By David Patrick Stearns, Inquirer Classical Music Critic
September 29, 2015
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Review: Anna Clyne piece startles in Princeton

PRINCETON - Was there an asthmatic in the house?

You could assume so at Richardson Auditorium on Sunday when the Princeton Symphony Orchestra gave the East Coast premiere of Anna Clyne's The Seamstress for violin and orchestra, which included several dozen electronically sampled sounds - heavy breathing, for one - bubbling up from the orchestral texture.

The expansively melodic piece sat well alongside the Rachmaninoff Symphony No. 2 that came later. But listeners who hadn't heard the warning in the preconcert lecture about foreign sounds to come were visibly taken aback. Was this a problem?

The 35-year-old British-born Clyne is one of the rising names in symphonic composition, having just finished a four-year stint as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's composer in residence. She has written a number of well-circulated shortish works with descriptive, non-generic titles and musical animation to match. Electronic elements are frequent, and less surprising when integrated into a piece's basic conception.

The Seamstress, though, has other priorities, starting with inspiration from the W.B. Yeats poem that begins "I made my song a coat," initially suggesting the piece would be a ballet. In its present form, the 22-minute work has plenty of solo opportunities for Jennifer Koh but with few of the violinist vs. orchestra dynamics of a concerto. Dominated by a sinewy, Irish-inflected theme, it starts off sounding like Lord of the Rings music but weaves its way into its own sphere, almost like a passacaglia that ties together the music's travels.

The reflective final third (the soul of the piece) revisits similar emotional territory as Clyne's Lavender Rain. Once one is accustomed to its unimposing nature (relative to, say, Brahms), it is entirely winning, and Koh's magnetism retrieved ears that were perhaps distracted by the electronic sampling. That last element also included words from the Yeats poem, barely intelligible and with no impact, like scaffolding left over from her creative process.

Music director Rossen Milanov has much experience with the Rachmaninoff symphony, but not all his players seemed attuned to his sense-over-sensuality approach with an ensemble two-thirds the size of the Philadelphia Orchestra. With the live Richardson Auditorium acoustics, Milanov had no problem conjuring a proper Rachmaninoff sound in a performance that truly captured the musical narrative. But the unusually exposed, heavy-handed brass was a periodic buzzkill.

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