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in Music for one of his extended choral pieces, Ames had a long history of drawing audiences into an ethereal and reassuring listening space through works based on imaginative and inspirational themes or by setting meaningful texts in a thought-provoking way. His text choices ranged from narrations of the Amistad slave ship to the coal mining communities of Wales to a September 11 tribute. Ames passed away in January of this year, and Jordan and The Same Stream Choir took the opportunity last Saturday night at All Saints’ to honor both the composer and his music.
The Ames music performed ranged from a piece commissioned by the Choir College two decades ago to a world premiere. Awakenings, a four-movement setting of the poetry of American writer Kitty O’Meara, grew out of the pandemic, and gave the singers of the chorus plenty of provocative text to communicate. The music showed a clear attention to the words, full comprehension of the sung voice, and particular simplicity in the unisons of the first movement. The Same Stream singers well handled the dissonances of the work, with the harmonic shifts well placed to accentuate text. Pianist Everly effectively conveyed the expressive piano part, as conductor Jordan led the ensemble through the reassuring poetry. Vocally, the chorus demonstrated a solid choral blend, with the sopranos providing a straight and laser-like tone. These were youthful and energetic voices who fit well into the acoustic of All Saints’ Church.

One of Ames’ most poignant works is the Choral Reflections on Amazing Grace, commissioned by James Jordan after 9/11 and dedicated to the children of those who died in the terrorist attacks. Combining a simple harmonization of the familiar tune with Greek text from the Mass for the Dead, this piece was sung by the chorus with sensitivity, aided by the solo singing of Holly Scovell and Alex Meakem. The ensemble also well conveyed the easy musical flow and undefinable longing for homeland of Hiraeth, a setting of a Welsh poem. The soprano choral lines were especially pure in this piece, with the rest of the ensemble providing a well-blended core of sound.

The historic Welsh choral tradition continued in an excerpt from Ames’ opera How Green was My Valley, with a libretto by Elizabeth Bassine. The music evoked the expansive Welsh countryside and landscapes, with soloists soprano Joslyn Thomas and tenor Jesse Borower providing light and clear solo lines. Welsh music is renowned for its hymns, and the chorus sang the “Once to Every Man and Nation” tune within the opera excerpt with effective intensity, invoking Welsh fortitude against the odds.

Always the pedagogue, Jordan turned over the podium to Associate Conductor Everly for two of the closing works on the program. Everly drew the same smoothly-blended sound out of the chorus in works by Thomas LaVoy and Patrick Hawes, with soloists Camille Watson and Meakem providing vocal clarity in Hawes’ setting of Little Lamb and a unified choral sound echoing well in the space of the church chancel. Combined with two pieces by Dan Forrest which concluded the program, the music on Saturday’s concert demonstrated that simplicity is often most effective, especially with works created out of very emotional experiences.

July 27, 2022

“DETROIT ’67”: Performances are underway for “Detroit ’67.” Directed by Anike Sonuga, the play runs through July 31 at the Hamilton Murray Theater at Princeton University. Above, from left, are Sheleah Harris (Bunny) and Gabriel Generally (Lank). (Photo by Ethan Curtis Boll)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

The Detroit Riot of 1967, also known as the Detroit Rebellion or the 12th Street Riot, is the setting of Detroit ’67. Dominique Morisseau’s 2013 drama depicts an African American woman’s determination to provide security for her family; and her younger brother’s wish to start a new life, and blur racial boundaries. All of these goals are tested by the arrival of a mysterious white woman — and the riot.

Chelle, one of the protagonists, hosts underground parties to pay for her (unseen) son Julius’ college education. Lank, her younger brother, wants to open his own bar. This ties into the event that incited the Detroit Riot: a police raid of an unlicensed bar, in which all of the patrons were arrested.

Detroit ’67 is an installment of Morisseau’s three-play cycle The Detroit Project. Morriseau is a 2018 MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellow whose other credits include the Broadway musical Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations.

The music of Motown, notably the Four Tops’ “Reach Out (I’ll Be There),” pervades Detroit ’67. Music is a “resource and clue to my work, and music plays a unifier among cultural barriers.” Morisseau tells Broadway.com.

Princeton Summer Theater (PST) is concluding its 2022 season with Detroit ’67. Directed by Anike Sonuga, the production successfully conveys the colliding character arcs and rising tensions, which are exacerbated by historical events. more

By Nancy Plum

When one thinks of classical music “trios,” what might come to mind is an ensemble of strings and piano, with plenty of works to perform from throughout music history. The chamber ensemble Zodiac Trio, formed in 2006 by musicians from the Manhattan School of Music, has broken this mold by dedicating a career to repertoire for clarinet, violin, and piano. Taking an unconventional route to success, clarinetist Kliment Krylovskiy, violinist Vanessa Mollard, and pianist Riko Higuma polished their ensemble sound with extensive study in Paris. Zodiac Trio brought an impressive and entertaining concert to Richardson Auditorium last Thursday night to close the 55th season of the Princeton University Summer Chamber Concerts series. 

