Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 24
Wednesday, June 16, 2010
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The Greater Princeton Youth Orchestra Celebrates 50 Years in Fine Operatic Fashion

Nancy Plum

Not many community music organizations in Princeton can claim fifty years of history. The Greater Princeton Youth Orchestra (GPYO) can not only claim a solid half-century of music-making, but also cite a track record of growth to its current state of including close to 150 students in its instrumental programs. The GPYO celebrated this half century mark on Saturday night in Richardson Auditorium, drawing on collaborations from a number of musical and community sources.

A mainstay of GPYO’s ability to thrive has been its partnership with the Princeton-Pettoranello Sister City Foundation, rooted in Pettoranello’s tradition of stone-cutting for Princeton University and now maintained through the foundation’s support and sponsorship of the orchestra. The GPYO took this transatlantic connection one step further by inviting the Italian Consulate in Newark to participate in the celebrations; the music for Saturday night’s concert was apparently chosen by Andrea Barbaria, the Italian consul in New Jersey. Mr. Barbaria selected pieces which might have been short in length but were long on celebratory mood, and which celebrated Italy’s history as a whole.

The core of Saturday night’s program was a selection of opera choruses, with interspersed opera overtures and one late 18th century cello concerto featuring a member of the orchestra. In recognition of the Princeton-Pettoranello connection, GPYO conductor Fernando Raucci opened the concert with the national anthems of both the United States and Italy, and then launched into the opening Sinfonia of Vincenzo Bellini’s 19th century bel canto masterpiece, Norma.

The orchestra began the Sinfonia with a full dark sound, with the strings conveying an appropriate sense of foreboding. A wind collection of three flutes, a piccolo and a pair of oboes and clarinets were especially clean, and principal flutist Molly Fuller and clarinetist Ray Hou provided effective solo playing. Maestro Raucci followed the Sinfonia with the Act IV chorus “Guerra, guerra!” performed by Princeton Pro Musica. Opera chorus is a genre into which Pro Musica does not get to delve very often, and the ensemble clearly enjoyed their different character roles throughout the evening. The full sound of the chorus matched that of the orchestra, and although it was impossible to catch all the words, the theatrical mood certainly came across.

An Intermezzo from Puccini’s Manon Lescaut and the “Humming Chorus” from his Madama Butterfly showed the well-blended and balanced sides of both orchestra and chorus. The Manon piece in particular contained high quality solo playing from cellist Phillip Chan, and Maestro Raucci was clearly able to find sensitivity in both of these works. The “Humming Chorus” is not usually heard with the singers in view (its place in the opera is at the end of an act, when offstage singers are often on their way out the door), and despite the difficulty in humming in such a high register, the singers of Pro Musica were well prepared and hummed with a good open sound. A solo violin (played by concertmaster Roy Xiao) with viola and harp added to the sweetness of the music.

A very scaled down string section (with two to four on a part) accompanied Princeton High School junior Phillip Chan in the first movement of Luigi Boccherini’s Concerto for Cello and Orchestra. This piece in particular was chosen to celebrate Italy’s Festa della Repubblica, and from the outset was clearly going to be a nice light piece to listen to. Mr. Chan had a nice sense of phrasing in his playing, and accomplished well the long passages of racing notes in the movement. This was a concerto in which the soloist was part of the orchestra fabric, and despite some unsureness about tuning at the end of the first section of the movement, both soloist and orchestra settled down to show what they could do as an ensemble. Mr. Chan was especially impressive in the cadenza to the movement — a passage full of double stops and quick playing requirements.

Princeton Pro Musica conductor Frances Slade took the stage to conduct the orchestra and chorus in several numbers from Verdi’s Nabucco, one of the most nationalistic works ever composed. Very well blended brass opened the Sinfonia well, and Ms. Slade derived a decisive sound when necessary from the orchestra. Oboist Andrea Nowalk and Mr. Hou on clarinet provided excellent solo work in this Sinfonia.

The high point for the chorus was likely the classic “Va, pensiero,” in which the chorus members could really sing out, and Ms. Slade succeeded in not allowing the loud sections to sound overdone. Mr. Raucci returned to the stage to close the concert in selections from Aida, another towering representative of the 19th century Italian opera tradition.

GPYO’s 50th anniversary concert succeeded not only in its entertainment for the audience, but in its collaboration with other organizations. The concert was listed as the opening event of the Princeton Festival, GPYO had brought a number of political figures from both the Princeton and Italian-American communities, and the graduating seniors in the orchestra were able to finish their tenure with a great operatic flourish.

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