November 23, 2022

By Nancy Plum

A rare musical gem came to Princeton last week when McCarter Theatre presented an international touring choral/orchestral ensemble. The Internationale Bachakademie Stuttgart is a foundation established in 1981 to research and perform the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and connect it to musical composition of today. Despite the focus on Bach, the organization has commissioned numerous works inspired by or rooted in the compositional style of the 18th-century master and has been recognized for its international collaboration. The Bachakademie houses the Gächinger Kantorei chorus and Bach-Collegium Stuttgart orchestra, and both of these ensembles came to McCarter Theatre Center’s Matthews Theater last Wednesday night to perform Bach’s monumental Mass in B minor. Conducted by Bachakademie Artistic Director Hans-Christoph Rademann, the concert presented a work which has challenged choral ensembles for more than 250 years. 

Bach’s responsibilities as cantor at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig in the early 1700s required him to churn out service music at a seemingly unfathomable rate. In the last decade of his life, Bach began to expand a previously composed “Kyrie” and “Gloria” work into what became the Mass in B minor by adding a “Credo,” “Sanctus,” and “Agnus Dei” from music composed over a 25-year period. Bach completed the mass in 1749, but this work was not performed as a concert piece until the mid-1800s, more than a century after Bach’s death.

The Gächinger Kantorei and Bach-Collegium performed the Mass in B minor drawing the soloists from the chorus, as would have been done in Bach’s time, and assigning some of the extended coloratura choral passages to solo concertists. Under Rademann’s direction, the performance brought together a clean and precise chorus and orchestra with four historically-informed and technically accurate vocal soloists.  more

November 16, 2022

By Nancy Plum

Anything lasting 100 years deserves recognition. Centenaries are observed by individuals, civic organizations and even buildings, but in these times, a musical organization which has thrived for 100 years merits a particular reason to celebrate. On November 27, 1922, a new-formed orchestral ensemble of 19 string players gave a modest concert of Purcell, Saint-Saëns, and Victor Herbert at New Jersey’s Montclair Art Museum. Almost 100 years later to the day, what is now New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) presented a concert featuring a world-renowned cellist in a state-of-the-art concert hall to an audience of more than 2,500. Over the past century, NJSO has grown in tandem with the state of New Jersey to a full orchestra with five concert homes in the state, as well as a virtual presence. Currently under the musical leadership of conductor Xian Zhang, NJSO kicked off its 100th anniversary festivities this past Saturday night at Newark’s New Jersey Performing Arts Center with a sold-out gala and concert highlighting the orchestra players and guest cellist Yo-Yo Ma. 

Saturday night’s performance at NJPAC included accolades from community and political leaders fitting for the occasion, as well as a contemporary work co-commissioned by NJSO from legendary jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. Premiered by the orchestra last January, Marsalis’ Herald, Holler and Hallelujah was scored for 19 brass and percussion players, paying tribute to the original members of the NJSO. Playing from boxes on one side of the hall and led by conductor Xian Zhang from the stage, the brass players were joined by five percussionists who added rhythmic drive and character to the music. Marsalis drew this work’s musical influence from marching band and big band styles, as well as his trademark mastery of jazz. With the brass ensemble on one side facing across the hall, the unorthodox harmonies of the piece were occasionally diffuse in the space, but the passages that captured the New Orleans “second line” funeral tradition worked particularly well. 

While the Marsalis piece was rooted in truly American jazz and blues, the work which featured Ma with New Jersey Symphony was influenced by the composer’s time in New York City. Czech composer Antonín Dvorák spent several years in New York City in the 1890s, and although his Cello Concerto in B minor was completed when he had returned to Europe, the concept for the work was from Dvorák’s time in the United States. Ma’s career has been as much about collaboration as solo concertizing, and his performance of this concerto with NJSO was a true partnership from the opening rolling passages. Conductor Zhang led soloist and orchestra in a dramatic first movement, with Ma’s exquisite solo lines well punctuated by the winds. Fast moving solo passages spoke well in the hall, and Ma effectively handled shifts between lyrical and more frenetic styles. The first movement “Allegro” was also marked by a clean quartet of horns and clear solo wind lines, including from clarinetist Pascal Archer and flutist Bart Feller. Cello and flute were often in duet throughout the concerto, and despite the distance between the two players, Ma and Feller were in solid communication and dialog. more

November 9, 2022

By Nancy Plum

The Brentano String Quartet, longtime friends of Princeton University Concerts, made a return visit to Princeton University last week with a concert paying homage to the American classical music tradition. A former ensemble-in-residence at Princeton, the Brentano Quartet commanded the stage at Richardson Auditorium last Thursday night with “Dvorák and the American Identity,” acknowledging the impact of Czech composer Antonin Dvorák on 20th-century American music and the legacy of this composer to this day. Violinists Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin, violist Misha Amory, and cellist Nina Lee created a program drawn from arrangements of American tunes as well as complex classical works rooted in the gospel and spiritual traditions.