The Trio opened the program conventionally, albeit with lesser-known works. Composer Paul Schoenfeld has infused his music with a scholarly command of mathematics and Hebrew studies, and his one-movement Freylakh also showed the influence of the Eastern European klezmer tradition. Zodiac Trio began Freylakh with a fiery start, immediately displaying a fierce piano part played by Higuma and the recognizable klezmer scales in Krylovskiy’s clarinet lines. The Trio consistently demonstrated exact rhythms, settling in well to the unusual sonorities of clarinet, violin, and piano together, and well representing the “merry” atmosphere indicated by the work’s title.

Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla was especially known for his use of Argentine dance forms, and this musical flavor was evident in the two short Piazzolla pieces arranged for the Trio by pianist Higuma. Chau Paris evoked a sultry Parisian night, with an understandably dramatic and demanding piano part. In this piece, Krylovskiy provided a lyrical clarinet line, joined by violinist Mollard for a swirling finish. Fugata introduced technically challenging melodic material one instrument at a time, with Higuma playing clean unisons between the two hands of the piano accompaniment. 

The principal work on the first half of the program was a concert suite of five movements from Igor Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat (A Soldier’s Tale), originally scored for seven instruments but also arranged by the composer for clarinet, violin, and piano. Zodiac Trio began the work with solid unisons and a percussive piano part, with Krylovskiy playing high in the register of the clarinet. Violinist Mollard commanded the second movement storyline of the fiddle which the devil is trying to buy from the soldier, demonstrating numerous double stops and a nonstop jagged melodic line. The fourth movement series of dances was seamless, with the three instruments creating a well-blended sonority. The closing “Dance of the Devil” was as demonic as one would expect from a movement with this title, with all instruments well up to Stravinsky’s technical demands.  more

July 13, 2022

By Nancy Plum

The piano quartet is an unusual form of music. Leaving out the second violin part of the string quartet, piano quartets create opportunities for unusual combinations of musical colors and timbres from violin, viola, cello, and keyboard. The performance collective known as Manhattan Chamber Players sent a “subset” of its musical roster to Richardson Auditorium last Friday night to present two piano quartets demonstrating the quick evolution and popularity of the form.

As Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was reaching his compositional peak in the 1780s, the piano was in its infancy — mostly appearing in concerti and salon pieces. There was little use of the instrument in chamber music, and when Mozart was commissioned to write a set of piano quartets, the first was deemed “too difficult” by the publisher. Little did the composer know that the form would take off in the 19th century, and the two quartets not successful in his lifetime would later become quite popular.

The ensemble of musicians from Manhattan Chamber Players presented the second of Mozart’s two piano quartets Friday night. Violinist Brendan Speltz, violist Luke Fleming, cellist Brook Speltz, and pianist David Fung performed Piano Quartet in E-flat Major with all the grace and elegance one would expect from Mozart, expertly mastering the virtuosity which apparently rendered the work too challenging for the average 18th-century instrumentalist.

The Manhattan Chamber Players began Mozart’s Quartet with ensemble refinement from the outset, aided by especially fluid keyboard passages from Fung. Violin and piano had a number of well-played duets, with subtle accompaniment from viola and cello. Brendan Speltz and Fleming played well-tuned intervals between violin and viola in the first movement, while the second movement Larghetto was marked by clarity from the piano. The string instruments played a bit of musical tag in the closing movement, while Fung skillfully maneuvered fiendish piano lines. Throughout this movement, the piano dared the strings to supply elegant answers to its musical “questions.” more

July 6, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” the widely acclaimed last track on Bob Dylan’s 2020 album Rough and Rowdy Ways, sent me back to the New York chapter of his memoir Chronicles (2004).

Titled “The Lost Land,” the chapter ends in a Greenwich Village coffee shop where “the waitress at the lunch counter wore a close-fitting suede blouse” that “outlined the well-rounded lines of her body. She had blue-black hair and piercing blue eyes, clear stenciled eyebrows. I was wishing she’d pin a rose on me. She poured the steaming coffee and I turned back towards the street window. The whole city was dangling in front of my nose.” Dylan’s sudden, seemingly impulsive reference to the rose is a whimsical touch of style, like a tip of the derby from Chaplin’s tramp, and the rhyming of rose and nose suggests a song in the making he knows is out there waiting to be found and finished: “I had a vivid idea where everything was. The future was nothing to worry about.” The last word of the chapter’s boyish, wide-eyed last sentence  completes the rhyme: “It was awfully close.”

I think of the waitress and the rose whenever I hear songs like “Absolutely Sweet Marie” and “Tangled Up in Blue,” or lines from “Key West” like “Fly around my Pretty Little Miss / I don’t love nobody — gimme a kiss.” Or “Make me invisible, like the wind” from “Mother of Muses.”

“Feeling Wondrous”

Another place “Key West” sent me was Van Morrison’s Belfast, an easy move along the glowing dial from station WBD to WVAN, from the philosopher pirate searching for “love and inspiration” on that pirate radio station to the kid growing up on Hyndford Street, where you “could feel the silence on long summer nights as the wireless played Radio Luxembourg, jazz and blues,” which leaves you “feeling wondrous and lit up inside with a sense of everlasting life.”  more

“THE GREAT GATSBY”: Princeton Summer Theater has staged “The Great Gatsby.” Directed by PST’s 2022 Artistic Director Ethan Boll, the play with music has been presented June 24-July 3 at the Hamilton Murray Theater. Above: Narrator Nick Carraway (Jay White, center) encounters Jordan Baker (Megan Pan, left) at the home of his cousin, Daisy (Allison Spann, right). (Photo by Raquel Ramirez)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

A bit over a century ago, F. Scott Fitzgerald arrived at Princeton University, which he attended from 1913-1917. As a student, the aspiring author wrote stories and poems for the Triangle Club, the Princeton Tiger, and Nassau Lit.

During his sophomore year, Fitzgerald returned home to Saint Paul, Minn., during Christmas break. There, he met and fell in love with Ginevra King. The Chicago socialite became the basis of several characters in Fitzgerald’s novels — particularly Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby.

Although the 1925 novel is told from the point of view of Daisy’s cousin Nick Carraway, Gatsby and Daisy’s relationship mirrors Fitzgerald’s courtship of King. Prefiguring a line in the novel, King’s father disdainfully told Fitzgerald, “Poor boys shouldn’t think of marrying rich girls.” (Eventually King married a wealthy Chicago businessman, and Fitzgerald married Zelda Sayre.)

In The Great Gatsby the now-wealthy title character buys a house across from Daisy’s home, with the express purpose of persuading her to resume their relationship. This arouses the jealousy of Daisy’s domineering and philandering husband, Tom, who contrives to eliminate his rival.

Almost a century after the publication of The Great Gatsby, a stage version of the classic novel has been presented at Fitzgerald’s alma mater. Making a welcome return following a (pandemic-enforced) three-year hiatus, the student-run Princeton Summer Theater (PST) has opened their 2022 season with Simon Levy’s adaptation, which received its world premiere at the Guthrie Theater in 2006.

Levy successfully adapts the novel for the stage, succinctly highlighting the backstory and dynamics between the characters. He is faithful to the plot but does not follow the novel slavishly; he converts some of Fitzgerald’s prose into dialogue for the narrator, Nick Carraway, highlighting the character’s development.

PST’s production adopts Levy’s suggestion (printed in the script) to include live music; an onstage band performs before and during the performance. Saxophonist and clarinetist Henry Raker, drummer Paolo Montoya, and bassist Cliff Wilson — led by Music Director Ned Furlong — establish the grit and glamour of the Jazz Age. more

June 29, 2022

“BROADWAY POPS!”: Princeton Festival has presented “Broadway POPS!” Above: Broadway and West End star Sierra Boggess, left, joined the PSO in a program of highlights from musical theater. The concert was conducted by Rossen Milanov, right. (Photo by Carolo Pascale.)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Princeton Festival has presented Broadway POPS! Broadway and West End star Sierra Boggess joined the Princeton Symphony Orchestra in a program of highlights from musical theater. The June 24 concert was conducted by the orchestra’s Edward T. Cone Music Director Rossen Milanov.

Boggess made her Broadway debut in the 2007 stage version of Disney’s The Little Mermaid. She has portrayed Christine Daaé in multiple productions of Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera (including the 25th anniversary concert at Royal Albert Hall), as well as the West End premiere of its sequel, Love Never Dies. With Julian Ovenden she has released an album of duets, Together at a Distance.

Broadway POPS! marks Boggess’ third collaboration with the PSO, following appearances in 2017 and 2018. The Olivier Award nominee also starred in The Age of Innocence (2018) at McCarter Theatre.

Boggess and Milanov created a selection that alternated between orchestral and vocal pieces, letting most of the featured composers be represented by at least one of each. The resulting program delighted the audience that packed the Festival’s performance tent on the grounds of Morven Museum & Garden. Boggess remarked that she chose pieces that she wanted to hear the orchestra perform.

The concert opened with an orchestral selection: “The Music Man: Symphonic Impressions,” crafted by Richard Hayman from Meredith Willson’s score. The woodwinds, especially the flutes, shone with the strings in the lush ballad “’Till There Was You.”  The piece closes with the rousing “76 Trombones.” A Broadway revival of the show opened this past February.

Boggess entered, sporting a bright red dress. Despite her long association with Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera, she chose as her first selection “Home,” a song from a different stage adaptation of the Gaston Leroux novel. Phantom (1991) has a book by Arthur Kopit; the music and lyrics are by Maury Yeston. “Home” is a number that opens delicately and ends operatically — a progression often favored by Boggess — waiting until the end to let the singer reveal her high soprano.  more

By Nancy Plum

It is difficult to get audiences indoors on a summer afternoon, but Princeton University Summer Chamber Concerts was able to entice a good crowd into Richardson Auditorium this past weekend. For the second performance of the 2022 season, the Chamber Concerts series presented the Diderot String Quartet, a 10-year-old ensemble with a well-established commitment to historical performance. Violinists Johanna Novom and Adriane Post, violist Kyle Miller, and cellist Paul Dwyer came to Richardson Sunday afternoon to present eight of Johann Sebastian Bach’s most complex fugal compositions and an elegant string quartet by Felix Mendelssohn on period instruments.

