October 7, 2020

By Nancy Plum

For the fall portion of its 2020-2021 season, Princeton Symphony Orchestra has designed a hybrid concert schedule of virtual and live performances. The first live concert, featuring a small ensemble of brass players, took place the last week of September at Princeton’s Morven Museum and Garden. 

PSO presented its opening virtual performance this past Sunday at the ensemble’s usual concert time of 4 p.m., but instead of listening raptly in Princeton University’s Richardson Auditorium, this event’s “concertgoers” were at home gathered around desktop computers, laptops, iPads and iPhones in the Symphony’s first presentation of a “Virtual Concerts: Your Orchestra, Your Home” series. Princeton Symphony Orchestra Music Director Rossen Milanov has programmed three virtual concerts for October and November, mixing classical standards with works by contemporary composers.  

Sunday afternoon’s concert, featuring 11 string players led by Milanov, was recorded earlier this fall at Morven Museum, with instrumentalists well-spaced out in a wood-paneled room which Milanov called a “perfect” venue for these difficult performing times. Following introductory remarks by Milanov and Princeton Symphony Executive Director Marc Uys, the broadcast began with George Walker’s Lyric for Strings

American composer George Walker was a pioneer of African American musical performance in this country. The first African American graduate of the Curtis Institute, doctoral recipient from Eastman School of Music, and Pulitzer Prize winner for music, among other accolades, Walker composed a repertory of more than 90 works for orchestra, piano, strings, voice, organ, clarinet, guitar, brass, woodwinds, and chorus. He composed the one-movement Lyric for Strings at age 24, before he had achieved a number of these “firsts,” and this work has endured well over the decades. more

July 29, 2020

By Nancy Plum

Although unable to appear live in Princeton this summer as part of Princeton University Summer Chamber Concerts, Manhattan Chamber Players did not want to miss out on Beethoven’s 250th anniversary, and made the most of technology by presenting an online performance last Wednesday night in a continuation of  the Chamber Concerts “Chamber Music Wednesdays” series. 

A collective of 22 New York-based musicians, Manhattan Chamber Players performs in a variety of flexible combinations — in Wednesday night’s performance, as a string trio. A true family string ensemble, violist Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt; her husband, cellist Brook Speltz; and his brother, violinist Brendan Speltz, presented Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Trio in G Major, Opus 9, No. 1, recorded during the current pandemic in a private home in Philadelphia. In an online performance introduced by the ensemble’s Artistic Director Luke Fleming, van de Stadt and the Speltz brothers presented a clean and unified performance of this work, showing why Beethoven’s string trios can easily stand up against his more substantial and more well-known string quartets.

Beethoven arrived in Vienna in 1792 to study with Franz Josef Haydn, quickly embracing the courtly Viennese chamber music style of Haydn and wunderkind Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. String Quartet in G Major was the first of three string trios comprising Beethoven’s Opus 9, composed between 1797 and 1798. String Trio No. 1 showed the clear influence of Mozart’s 1788 Divertimento in E-flat Major, a sizeable work considered the first piece in the string trio genre by any composer, but also demonstrated Beethoven’s forward-thinking Romantic musical ideas.   more

July 22, 2020

By Nancy Plum

Princeton Summer Chamber Concerts continued its series of “Chamber Music Wednesdays” this past week with a performance shared by the Argus and Craft string quartets of a notable chamber work by an underrated woman composer.

Based in New York City, the Argus Quartet is dedicated to encouraging the joys of human connection, community, and discovery by bringing wide-ranging repertoire to life. Since its founding in 2013, the ensemble has collaborated with a number of contemporary composers and has earned a number of awards and commissions nationwide. The Boston-based Craft Quartet has made its reputation pairing undiscovered works from the past with masterpieces from our time. In this era of focus on music of women composers, it was fitting that these two chambers shared performance responsibilities in presenting a work of the early 19th-century composer Fanny Mendelssohn, whose works were often overshadowed by those of her more renowned brother Felix. 

