November 17, 2021

By Nancy Plum

Westminster Choir, the flagship choral ensemble of Westminster Choir College of Rider University, returned to live performance this past weekend. Led by conductor Lynnel Joy Jenkins, the 35-voice mixed chorus presented a program centered on “Returning to Joy” in Rider University’s Gill Memorial Chapel on Sunday afternoon. The program of a cappella and lightly accompanied choral works featured music both past and present and took the audience at Gill Chapel from “mourning” through “singing and new song” and “comfort” to “celebration,” capturing the myriad of feelings and atmospheres over the past 18 months. As Jenkins explained, this concert musically depicted “a tumultuous journey of returning to our beloved choral singing after a storm of life.”

Conductor and music educator Lynnel Joy Jenkins has built a successful career on cultivating community in the choral classroom while inspiring artistry. Her local connections range from a Westminster Choir College degree to conducting the Resident Choir of The American Boychoir School to her current position as artistic director of the Westrick Music Academy and conductor of the Princeton Girlchoir Ensemble and Concert Choir. From her worldwide choral clinical experiences, Jenkins has brought to choral programming a multicultural approach well evident in Sunday afternoon’s concert.

Jenkins opened the performance with three choral pieces of grief from three different time periods. The text of 16th-century composer Tomás Luis de Victoria’s “O Vos Omnes” was derived from the biblical book of Lamentations, and Westminster Choir sang Victoria’s a cappella Latin motet with clear harmonies and a well-focused sound. Westminster Choir has been renowned for a number of choral strengths, including solid blend, impeccable tuning, and the ability to produce an endless stream of choral sound, all of which were in evidence throughout this concert.  more

November 10, 2021

By Nancy Plum

Princeton Symphony Orchestra (PSO) presented the second of its live fall 2021 concerts this past Thursday night. Under the direction of Music Director Rossen Milanov, the Symphony performed a program centered on two Viennese masters at McCarter Theatre Center’s Matthews Theatre. Joined by guest piano soloist Shai Wosner, the ensemble performed music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Franz Schubert, as well as a 21st-century piece by American composer Evan Williams.

PSO opened Thursday night’s concert with Williams’ one-movement The Dream Deferred for string orchestra and harp. Williams’ 2017 piece draws attention to the school-to-prison pipeline of individuals whose dreams are deferred by a derailed education and subsequent prison experience. With melodies written by New York area youth incorporated into the music, The Dream Deferred was inspired by the poetry of American author Langston Hughes. 

The symphony began the work with a dark unison from the strings and sharp accented jabs against a dissonant palette. Principal violist Stephanie Griffin played agitated viola passages depicting conflict and harpist André Tarantiles added to the intensity with precision and a percussive effect. The overall musical impression was one of tragic lost lives, contrasted by a melodic duet between the two violin sections. Conductor Milanov led the orchestra well through this accessible piece, effectively conveying the musical question of a provocative social issue in today’s world. 

Israel-born pianist Shai Wosner has been known for pairing classical masterpieces with contemporary works, so it was no surprise to hear Williams’ piece followed by a standard from Mozart’s piano concerto repertory. Mozart composed his 1784 Piano Concerto No. 15 in B-flat Major in a concertante style, with wind solos complementing the solo keyboard playing. The wind sections of PSO spoke well in the McCarter acoustic, with principal oboist Roni Gal-Ed elegantly carrying a great deal of the secondary melodic material of the first movement. Wosner displayed a light touch on the piano from the outset, with crisp unisons in tandem with the orchestra. Wosner kept the ornamental figures clean (especially an extended trill and playful cadenza) and played in a detached style to match the resonance of the hall. more

November 3, 2021

By Nancy Plum

After eighteen months, students at Westminster Choir College of Rider University were able to perform choral music live this past weekend. In a short but certainly welcome concert at Trinity Cathedral in Trenton on Saturday afternoon, the 75-voice Westminster Symphonic Choir performed a single work well representing the profoundness and solemnity of the past year and a half. Although usually directed by James Jordan, the Symphonic Choir concert his past weekend was led by guest conductor James Bagwell and accompanied by the Westminster Festival Chamber Orchestra. 

Composers have been creating works from the Mass for the Dead “Requiem” text for centuries. Settings by such composers as Verdi and Berlioz were full of apocalyptic terror, but the 1947 Requiem for chorus, soloist, orchestra and organ by French composer Maurice Duruflé has served as a musical standard for the opposite — full of forgiveness and comfort. Through this piece, conductor Bagwell led the chorus and chamber-sized orchestra to convey the devastation of this past year and offer peace and resolution for the coming season. Princeton, Duruflé and Trinity Cathedral have come together once before, when in 1972, Duruflé helped prepare the Princeton High School chorus for a performance of his Requiem at the Cathedral, with his wife, Marie-Madeleine as organist. 

Conductor Bagwell began the nine-movement Requiem in a quick-moving tempo, with the Symphonic Choir women singing ethereally as if angels were leading the dead on their journey. Bagwell maintained good control over the cadences, leading the ensemble to the high point of the movement on the text “et lux perpetua luceat eis.” This movement flowed effortlessly into a second movement showing a solid sound from the alto section leading the melodic material. Duruflé based much of the music in this work on Gregorian chant, and organist Clara Gerdes brought out well the chant lines through the registration combinations on Trinity’s four-manual organ.  more

October 27, 2021

By Nancy Plum

This season, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) has been putting its toes into the waters of live performance slowly, presenting concerts in select halls in the state while maintaining an online presence. The Orchestra will be returning live to Princeton after the first of the year, but area audiences were able to enjoy a high-quality digital performance by the Orchestra players last week. Led by Music Director Xian Zhang and joined by superstar violinist Joshua Bell and soprano Larisa Martínez, NJSO launched an online concert of three composer prodigies: Felix Mendelssohn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Henryk Wieniawski.

