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

October 12, 2022

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

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

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

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

June 29, 2022

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

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

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 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

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

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

April 6, 2022

By Nancy Plum

Princeton University Chamber Choir returned to live performance last Saturday night making a statement. Led by conductor Gabriel Crouch, the 48-voice chorus presented a program originally scheduled for April 2020, but which was just as profound today, both in perseverance of the singers and the creativity the canceled concert generated during the University’s shutdowns. Past and present came together in the Chamber Choir’s concert at Richardson Auditorium as the choristers emerged from the pandemic to find even more meaning in the works of Francis Poulenc and Mary Lou Williams. As a further acknowledgement of current times, the Chamber Choir presented this performance in collaboration with “02.24.2022,” a student-driven initiative supporting students on campus affected by the war in Ukraine and raising funds to provide local currency to refugees. 

Princeton University graduate Allison Spann is no stranger to University musical ensembles; her compositions have been played on campus before. Having lost a chunk of her senior year to the spring 2020 shutdown, Spann took the opportunity to create a work for the Chamber Choir which explored the connections between Poulenc’s Figure Humaine and Williams’ St. Martin de Porres, honoring both composers and their pursuit of divine liberation through music.

Spann commanded the stage herself for the Chamber Choir’s performance of her piece Before the light is gone. The Choir’s presentation of Spann’s work had the atmosphere of a jazz club, with Spann singing the soprano solo accompanied by the expert jazz piano accompaniment of Cherry Ge and Phillip Taylor. Spann’s work is mostly for solo voice (representing liberty, freedom or earth), with reaffirmation of text by the chorus (as mankind). Following a recited opening verse, Spann reached effectively into her upper register with a scatt singing effect, soaring above smooth homophonic chords sung by the Chamber Choir. An octet singing from the front of the stage showed Spann’s skill at writing music for close harmonies, with tricky dissonances well-handled and all singers conveying Spann’s wish to “pave the way for hope through rest, generosity, and compassion.”  more

March 23, 2022

By Nancy Plum

It is difficult enough to present a professional opera production in the best of times, but over the past two years, it must have seemed almost impossible. Opera companies nationwide struggled to succeed in a medium considered a coronavirus “superspreader,” and regional companies in particular have been putting their artistic toes in the water very slowly these days. Boheme Opera NJ, which has been presenting opera in the area for the past 33 years, took a big leap back into the performance arena this past weekend with a production of Giuseppe Verdi’s classic Rigoletto at the Patriots Theater at Trenton’s War Memorial. Led by conductor Joseph Pucciatti, Boheme Opera NJ’s fully-staged and supertitled production brought together a talented cast of singers and instrumentalists, accompanied by innovative digital sets and well-paced music.

As popular as Rigoletto is today, the plot of Verdi’s 1851 opera was considered surprisingly shocking in its time. Based on a Victor Hugo play and with a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave, Rigoletto had a storyline perceived as making fun of royalty. Verdi moved the story’s location to Italy and reduced the protagonist in rank to duke, thus appeasing the Naples censors to which he was required to submit the libretto.

Celebrating more than 30 years of opera production, Boheme Opera NJ was riding a wave of artistic growth in 2020, when this production was originally scheduled, and the company bravely moved the performance site to Patriots Theater. A two-year hiatus on live opera performance upended the company’s upward momentum, yet this past weekend’s performances provided an opportunity for “spring reawakenings.” Friday night’s production (repeated Sunday afternoon) featured six singers making Boheme Opera debuts and nine singers performing their assigned roles for the first time.

