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Competition Winner Murikami Plays Korngold Concerto, Orchestra Shines in Stravinsky and Mendelssohn Pieces

Nancy Plum

Fresh from a semester-long sabbatical, Princeton University Orchestra conductor Michael Pratt took his ensemble on a journey extolling the talent of youth this past weekend. Friday night's concert (repeated Saturday night) in Richardson Auditorium featured Mendelssohn (a child prodigy) at his best, as well as one of the university's virtuoso undergraduate instrumentalists.

Senior Kiri Murikami was a co-winner of the orchestra's annual Concerto Competition (the other winners, Jennifer Hsiao and Lauren Carpenter, will be featured in concerts later this spring and next fall). As her showcase piece, Ms. Murikami chose a very non-standard work in Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Violin Concerto in D Major, Opus 35, a three movement work completed in 1945 and mostly derived from Korngold's film scores.

The expansive palette of sound, complete with flute trills, made the opening bars of the concerto immediately recognizable as movie music. Ms. Murikami played the solo lushly and with great power, physically leaning into the long lines. A first movement cadenza was full of double stops, which Ms. Murikami maneuvered through with ease.

The second movement was a study in musical effects, punctuated by the violin tune sweetly played by Ms. Murikami, ending in a somewhat low register for her instrument. A bass clarinet, played by Louis Epstein, created effective color with the rest of the winds, leading to a swaggering finale third movement. This movement was constructed of multiple sections in alternating meters, and although a closing brass coda seemed out of place, Mr. Pratt kept the multiple meters moving smoothly.

The Korngold concerto was bracketed by two works that demonstrated the orchestra's solid playing and solo capabilities. Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony (Number 4 in A Major, Opus 90) begins with rapid-fire triplets in the winds, which the orchestra clarinets and flutes executed flawlessly. The well-balanced ensemble sound was marred only slightly by inaccurate horn playing, but nonetheless Mr. Pratt, surrounding himself with violins on both sides, allowed the instruments to trade musical fragments in a very forceful and driving interpretation. Mendelssohn pays homage to Bach in the second movement's Andante con moto, and Mr. Pratt maintained a definitive baroque style with a precise walking bass from the cellos and double basses. The horns and trumpets together were very clean in the third movement, and precise staccato flute playing in the fourth movement closed the symphony in a stylistic early 19th century manner.

Igor Stravinsky's works always provide many opportunities for instrumental solos from within an ensemble, and the orchestra's presentation of the 1919 Suite from The Firebird was no exception. Mr. Pratt moved the strings around to group the violins together in what was a very large ensemble (compared to the Mendelssohn), and this formation was effective for the beginning of the piece, rising from the lower strings. The overall orchestral color was effectively punctuated by pizzicato playing from the strings, and the familiar syncopated brass theme seemed to awaken the audience, who had been lulled by the Firebird.

Concertmistress Eun-Mee Jeong was joined by a number of wind and brass players for precise instrumental solos, including bassoonist Nicole Rowsey, cellist Diana Rosenblum, and hornist Anthony Miller. A raucous ending to the work allowed the players to enjoy the folksong syncopation and "infernal" character of the piece.

The Concerto Competition winners this year seem to have a refreshing 20th century approach to repertoire, in Ms. Murikami's case, presenting a work not often heard but that will add both to her repertory and the appreciation of the audience. The orchestra as a whole continues to demonstrate precision beyond the years of its players, as well as the unified sound of an ensemble whose members are committed to one another.

The Princeton University Orchestra's next concert is April 23-24. The Stuart Mindlin Memorial Concert will feature music of Prokofiev and Ravel. For ticket information call (609) 258-5000.

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