Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXII, No. 11
Wednesday, March 12, 2008
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Princeton University Orchestra Warms Night With Program of Early 20th Century Music

Nancy Plum

Nothing warms up an audience on a raw and rainy winter evening like the lush chords of Impressionistic music, and the program the Princeton University Orchestra presented on Friday night seemed to do just the trick for the very appreciative audience in Richardson Auditorium. The concert, which was repeated on Saturday night, brought together three programmatic works from the early 20th century which were both a challenge for the ensemble and a pleasure for the audience to hear.

Conductor Michael Pratt opened the concert with a humorous set of pieces by French composer Maurice Ravel. Mother Goose Suite demonstrated all the harmonies and tone colors one would expect from a work by Ravel, and Mr. Pratt’s languid and relaxed tempi allowed the melodic lines to grow, especially in the winds. In the second movement (all the movements told small stories) the strings demonstrated their ability to play very lightly and subtly against graceful wind solos, particularly from English hornist Brian Gurewitz and piccolo player Sarah Weinstein.

The Princeton University Orchestra will present its annual Stuart Mindlin memorial concert on Friday and Saturday, April 25 and 26 at Richardson Auditorium, featuring Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 9. Ticket information can be obtained by calling the Richardson box office at (609) 258-5000.

The lightness of the winds enabled the third movement to sound especially “enchanted,” aided by a clean pair of horns and the bass clarinet playing of Alison Carey. Ms. Carey shone again in the fourth “story,” with a lovely clarinet solo against pizzicato strings. Crescendi in these movements were well constructed, and the dynamic build in the last piece had the effect of the sun rising.

Mr. Pratt’s talented ensemble players, reconfigured for Serge Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kije’s Suite, a work not as often performed as the composer’s other works, but one which also presented an interesting combination of instrumental colors. Starting off with Brian Nowakowski’s offstage trumpet solo, the work was marked most coloristically by the orchestration of a tenor saxophone, played by James Krendel-Clark. The tenor sax and flute combined were an especially intriguing combination. The second movement “Song” (this set of pieces also tells a story) was led by a very elegant solo by double bassist Suleika Jaouad, allowing an instrument which is often buried in the orchestral fabric to shine. Her solo was answered by other effective string solos, and the cello section as a whole showed its mettle in the fourth movement against pizzicato upper strings and percussion. Prokofiev’s unusual use of a tuba solo in the fifth short movement (played by Ram Shankar) added to the exotic feel of the work.

Although Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky lived in the 19th century, many of his piano works had second lives in the 20th century, re-orchestrated for the ever-growing orchestral ensembles of the times. His Pictures at an Exhibition, composed as a piano suite in the 1870s, was re-orchestrated by a number of people, most notably Ravel, in the early 1900s. In his re-orchestration, Ravel put his own instrumental stamp on the set of eleven short pieces, including introducing an alto saxophone and euphonium as solo instruments. Mr. Pratt maintained a regal musical stature in the opening “Promenade” (which recurs throughout the suite), aided by a full and clean brass sound. Clean winds marked the third “picture,” with Alexander Bourque playing an expressive alto saxophone solo over a subtle underlying drone. This movement showed some of the most captivating music of the evening, followed by a delicate fourth “picture.”

Tubist Ram Shankar doubled on the euphonium for an unusual solo in the “ox cart” picture and the winds were kept especially busy in the “Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells.” The orchestra closed the work majestically with the final “Promenade,” complete with traditional Russian bells.

This concert was a pretty heavy-duty program for the University Orchestra, and whatever small glitches heard here and there were more than overcome by the overall ensemble sound. This program also seemed to serve as a challenging precursor to the final concert of the orchestra’s season — Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 — which will no doubt call in all the instrumental forces the orchestra can muster.

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