Rigoletto fit well into a 19th-century formula in which the tenor is the romantic lead and the soprano his leading lady, with a villainous bass lurking in the background. A baritone hunchback in Rigoletto changed the formula slightly, with Verdi adding his trademark unforgettable melodies into the musical mix. Verdi operas also often have their own signature features, such as a show-stopping coloratura soprano aria and poignant father-daughter conflict. Boheme Opera’s production featured solid singing throughout, but much of the evening belonged to Robert Balonek singing the title role. As Rigoletto, Balonek was able to scurry through crowd scenes with elastic physicality as well as express parental tenderness toward his daughter Gilda. He was alternately sprightly, animated, and conniving, with a solid voice carrying well into the house. Balonek showed particularly sensitive dynamics in an Act I soliloquy, while both scheming with the professional assassin Sparafucile and offering protective advice to Gilda.  more

March 16, 2022

By Nancy Plum

The World War II account of Anne Frank, with its immortal story of hope amid a harsh reality, seems particularly timely in these days of current events. As a result, Princeton Pro Musica may find that its presentation this past weekend of a choral setting of Anne Frank’s diary has more impact now than its original performance date two years ago, especially as the chorus returns to live performance.  Originally scheduled for the spring of 2020 to mark the 75thanniversary of the end of World War II, British composer James Whitbourn’s oratorio Annelies not only honors the life and legacy of Anne Frank but also finds parallels with current fears and anxiety of uncertain realities. 

Anne Frank wrote in her diary, “It seems like years since Sunday morning. So much has happened. It’s as if the whole world had suddenly turned upside down.” Princeton Pro Musica Artistic Director Ryan James Brandau referenced these words when welcoming the audience back to a live Pro Musica performance after a two-year hiatus. With music by Whitbourn and a libretto by author Melanie Challenger, Annelies is a “musical portraiture” for chorus, orchestra, and soprano soloist providing a snapshot of Frank’s life. Joining Pro Musica and the accompanying orchestra last Sunday afternoon at Richardson Auditorium was Princeton graduate and operatic soprano Lily Arbisser. 

The voice of Anne Frank was not confined to the soprano voice, but could be heard throughout the piece from orchestra, chorus, and soloist. Whitbourn incorporated musical references to the sights and sounds of 1940s Amsterdam into the work, beginning with an “Introit” capturing bells and a vibrant city atmosphere. In this opening movement, Arbisser sang as a cantor while the women of Pro Musica presented a subtle unison line. Whitbourn used choral monophony and unharmonized wordless lines sung by the chorus as a vehicle for certain words of the text, and Pro Musica’s presentation of these passages in the opening movement set well a sense of foreboding for what was to come. more

March 9, 2022

By Nancy Plum

Princeton Symphony Orchestra coupled a contemporary symphonic work with a beloved 19th-century Czech composer this past weekend with a pair of performances in Richardson Auditorium on the campus of Princeton University. Led by PSO Music Director Rossen Milanov, the ensemble presented a piece recently premiered, as well as works by Antonín Dvorak and Igor Stravinsky, both of whom made their homes in the United States at some point. Joining the Orchestra in these “Edward T. Cone” performances was magnetic Spanish cellist Pablo Ferrández.

Saturday night’s concert (the performance was repeated Sunday afternoon) opened with the one-movement Amer’ican of Michigan-born composer James Lee III. Composed in 2019, Amer’ican was inspired by Dvorak’s New World Symphony, along with 18th-century artwork of Indigenous Americans. Lee’s piece began serenely, with Scott Kemsley’s solo flute introducing an orchestral palette in which the instruments seemed to be on their own. The winds, especially a pair of clarinets, were effective in executing swirling passages, with a varied percussion section providing musical effects evoking Americana. Flutists Kemsley and Mary Schmidt carried much of the melodic material in the work, with elegant solos provided by other winds and brass, including oboist Gilles Cheng and trombone player Carlos Jiménez Fernández. Lee was inspired by Dvorak when writing this piece, and shades of the Czech composer could be heard in the solo clarinet lines, gracefully played by Andy Cho. Conductor Milanov well-handled the work’s transitions between lyricism and driving rhythms. 

