Pessimists who predict the doom of classical concerts will withdraw their prophecies if they look into Princeton area programs for 2015-’16. Surveyed in late August, the announced schedules teemed with imaginative formats, exotic instrumental combinations, and vibrant programming.
Take Princeton University Concerts, for starters. Director Marna Seltzer has invented PUC125, a new concert format whose name comes from Princeton University Concerts’125th anniversary. Six one-hour concerts with seating on stage at Richardson Auditorium in Alexander Hall bring the intimacy of the venue to a new level. The programs consist of two sections and tend to combine music not ordinarily heard at one event.
For example, the October 11 PUC125 program pairs works by Renaissance composers Lassus and Hildegard von Bingen with new pieces by Princeton composers Dan Trueman and Dmitri Tymoczko. The works will be performed by Princeton University choir director Gabriel Crouch’s vocal ensemble Gallicantus. Then on December 1 there will be a program consisting of a Domenico Scarlatti sonata followed, without interruption, by a John Cage sonata for prepared piano; David Greilsammer performs.
PUC125’s eight-performance concert series will also provide an unusual combination of instruments when on November 19 flutist Emmanuel Pahud and guitarist Christian Rivet play folk-inspired compositions.
During the season, also look out for orchestras featuring solo instruments reach beyond the commonplace piano, violin, and cello. That includes saxophone soloist Branford Marsalis opening the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra season in September with a concert in New Brunswick featuring works by John Williams, Darius Milhaud, and Modest Mussorgsky. Then two timpanists using 14 timpani open the New Jersey Capital Philharmonic’s season with Philip Glass’s Concerto Fantasy on October 24.
The pre-concert talk, a welcome roadmap for new music and guide to discoveries in familiar pieces, is also a welcome part of the 2015-’16 season. PUC125 enhances two of its classics series concerts with pre-concert talks by Princeton professor Scott Burnham, who cloaks his academic know-how in perky presentations. Hear him before the performance of the Mendelssohn Octet by the Emerson Quartet and the Calidore Quartet on September 24.
Burnham returns to share his insights before Mathias Goerne sings Franz Schubert’s monumental song cycle “Die Shone Mullerin” on April 28. Burnham is also set to talk at McCarter in April (see below) , and Princeton Symphony Orchestra’s music director, Rossen Milanov, will give pre-concert talks before each performance in PSO’s classical series.
Joining Princeton University Concerts in exploring new formats is the New Brunswick Chamber Orchestra. Having experimented with informal encounters between listeners and performers in the past two seasons, the NBCO has arrived at a pithy description of the genre: “Members of the NBCO perform short works mixed with tastings, pours, and conversations at no charge.” Named NBCO@Zimmerli because the events take place in Rutgers’ Zimmerli Art Museum, the new presentations are set for November 22, January 30, and April 24.
Princeton Symphony Orchestra, innovating in its own way, is adopting the social networking service Twitter into its fold of collaborators and will host the German-based Signum Quartet’s worldwide #quartweet project on October 4.
Signum defines #quartweet as a composition of 140 notes or less. By chance, three of Johann Sebastian Bach’s chorales are #quartweets, as are all of Anton Webern’s “Six Bagatelles for String Quartet.” During its fall residency with the PSO, Signum will work with third graders at Lawrence Township Elementary Schools on #quartweets.
Also new is that PSO’s six-concert classical series will be dedicated to the creativity of women. In fact of the five living composers involved this season, four are women. That includes two PSO commissions, awarded to Caroline Shaw and Sarah Kirkland Snider. Both Shaw and Snider have provided #quartweets for Signum. Both have Princeton connections. Pulitzer-prize winning Shaw is a graduate student at Princeton; she plays violin in the performance of her piece, “Lo” on March 13. Snider was born and raised in Princeton, where she currently lives.
McCarter Theater, the commanding Princeton venue that frequently includes musical events before their appearance at Carnegie Hall, continues to present concerts of exceptional interest, even when they are tethered to traditional fare. This listener, for one, habitually harvests fresh insights from single-composer programs. Bach is the composer of choice for pianist Richard Goode on April 5. “We managed to steal him away from the Princeton University Series,” McCarter’s Bill Lockwood told an April McCarter audience. Pianist Emanuel Ax plays an all-Beethoven concert on April 25. Burnham will provide the pre-concert talks for both Goode and Ax.
McCarter adds several novelties to its outstanding array of high profile music performances this season. Two programs are particularly hard to classify. “Mandolin Music” on March 12 hovers between classical and folk music from the Balkans and beyond; the performers are Avi Avital, mandolin; Ksenija Sidorova, accordion, and Itamar Doari, percussion. “Yes! Yes! Yes!” on April 1 is the gig of Vienna’s Mnozil Brass septet; the group ranges among classical, jazz, folk, and pop idioms.
