When Marna Seltzer became the director of Princeton University Concerts in September 2010, she envisioned a series that not only presented exciting programming exploring new areas of classical and chamber music, but also an organization that responded to its community and became a part of that community. With the announcement of its 2018-19 season last week, it would seem that Princeton University Concerts has achieved just that.
It is a season featuring new initiatives, including a residency by one of the hottest conductors around, a new series showcasing musicians from around the world, and a special event concert by Bobby McFerrin.
There also, of course, will be the concerts - the classic series, Performances Up Close Series, and two shows for kids and families.
It adds up to what seems like a banner 125th anniversary season for Princeton University Concerts, though Seltzer says there wasn’t a plan for all of these elements to come together for the milestone.
“The process has been a lot more organic, and it's been rooted in trying to respond to the community and trying to respond to what people want, and also trying to go in new areas that create a bigger community," Seltzer says. "It's incredibly satisfying to see that happen.”
One of the season's hallmarks is PUC’s first artist-in-residence program, with Gustavo Dudamel, the Venezuelan violinist and conductor who is the conductor for Venezuela's famed Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, and also is the music and artistic director for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
“We talked about having an artist-in-residence for a long time and have explored a number of different options," Seltzer say. "But again, I did not go into the planning saying, 'We want to have Gustavo Dudamel do the residence.'"
Instead, in thinking about PUC's 125th season, Seltzer looked at the group’s archives and noticed that during its first 40 or 50 years, the series was a destination for major orchestras. PUC's history includes Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra, as well as regular visits by the New York Philharmonic.
Seltzer considered bringing in an orchestra to perform, but then decided against it, partly because of all the orchestra concerts that happen in Princeton, and because many PUC subscribers also go to orchestra concerts in Philadelphia and New York.
“It just didn't seem to be something that was going to distinguish us in the way I try to do with all the programs," Seltzer says. "The next leap was to think, 'Well if we can have any orchestra that might fit that bill, what would it be?'"
That led to her reaching out to the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra several years ago. Seltzer was talking with Dudamel's manager, and found out the conductor was interesting in engaging with the Princeton campus.
“It seemed like the idea of doing an extended residency like this, which he’s never done before, was something that was on his mind," Seltzer says. "So the conversations went from there."
The residency will involve three visits to the Princeton campus by Dudamel and a concert series, curated by Dudamel, coinciding with those visits. The concert feature musicians who are associated with Dudamel.
On Dec. 2, The Simon Bolivar String Quartet will perform a programming tied to the them, “Art & the Americas.” Dudamel will bring to Richardson Auditorium a string quartet consisting of principals from the orchestra.
On Jan. 7, 2019, musicians from the Los Angeles Philharmonic will perform a program exploring “Art & Faith," which will include a new work by Juri Seo, as well as music by Mozart and Arvo Part.
On April 23, 2019, Ensemble Berlin, featuring members of the Berlin Philharmonic, will perform a program that will include a new work by Steven Mackey, as well as music by Wagner and Schubert.
The final concerts of the residency will feature the Princeton University Orchestra and the Princeton University Glee Club, conducted by Dudamel. There will be two performances of a program featuring music by Schubert, as well as Tchaikovsky's “Romeo and Juliet” and Mendelssohn’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The first concert will take place April 26, 2019, at Richardson Auditorium on the Princeton University campus. It will be fundraiser for a new education program created and inspired by Dudamel, allowing Princeton students to continue teaching private music lessons in Trenton.
The second performance will take place April 27, 2019, at Patriots Theater at the War Memorial in Trenton. This free concert will include a multimedia presentation to accommodate "A Midsummer Night’s Dream."
Dudamel's residency also will see him talking with seminar students, and making several visits to Trenton to work with students.
“We’ve tried to be as collaborative as we can, but we really have not done something that’s so multifaceted on campus before," Seltzer says. "But I’ve wanted to, and this really gives us the chance to work with a lot of different partners.”
Those partners include the Princeton University Art Museum, the Center for Human Values and the Woodrow Wilson School.
“The campus-wide engagement is going to be a really special feature — for him and for us," Seltzer says. "He’s never done anything like this before.”
The other new element for PUC's 125th season is the Crossroads series, which grew out of the Performances Up Close intimate chamber concerts.
Crossroads aims to bring artists together from around the world to perform chamber music concerts. Seltzer says one of the motivations behind Crossroads was to expand on the definition of chamber music.
“And to plumb all of the possibilities of the more intimate side of chamber music," she says, adding that the concerts also will spotlight music's ability to create conversation and tell stories.