Fanny Mendelssohn composed an astounding amount of music in her short life of 42 years (she died of a stroke less than six months before Felix died in a similar manner). Her repertory numbers more than 450 pieces, including 250 lieder — a popular genre of the early 19th century and one in which Fanny’s works were often attributed to her brother. The battle to be a woman composer at this time was such that Fanny’s father wrote to her that while music may be the profession of her brother, for Fanny, it “can and must be only an ornament.” Fanny and Felix shared not the sibling rivalry usually found in families but a sibling artistry — influencing each other’s works and supporting each other’s careers. The truly extensive repertory of this lesser-known composer has been coming more to light in recent decades, and Princeton Summer Chamber Concerts’ “Chamber Music Wednesdays” presentation last week featured the Argus and Craft quartets playing Fanny Mendelssohn’s 1834 String Quartet in E-flat Major more

July 8, 2020

By Nancy Plum

Despite the closing of performance halls in the area, Princeton Summer Chamber Concerts was not about to let its 53rd season go by. The long-standing presenting organization, which usually stages four chamber concerts in the month of July, has designed a series of “Chamber Music Wednesdays,” in which the performers scheduled for Richardson Auditorium this summer are featured in online mini-concerts. 

In the interest of giving area audiences something to look forward to each week, Chamber Concerts has created five Wednesday night offerings which include not only musical presentation, but also the additional elements of history, analysis, and demonstration. The first of these online performances took place last Wednesday night, featuring the young and innovative Diderot String Quartet.   

Founded in 2012, the Diderot String Quartet was named after 18th-century French philosopher Denis Diderot, also an enthusiast of the courtly and galante music of the Baroque Italian composer Luigi Boccherini. The ensemble prides itself on taking a “fresh approach to the works of the 18th and 19th centuries,” bringing a shared background for historically informed performance and a passion for the string quartet genre to every concert. For Wednesday evening’s online concert/demonstration, violinists Adriane Post and Johanna Novom, violist Kyle Miller, and cellist Paul Dwyer shared with listeners how the ensemble came together; Post, Novom, and Dwyer met at Oberlin Conservatory, later adding Miller to the Quartet via the Juilliard Historical Performance program. All four of these musicians were interested early on in period stringed instruments, historically informed performance, and whether music from any time period could be played on instruments made in the 18th century.   more

June 24, 2020

By Nancy Plum

Three months after the Princeton performing arts arena essentially shut down, it is clear the 2020-2021 season will require major adjustments from performers, administrators, audience members and donors alike.  Princeton Festival, whose month-long June season usually fills area halls with opera, recitals, chamber music, and lectures, quickly adjusted this year to create a “season” of virtual vocal showcases, podcasts, lectures, and archival performances.  The Festival’s third week of “Virtually Yours on Demand”  included a live online panel discussion last Tuesday afternoon with leaders from Princeton area music organizations discussing how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted performing ensembles and how organizations will fine-tune a summer traditionally jammed-packed with planning, but with no idea how and when live performances will be able to happen.

Hosted by Princeton Festival Artistic Director Richard Tang Yuk, the online conversation included Princeton Pro Musica Executive Director Mary Trigg; Trenton Children’s Chorus Executive Director Kate Mulligan; Princeton Singers Executive Director John Cloys; David Osenberg, development director of WWFM; Jerry Kalstein, chair of Boheme Opera NJ’s Board of Trustees; and Hilary Butler, executive director of Westrick Academy, the home of the Princeton Girlchoir and Boychoir. The discussion focused on the future of the performing arts in the Princeton area, including how ensembles are navigating the times ahead and what next season might look like.

