Perhaps few would have suspected from its modest origins in 2005 that the currently running Princeton Festival would blossom into the 24-event, multi-genre attraction it has become. The festival’s trajectory, while operating within the orbit of financial reality, has always followed a kind of dream logic. What, at the start, consisted of a musical theater production and a chamber music concert has expanded to encompass opera, jazz, dance, choral music, film, and a piano competition.
“As the festival has diversified, it has become difficult to come up with one theme that sort of ties everything together,” admits Richard Tang Yuk, general and artistic director of the Princeton Festival, now in its 13th season and continuing through Sunday, June 25. “But this year we’re using the theme of ‘the impossible dream.’”
“It applies in several ways,” says Tang Yuk as he refers to the festival’s current Broadway musical. “It is of course the big song from ‘Man of La Mancha’ that everybody knows, about aspiring to things that seem unattainable. Everything starts with a dream. For the festival itself, we had a vision of where we wanted to go and how we wanted the festival to develop.”
One of the ways Tang Yuk has expanded and enriched the festival was in the creation of a resident baroque orchestra that will present three concerts over the course of a little more than a week, with ensemble principals coming together for a chamber program on Saturday, June 17, a full ensemble on Wednesday, June 21, and a chorus and orchestra concert on Saturday, June 24. More details below.
“The (Princeton Festival) Baroque Orchestra is a little bit different from some of the other things that we are doing,” Tang Yuk says. “I think it adds another dimension to the festival, and certainly one that our audience seems to respond to. Even in its first season, when we presented it two years ago, it sold very well. So we realized the community has a lot of interest in baroque music.”
And there is certainly plenty to choose from. “There is so much baroque repertoire, and it’s so varied,” Tang Yuk says. “We’ve all been involved in music for decades, and there are still pieces that we are discovering from that period. I mean, we try to put something on each program that has name recognition, like Handel or Bach, but there’s so much to discover. (17th-century Bohemian-Austrian composer) Heinrich Biber wrote such interesting music, very different. The Biber piece that is being played at the chamber concert involves scordatura strings, where the strings are tuned to different pitches.”
Tang Yuk had earlier conducted an assemblage of period instrument performers for a Princeton Festival production of Handel’s opera “Ariodante” in 2010. “They were all New York players,” he says.
“As you well know, it is very expensive to hire professional players. I went out to Indiana University on a visiting appointment to teach for three years in the choral conducting department. I met some wonderful graduate students there that I worked with on several projects. I started talking with one of the doctoral students, Juan Carlos Zamudio, who happened to be a baroque violinist, and I asked him, could we get together a group that would be interested in coming to play a concert with the festival?
“When we started the Princeton Festival Baroque Orchestra, we began with graduate players, who were very enthusiastic about it, and it just worked out so well. I mean, they loved doing it. From year to year, some of the players have remained the same, but we have incorporated other people as we’ve moved forward.”
Tang Yuk, who oversees every aspect of the festival, plans the baroque programs in conjunction with Zamudio. “We start talking about it very early on, in August for the following summer, and we throw around a lot of ideas,” Tang Yuk says of the process. “We think about the instrumentation and how pieces might work together on a particular concert.”
Players travel to the festival from all over the country. “There is a core group of principal players who were here from the beginning, but now we’re sort of sourcing our players from different areas. This season players are coming from Boston, we have somebody coming from University of Texas at Austin, we still have a couple of people coming from Bloomington, a cellist from Chicago, a couple of violinists from Cleveland.”
Zamudio, who was born in Durango, Mexico, makes his home in Madrid. “If we have a discussion about repertoire or about players, we have Skype meetings or FaceTime meetings,” Tang Yuk says.
Tang Yuk – a Trinidad-born son of a businessman – holds degrees in conducting from the Mannes College of Music and Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. He served as past staff member of the Princeton Opera Festival and Princeton University’s music department, and is on the faculty of Westminster Choir College. He says most of his professional life, year round, is occupied by the festival. “Honestly, the festival takes almost all of my time. We try to plan ahead. We already have tentative plans for 2018 and 2019. We start with the main stage productions, usually the opera, and then we build the whole season around it.”
The heavy workload didn’t dissuade him from taking on an additional challenge with the prominent area vocal group, VOICES Chorale — founded 30 years ago by Lyn Ransom, who retires this month after conducting her final concert on Friday, June 16, at Richardson Auditorium.
“Lyn wanted me to be on the advisory board,” Tang Yuk says about meeting with Ransom several months ago. “We had a meeting over coffee, and she said, ‘Do you know anyone who might be interested in becoming music director?’ And I said, ‘Well, I would be interested!’ I applied, and they hired me. So I’ll be starting with them in September.”
In preparation, Tang Yuk has met with the VOICES board members, attended rehearsals, and even sung with the choir for its April concert. When asked about his plans for upcoming seasons, undoubtedly reflecting his experience with the Princeton Festival, he balances his ambition with the realities of the budget. “It always comes down to economics, right? What can we afford to do, and how can we balance innovation and programming with ticket sales and marketability? That’s the eternal challenge, I think, for any nonprofit organization.”
Tang Yuk sees this year’s centerpiece, Ludwig van Beethoven’s opera “Fidelio” — which will be performed at McCarter Theater on Sundays, June 18 and 25 — as an extension of the “impossible dream.” “Leonore is trying to free her imprisoned husband,” he says. “It’s also about the dream of justice and equality for society and doing the right thing against political oppression.”
The festival’s musical theater production, “Man of La Mancha,” which spawned “The Impossible Dream,” will be heard in 11 performances at the Lewis Center for the Arts through June 25.
“We have so many ideas, more ideas than we have money to implement,” says Tang Yuk of his future dreams for the festival. “Every time we diversify and we add something different to the line-up, we attract new patrons, new ticket-buyers. That’s kind of our strategy. It’s also what we envisioned from the beginning, that the festival would be something that would have different performances that would appeal to many different sectors of the community.”
The Princeton Festival Baroque Orchestra programs are as follows:
Saturday, June 17, 4 p.m. Orchestra concertmaster Juan Carlos Zamudio, violinist Reynaldo Patino, violist Maria Romero, cellist Anna Steinhoff, contrabassist Eric Fisher, and harpsichordist Gregory Geehern present music by lesser-known composers Heinrich Biber, Johann Rosenmuller, and Domenico Gabrielli, alongside heavy hitters Dietrich Buxtehude, George Frideric Handel, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Princeton Abbey, 95 Mapleton Road, $10 to $35.
Wednesday, June 21, 7:30 p.m. Full orchestra presenting music by Handel, Alessandro Stradella, Johann Adolph Hasse, Georg Philipp Telemann, and Johann Sebastian Bach, Miller Chapel, Princeton Theological Seminary, 64 Mercer Street, Princeton, $15 to $35.
Saturday, June 24, 5 p.m. Full orchestra and Princeton Festival Chorus conducted by Dr. Jan Harrington and conductors from the festival’s conducting master class presenting Handel’s Chandos Anthem 11a, “Let God Arise,” Antonio Vivaldi’s “Kyrie,” RV 587, Claudio Monteverdi’s “Beatus Vir,” and Jan Dismas Zelenka’s “Miserere.” Miller Chapel, Princeton Theological Seminary, 64 Mercer Street, Princeton, $10 to $25.
The Princeton Festival continues through June 25. Tickets are available through the McCarter Theater box office. 609-258-2787 or www.princetonfestival.org.