By Liz Wimberg
The prestigious Princeton Symphony Orchestra performed at the College on Saturday, March 29, in the Mayo Concert Hall.
The show, entitled “Nights and Dreams,” included “Dances in the Dark,” a piece by Julian Grant inspired by his 1998 “Opera Heroes Don’t Dance,” Benjamin Britten’s 1943 “Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Op. 31” featuring two soloists and a poetic libretto, and finally the 1830 “Symphonie Fantastique” from Hector Berlioz.
The ensemble was under the direction of the accomplished Rossan Milanov.
Just as these pieces are arranged and ordered in movements, so is the pre-performance ritual of a classical symphony. The audience trickled in from the rain outside to a sound almost as mesmerizing as the music itself: each artist is in his respective place on stage, but in a space entirely his own.
He worked through his most challenging sections of the program. Another tested her agility with scales. Her neighbor recited a favorite piece to prepare himself mentally. The cacophony is hypnotic. But soon the lights dimmed and rose again, signaling the beginning, and the principal violinist took the stage. With a glance, she motioned to the principal oboist for a tuning note. His b-flat held steady. Next entered the woodwinds and brass. All fell out again, save the sonorous tuner. Enter: strings, first the high octaves from the violins and violas, then deeper cellos and deepest bassists. Tiny adjustments, tightened strings, elongated valves and a heavy silence — Milanov approached from stage left, sober and resolute. Baton up, breathe in, downbeat.
Dances in the Dark is a wild ride: now dream, now nightmare, but motion so constant that even the near-silences kept us spinning. In fact, no true silence occured at all: the four sections, each set to explicit dance rhythms, run without pause.
“The whole piece is a compendium of anything you might get up to after dark — a mix of the sensual, the scary, scented, drunken, wild, sated, nightmarish, overdosed,” said composer Julian Grant, who was present for the concert.
If the idea was to introduce the dynamism of Night and Dreams, Grant’s piece was a perfect opener, though certainly a tough act to follow. Nevertheless, the performance proceeded at a constant level of excellence.
Following many applause, brass and percussion exited for Britten’s Serenade, featuring soloists Eric Ruske on French horn and Dominic Armstrong singing tenor. The concert concluded with Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, a love story like no other.
James M. Day, professor of guitar performance, history, literature and pedagogy at the College, encouraged all his students to take advantage of the opportunity to encounter “an ensemble of this caliber in our space.”
Reflecting on the first half of the show, Day noted how cleanly the musicians played in a setting much more intimate than their usual venues. Meticulous attention to detail and a distinct interaction with each piece enabled the PSO to “bring out the color” of the program, and to create a truly remarkable experience on our campus.
The PSO has one more performance this season at their home venue, the Richardson Auditorium on the campus of Princeton University on Sunday, May 4. Additionally, take advantage of the many events hosted by the Center for the Arts at the College during the remainder of the semester.