All of these organizations have adjusted to a “non-live” performance format which has gone on much longer than anyone imagined. Performances (including a Princeton Girlchoir tour to Spain and Portugal) were canceled or postponed to early fall, only to be postponed again when it was unclear if venues would be open.  All participants in the discussion have developed some sort of digital presence, ranging from music theory classes to online voice lessons, but it has become clear to choruses in particular that current technology allows neither ensemble accuracy in real time nor a sense of unity in performing. However, as Mulligan was quick to point out, the ability of Trenton Children’s Chorus members to connect to one another was in many cases more important to the young choristers than trying to sing simultaneously. Several ensembles have created “virtual choirs” by having individual singers record themselves with “click-tracks,” but all recognize the massive amount of work involved in editing numerous audio pieces and synching with video to create an acceptable finished product.   more

April 15, 2020

By Nancy Plum

This past January, singer Alicia Keys opened the Grammy awards telecast reminding the audience that “music changes the world.” What has changed the world since then is the coronavirus (COVID-19), and music has transformed how people are coping with the pandemic.

Across the board, Princeton area music-makers have canceled the balance of their 2019-20 seasons, and area universities have sent their students home to finish the semester by virtual instruction, canceling musical and theatrical productions. However, musicians are never ones to sit idle, and area performers have found creative ways to get their musical fix in these days of staying home.

Needless to say, area critics now have nothing to review; besides all the great concerts which were scheduled, here’s what this writer has missed this spring: I was scheduled to play in a national tennis tournament in Florida the first week in April, and when that was canceled, I was fortunate to “hop into” a series of performances of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 with The Philadelphia Orchestra and Westminster Symphonic Choir in Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center and New York’s Carnegie Hall. These performances were also canceled, as were church choir and a performance of John Rutter’s Gloria in South Jersey. My program notes for The Philadelphia Orchestra have gone unread by a non-existent audience, and summer performances remain in doubt throughout the area. more

March 11, 2020

By Nancy Plum

The Princeton University Music Department is understandably proud of the depth of talent within its “Orchestra family.” In these days when student activism often leads to political change, the University Orchestra staged a “Student Takeover” this past weekend by featuring an undergraduate conductor and graduate student composer, as well as two student instrumental soloists, in a pair of concerts at Richardson Auditorium. Friday night’s performance (the concert was repeated Saturday night) included two high-spirited concerti, a contemporary work by a University graduate student, and an opera overture conducted by a University senior.

Each of the four works on Friday night’s program was equally significant in showcasing the University’s talented musicians. Senior Reilly Bova, a conductor as well as principal timpanist for the University Orchestra, led the ensemble in Carl Maria von Weber’s 1821 “Overture” to the opera Der Freischütz. Revolutionary in its roots in German folklore and orchestral effects, this “Overture” provided Bova with the opportunity to maintain firm control over the ensemble and the dramatic changes in mood. Conducting from memory, Bova brought out a gentle pastoral nature from a quintet of horns and built suspense well throughout the piece. Throughout the “Overture,” Bova demonstrated solid capabilities from the podium, showing the training from his numerous music department activities during his Princeton career. more

February 26, 2020

By Nancy Plum

Like many performing arts organizations this year, Princeton University Concerts has joined the worldwide celebration of the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven. Last week, Princeton University Concerts presented the New York-based Calidore String Quartet in a concert linking Beethoven with the 21st century with a performance of a newly-commissioned piece and one of Beethoven’s most monumental chamber works.

Celebrating its 10th season, the Calidore Quartet has received significant international acclaim, especially after winning the inaugural M-Prize Chamber Arts Competition in 2016. Violinists Jeffrey Myers and Ryan Meehan, violist Jeremy Berry, and cellist Estelle Choi brought their technical virtuosity to Richardson Auditorium last Thursday night to pay tribute to Beethoven, contemporary interpretation of his music, and the Baroque form of the fugue. Featured in this program was the world premiere of a string quartet commissioned by Princeton University Concerts through Music Accord — a partnership among U.S. presenters dedicated to not only commissioning new works, but also ensuring the very necessary repeat performances of these pieces. more

February 19, 2020

By Nancy Plum

Princeton Symphony Orchestra combined two of its outreach missions in one concert last week with a presentation at the Princeton University Art Museum of the New York-based chamber ensemble Music From China. Princeton Symphony has a long history of partnering with the University Art Museum, and last Wednesday’s concerts continued this tradition of pairing music with the art in the exhibits. Presented in conjunction with the exhibition “The Eternal Feast:  Banqueting in Chinese Art from the 10th to the 14th Century,” Wednesday’s concerts provided Music From China with the opportunity to introduce the audience to traditional Chinese instruments and repertoire stretching back centuries.

