Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 17
Wednesday, April 29, 2009
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Princeton University Orchestra Presents Mindlin Concerts With Renowned Soloist

Nancy Plum

In the midst of a number of very public musical anniversaries in Princeton, another more reflective commemoration slipped by this past weekend. For the past twenty years, the Princeton University Orchestra has been honoring the memory of its former percussionist Stuart Mindlin with a concert that usually features a towering orchestral work. In addition to honoring one of its own, this annual performance has given the student members of the orchestra the opportunity to challenge themselves with what has traditionally been very demanding repertoire.

For this year’s Mindlin Memorial Concerts, presented Friday and Saturday nights at Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University Orchestra conductor Michael Pratt selected not a single monumental piece but two works, each of which was no less substantial than the Mahler symphonies performed in the past. For this concert, Mr. Pratt demonstrated an unusual seating arrangement for the orchestra, placing the eight double basses on the permanent stone risers of Richardson. Although the basses seemed far away from their fellow strings, this placement enabled their sound to project over the ensemble, especially when playing pizzicato.

Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor requires expert communication between orchestra and soloist, in this case legendary Czech pianist Ivan Moravec. A grand champion keyboard artist, Mr. Moravec was in command of the concerto from the start in Friday night’s performance, drawing out the solo phrases like a Schumann song. Throughout the first movement, Mr. Moravec maintained a very effective dialog with solo winds, especially oboist Liz Jensen. Mr. Moravec’s tapering of phrases was also in tandem with the violins, and his symphonic cadenza was an effective way to close the first movement.

A very rich cello sound marked the second movement intermezzo, as Mr. Moravec led a musical conversation between piano and winds. Clearly one of the old school technicians, Mr. Moravec exhibited great clarity in the upper register of the piano, as Mr. Pratt maintained a nice lilt to the triple meters in the third movement to close the concerto.

The very large orchestral ensemble regrouped (although the basses stayed up on the risers) for the second half of the performance to present Richard Strauss’s autobiographical and certainly humorous symphonic poem Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life). Mr. Pratt noted that this “heroic” piece certainly reflected the “heroic” efforts of the Class of 2009 players in the orchestra, for whom this would be their last set of concerts, and who were honored as well each night. With an opening of rich celli and violas, this one movement work automatically set a different tone than the Schumann concerto.

Each of the six musical vignettes of the Strauss work had at least two or three programmatic ideas circling through the music at any given time. Especially in “The Hero,” which opened the piece, Mr. Pratt kept all the different ideas which were piling up under control, accompanied by a very steady brass section. Random solo winds dotted the second vignette, “The Hero’s Adversaries,” no doubt representing music critics picking at Strauss over the years.

Concertmistress Alyse Wheelock, impressive in her role as concertmistress while just a sophomore, provided the calm in the vignettes pertaining to Strauss’s wife, especially when reaching into the lower register of her instrument in the closing movement. Bright and playful wind playing contrasted well with the lower strings and horns, punctuated from time to time by two harps. Throughout this tone poem, clarinetist Jeff Hodes and oboist Lija Treibergs provided very clean solo playing, and English horn player Brian Gurewitz played an exquisite solo in the closing vignette, accompanied well by the timpani. As might be expected from a composer sharing the compositional world with Gustav Mahler, this piece was heavy on brass, including offstage trumpets which were very precise. The nine horns also provided a unified and clean sound.

Each Mindlin concert seems to set a different mood, and the character for this performance was both majestic and joyful. The collaboration with such a celebrated soloist as Mr. Moravec also provided an inspirational element to the performance, as the students were given the opportunity to partner musically with someone of his caliber for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

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