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Westminster Conservatory's Performing Ensembles Present Concert of Youth, Concertos, and Beethoven

Nancy Plum

Westminster Conservatory has a lot of activity going on within its walls, much of which seems to be a secret to the Princeton public. A community orchestra, chorus, and youth choir are based at the Conservatory, and numerous students of all ages study every kind of instrument with teachers who themselves are active and successful performers. The Conservatory strutted many of their musical assets for public acclamation on Saturday night at Richardson Auditorium. The Westminster Community Orchestra performed with three winners of a concerto competition and the orchestra, Westminster Community Chorus, and Westminster Conservatory Youth Chorale combined to present Beethoven's Mass in C, featuring several Conservatory voice faculty as soloists.

Westminster Community Orchestra conductor Sarah Hatsuko Hicks is in her third year as music director, interspersing this appointment with conducting positions at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and National Symphony in Washington, D.C. Ms. Hicks is among a new generation of talented women conductors, and it is clear that although the orchestra has a "community" focus, Ms. Hicks expects nothing less than the best from her players. Her conducting is clean, enabling the instrumentalists to easily follow her, and has an even gestural flow, not taking much effort to increase or decrease the ensemble sound. Verdi's Overture to I Vespri Siciliani begins in a minor key, which is always difficult to tune, but the winds nevertheless displayed warmth in the sound over the strings.

There is plenty of opportunity for students to excel at the Conservatory, and three talented performers of diverse ages were featured in short, rarely heard, concerto works. Violinist Lauren Chen, a sixth-grader at Princeton Day School, played with conviction and clean ornaments in her selection, the first movement of Haydn's Violin Concerto in G Major. The ensemble's role in accompanying the soloists is to stay steady, and although there was not a lot of dynamic contrast from the orchestra, the instrumentalists provided a solid backdrop for Ms. Chen's stylistic playing. This young soloist did not play with a tremendous amount of vibrato, but rather was a model of restraint in this 18th century work.

Equally as poised was 14-year old flutist Jacob Fridkis, who played an unusual but appealing concertino. Cécile Chaminade's Concertino for Flute, Opus 107 is rarely performed in concert, but with its impressionistic runs and movie-like lushness, was an effective vehicle for Mr. Fridkis' display of control over the dynamic range and capabilities of his instrument. The solo flute part adds lyricism and melody to the orchestral fabric, and this soloist did well to complement a well-balanced ensemble sound.

The third soloist of the evening, Hillsborough High School senior Justin Bulava, provided a thoughtful clarinet solo in Carl Maria von Weber's Concertino for Clarinet and Orchestra, opus 26. Mr. Bulava drew a rich sound from the lower range of his instrument, and in the virtuosic finale, both soloist and orchestra played cleanly and with great spirit.

The orchestra was joined in the second half of the concert by the Westminster Community Chorus, prepared by Devin Mariman; and the Westminster Conservatory Youth Chorale, prepared by Frank Abrahams, for Beethoven's Mass in C Major, his first composition in a traditional liturgical style. The scaled-down chamber orchestra was balanced by a warm and precise choral sound from the combined choirs. Especially nice to hear from the chorus was a soprano sectional sound with some color, rather than the dry and straight tone with which volunteer choruses are often asked to sing. The seasoned singers of the Community Chorus balanced well with the young choristers of the Youth Chorale, and the combined ensemble found a wide dynamic range in the music.

The vocal quartet for this performance was also well balanced for the most part, although soprano Nancy Froysland Hoerl was vocally heavier than the other three. Ms. Hoerl, together with mezzo Linda Mindlin, tenor Patrick Schmidt, and baritone Elem Eley, served to either lead into the chorus or sing as an isolated quartet, and each soloist is dependent on the other three. With Mr. Eley providing a solid vocal foundation, the others were well able to declaim the text with precise diction and express the few melismata well.

This work tends to feature the chorus, but the orchestra had its shining moments as well, including the clean winds and brass in the Agnus Dei and clarinetist Daniel Beerbohm's solo work in the Et Incarnatus. This mass is overshadowed in the repertory by the more monumental Missa Solemnis (to be performed later this week by the Westminster Symphonic Choir), but proved itself on Saturday night to be an excellent fit for these ensembles. From soloist to instrumentalist, to chorister to conductor, the age range of these performers indicated not only a long-term commitment to performing music but also a foreshadowing of great performers to come.

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