The Brentano musicians began the concert with an arrangement for string quartet dating back almost 100 years. In the early decades of the 20th century, the Manhattan-based Flonzaley Quartet thrived for a mere 27 years, but despite the brevity of their existence, left a repertory of spiritual arrangements for string quartet possessing the same complexity as the rich works of the 19th century Romantic period. Arranged by Flonzaley second violinist Alfred Pochon, these pieces conveyed the same depth of emotion with four string players as the more familiar versions with words.

The Brentano String Quartet presented three Fonzaley arrangements Thursday night, beginning with a lush version of the spiritual “Deep River.” Accompanied by the lower strings, first violinist Steinberg presented the tune quietly, and as the tune was passed among the instruments, the players explored the more soulful characteristics of the music.

 more

“TWELFTH NIGHT”: Performances are underway for “Twelfth Night.” Directed by Solomon Bergquist, the play runs through November 13 at the Hamilton Murray Theater. Above, from left, are Maria (Alex Gjaja), Feste (Ava Kronman), Olivia (Alexis Maze), and Viola, disguised as “Cesario” (Rilla McKeegan). (Photo by Kate Stewart)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Twelfth Night reflects the “end of the Christmas season and was a time of revelry, in which the norms of society were inverted,” observes the play’s page on the Royal Shakespeare Company website. The work’s first noted performance took place in February 1602, on the feast of Candlemas.

Princeton University’s Theatre Intime is currently presenting Shakespeare’s comedy. The production’s first weekend coincided with another celebration, albeit a secular one. An alumni reunion (belatedly) celebrated the centennial of Theatre Intime (and the 50th anniversary of Princeton Summer Theater).

However, the script itself rarely feels festive; one could say that revelry is inverted. Countess Olivia, who mourns her brother, is determined not to consider suitors until seven years have passed. Meanwhile, her steward Malvolio is the victim of a cruel prank. By way of acknowledging the play’s gloomy undercurrent, Feste the Fool ends it by singing a song that reminds us that “the rain it raineth every day.”

 more

November 2, 2022

A TRIPLE ANNIVERSARY WEEKEND: The 100th anniversary of Theatre Intime, and the 50th anniversary of Princeton Summer Theater (PST), will be honored at a three-day reunion of alumni “Princeton theater-makers.” Both troupes mount their productions at the Hamilton Murray Theater in Murray-Dodge Hall, above, where Theatre Intime has performed since their 1921-1922 season. (Photo by Bill Charrier ‘69. Courtesy of Friends of Intime)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Princeton University’s Theatre Intime was founded by a group of Princeton undergraduates in 1920. The Friends of Theatre Intime had hoped to schedule a centennial celebration for the fall of 2020, but the pandemic halted those plans.

However, after a two-year delay, “A Triple Anniversary Weekend” will be held from November 4-6. This commemorates the centennial of Theatre Intime, the 50th anniversary of Princeton Summer Theater, and the Hamilton Murray Theater’s centennial as a venue. The event’s website describes the celebration as a “reunion of Princeton theater-makers across the years.”

To ensure that the Princeton community can participate, a Community Pass ($50) is available. This pass provides admission to all events except the alumni meals.

A centerpiece of the reunion will be a gala dinner, “Théâtre Intime’s 100th & PST’s 50th Banquet Fete,” at which Winnie Holzman will be the keynote speaker. Among numerous writing credits, Holzman is especially known as the creator of the television series My So-Called Life;  and as the librettist of the musical Wicked. Acting credits include Thirtysomething, Roswell, and Curb Your Enthusiasm.

A Hamilton Murray Theater Centennial Film Festival will run throughout the weekend. The anniversary celebration’s website describes the festival as a “mix of full production features and short subjects expressly created for the festival.” The films will “play on big screens on campus throughout the celebration weekend.”

Friday’s events will include a “Welcome & Convocation” at Richardson Hall (this event is free and open to all, though registration is required); an “Intime & PST Archive & Exhibition” at Mudd Library, during which memorabilia such as programs, photos, letters, and newspaper articles will be on display; and an “Alumni Piano Bar,” a cabaret session at which pianists will be available to accompany any participants who would like to sing.