The first Crossroads concert will take place Nov. 8 and will feature banjo player Abigail Washburn and the Chinese musician Wu Fei, who plays an instrument called a guzheng, a string instrument that has been around for 2,000 years. Fei and Washburn met during Washburn’s travels to China (Washburn speaks fluent Chinese) and found out that her bluegrass and Fei’s Chinese music have much in common.
The Crossroads series will continue Feb. 14, 2019, with a performance by vocalist/composer Gabriel Kahane of his work, “8980: Book of Travelers.” Kahane wrote the song cycle following his travels of the country by train after the 2016 election.
“It tells the story of how people were feeling the day after the election, in all different facets, it doesn’t take a particular point of view," Seltzer says. "But it also weaves in his own history, stories his grandmother told him from a diary that she kept. He does it in a really magical way and it all comes together to create a very contemporary song cycle that I think is mostly Americana.”
The final Crossroads concert, “Avital Meets Avital,” will take place April 16, 2019. Avi Avital, mandolin player, and Omer Avital, bass player (the two are not related), will blend jazz and classical with Moroccan, North African, Israeli and Mediterranean
Seltzer says Crossroads continues PUC’s presentations of concerts to demonstrate the chamber music can be more than string quartets.
“I want people to understand that that quality they love about chamber music, that they love about a string quartet, that sort of intimate one-on-one communication, exists in a lot of other music," she says. "Having this series kind of packages what we’ve been doing in single events for the last few years.”
PUC also will continue its Performance Up Close series with three concerts featuring the Takacs String Quartet playing Schubert’s String Quartet in C Major, D. 956 (Oct. 17); as well as a group that will perform Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time" (Feb. 6, 2019); and a performance of Schubert’s Octet for Winds and Strings in F Major D. 803 (Feb. 19, 2019).
The bedrock of Princeton University Concerts' seasons is its Concert Classics Series, which will open Oct. 11 with a performance by the Jerusalem String Quartet playing music by Strauss, Schoenberg and Tchaikovsky.
On Dec. 13, clarinet player Martin Frost and pianist Henrik Mawe will perform music for clarinet and piano.
Famed cellist Steven Isserlis will perform a program titled “Composers and Their Muses,” with pianist Connie Shih, Feb. 28, 2019.
Pianists Alexander Melnikov and Andreas Staier wil perform Schubert’s found-hand piano music, March 14, 2019.
March 28 will see a concert by violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja with Polina Leschenko on piano. The program will feature music by Bartok, Poulenc, Ensecu and Ravel.
“People say she is the wild child of the violin," Seltzer says of Kopatchinskaja. "She is someone who is incapable of giving a boring performance. She plays in bare feet, she does things in a completely unexpected way.”
Continuing the series is the Takacs String Quartet (April 4); the Australian Chamber Orchestra (April 11); and the Ebene String Quartet (May 2).
PUC also will present two family concerts, "Baby Got Back," Nov. 3, and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center with the Princeton Girlchoir performing “The Girl Who Love Wild Horses,” based on the story by Paul Goble.
The Richardson Chamber Players will play two concerts — Nov. 11 and Feb. 10.
Princeton University Concerts also will host two special events during this banner season — a concert by mezzo-soprano Joyce Didonato on March 10, titled “Songplay,” will explore Italian Baroque and its thread to the American songbook.
The first special concert will open the season when Bobby McFerrin will perform a concert titled “Circlesongs,” Sept. 21. He will improvise shared sound with the Princeton University Glee Club and will lead the audience in a call-and-response.
“I wanted him to open the season because if I had to boil down the biggest priority for me with the series it would be creating community," Seltzer says. "Making people feel like they belong and that they’re part of something and making sure that community is really expansive. And I feel like Bobby McFerrin embodies that. “
She notes McFerrin, throughout his career, has encouraged his audiences to sing — even the people who don’t think they can sing.
“We all have a voice and he gets everybody doing it and everybody participating and everybody’s sounding pretty great," Seltzer says. "He’s a musical inspiration.”
And people who associate McFerrin with his hit, "Don’t Worry Be Happy," will find out there’s much more to him.
“It was about finding someone who can stand on stage and make every single person in the audience feel joy — just unadulterated joy — for music," Seltzer says. "He wants everyone in the world to use their voice to make music.”
Single tickets for concerts will go on sale online only, July 2. Subscriptions will go on sale in May. For more tickets and more information about Princeton University Concerts' 2017-18 season, go to www.princetonuniversityconcerts.org or call 609-258-2800.