Wednesday afternoon’s concert (the performance was repeated that evening) featured three musicians playing the Chinese erhu, pipa, and zheng. The erhu, a spike fiddle with two silk strings and a small hexagonal sound box covered with snakeskin, is played with a bow threaded between the strings as the player stops the strings with finger pressure to change the pitch. Music From China Artistic Director Wang Guowei has made a career performing on this instrument worldwide and currently conducts the Westminster Choir College Chinese Music Ensemble. The pipa, a pear-shaped fretted lute, has four strings and up to 24 frets, and is plucked or strummed with fingernails to produce a variety of musical effects. Player Sun Li studied the pipa at the Shenyang Music Conservatory and has appeared with U.S. orchestras nationwide. The foundation of the Music From China ensemble sound was the zheng, a zither with 16 metal strings tuned to three pentatonic octaves. Wang Junling learned the instrument in her family, subsequently founding a Zheng Music School in Flushing, New York, to carry on its tradition. more

January 22, 2020

By Nancy Plum

Nothing says a dark winter’s night like the more sinister music of 19th-century German composer Richard Wagner, and New Jersey Symphony Orchestra took full advantage of Wagner’s rich orchestration and lush harmonies in a concert in Princeton this past weekend. Conducted by NJSO Music Director Xian Zhang, Friday night’s concert at Richardson Auditorium introduced the audience to both an innovative approach to the operatic Wagner and a virtuosic pianist from one of Europe’s more unknown regions. Zhang led the Orchestra in two principal works, which although significantly different in length were equal in impact. Lorin Maazel’s orchestral reduction of Wagner’s towering Ring cycle made up the entire second half, yet Franz Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2, even though a third as long as the Wagner piece, was just as mesmerizing for the audience.  

In 1987, former Cleveland Orchestra conductor Lorin Maazel created an hour-long “greatest hits” orchestral arrangement from Wagner’s four operas which make up Der Ring des Nibelungen, a musical tetralogy more than 20 years in the making. Based on Nordic legend and the medieval epic poem “Nibelungenlied,” Wagner’s Ring cycle has been renowned for its characters and their arias, but the dramatic motion is often carried by the orchestra. In The Ring Without Words, Maazel recreated nine musical scenes with a storyline drawing from all four operas. Beginning in the lowest of the strings, NJSO’s performance of Maazel’s Ring presented much of the most recognizable music, and Zhang kept the musical thread moving along with steady tempi and effective use of silences. Especially in leading up to the familiar “Ride of the Valkyries,” Zhang and the Orchestra set the drama well.   more

December 11, 2019

By Nancy Plum

In a concert taking place as University students are preparing for Christmas vacation, the Princeton University Orchestra presented a program which certainly entitled its members to enjoy their holiday break. Led by conductor Michael Pratt, the Orchestra performed two large-scale Romantic symphonic works which showed the strength and power of the ensemble, even before the school year is half over. Friday night’s performance at Richardson Auditorium (the concert was also presented Thursday night) featured Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4 in E-flat Major. Both in the prime of their compositional lives when these works were composed, Rachmaninoff and Bruckner were archetypes of the lush orchestration and emotional drama which marked 19th-century music.

Rachmaninoff based his 1934 Rhapsody for solo piano and orchestra on a melodic theme from the last of Niccolò Paganini’s 24 violin “Caprices,” likely composed in 1807. Beyond a virtuoso violinist as well as composer, Paganini was alleged to have cut a deal with the devil in return for his extraordinary talent. In particular, “Caprice” No. 24 was considered one of the most technically difficult pieces ever composed for violin, and Rachmaninoff brought the same demonic virtuosic requirements to the piano soloist. Pratt and the Orchestra began the Rhapsody decisively, with the theme’s fiendish quirkiness evident from the outset. Precise in rhythmic punctuation, the Orchestra continually demonstrated graceful lyricism and delicate ends of phrases. more

November 13, 2019

By Nancy Plum

On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Westminster Choir, the renowned ensemble took the opportunity this past weekend to remind the Princeton community of its raison d’etre. Taking a line from the poetry of W.H. Auden, the 40-voice elite chorus of Westminster Choir College presented a concert of music to “Appear and Inspire” in Bristol Chapel on Sunday afternoon, reaffirming the Choir’s rich history and its connection to American musical culture.

