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Outstanding Soloists Were Featured In University Orchestra Winter Concert

Nancy Plum

When Christoph Eschenbach took the helm of the Philadelphia Orchestra, one of his changes was to reseat the players, splitting the violins on the outside of the stage and putting the celli and double basses inside.

This new seating has been a source of great debate with both players and audiences; a guest conductor was heard to say after a performance, "Can somebody please tell me, is this really better?"

Better or not in Philly, this type of seating formation is catching on. Conductor Michael Pratt adopted it for the Princeton University Orchestra this past weekend, when the ensemble presented its winter concert in Richardson Auditorium on Friday and Saturday night. Mr. Pratt seated the violins on either side of the stage for Mozart's Symphony No. 39, no doubt to elucidate the upper string lines.

In Friday night's performance, he took a majestic, almost forceful approach to the opening Adagio. The new formation did bring out the lower string sound; the celli could actually have toned it down a bit. The ensemble sound took a while to gel, coming to life more in the second movement, Andante, and the subsequent Menuetto. Clarinetists Anna Thoman and Suzanne Westbrook also added nice solo touches to the Menuetto.

Placement of the violins was not an issue for the core work on the program. Alfred Schnittke's Concerto for Viola and Orchestra is scored for lower strings, plus an array of winds, brass and percussion instruments. Schnittke's works are known for being polystylistic, as was fully demonstrated in this concerto in which a harpsichord is scored amid the thickest of orchestral textures. One does not often hear concerti for viola, an instrument usually buried within the string fabric, and one certainly does not hear soloists the caliber of David Aaron Carpenter. Mr. Carpenter, co-winner of the Princeton University Concerto Competition, is a freshman, but he already has a string of awards and competition victories. The Schnittke concerto was not always the most tuneful (although wailing melodies appear sporadically), however, Mr. Carpenter used his tall and lanky frame to dig into the long intense lines. Mr. Carpenter milked the passionate solo part for all it was worth, making the music accessible with his appealing and confident style.

The orchestra was a willing partner in this musical exchange, with clean horns and an unearthly accompaniment to Mr. Carpenter's discordant double stops. The brass came to life at the end of the second movement, and solo winds were exquisitely answered by the solo viola in a surprising dialogue. There are many styles within this concerto (as well as many periods of music), and Mr. Pratt found them all, while allowing Mr. Carpenter to wend his way through the rapidly changing palette. Perhaps equally as rare as viola concerti for orchestra are pieces requiring as many brass players as the Schnittke work.

Mr. Pratt closed the concert with selections from the one composer who could certainly pack a stage full of musicians and instruments – Richard Wagner. The two selections from The Valkyrie, "Wotan's Farewell" and "Magic Fire Music," featured bass-baritone Jonathan Prescott, a solid 19th century period singer who had no trouble being heard over the very thick orchestral accompaniment. The text to these two selections moves declamatorily through several scenes in the opera, and Mr. Prescott gave a concrete and dramatic rendition. Mr. Pratt maintained a full and lush Wagnerian sound from the orchestra, and changes in instrumentation – such as the sound of four harps or a biting timpani – could easily be heard. The brass held their own, and Katherine Anderson provided silky playing on the English horn.

The Princeton University Orchestra is busy these days. The ensemble recently returned from a tour of Portugal, and will close their 2004-2005 season with Rachmaninoff's monumental Symphony No. 2. With these spring concerts alone, the players are getting a real workout – stretching their solid musicianship and performance capabilities.


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