Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXII, No. 18
Wednesday, April 30, 2008
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Princeton University Orchestra Pays Tribute to Former Member With Towering Symphony

Nancy Plum

It has been twenty years since Princeton University Orchestra percussionist and community member Stuart Mindlin died. The Mindlin children are now all grown and successful, and despite the number of years which have passed, the University Orchestra never fails at this time of year to present a mammoth orchestral work to honor its former member. This concert, which this year featured Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, also honors the graduating seniors of the orchestra, many of whom sit first chair in their sections and hold key positions within the orchestra organization.

Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 was preceded by his Symphony of a Thousand, a hard work to top by any means. Given the crossover among vocal, instrumental, and choral genres in late Romantic symphony works, it could be said that Das Lied von der Erde was really Mahler’s 9th symphony. Urban legend has it that Mahler approached this symphony with superstitious trepidation, knowing that both Franz Schubert and Anton Bruckner had died following or during the completion of their 9th symphonies. It is clear that Mahler began this work after another of those “life comes at you fast” moments; in one summer his daughter died, he himself was diagnosed with a heart condition, and he was forced out of his prestigious position as director of the Vienna Court Opera.

Mahler symphonies are often viewed as autobiographical, and like his career, the 9th is a continual ebb and flow of tumult and tranquility. Princeton University Orchestra conductor Michael Pratt, leading the ensemble in Friday night’s performance at Richardson Auditorium (the concert was repeated Saturday night), kept the musical contrasts clear, with motives well separated and clean breaks between musical thoughts. One trick to a successful performance of this work is to find a common thread among all the musical ideas, and the players of the orchestra easily shifted gears between sections.

A strength of Mahler’s symphonic works was his unique daring in combining instruments, such as mixing a solo violin, clarinet, and oboe with a pair of horns in the first movement Allegro comodo. Flutist Jessica Anastasio, clarinetist Suzanne Westbrook, and oboist Justin Knutson closed out the first movement well, together with a solo harp. No matter how despairing, the music in Mahler’s extensive symphonic movements always eventually rises from the ashes. Under Mr. Pratt’s direction, the orchestral ensemble sound was never overwhelming, and was well punctuated when necessary by timpani and percussion. Principal bassoonist Victor Amin, together with the horn section, began the second movement landler, which in Mahler symphonies is always a bit distorted. A quirky trio of clarinets emphasized the distorted nature of the waltz, and throughout the movement, the trills from all instruments were clean. In composing this movement, Mahler asked the instruments to play a bit raucously, well handled by the orchestra players, with clean brass and winds of the recapitulation of the waltz providing a good contrast. There were also a number of instances of excellent tuning, such as a resolution between a solo viola and the brass section.

Melodic texture always wins out in the end of his works, in this case demonstrated by the strings in the fourth movement Adagio. The vibratoless playing of the strings seemed to send tormented souls to heaven, aided by a number of solo winds, including English hornist Bryan Gurewitz, flutist Anastasio, oboist Knutson, bass clarinetist Raaj Mehta and bassoonist Amin. The English horn was an especially elegant touch, given that the instrument had not been heard much previously in the symphony. The audience’s rapt attention throughout the performance was evidenced by the fact that one could hear a pin drop in the hall on the last page as Mr. Pratt brought the monumental work to a close.

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