Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXII, No. 1
Wednesday, January 2, 2008
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Princeton University Orchestra Presents This Year’s Concerto Competition Winners

Nancy Plum

The Princeton University Orchestra paired Mozart with Brahms this past weekend to show off the winners of the ensemble’s 2007 Concerto Competition. One normally associates concerti with orchestral instruments, but recognizing that the voice is also an instrument, the competition judges selected as one winner a singer, who performed a vocal “concerto,” in this case two concert arias by Mozart.

Friday night’s concert in Richardson Auditorium (the program was repeated Saturday night) showed the University Orchestra capable of playing both delicately and full force. The two concert arias featuring soprano Sarah Vander Ploeg were full of dynamic contrasts and musical intricacy, which the ensemble handled well. “Chi sa, chi sa, qual sia” was the lighter spirited of the two arias, and the slightly reduced orchestra provided solid and stylistic accompaniment to the vocal soloist.

Sarah Vander Ploeg, currently a senior at the University, is a name one may very well hear in the future, either as a singer or an arts administrator. Ms. Vander Ploeg has already amassed quite a repertory of solos, and has apparently been committed to a vocal career since a young age. Her voice sounded perfectly suited to the Mozart era, with a refreshingly youthful and clear sound. She moved easily through the quick 16th notes, and was sufficiently careful with the vocal runs.

“Ah, lo previdi,“ the more dramatic of the two arias, provided Ms. Vander Ploeg with the opportunity to convey several theatrical moods, finally ending in the same calm and resolution Mozart employed in The Marriage of Figaro. Besides Ms. Vander Ploeg’s elegant singing, the last section of this concert aria was marked by a graceful oboe solo played by Justin Knutson.

The same characteristic Mozartean spirit was heard from the other Concerto Competition winner, Sarah Westbrook, in Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A Major. Ms. Westbrook is also a senior at the University, pursuing a certificate in musical performance, and has played in the University Orchestra all four years of her Princeton career.

Following a light and airy orchestral opening to the concerto, Ms. Westbrook played a refined and smooth opening solo line. Much like the vocal lines in the preceding concert arias, this clarinet solo line raced between low and high registers, and Ms. Westbrook had no trouble traveling with a very clear sound. The arpeggiated “Alberti bass” clarinet part in the very long first movement was particularly even and exact with the ensemble.

Mr. Pratt kept the dynamics well controlled in the orchestra, and elicited a stylistically lush instrumental sound in the second movement “Adagio” to accompany Ms. West-brook’s aria-like solo line. The orchestra, with its winds pared down to only flutes and bassoons, also maintained a sprightly “swing” in the third movement “Rondo.” After listening to the sensitive playing of Ms. Westbrook and noticing her plans for next year to attend medical school, the intriguing question arises of how all this musicality will translate to bedside manner in medicine.

Mr. Pratt closed the concert with a full and rich performance of Brahms’ Symphony #3, a work which allowed the ensemble to cut loose a bit and play full out in a Romantic style. Mr. Pratt and the players brought out the work’s Viennese style, keeping the first movement “Allegro” flowing well. With only eighteen violins, this orchestra seemed relatively small by collegiate orchestral standards, but Mr. Pratt has kept the string sound lean, to match the well-blended winds and brass. An especially well unified cello sound marked the second movement, and the brass and lower strings together rose to the task of closing the work with conviction.

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