Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 10
Wednesday, March 10, 2010
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Princeton University Orchestra Presents Concerto Competition Winners in Its Program

Nancy Plum

The Princeton University Concerto Competition concert is always an opportunity to showcase individual talent within the orchestra and from the university student body as a whole. This year, the judging committee of David Miller, a violist with the renowned Handel and Haydn Society of Boston; and Seth Baer, a 2002 graduate of Princeton and a member of Solisti, New York chose three winners to perform concerti of violin, piano, and clarinet. All three soloists were exceptional in their own right, but pianist Kendra Nealon was all the more remarkable because of her youth — she is a freshman at the university, with a reassuringly extended period of time ahead of her to grow musically within the university’s music department. The Princeton University Orchestra presented these three winners on Friday night in Richardson Auditorium (the concert was repeated Saturday night) playing three works from the 20th century, combined with a Beethoven staple in the orchestral repertoire.

As a senior, violinist Tiffany Lu is ready to graduate, with the usual combination of multidisciplinary majors and certificates. She chose as her concerto a one-movement piece which demonstrated her supreme confidence in her own playing. Maurice Ravel’s Tzigane for solo violin and orchestra began with a five minute extended improvisatory solo challenging both the soloist and the audience with its intensity. Ravel composed Tzigane for a violinist with a fiery temperament and exceptional skills, and Ms. Lu had these traits well in hand, bringing out the piece’s Hungarian flavor. Ms. Lu was not afraid of the silences in the work or in taking her time building the solo to the point at which it blended with the harp and then the rest of the orchestra joined in. Tzigane is almost like two pieces, with the second half including a number of effective wind solos. Mr. Pratt and Ms. Lu worked well together as the piece picked up speed to a fierce conclusion.

The Princeton University Orchestra’s next concert will be on April 23 and 24 in Richardson Auditorium. Mahler’s monumental Symphony No. 6 will be featured in the annual Stuart Mindlin Memorial Concert. For information call the Richardson box office at (609) 258-5000.

Freshman pianist Kendra Nealon (who is also an accomplished violinist) chose as her showcase piece Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major, composed at the turn of the 1930s following Ravel’s concert tour of America. Ms. Nealon was immediately self-assured at the keyboard; following a strong piccolo opening played by Allison Beskin, Ms. Nealon provided graceful and languid piano playing with a particularly light left hand. This work showed the influence of Ravel’s travels in America, with signs of Gershwin and shifting jazz moods. Wind solos by clarinetist Matt Goff and oboist Justin Knutson, as well as slides in the brass parts added to the 1930’s jazz club effect.

The second movement in particular brought out an early 20th century atmosphere, and Ms. Nealon maintained a solid steadiness at the piano (requiring great concentration and strength of rhythm), and brought out dynamic contrasts in the music. Clarinetist Florence Hsiao and bassoonist McLean Shaw provided very lone lines in sometimes very high registers, joined by Ms. Beskin.

The third concerto winner for the evening, clarinetist Leo Kim, also looked back to the first half of the 20th century to a work by American composer Aaron Copland commissioned by “King of Swing” Benny Goodman. Copland scored Concerto for Clarinet for the solo instrument and primarily strings, with no other wind instruments to compete with the clarinet’s sonorities. Harp and piano added to the orchestral color.

Concerto for Clarinet is linked to the music of Ravel by its impressionistic palette, and Mr. Kim played with an especially crisp style throughout a very wide register. The cadenza in the first movement (expertly played by Mr. Kim) recalled the Americana for which Copland is known, and one could hear the character and capabilities of the instrument through this piece. Musical effects from the piano (played by Jeff Li) and the double bass section also brought to mind a 20th century jazz club era.

The Princeton University Orchestra closed the concert with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 in F Major, a refreshing work which gave the instrumentalists a chance to relax and enjoy themselves in a piece they probably know very well. After Ms. Lu and Ms. Nealon returned to their seats in the violin sections, Mr. Pratt and the orchestra cleanly played through the rollicking classical work, ending the evening on a joyful note.

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