The cornerstone piece of the concert was Benjamin Britten’s Hymn to St. Cecilia, composed to commemorate the patron saint of music and from whose text the title of the concert was derived. Setting poetry by Auden, Britten composed the three-movement work while living in America as war was breaking out throughout Europe. Westminster Choir conductor Joe Miller took the three movements of Britten’s tribute to music and interspersed them throughout the first part of the concert, surrounding Britten’s music with standard works from the Westminster Choir repertory, in many cases featured on Westminster Choir recordings or composed by individuals connected to the Choir College. more

November 6, 2019

By Nancy Plum

Despite the vast amount and popularity of liturgical music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, sacred music was not the composer’s principal interest. One would have a hard time convincing the choral field of this — two works in almost every symphonic chorus’ repertory are Mozart’s deathbed Requiem and his monumental, yet incomplete, Great Mass in C minor. The 100-voice Princeton Pro Musica opened its 2019-2020 season with the Mass this past Sunday night at Richardson Auditorium, filling the stage with singers, vocal soloists, and orchestral instrumentalists, all ably led by Pro Musica Artistic Director Ryan James Brandau. Paired with Mozart’s lively Concerto for Clarinet in A Major, the Great Mass in C minor created a program unique in the fact that these were two works Mozart composed because he wanted to, not because he had to for financial reasons.

Mozart’s music for wind instruments is universally charming and captivating. The clarinet appears to have been a particular favorite, likely due to his close friendship with fellow Masonic lodge member Anton Stadler, for whom he composed the 1789 Concerto for Clarinet. The instrument for which this work was composed was likely a basset clarinet — a standard clarinet to which was affixed an extension adding notes in the lower register. Nineteenth-century published versions of this piece adjusted the lower “extension” passages to higher octaves, in some ways making the Concerto more difficult to play. To open Sunday afternoon’s Pro Musica concert, Brandau led a chamber-sized orchestra and guest clarinet soloist Pascal Archer in a spirited performance of Mozart’s three-movement Concerto. Archer, currently acting principal clarinetist for the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, demonstrated not only his command of the instrument and the works technical demands, but also how demonic Mozart’s solo writing could be. more

October 30, 2019

By Nancy Plum

In a three-concert series entitled “Icons of Song,” Princeton University Concerts is examining both the concept of love and ways to expand the boundaries of chamber music. Composers through the centuries have explored the ups and downs of love through the solo song genre, and in the first of the “Icons of Song” series, Princeton University Concerts presented a program of two song cycles celebrating these very ideas. Accompanied by pianist Brad Mehldau, British tenor Ian Bostridge performed a contemporary song cycle by Mehldau, as well as Robert Schumann’s lyrically Romantic Dichterliebe. Throughout the more than 25 songs which made up the two cycles, the audience at Richardson Auditorium last Tuesday night listened in rapt attention as these two esteemed performers conveyed some of the most formidable yet tender poetry in literature.

A native of London, Bostridge received his musical education in England’s finest institutions, including as a choral scholar at Westminster School and a student at St. John’s College in Oxford and Cambridge. His recordings of both opera and lieder have won major international prizes and have been nominated for 15 Grammy awards. Bostridge and Mehldau have been collaborating since 2015, with Mehldau composing several works specifically for the tenor. Mehldau’s 11-song cycle, The Folly of Desire, premiered just this past January and toured by Mehldau and Bostridge this year, set the poetry of Blake, Yeats, Shakespeare, and Goethe, among others. more

October 23, 2019

By Nancy Plum

Things must have been lively in the Louisville, Kentucky, home in which Princeton University sophomore Elijah Shina grew up. He may well have been the kind of child that found rhythm in every empty box or can in the house and saw a potential drum on every surface he touched. These are the children who grow up to be great percussionists, and Shina has brought his great sense of inner rhythm to Princeton University and to the University Orchestra’s opening concerts this past weekend. A co-winner of the Princeton University Orchestra 2019 Concerto Competition, Shina showed virtuosic agility on a myriad of percussion instruments in a 20th-century concerto demonstrating a wide range of orchestral colors and effects.