Violinist Bell was a prodigy himself, debuting with The Philadelphia Orchestra at age 14 and setting concert stages ablaze ever since with virtuosic technique and passionate musical expressionism. Bell and his wife, soprano Larisa Martínez, were a musical power couple during the last 18 months of the pandemic, exploring new arrangements of existing repertoire and creating imaginative digital content. In the NJSO concert, recorded at New Jersey Performing Arts Center in May 2021 and launched last Wednesday night, Bell and Martínez joined the Orchestra for two elegant concert arias by Mendelssohn and Mozart.

Mendelssohn’s concert aria “Ah, ritorna, età dell’oro,” was part of a commission of Mendelssohn from the Philharmonic Society of London and was published after the composer’s death. Composed in the “scena and aria” form popular at the time, Mendelssohn’s work features a soprano conveying the text with violin obbligato. Mendelssohn often composed two melodic paths in the same piece, bringing them together toward the end, and this work was no exception. Against a subtle orchestral accompaniment, Bell began the violin part with grace and sensitivity. Singing from memory, Martínez performed expressively in a clear soprano tone, with an especially light and translucent top register well matched by the violin. The text, beginning with “Return, golden age, to the abandoned earth,” certainly has a connection to these times, and Martínez well captured both the words and Mendelssohn’s refined classical roots.  more

October 13, 2021

By Nancy Plum

After more than a year and a half, Princeton University Orchestra has resumed live performance in Richardson Auditorium, so one would think the musical world has returned to normal — but not quite. More than 100 strong, the University Orchestra performed two concerts this past weekend, but with players in masks (including the winds), no formal intermission, and ushers reminding audience members to keep their masks up and not congregate in the hallways, it was clear that things were slightly different than before the University shut down last spring. It was also evident that multi-page printed programs may be a thing of the past — audiences on Friday and Saturday night could refer to cards listing the program with a QR code to scan for more detailed information.

Some things never change, despite an 18-month “Luftpause” in the Orchestra’s performing life. The Richardson space on Friday night’s first of the Orchestra’s Peter Westergaard Memorial Concerts was full of students eagerly waiting to see their friends onstage and Princeton residents who turned out to hear the full orchestra resonate in the Richardson acoustics. Under the direction of conductors Michael Pratt and Mariana Corichi Gómez, the University Orchestra delivered a performance of both elegant and opulent symphonic music.

To celebrate the return to Richardson, Pratt opened the concert with a violin concerto by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart which brought out the composer’s playful side. The chamber-sized Orchestra was joined in Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3 in G Major by recent Princeton University graduate Hana Mundiya. A member of the class of 2020 who has an incredible number of performance credits for someone her age, Mundiya fit right into the light and refreshing orchestral texture which conductor Pratt elicited from the ensemble. Pairs of flutes and horns added color to the orchestral palette but were not overpowering, with the oboes demonstrating particularly well-tuned thirds throughout the work. Mundiya’s solo violin emerged elegantly from the musical texture in the first movement, with repetitions of phrases stylistically delicate. The ornamental figures in the solo line were clear, and Mundiya effectively took her time in the cadenza closing the first movement.  more

October 6, 2021

By Nancy Plum

After a year of innovative and imaginative outdoor and online programming, Princeton Symphony Orchestra invited audiences back to hear the ensemble in person and indoors this past weekend at McCarter Theatre Center’s Matthews Theatre. Joined by solo violinist Simone Porter, Princeton Symphony, at full strength and led by Music Director Rossen Milanov, performed music of Beethoven and Mendelssohn, as well as a piece by contemporary American composer Jessie Montgomery. 

Orchestras often begin the first concert of the new season with the “Star-Spangled Banner.” In this celebration of restarting indoor concerts with a live audience, Milanov chose to open Sunday afternoon’s performance with a contemporary setting of this country’s national anthem — one which represents the wide diversity of populations within this nation with musical inspirations drawn from a variety of American sources. 

New York native Jessie Montgomery is one of this country’s most prominent up-and-coming composers and one with strong local connections. Currently a graduate fellow in music composition at Princeton University, she has been commissioned extensively by musical organizations nationwide. Montgomery’s 2014 Banner was commissioned to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the American national anthem “The Star-Spangled Banner.”  In this piece, Montgomery created a rhapsody on the anthem, designed to capture what Montgomery describes as the “contradictions, leaps and bounds, and milestones that allow us to celebrate and maintain the tradition of our ideals.” 

Princeton Symphony Orchestra began Montgomery’s work with shimmering in the violins, contrasted with fragments of the familiar national anthem melody from other instruments. The violins were lean, and the lower winds well-blended, and the ensemble played cleanly in the acoustic of Matthews Theatre. A string quintet within the orchestra, comprised of the principal players of each string section, conveyed melodic material well, and an understated brass color was provided in some passages by hornist Jonathan Clark.  more

September 22, 2021

By Nancy Plum

For the second consecutive year, Princeton Symphony Orchestra began its concert season outdoors. With indoor halls in the area limited or closed to large audiences, the Orchestra presented its opening concert of the 2021-22 season at Princeton’s Morven Museum and Garden Pool House, featuring the Philadelphia-based Jasper String Quartet performing three chamber works to an outdoor audience. Violinists J Freivogel and Karen Kim, violist Andrew Gonzalez, and cellist Rachel Henderson Freivogel played a program of Florence Price and Maurice Ravel, as well as a work by a unique composer fusing classical and indigenous American music.  