Prize-winning cellist Pablo Ferrández has been acclaimed as being a captivating performer, complete with technique, spirit and expressivity. Ferrández was featured in Dvorak’s 1895 Cello Concerto in B Minor, written while the composer was living in the United States, and subsequently revised in response to the death of a family member.  more

March 2, 2022

By Nancy Plum

Princeton University Orchestra returned to the Richardson Auditorium stage last week with a concert featuring both guest conductors and soloist winners of the University Orchestra Concerto Competition. The performance Friday night (the concert was repeated Saturday night) showed convincingly the impact of University Orchestra conductor Michael Pratt’s long tenure with the Orchestra and the depth of the University music program.

Soprano Marley Jacobson, a University senior who had a leading role in last season’s  “pandemic” virtual opera La Calisto, led off the evening with a performance of a concert aria by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Mozart composed the orchestrally accompanied “Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio!” for soprano voice and oboe obbligato for his sister-in-law and as an interpolation into another composer’s opera in which she was performing.

Orchestra conductor Michael Pratt led the ensemble in this work, demonstrating well-blended winds and horns, with an especially elegant oboe solo by Vedrana Ivezic. Jacobson sang Mozart’s concert aria of plaintiveness and emotional confusion with the lyrical poise and vocal self-assuredness of the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro. Ivezic’s contrasting oboe solo line was equally vocal in character, and the two instruments together were often delicately answered by pizzicato playing from the lower strings. From a 21st-century viewpoint, Mozart seemed to like torturing sopranos with huge intervallic skips, and Jacobson was well prepared for the technical challenges of this piece.

The classical music tradition of Armenia has been represented for the past 100 years by composer Aram Khachaturian. Originally intending to become a biologist, Khachaturian turned instead to music and composed works capturing the exotic colors and rhythms of the region, as well as the Mugham melodic themes which fascinated him as a child. Khachaturian composed the Adagio pas de deux as part of his 1956 ballet Spartacus, and the movement contained some of the most memorable melodies in the entire ballet. Conducting this piece in Friday night’s concert was University senior Montagu James, also a violinist and composer who has had several works commissioned by Princeton University Sinfonia.   more

February 23, 2022

By Nancy Plum

With a 22-appearance history of performing with Princeton University Concerts, the Takács Quartet has made a home at Richardson Auditorium and has become a good friend of the series. The four members of the string ensemble — violinists Edward Dusinberre and Harumi Rhodes, violist Richard O’Neill, and cellist András Fejér — returned to Richardson Auditorium last week after a nearly two-year hiatus performing in the area for an eclectic program featuring music for string quartet and an instrument rarely heard in Princeton. Joining the ensemble for last Thursday night’s concert celebrating the series’ return to live performance was bandoneón and accordina virtuoso Julien Labro, and the five musicians together created an impressive evening of innovative classical music.

Born in France, Labro has brought music for the Argentine bandoneón to the forefront of the classical and jazz arenas. Most often heard in tango ensembles, the bandoneón creates its sound by pulling and pushing actions forcing air through bellows as the player routes air through reeds by pressing buttons on either side of the instrument. Labro has been applauded for his brilliant technique and imaginative arrangements, several of which he presented with the Takács Quartet. He connected with American composer Bryce Dessner when performing on Dessner’s score to the film The Two Popes, and when composer and performer were further introduced to the Takács Quartet, the seed for an imaginative commission was planted. Dessner’s Circles, performed by Labro and the Takács Quartet, interweaved rhythms and polyphonies of all five instruments, with a great deal of free expression from all the musicians.

Dessner’s Circles was co-commissioned by Princeton University Concerts and the consortium Music Accord, of which University Concerts is a member. The work began with the bandoneón contrasted with a chipper string accompaniment, and Labro showed particularly fast fingers on repeated motives and offbeat rhythms. The melodic ostinato became more ornamented as the piece went on, and the players together were able to cohesively move the music into other colors and shadings.  more

February 9, 2022

By Nancy Plum

Princeton Symphony Orchestra (PSO) began 2022 with a lush “new beginning,” performing music of the late 19th and early 20th centuries to open the New Year in an opulent orchestral way. Led by guest conductor Kenneth Bean and featuring guest solo violinist Alexi Kenney, the PSO presented three works which captured the musical atmosphere of the lives and times of each of the composers.