Concertos for percussion were unusual in 20th-century American music. Chicago-born Joseph Schwantner, intrigued by the infinite array of timbres and sonorities available in an orchestral percussion section, composed the 1995 Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra on commission from the Philharmonic-Symphony Society of New York for the New York Philharmonic’s 150th anniversary. The resulting work, performed by the University Orchestra this past Friday and Saturday nights, was a musical collaboration between soloist and ensemble demanding the highest level of skills and techniques from an entire section of percussionists, not just the soloist. more

October 16, 2019

By Nancy Plum

Last year’s 125th anniversary season of Princeton University Concerts — with star conductor Gustavo Dudamel leading the lineup — is a hard act to follow. Princeton University Concerts began its 126th season last week with a well-respected ensemble also celebrating a milestone. New York’s Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, marking its 50th anniversary, brought to Princeton a program paying homage to both Americana and the longevity of Princeton University Concerts. Last Thursday night’s “New World Spirit” performance at Richardson Auditorium featured music of four composers who embodied American music in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with one work having close ties to the University Concerts series.

Pennsylvania composer Harry T. Burleigh has been well-known in the choral world for his arrangements of spirituals and for bringing African American music to the forefront in this country, also composing a handful of instrumental pieces. A student of Czech composer Antonin Dvorák, Burleigh similarly infused his musical works with American folk tunes and atmosphere. Burleigh’s Southland Sketches for solo violin and piano was comprised of four salon pieces capturing the fresh and open outdoors through broad melodies and bits of familiar tunes. Violinist Chad Hoopes and pianist Gloria Chien showed solid communication and precise timing in performing the four Sketches, with effective double stops from Hoopes adding harmony to the solo violin part and Chien’s accompaniment well reflecting the diverse styles within the music. more

October 9, 2019

By Nancy Plum

Princeton Symphony Orchestra turned its attention to music of Russia in the second performance of the ensemble’s Classical Series this past weekend. Guest Conductor Bernhard Gueller and the Orchestra successfully delved into music of 19th-century Russian titans Mikhail Glinka, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky in a pair of concerts featuring guest pianist Natasha Paremski. Saturday night’s concert at Richardson Auditorium (the performance was repeated Sunday afternoon) not only showed Paremski’s virtuosic and dynamic technical skills and expressiveness, but also the lush orchestration and chromatic harmonies of 19th-century Russian symphonic music.

The central piece of Princeton Symphony’s concerts this past weekend was the second piano Concerto of late 19th-century Russian composer Rachmaninoff, bracketed by a spirited opera overture by Glinka and a monumental symphony of Tchaikovsky. Composed between the fall of 1900 and spring of 1901, Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18 was premiered in its entirety in November 1901, and coincidentally earned the composer the prestigious 500-ruble Glinka Award, named for the composer whose Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila opened the Princeton Symphony program. In this work, Rachmaninoff followed the classical concerto form, but augmented it with sumptuous orchestration and a full exploitation of the piano’s Romantic capabilities. Featured as piano soloist in these performances was Moscow native Natasha Paremski, who has been playing professionally since the age of 9. After earning a degree at New York’s Mannes College of Music, Paremski embarked on an international career which has brought her musical passion and technical virtuosity to all corners of the world. more

