Live from Newtown

The Newtown Chamber Orchestra brings ‘Winter Warmth’ with its next concert.

By: Amy Brummer



photo by Mark Czajkowski


think people can become more connected with the music in a smaller venue,"
says Russell Hoffmann, music director and conductor of the Newtown Chamber
Orchestra, and a teacher at John Witherspoon Middle School in Princeton.
The orchestra will perform at the Bucks County Community College Library
Auditorium Feb. 22.

   Icy winds, short days and potholes. Even when it isn’t snowing
outside, February’s frigid hold seems inescapable.
   The Newtown Chamber Orchestra will attempt to thaw the seasonal
freeze with its upcoming concert, Winter Warmth, at Bucks County Community
College in Newtown, Pa., Feb. 22. The program features works from Rossini, Beethoven
and Mendelssohn, composers who coincidentally have birthdays in January and February.
   "In ‘Winter Warmth,’ I think the warmth comes from being able
to attend a concert and hear something that is familiar," says Russell Hoffmann,
the orchestra’s music director and conductor. "This particular concert is of a
very classical nature, and it is music that many people will know. Hearing it
again, it is almost like being reacquainted with old friends."
   The concert will feature Clipper Erickson as the piano soloist
for Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, Opus 73 in E-Flat Minor. Mr. Erickson, a
Yardley resident, has performed with the orchestra several times over the past
six years. He made his orchestral debut at the Young Musician’s Foundation Orchestra
in Los Angeles at age 19, going on to study at Juilliard, Indiana University and
Yale. In addition to appearing regularly with the Trenton Symphony Orchestra,
he has worked with notable conductors including Luis Biava, Otto-Werner Mueller
and Peter Bey.
   Now in his 50s, Mr. Erickson has performances at the Kennedy
Center and the Moscow Conservatory under his belt, as well as awards from the
Busoni Competition and the American Pianists Association. In the past year, he
released his third CD, An Orchestra of One, works by British composers
Cyril Scott and Roger Quilter, which was recorded at the Bristol Chapel of Westminster
Choir College in Princeton, where he has been a faculty member for two years.
   While Mr. Erickson has a personal interest in American and contemporary
classical music, he has great fondness for the works of Beethoven and mentions
the fourth and fifth concertos as his favorite pieces by the composer. He has
played the fourth concerto with the Newtown Chamber Orchestra in the past, and
looks forward to performing the fifth because of its beauty and innovation.
   "In the classical concerto," Mr. Erickson says, "the usual plan
is for the pianist to only come in after the orchestra has played for a while
and has introduced all the themes and all the material. Then the piano comes in
at a later point to embellish it. But this piece by Beethoven brings the piano
in right from the beginning, and that was eventually taken up by the more romantic
composers like Brahms and Liszt."
   The piece begins with a piano cadenza, then the instrument drops
out for a time. Mr. Erickson explains that Beethoven’s later concerti are more
like symphonies, not simply showcasing the soloist, but engaging the whole orchestra.
   Written in 1810, a year after Vienna surrendered to Napoleon,
the concerto is also known as "L’Empereur" and pairs the regal boldness of the
orchestra with the light, effusive trills of the piano solo.
   "It has so much emotion and heart in it," Mr. Erickson says.
"It is very heroic, but the second movement is so poetic and intimate. And then
the last movement is just great fun."
   He adds that the whole concert is entertaining, recalling that
Mendelssohn’s "Italian" Symphony No. 4 is a spirited piece that takes him back
to his days at Indiana University, as it is part of the soundtrack to the movie
Breaking Away, which is set on the campus.
   Also on the bill for the evening is the overture to Rossini’s
opera, La Cenerentola. While it might not be as well known as the composer’s
other pieces, such as The Barber of Seville or William Tell, Mr.
Hoffmann looks forward to expanding the audience’s knowledge.
   "’La Cenerentola’ is a work that not as many people will be
familiar with, but it is very typical of a Rossini overture," Mr. Hoffmann says.
"It starts off slow and has very driving rhythmic elements throughout and incorporates
a couple of melodies so it is easily recognizable as Rossini."
   Mr. Hoffmann founded the orchestra in 1990 with concertmaster
Milton Schwartz and French horn player Craig Smith, with a mission to bring classical
music to the greater Newtown region by presenting a broad overview of styles.
In doing so, the orchestra was not only making a cultural contribution but was
giving audiences the opportunity to experience classical music in a community
   A music teacher at John Witherspoon Middle School in Princeton,
Mr. Hoffman has served as associate conductor for the Trenton Symphony Orchestra,
music director for the Concert Opera of Philadelphia and guest conductor for the
Delaware Valley Philharmonic. He is no stranger to large venues, and as a result
understands the dynamics of size when it comes to reaching the audience.
   Because the Newtown Chamber Orchestra is focused on developing
a close relationship with the audience, he feels the setting at Bucks County Community
College helps achieve that goal.
   "I think people can become more connected with the music in
a smaller venue," he says. "I think there can be more communication from the orchestra
to the audience."
   The orchestra has also branched out beyond the region, traveling
to Spain in the summer of 2000 to perform at festivals across the country, including
the Santander International Music Festival.
   The past year has been particularly eventful for the orchestra,
which opened its 14th season with the dedication of a harpsichord from Richard
Rex of Doylestown. A side project for Mr. Rex, the harpsichord took 10 years to
build. In completing it, he sought a regional group that would regularly make
use of it.
   While the harpsichord is known for its delicacy, Mr. Hoffmann
says he is impressed with the new instrument for its resonance and ability to
project while accompanied by the orchestra.
   The orchestra also has released its first CD, Live from Newtown,
which includes Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, Concerto Grosso by Ernest Bloch
and Cavalleria Rusticana by Pietro Mascagni.
   Mr. Hoffmann adds that the orchestra’s strength comes from the
relationships that have developed among the musicians. Thirty-five members strong,
the orchestra is small enough to maintain intimacy, yet large enough to project
a full, rich performance.
   "Our program for this concert really highlights the classical
orchestra," he says, "the way it was in the 19th century when this music was premiered.
   "Our level of performance tends to be very high. I feel that
we have an excellent group of musicians, but beyond their skills and their musicianship,
there is a camaraderie that exists within the orchestra because many of the players
have been with the orchestra since it started. There is an ensemble that is built
in because of that consistency of players."
The Newtown Chamber Orchestra performs Winter Warmth at Bucks County Community
College Library Auditorium, 275 Swamp Road, Newtown, Pa., Feb. 22, 7 p.m. Tickets
cost $25, $20 seniors, $15 students, $10 under age 13. For information call (215)
598-0722. On the Web: