Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 18
Wednesday, May 5, 2010
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Princeton University Orchestra Closes Season Performing a Towering Mahler Symphony

Nancy Plum

For this past weekend’s Stuart Mindlin Memorial Concert, the Princeton University Orchestra chose a multi-faceted symphonic work with multiple purposes and goals. Conductor Michael Pratt always programs a “mighty” work for this final concert of the University Orchestra’s season, and as he said in his introductory remarks, symphonies “don’t get any mightier” than Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 in A minor. In addition to the performance’s traditional goals of honoring Mr. Mindlin and the orchestra’s graduating seniors, this year’s performance had an additional mission of raising money for Haitian relief.

Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 is subtitled “Tragic,” and to listen to the work, one would think that the composer’s life at the time was one endless series of heartbreaking events. This was not quite the case in Mahler’s life (despite his resignation from the Vienna Philharmonic shortly before completing this symphony) but nevertheless this piece is considered among Mahler’s darkest.

The stage at Richardson Auditorium on Friday night (the performance was repeated on Saturday night) was as full of players as it likely has ever been, including the expanded sections of four oboes, four clarinets and nine horns. Mr. Pratt began the first movement Allegro Energico emphatically with decisive strokes from an army of celli and double basses. Mr. Pratt kept the tempo moving in relentless fashion, yet allowed the classical roots of the piece to come through the despairing orchestral fabric with horns and winds well blended together. Considering how far away some players were from others, the first movement was amazingly cohesive with exact rhythms and collectively precise playing from instrumental sections.

Percussion plays a big role in Mahler’s works, and the composer incorporated a number of unusual percussive effects in this symphony. Timpanist Kevin Laskey found varying touches in his playing on the kettledrums, and Karis Schneider was especially busy playing snare drum, some sort of copper sheeting, and offstage cowbells (making them sound remarkably like wind chimes). A solo trumpet also spoke particularly clearly over the lush texture, and a nicely muted trombone choir smoothed out the musical drama.

The second movement Scherzo began with the same intensity as the first movement, making one wonder if the audience would ever be able to get away from the relentless force of Mahler. Various instrumental sections had a great number of trills incorporated into their lines, and wind solos were more prevalent, including oboist Justin Knutson and clarinetist Leo Kim. One player who was quite busy throughout the evening was principal hornist Max Jacobson, who provided well-played solos in almost every movement. Quirkiness is almost guaranteed in Mahler, and Mr. Pratt kept the music moving effectively from delicate wind passages to aggressively percussive sections.

The serene third movement Andante featured especially clean wind playing from both sections and individuals, including Mr. Knutson, Mr. Kim, and flutist Jessica Anastasio. The clarinets were often in a very high register (adding to the tension of the work), and considering how many instruments there were in each section, the playing was extremely well defined. Alex Gerson opened the fourth movement with a very foreboding tuba solo, joined by bass clarinetist Matt Goff. Mahler scored the beginning of this movement very darkly — for horns, bassoon and tuba — but added the subtle touch of two harps, played by Victoria Cody and Melody Lindsay. Clean trills from the flute section made the music less threatening, and as is traditional with Mahler, there was a great deal of brass and lush strings together. An interesting scoring touch was the use of der Hammer— a sound effect requested by Mahler of a “short, strong, but dully reverberating stroke of a non-metallic character, like an axe-stroke,” but with the device to create the sound left to the performers. In the University Orchestra’s case, percussionist Karis Schneider had a large stick with which to hit a sheet of some sort of metal; the exact details of this effect were no doubt the subject of great discussion after the concert.

Each year, this performance stretches the University Orchestra players to their uppermost limits, and kicks the seniors off to their new careers with a musical bang. This year’s performance was particularly tight and well-contained (not an easy feat with Mahler), providing one of the best performances of the University Orchestra in recent years.

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