J.S. Bach’s The Art of the Fugue was comprised of 14 canons based on a single short theme. Bach subjected this melodic fragment to a combination of contrapuntal treatments, including setting the theme backwards, upside-down, and in varying speeds. The Diderot String Quartet performed eight of these settings, each showing a different side of Bach’s compositional genius.

Although likely conceived for harpsichord, The Art of the Fugue has been adapted well to various combinations of instruments. “Contrapunctus I” opened with second violinist Adriane Post presenting the theme, followed by all instruments in fugal fashion. The Quartet’s period instruments provided a more understated and refined sound than modern instruments might have, requiring the audience to listen harder to the intimate ensemble sound. Throughout the Bach work, the Diderot Quartet paid a great deal of attention to dynamics, swelling and decreasing the sound together. 

Each “Contrapunctus” treated the theme in an altered way, often opening with a different instrument and pairing the strings in varied combinations of color. Violist Miller and cellist Dwyer were particularly well matched in sound, and violinists Post and Novom often provided extended passages of well-tuned intervals. The eight short movements became more complex as the work went on, with faster-moving lines for the players and dotted rhythms with varying degrees of Baroque “swing.” Dwyer played melodic sequences in “Contrapunctus III” sensitively, with the closing movement requiring expert technical facility from all the instrumentalists.  more

June 22, 2022

“YOURS SINCERELY, STEPHEN SONDHEIM”: Princeton Festival has presented “Yours Sincerely, Stephen Sondheim” in tribute to the late Broadway legend. Matthew Stephens was the music director and accompanist for the concert, which was presented June 15 in a performance tent outside Morven Museum & Garden. Above: vocal duo Alyssa Giannetti and Jason Forbach. (Photo by Carolo Pascale)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Into the Woods is a musical in which familiar fairy tale characters meet, and their stories intersect. In the prologue, the characters sing about their reasons for journeying into the titular forest. Cinderella sings, “I wish to go to the festival.”

Last Wednesday she could have been referring to the Princeton Festival, which presented Yours Sincerely, Stephen Sondheim, a tribute to the show’s late composer and lyricist. Vocalists Alyssa Giannetti and Jason Forbach performed several of the Broadway legend’s songs, interspersed with quotes from his letters — many of which his correspondents have shared via social media since his death last November. Music Director Matthew Stephens accompanied the duo.

The June 15 concert was presented in a performance tent outside Morven Museum & Garden. The seating was configured to resemble a dinner theater or cabaret; tables were set up so that audiences could enjoy drinks and light (but elegant) snacks — the latter served before the show and during intermission. A set for the Festival’s subsequent production in the tent (Albert Herring) resembled a bar, adding to the illusion of being in a Times Square nightspot.

A classically trained singer, Giannetti made her professional debut as an understudy for the role of Christine Daaé in the first national tour of Love Never Dies. She was in the cast of the Paper Mill Playhouse’s world premiere of UNMASKED: The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber.  more

By Nancy Plum

Princeton Festival took on an immense operatic production this past weekend to start the second week of the Festival’s cornucopia of activities. Benjamin Britten’s 1946 comic chamber opera Albert Herring was mammoth not just because of cast size or length but in its complexity of vocal demands and orchestration. The Festival opened Albert Herring Friday night (the opera was repeated Sunday night) to an extremely appreciative audience in the Festival’s performance tent at Morven Museum and Gardens. 

Although the storyline of Albert Herring could be as silly as Gilbert and Sullivan at times, this opera required heavy-duty singing. For this production, Princeton Festival assembled a cast of well-trained and experienced singers to handle some very challenging roles. Three standout performers were tenor Joshua Stewart in the title role, soprano Ann Toomey as the upper crust Lady Billows, and mezzo-soprano Melody Wilson as Herring’s mother. 

Educated at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, Stewart has been making his mark in the opera world internationally. As the grocer Albert Herring, Stewart was a subtle lead character at first, turning his vocal prowess and full comedic skills loose in the second act dinner scene and third act soliloquy, complemented by animated facial expressions. In his operas, Britten composed rich and complex lead tenor roles, and Stewart met every musical and dramatic challenge. 

