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Princeton Symphony Orchestra Closes Season, Pianist Ovchinnikov Brings Down the House

Nancy Plum

The Princeton Symphony Orchestra closed its 2003-2004 season with fire and passion on Sunday afternoon in Richardson Auditorium, as conductor Mark Laycock brought back an audience favorite to play an audience favorite. Pianist Vladimir Ovchinnikov, who brought down the house last year with his performance of Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto, did the same this year with a fluid performance of the same composer's Concerto No. 2 in C Minor. This pianist specializes in impressive virtuosity, and there was plenty of opportunity in Rachmaninoff's monumental and popular work.

Throughout the first movement "Moderato," Mr. Ovchinnikov's keyboard fluidity was continuous, with Mr. Laycock in close contact to time the orchestral articulation exactly. There were very few places in this work for the pianist to rest, and Mr. Ovchinnikov demonstrated ample stamina in maintaining the drama until the end, with cadenzas that were on fire in their excitement. In an unusual move, Mr. Ovchinnikov played an encore to close the first half, lighting up Richardson with Liszt's La Campanella, his transcription of Pagannini's Second Violin Concerto.

Rachmaninoff was very good to lower strings, and the second theme in the second movement "Adagio" was richly played by the viola section. Effective wind and brass solos abounded, especially flutist Mary Schmidt, clarinetist David Hattner, and trumpeter Joe Reardon.

The orchestra had a slightly different formation on Sunday, likely because of the piano, but one of the side benefits was placing the brass between the stone walls onstage and under the overhang. This placement seemed to make their sound crisper and more precise, as was clearly evident in Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 (From the New World). Dvorak drew his inspiration for this work from a number of sources, and the well-balanced ensemble sound well delineated the syncopated folk and African-American motives. The hardest role in this symphony falls to the English horn, which carries the Going Home tune for which the symphony is known. James Button played with increasing expressiveness at each repetition of the tune, and his sensitivity was matched by the pair of horns and the string sextet that closed the second movement.

Mr. Laycock was in a celebratory mood himself on Sunday afternoon, closing the program with an encore of Blas Galindo Dimas' Sones de Mariachi, which as one can imagine by the title, captures the festive mariachi bands of early 20th century Mexico, adding to the New World theme of the concert's second half.

Princeton Symphony Orchestra has a lot to celebrate these days. Sunday afternoon's concert was sold out, as have been several other performances by the orchestra, and as demonstrated by the two major works on the program (as well as the opera overture by Saint-Saëns that opened the concert), the orchestra's precision and ensemble sound is at an all-time high. Next year is the orchestra's 25th anniversary season, and the programming is expanding into major choral/orchestral works, concert versions of opera, and pops to match the orchestra's traditionally innovative programming. In this closing performance of the 24th season, it was great to see not only an ensemble that is doing well in audience development, but also one that is having fun in the process.

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