Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXII, No. 48
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
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Princeton University Orchestra Opens Season With Heroic 19th, 20th Century Masterworks

Nancy Plum

Princeton University presented one of its finest assets this past weekend — the 2008-09 University Orchestra — which has always been high quality, but now is surely a major recruiting vehicle. For the first concert of the new season on Friday night in Richardson Auditorium (the concert was repeated Saturday night), conductor Michael Pratt programmed two works of “heroic” nature, together with an intriguing new piece by a University composition student. The overriding theme of the evening seemed to be steadfastness in tough times, and Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet Suite and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 conveyed this theme quite well in musical terms.

The rendition of Prokofiev’s suite excerpts from Romeo and Juliet presented by the orchestra was theatrically different than versions familiar to most concert-goers. Princeton resident and University musicologist Simon Morrison has reconstructed a version of Prokofiev’s ballet score previously lost to Russian politics and history. In 1936, Prokofiev debuted a Romeo and Juliet score which ended markedly different than Shakespeare’s play — the lead characters live. According to Dr. Morisson’s fascinating program notes accompanying Friday night’s concert, this version was forced off the ballet stages, and a revamped (and more political acceptable) score became the ballet staple in modern times.

The Princeton University Orchestra’s next concert is on January 9 and 10, 2009 and will include the Princeton University Opera Theater in Claudio Monteverdi’s “The Return of Ulysses.” Information can be obtained by calling (609) 258-5000.

Over the past two to three years, Dr. Morrison has revived the earlier score and it was excerpts from this that Michael Pratt conducted. No matter what the storyline, the music of Prokofiev requires precision of playing and attention to musical detail. In the familiar “Ponderous Dance of the Knights,” the string sections maintained the intense angularity of the music, contrasted with solo flute and bass clarinet (played with refinement by Jessica Anastasio and Raaj Mehta, respectively). A pair of clarinets, sensitively played by Matt Goff and Jeff Hodes, enhanced the light character of “Juliet’s Entrance with Her Nursemaid.” The addition of a tenor saxophone to the orchestration (played by Alex Bourque) added an unusual touch to the sound, and the two harps added a percussive effect to the lush strings on “Romeo Begins to Dance with the Reviving Juliet.”

Mr. Pratt introduced Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 to the audience by pointing out its heroic nature and Beethoven’s triumph over the monumental obstacles in his life, drawing parallels with today’s times. Mr. Pratt pointed out that “music is about journeys,” and the orchestra took a journey through this four-movement work that demonstrated the ensemble’s depth of playing. Mr. Pratt kept the tempo moving in the first movement “Allegro,” giving direction to the lines and bringing out the grandness of the work. This year’s orchestra has an unusually large number of celli and double basses, giving a solid underpinning to the sound and richness to the opening theme. Oboist Justin Knutson provided elegant solo work in the second movement, and the orchestra maneuvered the shift back to the “Funeral March” well.

The four movements of this work are long, but the orchestra consistently maintained crispness, especially in the light bowings of the strings. Clean horn hunting calls marked the third movement Scherzo, and the orchestra closed the symphony with a well-played fugal fourth movement.

The Michael Early gathering wind which opened the concert as a world premiere was not as “heroic” as the Prokofiev and Beethoven works, but was appealing in its own right. gathering wind was a work of impressions, heavily influenced by the two harps and sets of percussion on either side of the stage (percussion sections which included blowing across the top of a bottle for effect). Mr. Early may well have been aiming for a surround-sound effect, as percussion sound traveled around the stage, and following a quiet beginning, the piece grew in intensity and orchestration as instruments were added. Mr. Pratt kept the shifting meters flowing smoothly, and some very nice effects were achieved, especially with the second violins, trombones, and muted trumpets creating a jazz palette.

Requiring intense concentration, this was a tough piece with which to start the program, but the players carried their parts well. The scoring included many lower instruments, and the lower brass especially were very full and rich, even on percussive notes and chords.

Through this concert, the University Music Department and Orchestra provided a welcome vehicle for one of its own students, as well as a welcome change from the cold for area concert-goers.

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