World music finds a major resting place at McCarter in 2015-2016 with three programs. The 20 female dancers, eight musicians, and three singers of Lizt Alfonso Dance bring music and dance from Cuba to McCarter on November 5. Bollywood Masala Orchestra and Dancers of India, a 17-member troupe, presents music and dance from western India. Zakir Hussain’s Percussion Masters of India perform music from north and south India.
Venues other than McCarter have scheduled world music performances. Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts offers a two-day symposium on Latin American music, starting on September 24 and ending in a concert on September 25. New Brunswick’s State Theater presents “Flamenco Fire” on October 30.
Westminster College of the Arts of Rider University has added the Westminster Chinese Music Ensemble to its battery of performing groups. The ensemble performs Chinese classics on traditional instruments and sings contemporary choral works on December 14. On April 24 it appears in Princeton with the Scotch Plains-based China Youth Orchestra.
Princeton’s PUC125 series includes the “Big Squeeze,” with French accordion artist Julien Labro on April 14. .
Programming related to major musical anniversaries is brief this season and includes the 100th anniversaries are the deaths of composers Alexander Scriabin and Max Reger and the birth of violinist Yehudi Menuhin. Composer Jean Sibelius was born 150 years ago.
The big anniversary however is the commemoration of the death of a writer who inspired music — William Shakespeare in 1616. Accordingly, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra — performing mainly in Newark as well as presenting in New Brunswick and in Princeton — is once again devoting its two January festival programs to what it calls “Sounds of Shakespeare.”
The first program (at the State Theater in New Brunswick on January 23) consists of two Shakespeare-influenced works by Hector Berlioz: “Symphonie fantastique,” with a sequence inspired by Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” and “Lelio,””The Tempest” influenced piece that will feature orchestra, narrator, choir, and NJSO music director Jacques Lacombe as a solo pianist. Mark A. Pottinger, chair of the visual and performing arts department at Manhattan College and Berlioz expert, will be on hand to discuss how Berlioz’s love of Shakespeare culminated in these two works.
A second program presents Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” along with Felix Mendelssohn’s score, the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey and, the women of the Montclair University Chorale (set for Princeton on January 29 and New Brunswick on January 31).
Other Shakespeare inspired events include the baroque music group Dryden Ensemble’s September 26 benefit “Shakespeare & Company,” theatrical and musical entertainment featuring British countertenor Ryland Angel, actor Paul Hect, and the Dyrden’s chamber musicians. La Fiocco’s period instrument concert “Music of Shakespeare’s London” follows on October 24 and 25. And the Westminster branch of Rider University honors Shakespeare with programs on April 10 and April 17. The first consists of recent compositions by Westminster Conservatory composers on Shakespearean themes. The second presents settings of texts by Shakespeare and his contemporaries.
Shakespeare is not the only repeat presence in the 2015-’16 season. Surprisingly, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 surfaces three times this season: with the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, September 27; with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra on October 30 (Richardson Auditorium) and November 1 (State Theater); and with the Jerusalem Symphony, sponsored by the State Theater on March 13.
Another recurrent work is Gabriel Faure’s “Requiem.” Performers are Westminster College of the Arts with Eric Plutz, the organist of the Princeton University Chapel on October 7 and Voices Chorale on May 6.
Opera On Tap. Opera performances over the next year mix a few familiar works with less common. Anchoring tradition, the venerable Boheme Opera offers a concert staging of Johann Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus” on November 22 and a new production of Georges Bizet’s “Carmen” on April 8 and 10.
Rider’s Westminster is the leading presenter of opera during the season. A work to be announced is scheduled for December 4 and 5; a semi-staged performance of Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel” is set for January 15, 16, and 17; and Francis Poulenc’s “Les Dialogues des Carmelites” runs on April 15 and 16.
Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts presents two versions of the 16th century opera “Catone in Utica” on November 22. The opera deals with the last stand of republicans in Rome against Julius Caesar’s push to make Rome an empire. Leonardo Vinci’s 1728 re-setting is scheduled for 1 p.m. Antonio Vivaldi’s 1737 re-setting is scheduled for 4 p.m. At 3 p.m. performers and musicologists discuss the curious history of the opera. The Mason Gross Opera Workshop also presents scenes from German opera on November 21. And the Princeton Festival returns next June with a full production of Benjamin Britten’s 1945 opera “Peter Grimes.”
Pessimists, go home! Rider’s Westminster College of the Arts alone lists more than 60 major events. Abundance is the word that best defines music programs in our area.