Soprano Ann Toomey has also had considerable success in the opera world and made an immediate impact on the Festival stage both with her singing and her character’s sufficiently snooty demeanor. With a commanding soprano voice, Toomey lit up over the prospects for the annual May Queen festival, and then proceeded to tear the roof off vocally when things did not go her way. When discussing the May Queen prize, Toomey’s singing was especially elegant and courtly while accompanied by harpist André Tarantiles.  more

June 15, 2022

“THE SEVEN DEADLY SINS”: Princeton Festival has opened its 2022 season with Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s “The Seven Deadly Sins.” Above: Soloist Storm Large, left, and vocal quartet Hudson Shad were accompanied by the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, which also performed Rodion Shchedrin’s “Carmen Suite.” Rossen Milanov, right, conducted the concert. (Photo by Carolo Pascale)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Princeton Festival has opened its 2022 season with The Seven Deadly Sins. The June 10 concert featured acclaimed singer and actor Storm Large, and vocal quartet Hudson Shad. The vocalists were accompanied by the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, which completed the program with Carmen Suite. The performance took place in a large tent on the grounds of Morven Museum & Garden.

The entire program was conducted by the orchestra’s Edward T. Cone Music Director Rossen Milanov. This concert marks the first collaboration between Princeton Festival and the Princeton Symphony Orchestra since the two organizations merged last year.

The Seven Deadly Sins (1933) is a ballet chanté (“sung ballet”) composed by Kurt Weill (1900-1950), The work marks Weill’s final collaboration with playwright Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), whose German libretto has been translated into English by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.

Edward James, a wealthy British poet, commissioned the work. James stipulated that it must include his wife, dancer Tilly Losch, whom he thought to resemble singer Lotte Lenya (Weill’s wife), for whom the composer was writing the piece.

This resulted in the core concept of a split-personality plot, in which Anna I (the singer) obeys the demands of her family (an all-male vocal quartet). Anna II (the dancer) initially is resistant, though she reluctantly defers to Anna I.

The title ironically refers to the fact that the wholesome, idealistic Anna II is perceived as committing the “sins,” and is redirected by the worldly Anna I. The piece, which premiered in Paris the year that the Nazis rose to power, can be viewed as a meditation on authoritarian indoctrination.

Since 2013, Large has been one of the composition’s foremost interpreters, having sung it at Carnegie Hall in the first of several performances with the Detroit Symphony. In performing the work, Large has been collaborating with Hudson Shad since the 2014 Ojai Music Festival. more

By Nancy Plum

Talk about the rooms where things happen. Princeton Festival presented two one-act operas this past weekend, each taking place in a single room, but the amount of action in that one space captivated the audience in the Festival’s new home at Morven Museum & Gardens.

Princeton Festival has always included opera as part of its month-long season of activities, and this year, there are two presentations — a double bill of two shorter operas and a full-length work by English composer Benjamin Britten. What has changed is the venue for these events; rather than being inside a large hall, the Festival constructed a 500-seat state-of-the-art performance tent at Morven Museum & Garden to create a “performing arts extravaganza.” With the singers, orchestra pit, and audience all under one tent, this is a new experience for Princeton Festival attendees.

The Festival’s opera series opened this past Saturday night with a performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Impresario and Derrick Wang’s Scalia/Ginsburg, and although these two comedic operas may seem to be unrelated, they were tied together by plotlines involving very strong and influential personalities, both fictional and real. Mozart’s 1786 Der Schauspieldirektor (The Impresario) has been described as a parody on the vanity of singers who argue over just about everything, but mainly money. This comic singspiel, with as much spoken dialog as sung music, may have only contained four arias, but the musical material was as technically complex as Mozart’s more monumental works.

Featuring only five characters (one of which was a speaking role), The Impresario took place in a fictional theatrical office in Vienna, where a hapless opera producer struggled with a conniving stage manager, underhanded banker, diva well past her prime and scheming up-and-coming singer over the potential success of a new opera. Princeton Festival’s production, which opened last Friday night (with additional performances the following Sunday and this coming week), was presented in English, accompanied by the Princeton Symphony Orchestra led by Music Director Rossen Milanov. more

June 8, 2022

By Nancy Plum 

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) wrapped up its 2021-22 Richardson Auditorium concert series with a program ranging from sublime to sprightly and highlighting three members of the Orchestra as soloists. Associate concertmaster and violinist Brennan Sweet, assistant principal violist Elzbieta Weyman, and assistant principal flute Kathleen Nester were featured in works by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Vivaldi, with performances that demonstrated their own soloistic talents and presented rarely-heard sides of these composers. Led by NJSO Music Director Xian Zhang, the musicians of New Jersey Symphony found the perfect musical vehicle to close the season and launch summer.

Friday night’s concert at Richardson Auditorium began with a nimble and humorous opera overture by a youthful Gioachino Rossini. Even at a young age, Rossini knew how to create an operatic showstopper, and his 1813 “Overture” to L’Italiana in Algeri contained all the elements necessary to energize a 19th-century audience. One of Rossini’s compositional signatures was a slowly rising crescendo to a full orchestral sound, and Zhang led the New Jersey Symphony well through these dynamic swells while allowing teasing wind solos to emerge from the texture. Like many opera overtures of this time period, Rossini’s “Overture” took off in tempo after a graceful start. Wind solos conveyed saucy melodic themes, including from oboist Robert Ingliss, clarinetist Andrew Lamy, and flutist Bart Feller. The three wind soloists had quick lines to maneuver, all of which were well executed.  more

May 25, 2022

“SHREK THE MUSICAL”: Theatre Intime and Princeton University Players have presented “Shrek The Musical.” Directed by Eliyana Abraham and Gabbie Bourla, it played May 20-22 at the Hamilton Murray Theater. Above, from left, Princess Fiona (Ann Webb) is rescued by unlikely friends Shrek (Rafael Collado) and Donkey (Tobi Fadugba). (Photo by Emily Yang)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Theatre Intime and Princeton University Players have collaborated to present Shrek The Musical. The show entertained an enthusiastic mixed-age audience, which filled the Hamilton Murray Theater on opening night.

