As the orchestra tunes for its final concert of the season, Sinfonietta Nova’s dance card is nearly full.
The West Windsor-based community ensemble is about to conclude its 2018-’19 series devoted to dance with a concert on Latin American themes. The program, “Shall We Dance?,” will be presented Saturday, May 11, at 7:30 p.m. at the orchestra’s home, Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Princeton Junction.
Characteristic of the orchestra’s music director, Gail Hsui-Wen Lee, is her practice of working with an overarching theme for the season.
“I always like to have a theme to program around,” she says, “and I select music that is not ordinary. So you don’t go to the concert and hear the same thing over and over again. It started early on with a theme per concert, but I found there’s so much music for a lot of these themes that I just expanded it to the entire season.”
Lee understands her unique position as an ambassador of unusual repertoire, frequently written by composers most professional orchestras would not touch, with names that have not necessarily been at the top of the classical music marquee for the past century or more.
It is a safe assumption that Sinfonietta Nova has brought to the area first performances of works by George Butterworth, Niels Wilhelm Gade, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and New Zealand composer Douglas Lilburn. But it has not been to the neglect of the revered masterpieces of the canon. Sinfonietta Nova also presents plenty of Beethoven, Brahms, and Dvorak. A recent highlight was an appearance by David Kim, concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra, who was soloist in Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto.
Other guests have included Metropolitan Opera violinist Ming-Feng Hsin, hornist Douglas Lundeen of the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, and tubist Scott Mendoker of Philadelphia Brass.
The orchestra has also ventured into concert performances of opera with Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel” and Johann Strauss II’s “Die Fledermaus.”
As part of its mission statement, Sinfonietta Nova aims to inspire and engage audiences through innovative programming and to offer unique perspectives on the classical repertoire with the occasional inclusion of works by living composers, such as Rutgers graduate Edgar Girtain IV. The orchestra has also performed “Dream in White on White” by Pulitzer Prize winner John Luther Adams.
Past seasons have explored the music of England (to coincide with the London Olympics and Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee), works inspired by animals and landscapes, and variations on various musical themes by composers down through the ages.
The theme for this season has been “Shall We Dance?”
The May 11 concert will include evocative inspirations from Latin America. Mexican composer Arturo Marquez’s “Danzon No. 2” has become a calling card of Venezuelan firebrand Gustavo Dudamel. With or without lyrics (originally without), Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona’s “Malaguena” draws on flamenco. Astor Piazzolla’s “Tangazo” is yet another meditation on the tango of his native Argentina.
American composer Morton Gould’s rousing “Latin American Symphonette” — its four movements inspired by the rhumba, tango, guaracha, and congo — should fill anyone’s prescription for more cow bell.
Sinfonietta Nova will be joined by guest violinist Denise Dillenbeck for the “Havanaise” by Camille Saint-Saens. Saint-Saens wrote the work, inspired by the habanera, in 1887 for the Cuban violinist Rafael Diaz Albertini.
Dillenbeck herself has ample experience as a solo, orchestral, and chamber musician. She has toured Europe and the U.S. with the Philadelphia Orchestra. She was a member of the Oregon Symphony and associate concertmaster of the Tacoma Symphony. She is currently concertmaster of several orchestras, including the Yakima Symphony, the York Symphony, and the Northwest Sinfonietta.
Lee hints that Dillenbeck will also perform a certain encore that was one of the inspirations for her choice of theme for the season.
Though her parents were not musical, Lee, who was born in Taiwan, says she received her first lessons from her grandfather. He studied in Japan and was an assistant to Shinichi Suzuki, creator of the Suzuki Method.
She excelled in math and entered college with a love of physics and a passion for astronomy. But by then she had been in the U.S. for only two years and had trouble keeping up with the reading. It was also a time before many people had personal computers in their homes.
“We had to go to the lab at school to do homework, projects, et cetera, and you sometimes had to wait in line to use the terminal,” she says. “I remember one night I was at the lab until 2 o’clock in the morning, and I finally had enough. Very soon after that, I decided that I’d rather spend that much time in the practice room than lab.”
She completed her undergraduate music studies at Rutgers University and earned her master’s in orchestral conducting from Northwestern University.
Past positions have included artistic director and conductor of the New Brunswick Chamber Orchestra.
Lee has conducted the North Hungarian Symphony Orchestra; the Filharmonie Hradec Kralove, the Janacek Filharmonie Ostrava, and the Silesian Opera Theatre Orchestra (all three in the Czech Republic); and the Varna State Philharmonie (in Bulgaria); as well as Kaohsuing City Symphony in Taiwan and the National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra, with which she served as associate conductor.
In the U.S. she has conducted the Seattle Symphony and the Women’s Philharmonic, a San Francisco-based orchestra that was founded to champion the works of female composers.
As an educator Lee has taught at Alfred University and Cairn University. She has conducted the orchestras at both schools. She has served as a lecturer at Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts and conducted the Rutgers University Sinfonia and Opera at Rutgers.
Lee made steps toward her dream of founding a community orchestra in West Windsor in 2001, but it wasn’t until 2008 that she presented Sinfonietta Nova’s inaugural season.
“I had no money,” she says. “I was funding it myself, and I was trying to get backers. All the logistical stuff, the paperwork, it all takes time. And I was working, too. I was employed elsewhere, I was teaching, I was doing church groups. I worked at it when I had time to do it, which is why it took so long. I didn’t want to start something that wouldn’t work or wouldn’t last.”
She also points out the state of the economy at the time and the care with which she selected her musicians, drawing largely on friends and people she worked with in New Brunswick.
The group has since offered performance opportunities to young musicians through its seasonal concerto competitions. Winners appear as soloists in Sinfonietta Nova concerts.
The orchestra also frequently collaborates with the Capital Singers of Trenton. Its most recent appearance with the choir took place at Trenton’s Sacred Heart Church in April.
Lee makes her home in West Windsor with her husband, a trumpeter and manufacturer of lubricants for woodwind and brass instruments, and their cat, Comet. She serves as director of music ministries at First Presbyterian Church of Dutch Neck and with the Taiwanese-American Fellowship Presbyterian Church in Hillsborough. When she is not conducting or programming, she enjoys gardening and getting out in nature, cooking, travel, and history.
“My husband and I are particularly interested in anything World War II-related,” she says, singling out a trip the couple took to Normandy. “What an incredible experience that was, to be taken to places and related the local stories. But history in general, it’s very fascinating.”
Though her orchestra serves the community of West Windsor and its vicinity (the ensemble has performed at schools and churches, participated in summer concerts at an area shopping center, and appeared at Princeton University’s Richardson Auditorium), Lee says that many of her current musicians have come to her by way of personal connections and networking. Still, she is always on the lookout for new talent and may be reached at email@example.com.
Shall We Dance?, Sinfonietta Nova, Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, 177 Princeton Hightstown Road, Princeton Junction. Saturday, May 11, 7:30 p.m. $10 to $18. www.sinfoniettanova.org.