July 24, 2019

By Nancy Plum

The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra spent last week in Princeton coaching and guiding four contemporary composers in an immersive laboratory experience through which the talented participants received musical and practical feedback about their pieces, composing for a symphonic orchestra, and getting music published and performed in today’s market. Dichotomy, conflict, and ultimate hope seemed to be the overriding themes of the pieces resulting from this year’s Edward T. Cone Composition Institute, as these works were presented in a concert entitled Scores last Saturday night at Richardson Auditorium. Led by Romanian conductor Cristian Macelaru, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra performed four works of the Cone Institute’s composers, along with an East Coast premiere of Institute director and Princeton University professor Steven Mackey. more

July 17, 2019

By Nancy Plum

Princeton University Summer Chamber Concerts ended its 2019 season last week with a return to the classics, as Canada’s Rolston String Quartet performed the final concert of the series. Formed six years ago at the picturesque and renowned Banff Arts Center in Alberta, Canada, the Rolston String Quartet provided a fitting close to a season featuring innovation by showing the future of classical music through the masterworks of the past. Violinists Luri Lee and Emily Kruspe, violist Hezekiah Leung, and cellist Jonathan Lo dazzled the audience at Richardson Auditorium last Friday night with their musicality and energetic approach to the works of string quartet masters Franz Joseph Haydn and Ludwig van Beethoven bracketing a complex piece by 20th-century Hungarian composer György Ligeti.

“Papa” Haydn is considered the father of the string quartet genre, which Beethoven subsequently pushed to new musical boundaries. Among Haydn’s most well-known string quartet compositions are those contained in Opus 76, the last complete set of the more than 60 quartets the composer wrote. Quartet No. 63 in Bb Major, the fourth of Opus 76, acquired the nickname “Sunrise” for its depiction of the sun coming up over the horizon, and the Rolston String Quartet brought out well the diverse shadings one sees in an early sunlit sky. In the first movement “allegro con spirito,” the Rolston players placed their musical emphasis on “con spirito,” energetically moving through the allegro with clean sforzandi accents and a light violin sound from Lee’s Baroque-era instrument. Lee and Kruspe also demonstrated especially sweet thirds between the two violin parts. more

July 10, 2019

By Nancy Plum

Of the trumpet, French horn, and trombone, the most familiar is likely the trumpet, thanks to a repertory of 17th and 18th-century music featuring the instrument. The French horn is also well known though a number of concerti over several centuries. The trombone, however, is rarely featured in orchestral settings, and is a pleasure for audiences to hear and see close up. Princeton University Summer Chamber Concerts brought these three instruments together last Tuesday night at Richardson Auditorium with a performance by the New York Brass Arts Trio. Definitely an ensemble for the 21st century, the Brass Arts Trio is comprised of trumpeter Joe Burgstaller, French horn player David Jolley, and trombonist Haim Avitsur, who came together in this performance to demonstrate the power of their instruments within the finesse of ensemble playing.

Burgstaller, Jolley, and Avitsur are not only expert performers, but also imaginative arrangers; almost all of the pieces on Tuesday night’s program were arranged by one of them. The Trio presented works spanning three centuries, beginning with David Jolley’s arrangements of three sinfonias of Johann Sebastian Bach. In these short pieces, the three brass instruments were able to achieve appropriate lightness in melodic lines, as well as dynamic contrasts. Burgstaller found numerous opportunities for ornamentation in music tailor-made for a bright trumpet sound. more

July 3, 2019

By Nancy Plum

Although the violin, viola, and cello have changed little as instruments over the past century, music for this genre is continually evolving. Nowhere was this more evident this past week than in the Princeton University Summer Chamber Concerts presentation of PUBLIQuartet, an ensemble of four musicians committed to stretching the instruments of the string quartet to new boundaries and stimulating new repertoire for the field. Violinists Curtis Stewart and Jannina Norpoth, violist Nick Revel, and cellist Hamilton Berry presented a program demonstrating that in the ensemble’s less than 10-year history, PUBLIQuartet has made a solid mark on American contemporary chamber music.