Currently assistant conductor of the PSO, Kenneth Bean has an extensive career leading both adult and youth orchestral ensembles. Bean’s conducting strength throughout the concert was clearly finding dynamic variety, drama, and theatricality in the three pieces performed. The works presented of Coleridge-Taylor, Sibelius, and Dvorak provided ample opportunity for an imaginative approach to orchestral color, and Bean took advantage of every possibility.

Beginning with Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s 1898 Ballade in A minor, PSO demonstrated an ability to play from refined to lush and with dynamics ranging from rich and powerful to almost imperceptible. London-born Coleridge-Taylor became well-known as a composer from at an early age, drawing the attention of 19th-century compositional powerhouse Sir Edward Elgar. Coleridge-Taylor’s Ballade was premiered through a commission by Elgar, immediately showing the work to be cinematic and attention-getting. Bean and the PSO began the piece in dramatic fashion, with very steady horns coupled with a lean unison string color. Bean allowed the orchestral sound to develop gradually, and the ensemble shifted musical moods well. Equal parts fanfare and simplicity, this one-movement multi-section work was played with characteristic lushness. A duet between clarinetist Andy Cho and bassoonist Brad Balliett showed elegance and precision, with flutist Julietta Curenton and Mary Schmidt adding a fluttering musical icing on the orchestral texture.

Finnish composer Jean Sibelius’ 1904 Violin Concerto in D minor fit right into the opulent late 19th-century concerto tradition, but rather than being an equal partnership between orchestra and soloist, this work was clearly for the soloist. Guest violinist Alexi Kenney was well up to the challenge, leaning into melodic lines and demonstrating physical playing. Throughout his career, Kenney has been active as both soloist and commissioner of new works; his most recent recording is accompanied by a “visual album” pairing music with contemporary sculpture.  more

December 22, 2021

By Nancy Plum

The musical world may still be celebrating the 250th birthday of Ludwig van Beethoven, but no composer has stood the test of time better than Johann Sebastian Bach. The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center has traditionally proven this almost every year in Princeton by presenting a concert of Bach’s joyous 1720 Brandenburg Concertos. The 20-member Chamber Music Society returned to McCarter Theatre Center last week to perform these complex, well-crafted yet accessible works. Thursday night’s performance in McCarter’s Matthews Theatre both dazzled the audience with the players’ technical abilities and created a festive musical mood suitable for the holiday season.  

Bach elevated the Baroque concerto form to new heights with the six works for solo instruments and orchestra compiled and dedicated to the Margrave of Brandenburg. Each concerto featured a different combination of instruments, and the Chamber Music Society was able to augment the variety by showcasing different musicians in each work. The ensemble grouped Bach’s concertos by orchestration, with the rich instrumental palette of Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F Major opening the program. Violinist Daniel Phillips effectively led the ensemble in quick tempi in the opening and closing movements, with oboist Stephen Taylor and bassoonist Marc Goldberg leading the dialogs between the winds and strings. The pair of oboes were well matched in the second movement “adagio,” with the closing dance movements showing graceful dynamic swells among the instruments and especially adroit playing from violinist Arnaud Sussman.

Consistent throughout the six three-movement pieces was a “continuo” ensemble of cello, double bass, and harpsichord. The three cellists of the Chamber Music Society rotated through the concertos, but double bass player Joseph Conyers and harpsichordist Kenneth Weiss unfailingly provided a solid foundation to all six works. Weiss had the opportunity to show the capabilities of the harpsichord in Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D Major, in which the harpsichord doubles as continuo and soloist. The Chamber Music Society began this concerto in a fast and light tempo, with the orchestral color augmented by the addition of flutist Ransom Wilson. Although the harpsichord was hard to hear at times when with the rest of the ensemble, Weiss’ fast runs and nimble playing were clear when the instrument was on its own, especially in the first movement cadenza. Wilson provided a subtle icing to the instrumental sound, maintaining a delicate dialog and precise dynamic swells with violinist Sean Lee. more

December 8, 2021

By Nancy Plum

Princeton University Orchestra presented its winter concerts this past weekend in Richardson Auditorium on the campus of the University. Rather than look toward traditional holiday music heard at this time of year, the Orchestra continued to announce its arrival in the 2021-22 season by performing two challenging and majestic symphonic works, featuring a recent graduate who had a solid musical career while at the University. 