The chamber music of early 20th-century American composer Florence Price has been popular in this past year of outdoor-only concerts, and the Jasper Quartet opened last Thursday night’s performance with Price’s String Quartet in G Major. Playing from a gazebo to an audience seated on Morven’s back lawn, the Jasper musicians were able to bring out the quirkiness of Price’s harmonic language as well as the rich melodies which mark this composer’s works. The Quartet played melodic themes with consistent forward motion, with teasing trills from the violins and an ensemble sound which became richer as the music progressed. The second movement’s free and open theme reflected Price’s extensive repertory of songs, contrasted by a fast-moving and playful section. Cellist Henderson Freivogel provided a particularly solid foundation to close the work under violist Gonzalez’s rich viola playing and the nimble fingering of the two violinists.  

Composer Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate is a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma and maintains a string commitment to the nurturing and development of American Indian classical composition. Frequently commissioned by musical organizations nationwide, Tate is particularly known for infusing classical music with American Indian nationalism. Tate’s chamber work Pisachi, Six Epitomes for String Quartet, was commissioned in 2013 by the avant-garde string quartet ETHEL, and was conceived as part of a multi-media presentation. Pisachi, whose title is the Chickasaw word for “reveal,” draws from Hopi and Pueblo Indian musical rhythms and forms for its musical language.  

The Jasper String Quartet players began Pisachi with an almost imperceptible violin, as a subtle viola solo barely won out in an auditory competition with an overhead airplane. Violinist Freivogel provided a very high violin part against the rumbling accompaniment of the other players, and the quartet opened the six “epitomes” with a consistently straight tone, emphasizing dynamic contrasts and effects. In the second movement, the Quartet played quick and agitated unison passages with dynamic intensity, suggesting horses galloping across a Western backdrop. Violist Gonzalez provided intricate double stops to the third movement and was also featured in the closing “epitome,” leading the ensemble through musical effects including undulating cello and viola passages which supported very delicate upper strings.   more

July 28, 2021

By Nancy Plum

Princeton University Summer Chamber Concerts presented the second of its digital series last week with a livestream performance of the New York City-based Horszowski Trio. In a concert broadcast from the Hillman Performance Hall on the campus of Westminster Conservatory last Monday night, violinist Jesse Mills, cellist Ole Akahoshi, and pianist Rieko Aizawa presented a program of 19th- and 20th-century chamber music.

Named after the pre-eminent 20th-century Polish American pianist Mieczysław Horszowski, the Horszowski Trio draws its inspiration from the pianist and pedagogue who lived to be nearly 101 and had one of the longest careers in performing arts history. Ensemble pianist Aizawa was Horszowski’s last student at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, creating a link to a golden age of piano performance stretching back more than a century. Also committed to contemporary music, the Trio has made significant inroads into the international chamber music arena in its 10-year history. more

July 7, 2021

By Nancy Plum

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra concluded its “Emerge” digital concert film series last week with a presentation of two towering orchestral works. Recorded in Prudential Hall at Newark’s New Jersey Performing Arts Center in March of this year, this final installment of the trilogy featured Russian pianist and composer Daniil Trifonov and trumpeter Anderson Romero performing Dmitri Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto #1, also known as Concerto in C Minor for Piano, Trumpet and String Orchestra. Led by JNSO Music Director Xian Zhang, last Wednesday night’s performance also included Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4, played by a reduced but no less effective roster of the Orchestra. The online concert was accompanied by visual images focusing on nature and wildlife, filmed throughout New Jersey in communities ranging from Newark to Cape May.

Shostakovich’s 1933 Concerto for piano, trumpet and string orchestra was an homage to the Baroque era through its use of two solo instruments against the accompanying ensemble. Unlike Shostakovich’s more somber and programmatic symphonic works, the Concerto has a lighter and more humorous feeling, diverging from the Russian Romantic compositional tradition of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff.

The soloists for NJSO’s performance of the Concerto were no strangers to New Jersey audiences; pianist Daniil Trifonov has performed in Princeton in recent seasons, and Anderson Romero is NJSO’s assistant principal trumpet. In Wednesday’s performance, Trifonov showed very quick hands on the keyboard, emphasizing well the percussive and slightly quirky nature of the Concerto. Trifonov and conductor Zhang were symbiotic in bending the tempi of the music, finding lyricism even in the more forceful passages. In the expressive sections of the first movement “Allegro,” Trifonov played with his hands lingering on the keys as much as possible, at times demonstrating a very light left hand. Playing from within the orchestral ensemble, Romero provided a joyful and martial trumpet solo throughout the first movement.  more

June 23, 2021

By Nancy Plum

Princeton Festival closed its 2021 season this past Sunday night with an “Opera by Twilight” live concert at Morven Museum and Garden. For this final concert, also livestreamed to listeners at home, the Festival presented a quartet of singers performing selections from opera, operetta and musical theater. Soprano Alexandra Batsios, mezzo-soprano Krysty Swann, tenor Michael Kuhn, and baritone Stephen Gaertner, accompanied by pianist Julia Pen Ying Hanna, brought vast collective experience to a stage outside Morven’s Stockton Education Center and entertained the “podded” audience with arias and duets from both well-known and rarely-heard works.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s operas are among the repertory’s most accessible, with melodic arias and appealing characters. Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio dates from the height of the composer’s operatic career, with the Act II defiance aria “Matern aller Arten” being a challenge for the soprano voice. Mozart seemed to like to torture sopranos in particular with large melodic skips and vocal lines racing up and down scales, but soprano Batsios, who opened the Festival concert with this bear of an aria, had no trouble with its technical difficulties. She had a second chance later in the concert to further demonstrate her command of coloratura singing in an aria from Mozart’s 1791 Singspiel The Magic Flute. “O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn” is the first aria performed by the Queen of the Night as she announces her power. Batsios well conveyed the grief of the opening recitative section, then expertly launched into running passages reaching up to “F” above high “C.” Batsios was joined in the third Mozart selection, a duet from the comedic Così fan tutte between the wealthy Fiordiligi and Ferrando (engaged to Fiordiligi’s sister) by tenor Michael Kuhn. “Fra gli amplessi” conveys the two characters proclaiming their mistaken love for each other, and Batsios and Kuhn blended their voices together well with clean intervals and the tenderness inherent in the music. Both singers demonstrated solid high registers, and Batsios in particular showed her ability to camp out on high notes for extended periods of time.  more

June 16, 2021

By Nancy Plum

Princeton Festival moved its season outdoors and in-person this past week with two concerts by the Princeton Festival Baroque Orchestra. The first concert, last Tuesday night, was not as live as the audience might have liked — with thunderstorms throughout the area, the five members of the Festival Baroque Orchestra relocated themselves to the Stockton Education Center at the Morven Museum and Garden, while the audience listened via livestream. The second concert on Thursday night was held outdoors (with a livestream option), with the players inside the Education Center and an audience in pods on the lawn. The two concerts, subtitled “Sacred and Profane,” created a comprehensive survey of European music and forms of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Tuesday night’s performance featured eight pieces divided into two groups — “sacred music in content” and “sacred music in context.” Violinists Chiara Fasani Stauffer and Manami Mizumoto (who also doubled on viola), cellist Morgan Little, and harpsichordist Caitlyn Koester were joined by Joshua Stauffer playing “plucked instruments,” which both nights featured the 17th-century theorbo. The four “sacred music in content” pieces were mostly from early 17th-century Italy. Three chamber works were played with quick and energetic spirit by the Festival Orchestra, with both violinists effectively conveying melodic material. A rarely-heard Trio Sonata in F Major by the under-rated but nonetheless influential German composer Johann Casper Kerll flowed well, as Stauffer and Mizumoto maintained a graceful violin conversation against steady continuo playing of the other three instruments.  more

June 9, 2021

By Nancy Plum

The Princeton Festival opened its 2021 season this past week with a series of events including a virtual performance by the Concordia Chamber Players — an ensemble which has traditionally kicked off the Festival each year with a live performance. This season, the Concordia musicians presented a video stream last Friday night of performances recorded in early May in various locations around Sand City, California. The four members of Concordia Chamber Players — violinists Tien-Hsin Cindy Wu and Alexi Kenney, violist Jonathan Moerschel, and cellist (and artistic director) Michelle Djokic — performed works from the late 19th through the 21st centuries, introducing the concert with quotes from singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone on the artist’s role in social responsibility.

Jessie Montgomery, currently a graduate fellow in music composition at Princeton University, is rapidly becoming one of this country’s most performed composers. Montgomery’s 2013 Source Code for string quartet fuses transcriptions of various sources from African American artists prominent during the civil rights era, with Montgomery re-interpreting the musical material in a contemporary way. Montgomery is known for capturing the sounds of our times in her music, and Source Code was no exception as played by the Concordia Chamber Players. Beginning with a concentrated unison from the four musicians, the one-movement work showed shades of 20th-century jazz, with particularly effective melodic playing from Kenney and Djokic. Montgomery’s piece was intensely continuous, with drone-like lines often heard from the lower strings and Djokic providing a percussive rhythm from the cello.

Although born in Switzerland, Arthur Honegger was considered one of the legendary “Les Six” French composers of the early 20thcentury. His 1932 Sonatine for Violin and Cello, possibly inspired by the birth of the composer’s child, was rooted in the 18th-century musical style of J.S. Bach. The three-movement work was premiered by Honegger himself on the violin and fellow “Les Six” composer Darius Milhaud playing cello. more

May 12, 2021

By Nancy Plum

This month and next, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra is presenting an online concert film trilogy featuring recorded instrumental performances accompanied by visual meditations and dance sequences. Directed by New Jersey native filmmaker Yuri Alves and produced by DreamPlay Films, the three-episode Emerge features NJSO conductor Xian Zhang leading the Orchestra in performances recorded live in the Orchestra’s home base New Jersey Performing Arts Center in February and March, 2021. Most significant about the first episode of this series, launched Wednesday, April 28, was the return of brass and winds to the previously socially-distanced ensemble.

The first concert in the Emerge series presented three orchestral works, including an East Coast premiere, as well as a world-renowned pianist. Johann Sebastian Bach’s 18th-century keyboard Concerto in F Minor was one of seven complete concertos the composer wrote for harpsichord, and like many of Bach’s keyboard concertos, was a reworking of pre-existing music from compositions for other instruments. Featured in the NJSO performance was American pianist Simone Dinnerstein playing the three-movement work on piano.

Visually accompanied by street scenes of Newark, Dinnerstein brought out well the delicate ornamentation of Bach’s music. Conductor Zhang kept the chamber-sized string ensemble subtle, and both Orchestra and soloist executed graceful repetitions of phrases. The plucked accompaniment of the second movement “Largo” showed the music’s connection to the lute repertory, as Dinnerstein led the melodic material expressively. The third movement “Presto” clearly showed the work’s roots in Bach’s violin music, as Dinnerstein demonstrated a particularly light left hand racing lithely through quick-moving sequences and melodic passages.  more

May 5, 2021

By Nancy Plum

Princeton Symphony Orchestra launched its penultimate online concert collaboration with South Africa’s Buskaid Soweto String Ensemble this past Friday with a virtual program of music for strings, harp, and solo voices. In a performance entitled “Curious Creatures and a Heavenly Harp,” the Soweto string orchestra, led by conductor Rosemary Nalden, performed music featuring both their own soloists and a well-known South African harpist. 

Seventeenth-century Italian composer Carlo Farina studied with some of the Baroque era’s leading composers. Considered one of the earliest violin virtuosos, Farina contributed significantly to violin pedagogy, especially through such works as the 1627 Capriccio Stravagante. This multi-section work called upon violins, violas, and cellos to mimic other instruments, as well as animals. These types of humorous works were not uncommon in the 17th century, and the Buskaid ensemble approached Farina’s piece with a refreshing playing style and easily finding the humor. In a rebroadcast from a 2018 concert, the musicians played triple meter sections especially gracefully, and the musical imitations of chickens clucking and cats yowling were particularly effective. 

French composer Claude Debussy came to the musical forefront as France was emerging from the 19th-century dominant Austro-German school. French composers of this era drew from art and their own language to infuse music with a wide range of instrumental colors, sinuous harmonies, and phrasing that mimicked the cadences of the native tongue. Debussy’s 1904 Danse sacrée et danse profane for solo harp and strings was commissioned by a French harp-building firm to showcase a newly-designed instrument. The sacrée portion of this work reflected ancient religious beliefs, with the second half of the piece inspired by the improvisatory style of Spanish dances. Featured in this performance by the Buskaid ensemble was harpist Jude Harpstar, whose performing career has crossed genres ranging from classical to pop. In a rebroadcast from a 2016 performance, Harpstar played with elegance, even when the music called for sharp and decisive harp passages. Conductor Nalden consistently maintained a subtle string accompaniment, with the second section of the piece particularly evoking spring in Paris. As with all of these expertly-recorded concerts, one could easily see the supple fingering of the soloist on the harp, as well as Harpstar’s expressive playing.  more

March 31, 2021

By Nancy Plum

Operas have been presented in unusual formats over the past year as companies think far outside the opera house, ranging from Zoomed recitals to a presentation of Wagner in a parking garage. Princeton University’s Department of Music joined the inventive performance arena this past month, with a virtual opera performance of 17th-century Italian composer Francesco Cavalli’s La Calisto. Most academic years in January, students in the Department of Music fall course on opera performance have presented the fruits of their labor in a public performance at Richardson Auditorium. Princeton University operated remotely the first half of this academic year, but the students enrolled in the fall 2020 virtual class refused to be cheated out of their public performance. With the combination of a conductor, director, videographer, dramaturg, and its own collective imagination, the class created a virtual three-act opera production presented by the Department of Music over three Saturdays this past month.  

The University production of La Calisto began its technological path as University Orchestra conductor Michael Pratt and voice faculty member Martha Elliott recorded the opera’s harpsichord accompaniment on piano. The videotape was then sent to harpsichordist Joyce Chen, who rerecorded the music on harpsichord to Pratt’s conducting. With the cast isolated all over the country, the University sent each singer state-of-the-art recording equipment and software to record their solo parts to Chen’s accompaniment. Students were allowed to submit as many “takes” as they wanted. The opera’s extensive recitatives were replaced with narration written by dramaturg (and Music Department chair) Wendy Heller and opera director Christopher Mattaliano and delivered throughout the opera by the cast members themselves.  

The University Department of Music presented the three-act production act by act beginning in early March, with Act I launched March 6, Act II March 13, and Act III on March 20.  The final broadcast reflected 17 singers and instrumentalists from the University student body using the spaces of their own homes, combined with the best technology the 21st century has to offer, to recreate a story from mythology set to music of the 17th century.   more

March 24, 2021

By Nancy Plum

One of the last musical events to take place in Princeton last March before the coronavirus shutdown was a performance by the Dryden Ensemble of Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. John Passion. The Baroque specialty orchestra had planned to present Bach’s monumental choral/orchestral work at Princeton’s All Saints’ Church on Saturday, March 14, 2020 to celebrate the organization’s 25thanniversary. With a state shutdown called for that day, the organization hurriedly turned its dress rehearsal the night before into an open performance to a limited audience. For those who missed the concert, the Dryden honored what would have been Bach’s 336th birthday this past Sunday with an online broadcast of the performance from last March. Conducted by Scott Metcalfe, musical and artistic director of the Boston-based vocal ensemble Blue Heron, this performance featured eight vocal soloists and an orchestra of 20 period instrumentalists to present a concert just as relevant and worthwhile now as it was a year ago.