The 2008 Broadway musical’s often witty book and lyrics are by David Lindsay-Abaire, who adapts the screenplays of the popular DreamWorks film series, which is based on William Steig’s 1990 picture book. The music — which incorporates elements of pop, R&B, and traditional musical theater — is by Jeanine Tesori. The show interpolates “I’m a Believer,” which is written by Neil Diamond.

This production is smoothly directed by Eliyana Abraham and Gabbie Bourla. They let the audience be a part of the action, by reserving a row of seats through which the cast often moves.

The crisp musical direction is by Giao Vu Dinh, assisted by Sam Melton and Chloe Webster. The band opens the show with a brief “Overture,” consisting of a series of triumphal chords followed by a bouncy march.

“The wry “Big, Bright, Beautiful World” shows the childhood experiences of Shrek (played by Rafael Collado) and Fiona (Ann Webb). At age 7, Shrek is sent to live on his own having been warned by his parents (played by Aria Buchanan and Matt Gancayco) that he will be shunned for his looks. Eventually he finds a swamp, where he is content to live alone.

Fiona blithely re-titles the show Fiona The Musical, and tells her story. As a child she is shut in a tower by her parents, King Harold (Andrew Duke) and Queen Lillian (Jacquelynn Lin), to await Prince Charming. more

May 18, 2022

“GROUP!”: Performances are underway for “Group!” Directed by Maria Patrice Amon, the musical runs through May 22 at Passage Theatre. Above, from left: Jessica (Liz Barnett) facilitates a court-ordered anti-addiction group therapy program, but her methods (such as passing around a soccer ball on which she tapes impractical ideas) scarcely help the participants, including Sandra (Nicole Stacie), Ceci (Tamara Rodriguez), and Everly (Deja Fields). (Photo by Jeff Stewart)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Passage Theatre is presenting the world premiere of Group! By turns poignant and wry, the new musical portrays six women who meet at group therapy session to battle addiction.

Five of the women attend the program because of a court order. The sixth, Jessica, is the well-meaning but ill-equipped facilitator who moderates the sessions. Although Jessica appears to have little in common with the women she is trying to help, all of them are expected to succeed by a system that hinders their ability to do so.

Group! tells an original story set in present-day Trenton. The book is by Julia B. Rosenblatt; the dialogue segues seamlessly into Eloise Govedare’s lyrics. Composer Aleksandra M. Weil draws on a variety of musical styles, but uses an energetic pop rock sound to anchor the score.

Upon entering the theater we immediately see scenic designer Kayla Arrell’s set. Most of the action takes place in a room with (artfully) drab walls and uncomfortable-looking plastic chairs. A door marked “exit” is prominent, letting us wonder whether these women will successfully exit the therapy program. The walls are decorated with posters on which are written platitudes such as “change,” and “believe and succeed.”

Above the therapy room are three windows representing apartments. Moments that use that upper level — in which we see the participants’ lives away from the sessions — have some particularly effective and dramatic lighting by Alex Mannix. more

May 11, 2022

By Nancy Plum

Princeton Symphony Orchestra closed the 2021-22 season this past weekend with a classical violinist who is making his mark worldwide. Led by PSO Music Director Rossen Milanov, the Orchestra and guest violinist Stefan Jackiw performed a lesser-known and somewhat underrated 20th-century concerto, bracketed by a very contemporary work and a symphonic classic.

American violinist Jackiw began playing violin at age 4, eventually earning concurrent degrees from Harvard University and New England Conservatory of Music. In Saturday night’s performance (the concert was repeated Sunday afternoon), Jackiw showed himself from the opening measures of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D Major to be a very physical player, leaning into solo lines with a youthful and fresh sound. Korngold’s Concerto (nicknamed the Hollywood Concerto when it first premiered) was definitely cinematic, full of lush music designed to pull at listeners’ emotions. Korngold’s colorful orchestration provided numerous solo opportunities for the wind and brass players, including oboist Lillian Copeland and hornist Gabrielle Pho.

