The annual Princeton University Summer Chamber Concerts — this year in virtual format — is winding down its 53rd season of live free concerts over the next week with two 7:30 p.m. Wednesday night concerts — including one with a regional connection.
The July 22 presentation features a performance by the Manhattan Chamber Players, a New York City-based musicians’ collective made up of artists who have participated in international music festivals and trained at the Curtis Institute, Juilliard School, Colburn School, New England Conservatory, and Yale School of Music. Their program features Beethoven’s String Trio in G major, Op. 9.
The concluding July 29 concert is by the Poulenc Trio and includes a presentation of Princeton-connected composer Viet Cuong’s “Trains of Thought.”
As Cuong, 30, says in a statement about the work, “My goal in writing ‘Trains of Thought’ was to aurally bring life to the mind’s stream of consciousness.”
Elaborating more, he says, “Ideas are usually interconnected in the mind through a cohesive sequence of events, but their journeys and destinations can be unpredictable. In this way, the piece deals with the listener’s expectations and attempts to convincingly manipulate them. As the mind deviates from and returns to an original idea, the idea’s return is often informed by its travels. References to the exciting kinetic energy of an actual locomotive can be heard.”
Cuong says the composition written for the trio’s oboe, bassoon, and piano blends traditionally approached notes with slightly higher, less exact, brightly colored, and quite distinguishable “timbral” ones.
He also indicates that the pianist “momentarily dampens the string inside the piano with the idle hand. The resulting attack and tone should be softened and dull. The string should not be dampened so much as to obscure the pitch.”
The Poulenc Trio-commissioned work saw its premiere in 2017 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
When the group released its 2018 recording of “Trains of Thought,” MusicWeb International reviewer Michael Cookson responded by saying “Cuong conceived the score as part of a multimedia work combining music and an animated film, which accompanied its premiere. An undemanding and enjoyable work with much energy and a sense of forward momentum, it’s easy to imagine railway journeys on a steam train through changing landscapes” and that “the qualities and challenges of their double-reed instruments are expertly surmounted by Poulenc Trio. Eminently stylish and alert performances combine with a convincing communication of the character of the works.”
Fellow reviewer Marc Rochester singled out the “impulsive, driving momentum which at times has you on the edge of the seat. Here is a tremendously invigorating performance, beautifully shaped and balanced, drawing every last ounce of interest from the music.” However, he added, “My only reservation comes with the somewhat damp squib of an ending.”
Other critics also have noticed Cuong’s works and provided some winning reviews. A San Francisco Chronicle reviewer called one of his works “irresistible” and the New York Times referred to another as “alluring” and “wildly inventive.”
New Amsterdam Records, which has released recordings of Cuong’s compositions, notes that the composer’s work has been performed on six continents by musicians and ensembles that include the Princeton resident company So Percussion as well as the innovative groups Eighth Blackbird, Alarm Will Sound, Sandbox Percussion, the PRISM Quartet, JACK Quartet, and Kaleidoscope, and numerous others.
In addition to receiving a Princeton University MFA degree, Cuong continues in the university’s graduate school of music and has studied with Princeton composers Steve Mackey, Donnacha Dennehy, Dan Trueman, Dmitri Tymoczko, Paul Lansky, and Louis Andriessen.
The son of Vietnamese immigrant parents who worked in the sciences, Cuong was born in 1990 in California but grew up in Marietta, Georgia.
As he confessed in another interview, “I grew up as one of the biggest band geeks your school would have. I loved being in band and marching band, and I was in percussion ensemble. I loved it all. And I really feel like my high school band room was where I found my place as a person. It’s where I felt that I could fit in and belong somewhere.
“Even now as a professional composer, I feel this kind of obligation to write for band and to write the best music that I can for all the different grade levels just because I know how much of an impact it has on kids. And how much of an impact it had on me. So it just feels right.”
About his writing process, he says, “The beginning of the piece is always the hardest part for me, because every piece I write I want to be my best work, and I want to be proud of it. So when I’m starting it, it’s hard because you come up with stuff in the beginning that isn’t good or you don’t think is good enough, and you just immediately want to throw it away, because it’s not good enough for this piece. Or it’s not right. It doesn’t feel right. But we have to get over the hump to think ‘Okay, it’s not good enough right now, but maybe in a week it will be.’ After working on it for a week and you still don’t like it, then you can move on to something else. But for me, I’m impatient with myself, and I want it to be good right away.
“Getting past that stage is hard. But the other thing is, I think the way a lot of my pieces work is I like to be really economical with musical ideas, so when I do find something that works, I will use it until it doesn’t work anymore. I like to have that cohesion in a piece. I think part of that is just because it’s so hard to find something that works, and when I do find it, I don’t want to have to find something else. It’s almost like my musical voice is a product of my impatience or something. Impatience with myself.”
For the actual writing, he says, “I use my iPad as staff paper, which I’ve been doing for maybe four years now, and I really like it because then it’s all in my iPad and I don’t need to find things. I’m not looking for a stray piece of paper that may or may not exist anymore.
“From when I first started writing music when I was like 11 or something, I had Finale notepad and I was writing straight into the computer, so it’s just been what I’ve always done. It feels natural to me that way because it’s what I’ve always done. If I had to write a piece completely by hand, it would be almost like re-learning how to write music.”
Cuong’s music is a natural fit for the Poulenc Trio. The group founded in 2003 is committed to commissioning, performing, and recording works by new composers. It also looks for works that promote the African, Asian, Eastern European, and Jewish roots of members: St. Petersburg Conservatory trained pianist and Poulenc artistic director Irina Kaplan Lande, Louisville Orchestra principal oboist and Curtis Institute trained Alexander Vvedenskiy, and Baltimore Chamber Orchestra principal bassoonist and Chamber Music America board member Bryan Young.
Manhattan Chamber Players & Poulenc Trio, Princeton University Summer Chamber Concerts. Wednesdays, July 22 and 29, 7:30 p.m. Free and performed live and available for video viewing after the presentations. For more information: www.princetonsummerchamberconcerts.org.