Presenting the Passion narrative from the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John during Holy Week had been a liturgical tradition for centuries by the Baroque era. Initially read in church, the Biblical narrative was subsequently chanted and eventually set polyphonically as choral music evolved. By the 18thcentury, Passion settings were elaborate works with instruments and choruses, with vocal soloists taking on character parts. Bach may have composed as many as five Passion settings, with only two surviving in performable form. At the time Bach composed this work, he was in the early years of his position as cantor to four major Lutheran churches in Leipzig. It is hard to believe in these days of Bach reverence that he was somewhat down the list of choices for this position — following his hiring, one of the local council members complained that they would now have to “make do with mediocrity.”  Bach composed the multi-movement piece to be performed in two parts, separated by the Good Friday sermon.

Bach’s setting of the Passion as described in the Gospel of John is interspersed with commentary on the story in the form of arias or Lutheran chorales setting religious poems and other texts written specifically for this piece. Major choruses bookend the series of arias, recitatives, and chorales, with the drama conveyed by an Evangelist, Jesus, and Pilate. Two sopranos, two altos, and one tenor fill out the storyline, which begins at the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday and ends at the tomb provided by Joseph of Arimathea. In this performance, presented in German with English subtitles, the Ensemble recreated the piece with just eight singers handling all of the vocal material, bringing together an octet well-experienced in 18th-century performance practice. Leading the cast as the Evangelist was tenor Jason McStoots, who has a long history of specializing in Baroque opera. William Sharp, singing the role of Jesus, is no stranger to opera and choral works on Princeton stages; and baritone Brian Ming Chu, singing the role of Pilate, has made his professional career in the Philadelphia area. Although these three singers carried much of the dramatic action, the other five vocalists were no less busy.   more

March 10, 2021

By Nancy Plum

Princeton Symphony Orchestra returned to its virtual classical concert series this past weekend with a performance highlighting music of the Italian masters for strings. Sunday afternoon’s program also featured Russian harpist Alexander Boldachev, who was scheduled to perform live in Princeton this season, in works of Bedrïch Smetana and Astor Piazzolla, as well as two of his own compositions.

Ottorino Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances was a set of three orchestral suites from the early 20th-century Italian composer, inspired by lute and guitar music of the 16th through 18th centuries. In a concert recorded last fall in Princeton’s Morven Museum and Garden, Princeton Symphony performed the third of these suites, which was comprised of four baroque musical dances and which was unusual in its scoring for strings alone. 

Led by Princeton Symphony Orchestra Music Director Rossen Milanov, the strings of the Orchestra began the opening dance of “Suite III” gracefully. The upper strings maintained a great deal of forward motion to the melodic lines, accompanied by delicate pizzicato playing from the lower strings. Throughout the “Suite,” one could easily hear the plucking of a 17th-century lute. The strings well handled the complex shifting of styles in the second movement “Aire di Corte,” well capturing a rustic dance atmosphere. An elegant lilt marked the third movement “Siciliana,” and the Orchestra closed the stylish work with a rich orchestral texture similar to a Baroque organ.   more

March 3, 2021

By Nancy Plum

Princeton Symphony Orchestra continued its musical partnership with the Buskaid Soweto String Ensemble of South Africa this past week with a concert entitled Soulful and Scintillating Solos, launched Friday and running through the weekend. The Buskaid concert included works of classical composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ernest Bloch, and Camille Saint-Saëns, along with American popular music and traditional South African selections. As with the first Soweto String Ensemble broadcast earlier this winter, the performance featured members of the Ensemble as instrumental and vocal soloists.

It is difficult to imagine that one of Mozart’s most iconic chamber works was composed as “background” music to an 18th-century social event, but that may well be the case with the popular Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Composed in 1787, this four-movement work was likely intended by the composer as a notturno, a chamber piece played late at night at a social gathering. Mozart appears to have given the piece its famous subtitle to differentiate it from a serenade, played earlier in the evening. Regardless of the work’s genesis, the musical themes of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik have remained among Mozart’s most recognizable.

Led by conductor Rosemary Nalden and playing from memory, the string players of the Buskaid Soweto String Ensemble played the first movement of Mozart’s Nachtmusik crisply and decisively, leaning into appoggiaturas and demonstrating graceful dynamic swells. Nalden provided effectively supple conducting gestures when required, and the players communicated well among themselves, showing that they had been playing together for a long time. This performance was taken from a 2019 archive, recorded (as were all the works on this program) in the Linder Auditorium of the Wits Education Campus in Johannesburg, South Africa.   more

February 10, 2021

By Nancy Plum

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra celebrated the Year of the Ox last week by launching six days of performances and demonstrations leading up to a virtual concert on Saturday night. Led by NJSO Music Director Xian Zhang, Saturday’s concert premiere featured members of the Orchestra as well as guest artists performing both classical works and traditional Chinese songs.

Saturday night’s event was preceded by five days of short performances and demonstrations of Lunar New Year-related activities. Highlights of this series including NJSO violinist Ming Yang and her daughter Jade Lucia Nieczkowski performing an elegant arrangement of “Fisherman’s Song at Eventide” and New Jersey middle school student Harmony Zhu playing a fiery interpretation of Frédéric Chopin’s Ballade No. 4 in F Minor. Audiences tuning into this series cold also learn how to cook Tteokguk — a traditional Korean New Year’s soup made with sliced rice cakes taught by NJSO principal bassist Ha-Young Jung — as well as a variety of wontons, demonstrated by violinist Xin Zhao.  