PUBLIQuartet’s performance last Thursday night at Richardson Auditorium was far from the conventional string quartet concert in its focus on music from very recent decades. When the living American composer John Corigliano is the “old man” of composers represented, PUBLIQuartet’s commitment to the latest in string quartet composition was clear. more

June 19, 2019

By Nancy Plum

There is a relatively new performing ensemble in Princeton focusing on repertoire for a specific set of instruments. Founded in 2016, Princeton Symphonic Brass draws players from other area ensembles to explore music written specifically for brass instruments — horn, trumpet, trombone, euphonium, and tuba. This past Saturday night, Princeton Symphonic Brass presented a concert of “City Lights, Latin Nights” in the recently renovated Hillman Performance Hall at Westminster Choir College. Led by conductor Lawrence Kursar, the 11 brass and two percussion players of Symphonic Brass performed to an appreciative audience and showed some fancy footwork on instruments often performing from deep in the background of an orchestra. Dressed casually and sitting in a semi-circle in the hall, the members of the ensemble created an informal performance atmosphere which did not detract from achieving high technical standards.

Most of the works performed Saturday night were pieces for other instrumental combinations arranged for brass ensemble, giving the audience the chance to hear familiar or new repertoire with different orchestral colors. The program explored music of Latin American composers, as well as a few American works reflecting Spanish flavor or influence. Symphonic Brass opened the program with an iconic fanfare tailor-made for brass — Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, composed as a concert season-opener in World War II and arranged for this group by trumpet member Ed Hirschman. The four trumpets of the ensemble were well blended and rhythmically precise, presenting a clean dialog between upper and lower brass. more

June 12, 2019

By Nancy Plum

For close to six decades, the Greater Princeton Youth Orchestra has been offering a comprehensive range of orchestral training programs to young musicians in the area. This past Saturday night, GPYO presented its Senior Division Spring Concert, showcasing the winner of the Orchestra’s annual Concerto Competition. This year the competition was won by oboist Michael Chau, a senior at South Brunswick High School, who demonstrated musical talent and composure well beyond a student just graduating from high school. Chau easily mesmerized the Richardson Auditorium audience with his versatility and technical skill, performing one movement from a Mozart oboe concerto with GPYO’s flagship ensemble, the Symphonic Orchestra.

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May 22, 2019

By Nancy Plum

The orchestral concerto was a musical development of the Baroque era which composers often took to the next level by composing for two or more solo instruments and orchestra. New Jersey Symphony Orchestra brought Johann Sebastian Bach’s double concerto for two violins into the 21st century this past weekend by pairing it with a contemporary work for orchestra, violin, and electric guitar — definitely not a Baroque instrument. Bracketing Friday night’s concert at Richardson Auditorium with 19th-century opera overtures, NJSO conductor Xian Zhang led the ensemble and soloists through the music of Baroque legend Bach and 21st-century musical inventor and Princeton University professor Steven Mackey. more

May 8, 2019

By Nancy Plum

A 40-year history is commendable for any performing organization, and Princeton Pro Musica, which presented its first concert in the spring of 1980 and has only had two music directors in four decades, celebrated this milestone this past weekend with a festive concert at the Princeton University Chapel. Pro Musica’s decades-long musical roots provided bookends to Saturday afternoon’s performance of the music of George Frideric Handel as founder Frances Fowler Slade led the 100-voice chorus in the opening and closing works on the program. Current Artistic Director Ryan James Brandau conducted the chorus and an accompanying chamber orchestra in several of Handel’s lesser-known but equally as appealing pieces, recreating a concert atmosphere which could have taken place in Handel’s time in a space which well suited the performers and repertoire.

Slade retired from Pro Musica in 2012, but many of the current singers performed under her direction for a number of years. Slade took the podium to lead the chorus and orchestra in two “Coronation” anthems of Handel, a composer whose music Pro Musica performed every year since its founding. Slade maintained a lively tempo in both pieces, keeping a crisp conducting style and encouraging the blocks of sound for which the chorus has been known. The University Chapel can be a cavernous space for a large chorus, and the choral sound that seemed to work best for Pro Musica included the ensemble’s trademark expansive homophonic passages. In both “Zadok the Priest” and “The King Shall Rejoice,” Slade guided the chorus well through the Baroque lilt in the music, demonstrating that even in retirement, she is still looking for precise endings and phrasing. more