Led by Orchestra conductor Michael Pratt, the concerts Friday night and Sunday afternoon were about courage — in particular from guest soprano soloist Allison Spann, a member of the Princeton class of 2020. Nothing showed her fierceness as a vocal performer more than her choice of David Del Tredici’s Final Alice for the 2019 Princeton University Orchestra Concerto Competition, the winning of which earned her a spot in these concerts. The University Orchestra presented selections from this quirky yet vocally demanding work in this past weekend’s concerts, inviting the audience into what Pratt called the “wacky world of Lewis Carroll set to the equally wacky music of David Del Tredici.” Spann saw this piece, which musically sets the last two chapters of Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, as a source of escape from the past year and a half, and through theatricality and command of the very difficult vocal lines, brought the audience at Richardson Auditorium along with her.

Spann came onstage in character from the outset — looking completely lost and eventually sitting cross-legged on the stage ready to tell the audience a story. Although equally narrated as sung, the selections from Del Tredici’s Final Alice performed took a great deal of voice throughout, asking the soprano soloist to sing in a very high register for extended periods of time and maneuver demanding intervals over a cacophony of orchestral accompaniment. Spann was continually stretched to the top of her vocal range, but was always in command of the difficult music and dynamic demands while simultaneously communicating well with the audience. A particularly expressive moment was an aria sung by Spann accompanied by harpist Leila Hudson.   more

November 24, 2021

By Nancy Plum

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra launched the second of its online fall performances last Wednesday night with a multi-media presentation of 19th-century music. Recorded last May at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and led by NJSO Music Director Xian Zhang, this concert focused on “A Woman’s Voice” in programmatic music, performance, and poetry. Although the Orchestra presented only three works, last Wednesday night’s performance was dense with text and backstories to the music, accompanied by poetry of local writers. Joining the Orchestra was one of opera’s great legends, soprano Renée Fleming.

French composer Georges Bizet’s four-movement suite L’Arlésienne (The Girl from Arles) originated as incidental music to a failed theatrical play.  New Jersey Symphony Orchestra performed the third movement “Adagietto,” scored for strings alone. Under Zhang’s direction, the strings of the Orchestra began the movement introspectively; with a smaller than usual ensemble of strings, the violins reached the heights of phrases well, with an especially lean melody from the first violins. The performance of this piece was preceded by a reading of the poem “Elizabeth, NJ” by New Jersey poet and artist Michelle Moncayo. 

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra introduced Richard Wagner’s romantic Siegfried Idyll with the poem “Convergence” by New Jersey native, poet and educator Jane Wong. Wagner, one of the towering composers of the 19th century, composed the one-movement Idyll as a “Symphonic Birthday Greeting” to his wife at the time. Zhang and the Orchestra began the piece with the same light touch heard in the Bizet work, with more strings and the addition of winds and brass. A solo line from flutist Bart Feller soared above the orchestral palette, complemented by pastoral solo playing from oboist Alexandra Knoll. Clarinetist Pascal Archer also provided expressive solo passages as the strings gracefully maneuvered repeated melodies and rhythmic patterns. A quartet of principal string players presented melodic lines well punctuated by solo horn player Christopher Komer, and conductor Zhang and concertmaster Eric Wyrick added a playful character to the music. Zhang brought the Idyll to a joyous close, aided by rich orchestration and playing of the German trumpets for which Wagner’s music is known.    more