More than a year in the making, Saturday night’s concert was the third annual NJSO Lunar New Year celebration. Music Director Zhang and the Symphony have used this event over the past few years to collaborate with other artists and community organizations, attracting new audiences in the process. Expanding into a week-long celebration was a new innovation this year, and several of the artists who participated in demonstrations during the week were part of Saturday night’s performance. more

February 3, 2021

By Nancy Plum

Since the weather has turned cold, it has become difficult for music ensembles to comfortably record concerts, yet audiences are hungry for performances. Princeton Symphony Orchestra found a way to brighten up the winter by partnering with South Africa’s Buskaid Soweto String Ensemble, which offers high-quality string teaching to underprivileged youth in the township of Soweto outside of Johannesburg. Princeton Symphony launched the first of its virtual five-concert on-demand series featuring the Buskaid String Ensemble this past weekend, presenting a wide range of classical and South African music. 

Buskaid: A Musical Miracle–Brilliant Baroque to Cool Kwela! was curated by Buskaid’s founder and music director Rosemary Nalden. This past weekend’s concert, launched Friday through Sunday, was comprised of Buskaid archival concert material filmed from 2014 to 2019 in the Linder Auditorium of the Wits Education Center in Johannesburg. In these performances, up to 35 string and percussion players, together with vocalists and led by conductor Nalden, presented works of the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as pieces from South Africa’s rich musical tradition. 

The Buskaid String Ensemble programmed this concert chronologically, beginning with several works by early 18th-century French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau. The Ensemble’s performance of Rameau’s “Overture” to the composer’s opera Naïs and two dance movements from the opera Dardanus immediately showed the versatility and skill of the musicians through effective dynamic contrasts, musical lines always moving forward and crisp playing from the lower strings. These three works contained a great deal of repetition in notes and phrasing, which the ensemble played with variety and attention to detail. In a nod to the String Ensemble’s South African roots, the “Overture” to Naïs was accompanied by a djembe — an African goblet drum played with bare hands which certainly would not have been part of Rameau’s original concept, but which added rhythmic snap to the performance. more

December 23, 2020

By Nancy Plum

With the cancellation of its principal mainstage production of Verdi’s Rigoletto last spring, Boheme Opera NJ turned this fall to a season of four online concerts showcasing the company’s roster of singers. The Path from Opera to Broadway, launched in November, featured selections from Bizet’s Carmen and Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio, as well as excerpts from lighter opera and musical theater. A Night in Vienna, presented December 2, took Boheme Opera’s online audience on a voyage to Vienna, with the music of Johann Strauss, Sigmund Romberg, Rudolf Friml, and Kurt Weill. With singers performing from their homes in many cases, Boheme Opera NJ compiled comprehensive surveys of opera and musical theater, narrated by the company’s president and series co-creator Jerrold Kalstein.  

December 9’s Unique Broadway broadcast explored composers and shows which were ground-breaking in their time, including composers and works out of the American musical theater mainstream or introducing unusual themes. Central to this survey was the music of American composer Leonard Bernstein, whom Boheme Opera NJ featured with a presentation of several clips from the company’s 2018 Bernstein Centennial performance. This concert, which took place in the College of New Jersey’s Kendall Theater and conducted by Boheme Opera music director Joseph Pucciatti, drew extensively from Bernstein’s opera Trouble in Tahiti. Leading these excerpts vocally was mezzo-soprano Amy Maude Helfer, who consistently maintained a saucy attitude onstage and good control over a disjunct vocal line. Other standouts from this concert were tenor Errin Brooks, one of the young talents encouraged by Boheme Opera NJ over the years, and baritone Joseph Lodato, who sang a selection from Les Miserables. This musical was produced at a time when the lines between opera and musical theater began to become blurred, and Lodato’s voice was well-suited for Inspector Javert’s signature song, “Stars.”   more

November 25, 2020

By Nancy Plum

Since March, orchestras nationwide have been developing online concert series often presenting well-known works recorded either live or from archives. New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO), in its first online video concert broadcast of NJSO Virtual 20-21, marked this unusual year by performing a piece commissioned specifically to capture an unprecedented time period which certainly became more tumultuous during the course of the piece’s composition. 

NJSO commissioned Haitian-American composer Daniel Bernard Roumain to write a work which, in the words of the composer, was created “during a series of overlapping crises in our lives: a pandemic, a global fight for social justice, the effects and awareness of climate change, an array of economic collapses, and the tyranny of an electoral process under siege by a president and his party.”

NJSO Music Director Xian Zhang combined Roumain’s music with that of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, American composer Michael Abels, and symphonic titan Gustav Mahler to create a virtual experience blending musical nobility and joy, in a concert recorded at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in October and launched online last Thursday night.  more

November 18, 2020

By Nancy Plum

Princeton Symphony Orchestra presented the sixth and final concert in its fall “indoor/outdoor” classical season this past Sunday afternoon by digitally launching a virtual performance led by the ensemble’s Assistant Conductor Nell Flanders. Flanders, recently named to this position with the Symphony, led members of the Symphony’s string sections in a performance also featuring noted violinist Elina Vähälä. With the orchestral portions filmed at Princeton’s Morven Education Center and Vähälä’s Bach solo recorded at the Church of St. Olaf in the southern Finnish town of Sysmä, Flanders and the 11 string players of the Symphony presented a concert which was a tribute to both the Baroque era and early 20th-century America.  

