The sense of excitement was palpable on October 9 in Richardson Auditorium as the Princeton Symphony Orchestra officially launched its classical series, and the afternoon of music featured three exceptional works.
The program titled “Viennese Reflections” (also an Edward T. Cone Concert) opened with the world premiere of Princeton/New York-based composer Julian Grant’s PSO-commissioned work “Is it enough? Perhaps it is…” and then welcomed world-renowned violinist Leila Josefowicz to perform Alban Berg’s 1935 Violin Concerto “To the Memory of an Angel.” They are both sumptuous, challenging contemporary pieces.
Led by PSO conductor and music director Rossen Milanov, the orchestra also performed a riveting version of Franz Schubert’s Symphony Number 9 in C Major, D. 944, “The Great.”
The Grant piece got its start when the London-born composer was asked by the orchestra to orchestrate the brief Bach chorale “Es ist Genung (It is enough),” which Berg also wove into the Violin Concerto. Instead of the orchestration, however, Grant expanded this 50-second motif into an impressionistic kind of tone poem.
The new piece ran the gamut from ethereal moments of contemplation to mighty crescendos, where a muscular brass section and spirited percussion commanded the full orchestra. Passages of “Is it enough? Perhaps it is….” called upon the lower registers of the winds, brass, and strings, with the contrabassoon and bass clarinet in conversation, as well as the double basses and cellos, setting a somewhat eerie mood.
Into this busy mix came echoes of the Bach chorale, and the hymn-like motif wove its way through the strings and woodwinds, until the composition again came to a sonic peak, then dropped off to near silence while the concertmaster/first violinist had a brief solo. Grant also crafted a tantalizing flute solo into this work, and it was played with elegance by Chelsea Knox.
Next, it was time for Josefowicz and one of the most difficult works in the solo violin repertoire. The sprightly soloist played it almost intuitively, highlighting the more carefree and even sensual elements of the composition, Berg’s last.
Composed in memory of young Manon Gropius — the daughter of Alma Mahler Gropius (Gustav Mahler’s widow) and Walter Gropius (founder of the Bauhaus School of architecture) — the Andante-Allegro movement began slowly and then built to showcase Josefowicz’ solo work, simultaneously fiery and mournful.
Her violin led the PSO through a jungle of layers, featuring the whole, large orchestra, and then wound back around to the solo violin, launching a musical conversation with the alto saxophone. The yearning sound of the alto sax, played by Daniel Spitzer, was a sonic surprise in the concerto, like hearing a ghostly human voice.
The second movement, Allegro-Adagio, opened with a splash-bang of the timpani, and Josefowicz’ vigorous solo violin. She roared above the muted strings, taking a lengthy musical excursion. We listeners went to this dreamy, dark location with her but were brought back from our reveries again by the resounding timpani.
At last, we heard the Bach chorale motif, first in the clarinets, then the lower brass, and then the woodwinds again, as the sinuous lines of the alto saxophone returned.
While all this was going on, I had somewhat lost track of Josefowicz; the solo work was even a bit overshadowed by the orchestra. However, I quickly remembered her as the concerto came to an end. Josefowicz explored the very stratosphere of her instrument with grace and utter mastery as the final chords of the Berg work resolved with a sense of peace.
Shortly into the first movement of the Schubert symphony, we heard the composer’s homage to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in the driving strings, the exultant sound of the brass, as well as the dramatic rising, falling, and rising again of the orchestra’s dynamics.
Throughout the Schubert, there was some especially lovely playing in the woodwind section — a plaintive oboe here, a wistful bassoon there, and the first clarinetist (Pascal Archer), who was having fun with all the solo passages written for his instrument and playing beautifully.
You have to pay attention to this piece. Every time you are tempted to slip off — boom! — you’re brought back to the energy and drive of Schubert’s underlying rhythms, a contrast to his exquisite sense of melody. That kineticism pushed the piece right to the end, overall a joyful workout for the PSO and a pleasing ride for the audience.
Milanov displayed his subtle but commanding conducting style. The concert ended with rousing applause, quite a few “bravos,” and at least one “brava” for Josefowicz.
Next up for the PSO’s Classical Series is “Impassioned Russia,” Sunday, November 6, in Richardson featuring works by Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev, with special guest pianist Natasha Paremski. $25 to $82. 609-497-0020 or www.princetonsymphony.org.