On Saturday there will be “Alumni All-Stars” panel discussions featuring alumni who work in the entertainment industry. The conversations are titled “Storytellers” and “How Theater influenced my (non-theater) career.” The gala dinner, at which Holzman will deliver the keynote address, will take place on Saturday evening. more

October 26, 2022

By Nancy Plum

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra kicked off the Princeton leg of its 100th anniversary celebratory season this past Friday night with a concert in Richardson Auditorium. Led by Music Director Xian Zhang, the performance featured a rarely-heard 19th-century piano-orchestral work with a pianist who could easily take over the international stage. With a lean and succinct ensemble sound, the Orchestra welcomed fall in Princeton with powerful renditions of the music of Richard Strauss and Johannes Brahms.

Zhang and NJSO began the performance with a piece resulting from an unusual commission. American-born composer Dorothy Chang, currently on the faculty of the University of British Columbia, was asked in 2017 to write a segment of a symphonic ballet to celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary. Her one-movement Northern Star became the fourth movement of the ballet but has also been an intriguing orchestral work on its own. 

With Zhang showing her usual dynamic leadership on the podium, NJSO brought out the crisp icy atmosphere of a piece recalling both the northern lights rising and setting over the landscape and a journey from darkness to optimism. Throughout the work, the NJSO players provided both an expansive orchestral palette and whispers of the winds, aided by delicate wind solos from flutist Bart Feller and oboist Alexandra Knoll.

Nineteenth-century German composer Richard Strauss was known more for symphonic tone poems and vocal works than piano repertoire, but his Burleske in D minor for piano and orchestra was clearly in line with the virtuosic piano performance tradition begun by Franz Liszt. Initially conceived as a “Scherzo” for piano and orchestra, Burleske contained in one movement all the passion and drama of a full-length Strauss opera. 

To convey all this emotion, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra invited pianist Michelle Cann to share the stage. Cann has performed with major orchestras nationwide and is a member of the faculty of the Curtis Institute of Music and could spend her professional life mesmerizing audiences worldwide just as she did in Princeton. Cann played with great power, and at times it was hard to follow her very fast-moving hands. There were numerous extended passages for solo piano, ranging from elegantly lyrical to ferocious and lightning-quick octaves traveling the length of the keyboard, all of which Cann expertly executed. A playful duet was created between Cann and clarinetist Pascal Archer, with a subsequently elegant duet between Cann’s rolling piano lines answered by the viola section. Timpanist Gregory LaRosa was also key in maintaining rhythmic energy among the short spurts of melodic activity. more

October 19, 2022

By Nancy Plum

Princeton Symphony Orchestra combined rich orchestral music with the 21st century this past weekend with performances of “Britten & Elgar,” as well as a work by an acclaimed American composer. Under the direction of Music Director Rossen Milanov, Princeton Symphony consistently demonstrated a lean and invigorating sound, well matching the fiery playing of guest solo violinist Elina Vähälä.

Saturday night’s performance at Richardson Auditorium (the concert was repeated Sunday afternoon) began with a 21st-century piece showing the Symphony’s precise string ensemble sound. New York composer Jessie Montgomery’s Starburst was brief in length but reflected a blaze of orchestral colors and musical effects. Princeton Symphony’s performance cleanly revealed every musical detail and pizzicato among the string sections, with the sound traveling well among the musicians. Montgomery’s piece served as a teaser for the concert’s main event — Benjamin Britten’s Violin Concerto, Op. 15 featuring solo violinist Elina Vähälä. Born in the United States and raised in Finland, Vähälä was considered a “young master soloist” at an early age and has been on the international stage ever since.

Britten’s 1939 Violin Concerto was very different from the concertos of the 18th and 19th centuries, opening with a rhythmic ostinato against lush unison string playing. As in the Montgomery piece, Princeton Symphony’s ensemble sound allowed musical details to come to the forefront, especially André Tarantiles’ harp playing. Vähälä’s solo added complexity to the first movement, with shades of joy in the nonstop solo line. Numerous decisive upbows in the solo violin part added rhythmic drive as Vähälä showed full command of the score. Conductor Milanov kept the musical flow in forward motion within the contrasting styles, particularly in a “role-reversal” section in which the upper strings played long melodic lines while Vähälä provided strident violin effects.  more

“BLUES IN MY SOUL”: Performances are underway for “Blues in My Soul: The Legend and Legacy of Lonnie Johnson.” Written by David Robson and directed by Ozzie Jones, the play runs through October 30 at Passage Theatre. Above, Lonnie (David Brandon Ross, left) reluctantly plays for an enthusiastic Chris (Jonathan Jacobs). (Photo by Liz Cisco)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

When a play dramatizes a true story, especially about a long-dead public figure, often the resolution can be learned from the subject’s Wikipedia entry. The challenge to the dramatist then becomes to build enough tension and suspense to make the audience wonder whether a historical event will happen — and if so, how.