The solo violin part in Korngold’s Concerto was continuous, and Jackiw showed impassioned violin playing throughout the piece. In the second movement “romance,” he was joined in an elegant duet by English horn player Gilles Cheng, with the solo line well complemented by flutists Armir Farsi and Mary Schmidt. Jackiw’s solo line immediately took off in the third movement “finale,” for which Korngold borrowed heavily from his own film scores. The principal theme of this song-like movement sounded as though it should be familiar, but as it was passed around among the players, the tune was jazzed up and altered (especially by the brass), leading to a spirited conclusion to the Concerto. more

“RIDE THE CYCLONE”: Performances are underway for “Ride the Cyclone.” Produced by McCarter Theatre and Arena Stage, and directed by McCarter’s Artistic Director Sarah Rasmussen, the musical runs through May 29 at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre. Above, from left, are Constance (Princess Sasha Victomé), Noel (Nick Martinez), Ocean (Katerina McCrimmon), Jane Doe (Ashlyn Maddox), Ricky (yannick-robin eike), and Mischa (Eli Mayer). (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

In the musical Ride the Cyclone, six teenagers are killed in an accident while riding the titular amusement park ride. In an otherworldly warehouse they meet The Amazing Karnak, a mechanical fortune teller that is about to be destroyed by a bass-playing rat who is chewing on his power cord.  The fortune teller offers to send one of the teenagers back from the dead, instigating a literal fight for their lives.

It must have been entertaining to listen to early pitches for the show, whose book, music, and lyrics are by Brooke Maxwell and Jacob Richmond. But within the eccentric, morbid plot are engaging, uplifting character arcs, conveyed by songs that are by turns eerie and exuberant. Ride the Cyclone is both offbeat and upbeat.

Ride the Cyclone is being presented at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre (in a co-production by McCarter and Arena Stage). In a program note, Artistic Director Sarah Rasmussen — who directs the production — recalls a quote from Our Town: “Does anyone ever realize life while they live it … every minute?”

Both Our Town and Ride the Cyclone acknowledge the fragility of life; lyrics in the song “Jawbreaker/Sugarcloud” echo the line quoted by Rasmussen. Karnak fulfills a role similar to that of Our Town’s Stage Manager: an emcee to guide the characters.

Any similarity between the two shows generally ends there. In Wilder’s play, the dead characters are confined to chairs. In the musical, the characters sing, dance, and even spin in midair. Our Town usually is performed with no scenery and few props. Ride the Cyclone rejects this aesthetic, reveling in lavish production elements. more

May 4, 2022

By Nancy Plum

Sibling musical prodigies can be found throughout history — brother and sister Mozart, the Haydn brothers, and a large family of Bachs — but there is nothing in classical music today quite like the Kanneh-Masons. Raised in Nottingham, England, the seven brothers and sisters of the Kanneh-Mason family each play violin, piano, and/or cello, all at a very high level. They appear professionally both individually and collectively, have won numerous awards, and are especially known for their livestreams of innovative arrangements and performances.

Two members of this acclaimed family came to Richardson Auditorium last Wednesday night as the last performance of Princeton University Concerts’ 2021-22 season. Cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, accompanied by his sister, pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason, played a program of four 19th and 20th-century sonatas for cello and piano, none of which were lightweight pieces and all of which showed that these two siblings have musical skills way beyond their years.

Cellist Sheku has already made history in the United Kingdom as the first cellist in history to reach the U.K. Album Chart Top 10. His popularity as a musician was instantaneous from his performance at the royal wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, and he is now in demand as a soloist throughout the world. Pianist Isata has won her own share of awards, drawing on her training at London’s Royal Academy of Music and forging her own path as a piano soloist.

Sheku and Isata mesmerized the audience at Richardson last week with the chamber music of Ludwig van Beethoven, Dmitri Shostakovich, Frank Bridge and Benjamin Britten. One of Sheku’s most striking characteristics as a performer is his range of facial expressions while playing, showing that this young artist pours emotion into every note. Opening with Beethoven’s Sonata for Cello and Piano, No. 4 in C Major, the Kanneh-Masons showed consistent expressive intensity, with clarity in the accompaniment and elegant melodic lines from the cello. The first movement “andante” introduction included a graceful dialog between cello and piano, with Isata playing delicately light trills with a flowing right hand.  more

“THE ART OF PLEASING PRINCES”: The Princeton University Players have presented a staged reading of “The Art of Pleasing Princes,” performed April 28-30 at the Whitman Theater. Directed by Solomon Bergquist, the new musical takes place in a fantasy kingdom that is beset by court intrigue and labyrinthine conspiracies.Above, from left, are Maddox (Alex Conboy), Rowan (Lana Gaige), Jason (Andrew Matos), Louis (Delaney Rose), and Maya (Miel Escamilla). (Photo by Elliot Lee)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Princeton University Players, a student-run organization whose website describes it as “Princeton’s home for musical theater,” has presented a staged reading of a new, student-written show, The Art of Pleasing Princes, at Whitman College’s Class of 1970 Theater this past weekend.

With a book and lyrics by Mel Hornyak and Elliot Valentine Lee, and music by Lee, the musical is set in a pseudohistorical fantasy kingdom — but with a viewpoint and aesthetic that are resolutely contemporary. The show subverts tropes of the fantasy genre — and to an extent, musical theater.

