By Ross Amico
September 23, 2015
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Classical Music: PSO opening season with Sept. 27 concert

To mark the Princeton Symphony Orchestra's 35th year, works by female composers will be woven into the tapestry of a celebratory season that lauds the creativity of women.

It seems appropriate that the first of these would be called "The Seamstress."  The piece for violin and orchestra by Anna Clyne – after the poem, "A Coat," by William Butler Yeats – will open the PSO season.  Also on the program will be Rachmaninoff's wistfully romantic Symphony No. 2.

The concert will take place at 4 p.m. at Richardson Auditorium in Alexander Hall on the campus of Princeton University.  PSO music director Rossen Milanov will conduct.  Milanov will also deliver a pre-concert talk at 3.

The London-born, Brooklyn-based Clyne, 35, has had a remarkably vital career.  She has just completed a five-year stint as composer-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

In September 2013, conductor Marin Alsop gave Clyne pride of place, presenting her orchestral work, "Masquerade," as the opening piece of the beloved and often boisterous Last Night of the Proms at London's Royal Albert Hall.  This week, it was announced that Clyne has been invited to take up residency with Alsop's home orchestra, the Baltimore Symphony.

She has written works for the American Composers Orchestra, Carnegie Hall, Houston Ballet, the London Sinfonietta, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and many others.  Among her composition teachers was the recipient of this year's Pulitzer Prize for Music, Julia Wolfe.

One of the qualities for which Clyne is recognized is her experimentation with mixed media.  Her collaborations have included partnerships with cutting edge choreographers, visual artists, filmmakers and musicians.  In the case of "The Seamstress," she incorporates electronically processed recordings of Irish-born composer Irene Buckley reading Yeats' verse.

"It's a poem I've known for quite a while," she says.  "I actually set it back in 2003.  It begins, 'I made my song a coat/Covered with embroideries/Out of old mythologies/From heel to throat.'   I kept coming back to this very simple, folk-like melody, and I think that's what resonated and brought the poem back to my mind."

She was also in the process of taking Irish fiddle classes in Chicago.  On a more intimate level, she carries the memory of her grandmother's Irish lilt.  Clyne is hesitant about calling the work a concerto.  Her aims were more lyrical than virtuosic.

"It's not a flashy showpiece, but more sort of a delicate conversation," she says.  "When I composed it, I envisioned more of a ballet."

Her collaboration with violinist Jennifer Koh, for whom she wrote the work, has been an ongoing conversation in itself.  "The Seamstress" marks the third collaboration between violinist and composer.  The first came about through Koh commissioning Clyne to write a piece for her and violinist Jaime Laredo, which they then recorded on her album of duo concertante works, "Two x Four," for the Cedille Records label.

"The piece that she wrote, 'Prince of Clouds,' was really amazing, really beautiful, really profound," says Koh.  "The working process for that piece was really incredible.  It was very collaborative, very give-and-take, and the process itself was very inspiring for me.  After that, I asked her to write another piece for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, 'Rest These Hands Travels,' and we premiered that last December.  Shortly after completing that piece, she started working on 'The Seamstress.'"

The latter work was given its premiere by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in May.  A month later, Alsop conducted it with the Sao Paulo Symphony.  The BBC Symphony will give it its European premiere in January.

Sunday's concert will mark Koh's second engagement with the PSO.  She played Dvorak's Violin Concerto in Richardson Auditorium in 2011.  Previously, she had partnered with Milanov and the Camden-based Symphony in C, while she was yet a student at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music, and the Philadelphia Orchestra, where Milanov was associate conductor and artistic director of the ensemble's summer concerts at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts.

At the time of our interview (via Skype), she was in Denmark, recording an album of Tchaikovsky's violin works.  It's a standout from her usual recorded projects which tend to focus on the new, or at any rate to strike a balance between the familiar and the unusual.  As a performer who interacts with a lot of contemporary composers, she is inclined to view music history as a continuum.

"What would have spoken to human beings 300 years ago somehow can still speak to us in a profound way today – you know, like Bach – and that's kind of amazing," she says.  "I find that really an incredible thing.  Then to be working with composers today who are really finding new ways to kind of stretch the medium of not only the instrument, but of the genre's music that we're playing, it's very exciting to me."

Koh and Milanov will appear at a PSO "Behind the Music" event, which will take place at the Arts Council of Princeton's Paul Robeson Center on Saturday at 3 p.m.  They will discuss Clyne's music, Koh's collaborative relationship with the composer, and Milanov's method of preparing her scores for live performance.  The event is free and open to the public, with advanced reservations available through the PSO.

The PSO's season-long celebration of the creativity of women was inspired in part by the orchestra's founder, Portia Sonnenfeld.  It is also a fine excuse to perform works by five living composers, four of them women, including two PSO co-commissions.  The orchestra will play Jing Jing Luo's "Tsao Shu," on 1/31; Pulitzer Prize-winner (and Princeton University graduate student) Caroline Shaw will be the soloist in her new work for violin and orchestra, "Lo," on 3/13; and the ensemble will unveil a new piece by Princeton composer Sarah Kirkland Snider, on 5/15.

Among this season's notable performers, five-time Grammy Award-winning soprano Dawn Upshaw will sing "Three Songs," written for her by Osvaldo Golijov, on 1/31.

What:  Music by Anna Clyne and Rachmaninoff
When:  Sunday, 4 p.m. (pre-concert talk at 3)
Where:  Richardson Auditorium, Alexander Hall, Princeton University
How much:  $25-$75
Contact:  www.princetonsymphony.org or 609-497-0020

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