That is what playwright David Robson accomplishes so successfully in Blues in My Soul: The Legend and Legacy of Lonnie Johnson, which is being presented by Passage Theatre (following its premiere at Delaware’s City Theater Company earlier this year). A play with music, Blues in My Soul depicts the meeting of blues and jazz luminary Alonzo “Lonnie” Johnson and DJ, journalist, and record producer Chris Albertson.

Johnson (1899-1970) was a singer, guitarist, violinist, and songwriter who performed with legends such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Bessie Smith. Gérard Herzhaft writes in the 1979 Encyclopedia of the Blues that Johnson was “undeniably the creator of the guitar solo played note by note with a pick, which has become the standard in jazz, blues, country, and rock.” Artists such as Elvis Presley, B.B. King, and Django Reinhardt were influenced by Johnson. But by the late 1950s, he largely had faded from the public memory.

Albertson (1931-2019) was a disc jockey at Keflavic Air Base in Iceland, before migrating to the United States. In Philadelphia he worked for WCAU and WHAT-FM. Later he authored Bessie. a 1972 biography of Bessie Smith. For his work producing reissues for Columbia Records, he won multiple accolades, including two Grammy Awards and a Prix du Disque.  more

October 12, 2022

“CELEBRATION/PARTY TIME”: Theatre Intime has staged two plays by Harold Pinter: “Celebration” and “Party Time.” Directed by Kat McLaughlin, the double bill was presented September 30-October 9 at the Hamilton Murray Theater. Above, from left,are Gavin (Andrew Duke), Melissa (Ellie Makar-Limanov), Terry (Solomon Bergquist), and Dusty (Lara Danisman) in “Party Time.” (Photo by Emily Yang)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Princeton University’s Theatre Intime has opened its season with a double bill of one-act plays by Harold Pinter (1930-2008): Celebration and Party Time. Both works offer a caustic look at social gatherings of the affluent and powerful.

Celebration (2000) depicts two concurrent dinners at an expensive restaurant, while the darker Party Time (1991) portrays a lavish house party, some of whose guests are connected with sinister political machinations.

Both plays are directed by Kat McLaughlin, who effectively uses the scripts’ examination of social hierarchies as a point of departure for an exploration of physical space. “What is it to exist in, to observe, to desperately maintain a space?” McLaughin asks rhetorically in a program note. She explains that she chose Celebration as a “comedy to mirror, reflect, and lighten the tensions raised in Party Time.” She acknowledges that the plays are “similar in tone.”

Celebration begins when a mild-mannered, dignified Waiter (Solomon Bergquist) strides from the audience to the dark stage. Lighting Designer Nicabec Casido lights the two tables only after the Waiter has approached them. Behind one of the tables is a bar, at which the Waiter stands for much of the play, further separated from the affluent clientele. Later, he moves claustrophobically between a wall and a chair to wait one of the tables. more

By Nancy Plum

The Princeton University Orchestra opened the 2022-23 season this past weekend honoring a longtime member of the University Music Department and featuring a dynamic and outstanding piano soloist from within the student body. Under the direction of conductor Michael Pratt, the University Orchestra showed its collective ability to take on any challenge while exploring the most difficult of musical repertoire in the ensemble’s annual Peter Westergaard Memorial Concerts. Friday night’s performance at Richardson Auditorium (the concert was repeated Saturday night) included two works composed less than 50 years apart, but each a technical wonder in itself and demanding the most from the Orchestra players. 

Composer Frédéric Chopin may have been born in Poland, but his music was heavily influenced by his residency in early 19th-century Paris. Much of the repertoire from Chopin’s all-too-short life was for solo piano, and his music has been an influence on piano composition ever since. Chopin composed only two piano concertos, and his earliest work in this genre bridged musical evolution between the tunefulness of Mozart and the complexity of the mid-19th century composers.

Composed when Chopin was merely 20, Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 11 in E minor was a rich symphonic work full of revolutionary musical colors from both piano and orchestra. The first movement’s extended instrumental introduction displayed long melodic violin lines, clean light winds and Chopin’s obvious affinity for the cello. For this past weekend’s performances, the University Orchestra featured senior Kyrie McIntosh, who has studied piano since early childhood. Exuding confidence at the keyboard from the outset, McIntosh began the piano solo with a dramatic flourish. In a movement of wistful reflection, McIntosh demonstrated great fluidity in both hands and considerable sparkle in the highest registers of the keyboard. McIntosh effectively introduced a gentle second theme, accompanied by clean horn playing from Selena Hostetler, and later contrasted by McIntosh’s dramatic left-hand octaves against a nonstop right hand.  more

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