Born in America’s Deep South at the turn of the 20th century, composer Florence Price emerged from the violent racial atmosphere of the time to become a musical pioneer whose music has only recently begun to receive much-deserved attention. Much of Price’s repertory was lost after her death, but was rediscovered in an attic of an abandoned house in rural Illinois. Price composed her 1929 String Quartet only as a two-movement work, and it is thought that this piece was not heard between Price’s death in 1953 and a performance in 2015. In Sunday afternoon’s concert, Princeton Symphony presented the second movement andante moderato, rooted in the vocal spiritual tradition.

The string players of Princeton Symphony began Price’s String Quartet movement with a lush melody they could really sink their musical teeth into, as Flanders conducted with broad strokes without a baton to emphasize the richness of the melodic material. This was the kind of music in which the players could load up on vibrato, however the ensemble resisted this temptation and played with a lean yet rich sound, especially in a viola sectional solo from Stephanie Griffin and Emily Muller. Flanders milked the movement’s rubatos well, and although this work was composed in a turbulent time period, the broad melodic passages were full of hope and opportunity.  

Violinist Elina Vähälä was born in the United States, raised in Finland, and has appeared with orchestras worldwide while maintaining a strong commitment to music education in Finland. The Viuluakatemia Ry violin academy, which she founded in 2009 in Finland, serves as a master class-based educational initiative for talented young Finnish violinists. Vähälä was supposed to have appeared with Princeton Symphony this season in a performance of Jean Sibelius’ Violin Concerto, but instead presented a pre-recorded performance from a small church in the lake region of Finland. For this performance, Vähälä chose one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s most well-known works for unaccompanied violin, but one which included some of the most intricate music the composer wrote. Bach’s Partita for Violin #2 in D minor, BWV 1004 was structured in a five-movement dance format common in Bach’s time. The concluding chaconne is a four-bar melodic ground bass repeated 64 times over which the upper strings spin a continuous series of variations in a close to 15-minute movement.   more

October 21, 2020

By Nancy Plum

Princeton University Concerts opened its 127th season last Thursday night with an old musical friend presenting a free live digital performance launched over YouTube. The Takács Quartet, which has appeared on the PU Concerts series 20 times in the past, broadcast a live performance from Chautauqua Auditorium on the campus of the University of Colorado, Boulder, where the string quartet is based. In Thursday night’s program, violinists Edward Dusinberre and Harumi Rhodes, violist Richard O’Neill, and cellist András Fejér presented an unusual concert spanning 250 years and including individual movements of some of the ensemble’s favorite works.

The Takács Quartet began the concert with the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, whose string quartets are popular staples of chamber repertory. Mozart’s 1783 String Quartet No. 15 in D minor showed a strong influence of the composer’s mentor, Franz Josef Haydn, while allowing the four instrumentalists to explore their own musical personalities. The second of six string quartets Mozart dedicated to Haydn, this work moved away from Mozart’s chipper major keys to the key of D minor — a harmonic center Mozart reserved for such dark and ominous drama as Don Giovanni and the deathbed Requiem. The Takács players, performing the opening “allegro moderato,” began with a fierce dark character, as cellist Fejér led the ensemble through the opening passages. O’Neill’s viola playing spoke well in the all-wood Chautauqua Auditorium and the Quartet built musical intensity uniformly with dynamic swells well executed throughout the movement.

Like Mozart, the late 19th-century English composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor died prematurely in his mid-30s but was also prolific as a young composer. While a student at the Royal College of Music, Coleridge-Taylor composed five “character pieces” for string quartet — unusual in that most repertoire for the genre is comprised of larger works. Five Fantasiestücke for String Quartet showed the influence of the Romantic Robert Schumann, with a folk element also heard in the music of Dvorák and Bartók.   more

October 14, 2020

By Nancy Plum

Princeton Symphony Orchestra has found a way to make live music happen — on the grounds of Princeton’s Moven Museum and Garden. For the second time this fall, a small ensemble from the Symphony presented a concert from the porch of the Moven pool house, with an audience spaced out in 50 or so “pods” on the lawn as part of a “Chamber Music in the Garden” series. 

Despite a definite chill in the air last Thursday afternoon (and its effect on the wind instruments), the five principal wind players of Princeton Symphony were clearly delighted to be back in the performing arena — their first live performance in six months. As flutist Yevgeny Faniuk, oboist Lillian Copeland, clarinetist Pascal Archer, bassoonist Charlie Bailey and hornist Jonathan Clark played the hour-long program, Princeton Symphony made concertgoers comfortable on the grass with offers of blankets and plenty of room to see the concert.

Chamber ensembles of strings or brass bring together instruments with similar sound palettes, but a quintet of winds offers a wide variety of orchestral colors and ranges. Jacques Ibert, composing in Paris in the first half of the 20th century, wrote a number of short works for theatrical productions which often used for wind quintets because of space limitations. In 1930, Ibert pulled together three of these incidental pieces to create Trois pièces brèves, a concert triptych for wind quintet. The musicians of Princeton Symphony presented these three pieces as crisp music to match the fall air, with a uniformly chipper sound and clean melodies passed among the instruments. The five players demonstrated rhythmic precision, but that did not stop them from also exhibiting their own individual joie de vivre at being back on a concert stage.   more