A rogue prince leads an unlikely group of co-conspirators in a plot to assassinate his estranged, tyrannical father. Along the way, we discover the protagonists’ secret ambitions and forbidden relationships.

The performance is classified as a staged reading, as the performers are permitted to use scripts. However, the show has the choreography, costumes, and props of a full production.

The Art of Pleasing Princes opens with a recognizable image. The king’s favorite guard, Jason Bartok (infused with affable sincerity by Andrew Matos) is kneeling at the feet of the monarch’s daughter, princess Maya Astor (Miel Escamilla), proposing marriage to her. The tableau will be seen again later, with a twist.

The opening number (“Your Day in Court”) begins with a waltz that is artfully exaggerated in its delicacy. The courtiers profess excitement at the (presumably) impending royal wedding, and set the too-perfect scene: “Every man has his duties; every servant his place; every lady her suitors … our lives our perfect, charmed.”

Clearly, this equilibrium is just waiting to be upended. Indeed, as the musical language gradually sheds the pastiche, the lyrics describe the scene as a “careful charade.” The ensemble sings of the ruthless politics at court, “You won’t know if you’ve made a mistake here, ‘til you’re the only one kept from the ball.” more

April 27, 2022

By Nancy Plum

Last Thursday night’s concert by the Tetzlaff String Quartet in Richardson Auditorium was a new beginning on several levels. Not only was this a reschedule of Tetzlaff’s premiere performance on the University Concerts series from two years ago, but it was also the Quartet’s first appearance in the United States in five years. Violinists Christian Tetzlaff and Elisabeth Kufferath, violist Hanna Weinmeister, and cellist Tanja Tetzlaff brought a program of Haydn, Berg, and Schubert to Princeton last week, demonstrating a unique approach to chamber music and why the ensemble is one of the most popular quartets worldwide.

Led by first violinist Christian Tetzlaff, the Tetzlaff Quartet showed a consistently amazing ability to build drama in a piece through dynamics — often collectively bringing the ensemble sound down to almost nothing to disclose a side of the piece not otherwise heard. Opening with Franz Joseph Haydn’s String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 20, No. 5, the Tetzlaff musicians played phrase repetitions delicately and allowed repeated notes to gracefully and stylistically taper away. Christian Tetzlaff well maneuvered the technically demanding first violin part, which Haydn had composed for the particularly gifted concertmaster of his court orchestra. 

Throughout Quartet No. 5, the Tetzlaff players well captured the nickname of this set of pieces as the “Sun” quartets, but also showed that the sun can be dark and obscure as well. Especially in the second movement “Minuet-Trio,” sequential passages were always played with direction, and the musicians well captured Haydn’s folk-like and outdoorsy atmosphere in the “Trio.” First violinist Tetzlaff remained the musical leader throughout the work, executing especially complex and heavily ornamented passages, but always with the solid support of the other three players.  more

“THE LARAMIE PROJECT”: Theatre Intime has staged “The Laramie Project,” presented April 15-24 at the Hamilton Murray Theater. Directed by Ethan Luk, the play explores the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, as well as interviewees’ reactions to the idea of being depicted in a docudrama. Above, from left, are cast members Luc Maurer, Alexis Maze, Sabina Jafri, Rilla McKeegan, Ay Marsh, Arthur Yan, and Matthew Shih. (Photo by Rowen Gesue)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

In October 1998 Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming, was beaten and left to die near Laramie. Rescuers took him to Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colo., where he died of his injuries six days later.

Writing about Shepard’s attackers, a history.com entry notes, “To avoid a death sentence, Russell Henderson pleaded guilty to kidnapping and murder in April 1999 and was sentenced to life imprisonment. Later that year, Aaron McKinney attempted to use a “gay panic” defense at his own trial, claiming that Shepard’s advances disgusted him.” Both Henderson and McKinney are serving life sentences.

The history.com article adds, “Matthew Shepard’s death sparked national outrage and renewed calls for extending hate crime laws to cover violence based on a person’s sexual orientation.”

In 2000 the New York City-based Tectonic Theater Project presented The Laramie Project — first at Denver’s Ricketson Theatre, then off-Broadway at the Union Square Theatre. Two years later the play was presented in Laramie.

Written by Moisés Kaufman in collaboration with members of the theater company, the docudrama explores the events and viewpoints surrounding Shepard’s death. We learn that Tectonic members arrived in Laramie in November 1998, a month after the event. Members of the theater company interviewed Laramie residents, and all of the dialogue is derived from those conversations, as well as Tectonic members’ journal entries. Published news reports also are excerpted.

Princeton University’s Theatre Intime has presented The Laramie Project. In a program note, director Ethan Luk admits to having had doubts about the play’s relevance: “How does The Laramie Project speak to an audience more than 20 years after its premiere?” For the director, an answer can be found in events such as Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, and the Brooklyn subway shooting: “Violence and injustice, both in explicit and implicit forms, still run rampant … perhaps that is why we find ourselves in front of the mirror time after time.” more