A near-capacity crowd at Richardson Auditorium came in from the pouring rain to enjoy both familiar and rarely heard music, when the Princeton Symphony Orchestra performed October 29.
Led by conductor Rossen Milanov, the concert, the second in the PSO’s Classical Series, showcased “Gli ucelli (The Birds),” one of Respighi’s relatively rare works for a smaller orchestra, and Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5 “Reformation.”
In addition the orchestra hosted the Lark Quartet, which counts PSO concertmaster/violinist Basia Danilow as a member, in a virtuoso performance of Concerto for String Quartet and Winds by 20th-century Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff.
The concert opened with “The Birds,” its five sections borrowing melodies from music of the 16th and 17th centuries, all of which paid homage to avians.
The serene second section, titled “The Dove,” featured an extended oboe solo, echoed by the solo harp, both sweet and wistful, like the call of a mourning dove. With “The Hen,” the third section, we could easily hear barnyard birds in the clucking and pecking sounds traded back and forth by the strings and the woodwinds.
“The Nightingale” returned to the earlier serenity, where solo flute and piccolo evoked this nocturnal bird, supported by subdued strings and celeste. Altogether there was an effervescent quality in the orchestra, which also was present in the final movement, “The Cuckoo.”
The Schulhoff concerto opened with the syncopation and tones of American jazz.
The Lark Quartet was like a foursome of soloists, all four women playing furiously, but also listening to each other closely, balancing their individual voices with the needs of the ensemble.
This avant-garde composition was influenced by the music Schulhoff heard in the cabarets and clubs he frequented. He apparently loved the night life, and the concerto conveyed the sounds of an after-hours musical landscape.
Schulhoff might not have orchestrated taxicabs, like Gershwin did for “American in Paris,” but we got a good sense of the hustle and bustle of an urban environment, with the city noise especially accentuated by the PSO’s brass.
The Lark Quartet’s rhythmic drive echoed quick-moving feet either pounding the pavement or fox-trotting across a dance floor. The four women played exquisitely.
After this vigorous workout, the quartet returned to the stage for a charming rendition of Gershwin’s “He Loves and She Loves,” a perfect love song for a rainy afternoon.
Though it wasn’t published until 1868, the Mendelssohn work was commissioned in 1830 for the 300th anniversary of Martin Luther’s revolutionary “Ninety-five Theses,” ushering in the Protestant Reformation, hence the subtitle.
The symphony’s first movement opens like a sunrise service, with a hymn-like, hopeful theme passing through the woodwinds and brass, supported by subdued strings, evoking the simplicity of this new era in spirituality. The music then rose in volume and majesty, showcasing the PSO’s excellent brass section.
As the strings joined in, the piece grew in intensity, sounding a little like Beethoven, but not overshadowing Mendelssohn’s own genius. The second movement was lighter in tone, more cheerful and perhaps reminiscent of Mozart, another one of Mendelssohn’s heroes.
The mournful third movement featured gorgeous solo flute played by the PSO’s Yevgeny Faniuk, carrying the melody. Milanov had mentioned earlier that Martin Luther himself played the flute and may have composed some of the best-known Lutheran hymns on the instrument.
Faniuk also introduced Luther’s famous refrain, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” in the fourth movement. Moving through the orchestra’s woodwinds, as well as the French horn section, then strings, the melody grew in grandeur to its rousing finale.
The Princeton Symphony Orchestra’s Classical Series continues with an all-Mozart program, featuring pianist Shai Wosner, on Sunday, November 12; pianist Simone Dinnerstein plays works by Bach and Glass, January 28; Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony, March 18; and the series concludes with violinist Ilya Kaler playing the Brahms Violin Concerto, May 20. 609-497-0020 or www.princetonsymphony.org.