The Princeton University Summer Chamber Concerts series (PUSCC) has the reputation for presenting young chamber ensembles that eventually become international stars. That includes the Emerson, Tokyo, and Brentano string quartets — when only friends, relatives, and mentors were aware of what each was to become.
Now starting its 50th season with a series of free concerts mixing emerging groups with established ones, it’s a good time to remember its early days and preview this year’s offerings.
It was in 1968 that Princeton’s enterprising journalist, author, and cellist Barbara Sand founded the PUSCC series. By the time of Sand’s death in December, 2003, the series had become one of Princeton’s summer pleasures.
While in recent years I have been a member of the PUSCC board, my memories of the series go back to its earlier days when the concerts took place outdoors in the north courtyard of Princeton’s Graduate College. Sand selected the site after carting her cello to various university venues to compare acoustics.
I met PUSCC founder Sand socially, some years after the concerts began, and was among the lucky group of listeners that she invited to her Princeton home, along with performers, for post-concert gatherings.
On concert nights, many of us in the audience arrived early in order to spread out a blanket and settle in for the informal banquet of food and wine that we brought with us. We also applied the necessary insect repellant.
The audience was varied. Babies slept on the blankets. Older children perched in the trees of the Graduate College. Thrift-motivated listeners attended because the concerts were free. Some people came out of curiosity. Experienced musicians were there. Performers and audience, alike, dealt with sun and glare, with heat and humidity.
Special problems of outdoor performance were solved with ad-hoc ingenuity. Clothespins secured scores to musicians’ music stands. When the light faded, performers depended on the tall lamps that had been in Sand’s living room. The baffles on stage that direct sound toward an indoor audience were absent. Playing in tune outdoors was treacherous for string players.
Finicky sound engineers might have recoiled at the gap between the sound outdoors and the standards they upheld for recordings. But for those of us who attended, the outdoor concerts were magic. We were not interested in sterile perfection. There was no barrier between those who performed and those of us who listened. We were a community.
In 1991 the Graduate College closed for renovations, and PUSCC moved to Princeton University’s Alexander Hall in Richardson Auditorium, where it has remained. Sand kept the more formal indoor version of the concerts going until her death at age 73.
Sand’s ebullience stayed with her even after she was hospitalized in New York, and her children and friends were a lively presence in the hospital. Indeed, hospital officials reprimanded them for excessive hilarity.
Misha Amory, violist of the now internationally recognized Brentano Quartet — returning for this year’s series — says while the invitation to participate in the series was simple, “Barbara Sand invited us to play when we were just starting,” an unanticipated connection to Princeton was made.
The invitation coincided with the series’ shift to Richardson, a relief to Amory. “There’s almost no weather that’s perfect for playing outdoors, especially for string instruments. Our instruments go out of tune. And we have to deal with sun and wind. We’re happy to play inside. There’s climate control; there’s shade; and there’s no wind.”
And while escaping the outdoors to perform in Richardson may have been enough endear them to the space, something deeper developed for the group that became Princeton University’s first string quartet in residence (1999 to 2014). “It’s one of our favorite halls,” says Amory. “We recorded the late Beethoven quartets there. Playing in Richardson is like coming home. At the edge of the stage, you can welcome the audience, and they can welcome you back. A string quartet performance is not a big, colorful thing like an orchestra or an opera. It’s like a conversation — a conversation among the four of us. We do the most we can to be eloquent. And the audience eavesdrops.”
“In the quartet we feel the audience reaction,” continues Amory, “and it turns out that we all share the same impression. It’s a sense of the audience being there or not being there. It’s a vibe. To have an eager, attentive audience ready to focus on the energy of a performance makes a tremendous difference. When that happens the quartet puts its own energy into what we’re doing.”
With affection for his instrument, Amory says, “The viola has a woody, timbre that makes it special. That’s something I love about it. Sometimes it’s important to assimilate within the quartet, and sometimes it’s important to let it speak out with its special sound. That special sound is good. You wouldn’t want just a violin sound, but lower.”
Now in residence at the Yale School of Music, the Brentanos perform in concert each semester. In addition, they work closely with chamber music ensembles. That includes the Argus String Quartet, a Brentano-mentored ensemble, also performing as part of the current PUSCC series.
Professionally, Argus is in roughly the position of the Brentanos when they first came to Princeton. Formed at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, Argus completes a two-year residency at Yale this year. They move onto another assistantship at New York’s Juilliard School in the fall.
Amory calls the group “a bright, energetic string quartet, smart about interpretations, and in sync with each other,” and adds they are “friendly, outgoing, thoughtful, and responsive. Sometimes they’ve had a good idea that we didn’t have. It’s important for them to go for bold, energetic places. They need to avoid being understated, too careful, and overly civilized.”
The free series, under the artistic direction of oboist and Westminster Conservatory instructor Melissa Bohl, starts on Wednesday, June 28, at 7:30 p.m., with a performance by the WindSync woodwind quintet. Called “revolutionary chamber musicians” by the Houston Chronicle, the Texas-based group will perform Princeton composer Paul Lansky’s “The long and short of it,” selections of Sergei Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet,” and Radiohead’s “Exit Music for a Film.”
A special 50th anniversary event is scheduled for Sunday, July 9, 3 p.m., with the return of the Brentano String Quartet, performing a set of madrigals arranged for string quartet by 16th-century Italian composer Carlo Gesualdo, New Jersey-born contemporary composer Stephen Hartke’s “The Fifth Book,” and Beethoven’s Quartet No. 7. Noted Princeton-based music scholar, author, and professor Scott Burnham will provide commentary for the presentation. And a special commemorative printed program detailing the history of the concerts will replace the normal printed program and a commemorative poster by artist Marsha Levin-Rojer will be available. A reception follows the event.
The two remaining Wednesday concerts are the July 18 Lysander Trio presentation of the intermezzo of 19th-century Spanish composer Enrique Granados’ “Goyescas,” contemporary Israeli composer Gilad Cohen’s 2016 “Around a Cauldron,” Franz Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 10,” and Maurice Ravel’s 1914 “Piano Trio in A Minor.” The July 26 season finale features Argus performing Joseph Haydn’s “String Quartet Op. 76,” Irish composer and violinist Garth Knox’s 2015 “Satellites,” and Beethoven’s “Quartet No. 15.” Both are at 7:30 p.m.
Princeton University Summer Chamber Concerts. Free tickets available one week before performance. www.princetonsummerchamberconcerts.org.