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Music/Theater

Youth Orchestra of Central Jersey Rises to the Challenge of Richardson Auditorium

Nancy Plum

For the past 30 years, the Youth Orchestra of Central Jersey, founded by Portia Sonnenfeld as a feeder program to what is now the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, performed in area high school auditoriums. During that time, the orchestra expanded its programs from that of a simple preparatory orchestra to an organization of 10 ensembles, specializing in all the instruments and instrumental families of the orchestra. The ensemble took a huge leap this past weekend by presenting two concerts in Richardson Auditorium on Sunday afternoon and evening, featuring all the subgroups of the organization. The Youth Orchestra is particularly proud that two of these subgroups are for saxophone players, an instrument often not accessible in public school music programs.

The Youth Orchestra currently maintains a roster of six conductors, many of whom have been with the organization for decades. Philip Pugh, director of the String Preparatory and Pro Arte Orchestra, was the busiest of these conductors in Sunday afternoon’s concert, which featured the Wind Symphony, Saxophone Ensemble, String Preparatory Orchestra and Pro Art Orchestra (the evening’s performance featured six other ensembles). The String Preparatory Orchestra presented an Allegro movement from Mozart’s Symphony No. 25 on its own, and then joined the Pro Arte Orchestra for Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Concerto Grosso. Although the Allegro was just a bit under tempo, the 40 members of the String Preparatory Orchestra played some surprisingly clean musical effects, given the youth of the players. The ensemble played both marcato and legato well, and conductor Pugh showed a clear emphasis on tuning. The players all demonstrated their solid focus on the music, even though some of the younger members were barely bigger than their instruments. The Concerto Grosso of Vaughan Williams was a complex multi-movement piece requiring a number of different styles of playing. Sitting in the back rows, the older players of the Pro Arte Orchestra added power to the sound, creating an especially effective unison tone in the second movement Burlesca. Combining these two ensembles placed more than fifty violins onstage, enabling a smooth flowing line. Mr. Pugh built dynamics and contrast by adding the younger players to the sound.

The Pro Arte Orchestra also combined with the Wind Symphony (which had opened the program) for a lively performance of Camille Saint-Saens’ Danse Bacchanale from his opera Samson et Dalila. The overall musical effect was a bit raucous, as it should have been given the subject matter, and precise percussion from Jason Sher, Teddy Snieckus and Christopher Tian aided in keeping the spirit of the piece.

The other ensemble featured in Sunday afternoon’s concert was a select group of saxophone players, led by conductor Richard Hodges. The six players of the Saxophone Ensemble presented two classical pieces transcribed for saxophone, which were played with a nicely blended sound and clean dotted rhythms. Alto saxophonist Brian Kim played with especially clean articulation in Mendelssohn’s May Song, and a solid bass foundation was provided in the Bach Prelude and Fugue by baritone saxophonist Jeremy Chen.

This orchestra clearly has something for everyone in youth instrumental music, and it seemed timely for the ensemble to make a move to a major venue for a self-sponsored concert. In reading the tributes to the graduating seniors in the orchestra, it was clear that the Youth Orchestra of Central Jersey has enriched the lives of its young members substantially through these concerts, as well as their extensive touring history.

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