Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 19
Wednesday, May 12, 2010
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Princeton University Sinfonia Closes Season With a Dynamic Symphonic Performance

Nancy Plum

At one time, the Princeton University Sinfonia was complementary to the Princeton University Orchestra, playing smaller works in more intimate venues. Apparently the student demand to play orchestral music at the University is such these days that the Sinfonia has expanded to the size of a full-scale orchestra and the ensemble is well immersed in presenting larger symphonic repertoire in Richardson Auditorium. There are a few players who overlap between the ensembles (there are only so many bassoonists in town), but by and large, the Sinfonia is comprised of new faces bringing new energy to their musical performance. Conducted by Princeton musicologist Ruth Ochs on Friday night, the Sinfonia presented a program of Romantic and early to mid-twentieth century music — repertoire which one might just have easily heard from the University Orchestra.

Ruth Ochs has always been a no-nonsense conductor, and her treatment of the concert’s opening Rosamunde Overture by Franz Schubert was no exception. Ms. Ochs immediately aimed for the drama in the piece, composed by Schubert as incidental music to another opera, but used as an overture to an 1823 Viennese play. A lyrical oboe solo played by Alison Hume added to the Viennese lilt which the Sinfonia found in the music. Ms. Ochs took the second half of the piece in a very sprightly tempo, nicely punctuated by clean pizzicatti from the celli and double basses.

Ms. Ochs paired the Schubert work with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2, an effective choice given the symphony’s composition within twenty years of the Schubert work. A pair of well-tuned oboes played by Andrew Mayfield and Ms. Hume opened the first movement Adagio, echoed by the violins. Flutist Andrew Budnick played delicate solo lines throughout the symphony, often elegantly paired with the oboes. The Sinfonia’s playing grew cleaner and more precise as the movement progressed, and Ms. Ochs found an overall jubilant mood in the music.

Ms. Ochs continued to seek out line and nuance in the second movement Larghetto, emphasizing the clarinet and bassoon lines. The lilt of the Scherzo and Trio was especially brought out by the oboes, bassoons, and horns.

The second half of the concert moved into the 20th century, with works by Aaron Copland and Claude Debussy. As can be expected in Copland, brass played a large role in An Outdoor Overture, including an extended trumpet solo well played by Ryan Dahn. principal oboist Bohao Liu, joined by Mr. Budnick and Brin Rosenthal on the flute, also added grace to the overture. Ms. Ochs picked up the speed of the piece well bringing the Sinfonia to a very full sound, aided by a clean quartet of horns. Copland scored the work to include piano and expanded percussion, both of which added to the crispness of the performance, especially from Victoria Tan on the marimba.

The Sinfonia was joined by harpist Joy Wan, a sophomore at the University, for two Danses of Claude Debussy. Debussy composed Danse sacrée and Danse profane in 1904 at the request of a Parisian instrument manufacturer looking for a test piece for the chromatic harp (which had been introduced in 1897 and was soon abandoned because of the amount of time it took to tune it).

Although the harp solo part was fairly conventional by impressionistic Debussy terms, as played by Ms. Wan, the effect was both transparent and rich. Ms. Wan showed herself to be a forceful yet sensitive player, conveying the haunting melody of Danse sacrée with its exotic overtones and maintaining a well balanced dialog between harp and strings in Dance profane.

The Sinfonia closed Saturday night’s performance with a rousing playing of Johannes Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture, a fitting choice to honor the ensemble’s seniors. This one-movement work was well marked by a nice trio of trumpets and a collective brass sound which intensified well during the overture. The wind sectional work was very clean from the flutes, oboes, and clarinets, aided by crisp bassoons which were nice to hear in a sectional solo. With this performance, the Sinfonia ended its season well, proving that there is certainly more than enough room on the Princeton campus for symphonic orchestral performance.

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