Ending a Season with Fiery 20th-Century Classics

United StatesUnited States  Bartók, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Ravel: Cho-Liang Lin (violin), Princeton Symphony Orchestra, Rossen Milanov (conductor), Richardson Auditorium, Princeton, New Jersey, 5.5.2013. (BH)

Bartók: Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin (1927)
Stravinsky: Suite from The Firebird (1919 version)
Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 2 (1935)
Ravel: Boléro (1928)

Given the unparalleled wealth of concerts available in New York City, one might be tempted to overlook some opportunities just a wee bit farther afield. But two recent concerts by the Princeton Symphony Orchestra demonstrated work of a remarkably high caliber. Not only are the musicians culled from some of the best in New Jersey and neighboring states, but the director, Rossen Milanov, has keen musical instincts, and all are helped by the lively acoustics of Richardson Auditorium, a Romanesque-style hall on the Princeton University campus (and within walking distance of the train). For New Yorkers, the 4:00pm start time makes attending a concert here a winning day trip, especially on a lovely afternoon.

A March program featured Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun and Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde with two excellent singers, Margaret Mezzacappa (mezzo soprano) and Zach Borichevsky (tenor), led by Milanov. The Debussy was wonderfully transparent, and the conductor and the orchestra gave the Mahler a noble cast. If at times the ensemble seemed to be slightly struggling under Mahler’s demands, demonstrating how difficult the score truly is (despite its popularity in recent decades), overall the results were genuinely moving.

The season finale, titled Silk Road Dances, showed off the group with even more authority, starting with a savage, gripping suite from Bartók’s ballet, The Miraculous Mandarin. Principal Alexander Bedenko made the most of the tense clarinet solos, drifting up like smoke trails from the relentless, white-hot ensemble. Brass were clear without being harsh, and the orchestra’s four percussionists (Phyllis Bitow, principal) almost earned their afternoon kudos from this piece alone. The Stravinsky Firebird suite (from 1919) was equally overheated (meaning, good), with Milanov extracting maximum clarity and some thrilling ensemble work. And I hope Nathan Mills, the orchestra’s principal horn, is still being recalled by those who were there, for his gleaming confidence in the final pages.

The high-wattage soloist in Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto was no less than Cho-Liang Lin, who now teaches at Rice University, and continues to perform with major orchestras in the United States, Europe and Asia. His formidable technique showed itself immediately in the opening solo lines, which began lyrically but soon veered off into punishing torrents. A softly pulsing second-movement waltz had suppleness to spare, and in the energetic finale (“Allegro, ben marcato”) the violinist was impressively accurate, with some eerie sul ponticello (“on the bridge”) effects now and then, and a majestic tone easily filling the room—thanks to a 1715 “Titian” Stradivarius.

Before the group launched into Ravel’s Boléro, Milanov strode out with a bouquet of flowers, and offered brief, warmly appreciative words for Jayn Rosenfeld, retiring as principal flute, followed by prolonged audience applause. Then she and Ms. Bitow (on snare drum) began Ravel’s relentless dance—which I am inclined to view as a sort of “minimalist concerto for orchestra.” The entire group deserves praise, but I’m going to single out principal saxophone Ron Kerber, for juggling multiple instruments with mellow fluidity.

One look at the orchestra’s concert archive shows why Milanov received an ASCAP creative programming award in 2011. He seems to be an excellent fit—based on these two concerts and from anecdotal comments by some of the musicians—and I won’t be surprised when their already-impressive profile rises even higher.

Bruce Hodges