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Princeton Symphony Orchestra Celebrates Mark Laycock's Anniversary with a Wild Ride Through the 19th Century

Nancy Plum

The company one keeps at an anniversary celebration might be indicative of one's perception of the event being celebrated. For the 20th anniversary of his appointment as Music Director of the Princeton Symphony Orchestra on Sunday afternoon, Mark Laycock invited Valkyries, leaving one to wonder, does Wagner's wild ride signify the path the organization has taken over the past twenty years from chamber ensemble to a full-sized symphony orchestra? Mr. Laycock launched his 21st season with a bold and decisive statement, as the swirling strings and trilling winds of Richard Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries (from his opera Die Valkyrie) filled Richardson Auditorium with music of mythical proportion. This is one piece which can be cranked up so the audience can revel in the sound, and as difficult as it was to come inside from Sunday afternoon's summer like weather, the full house found it well worthwhile. Mr. Laycock led his ensemble through a solid performance of Wagner's well-known work, with thematic material crescendoing effectively and precise brass echoing around the hall.

Mr. Laycock has made a reputation over the past twenty years introducing new repertoire to Princeton audiences, and Sunday's concert was no exception. Gabriel Pierné was a composer in the vein of Stravinsky and Ravel, writing descriptive and ballet works. Especially as in the music of Ravel, Pierné's Cydalise et le Chèvre-pied (Cydalise and the Goat-footed Satyr) tells a story through the inventive orchestration of instrumental solos and unusual performing techniques. The shrieking six piccolos may have taken out a few hearing devices in the audience, but this strident effect was more than offset by the mellifluous playing of clarinetist David Hattner, particularly when accompanied by solo harp and cello. The scoring for the violas was also unusual in that at one point half the ensemble plucked strings and the other half struck the strings with a small stick. Wind solos abounded, played especially well by flutist Mr. Hattner, oboist Caroline Park, and bassoonist Roe Goodman.

The meat of Mr. Laycock's celebratory concert was actually the second half, with Mahler's monumental Symphony No. 5. Although more classical than some of Mahler's other symphonies, all Mahler is pretty weighty, and Mr. Laycock worked hard to keep this work from falling into the sullenness that one often hears in performances of this composer. This symphony is the first of three that are uncomplicated by the use of voices and which draw chorale and contrapuntal techniques from the past to create a new symphonic form.

As with many of Mahler's works, the brass section plays a large role, and the solo trumpet played by Joseph Reardon that opened the work announced that the brass would be very busy in this piece. Throughout the symphony, the brass was dynamically in line with the rest of the ensemble, with particularly effective solo work from Mr. Reardon, hornist Douglas Lundeen, and tubist Gary Cattley, whose occasional entrances punctuated the orchestral color.

There were many changing moods in this work, which Mr. Laycock had impressively committed to memory, and he maintained a consistent sound from the ensemble throughout the piece. Even at its loudest, the orchestra sustained a symphonic style in which one could hear all the parts. Silences within movements were precisely observed from the ensemble, followed by clean entrances.

There were also numerous musical effects which gave the symphony its innovative character. Clarinetists David Hattner, Sherry Hartman Apgar, and Dan Spitzer changed effects with ease, and the pizzicato playing from the strings, foreshadowing the mandolin used in later symphonies, was well played from the violin section.

This symphony is especially well known for its fourth movement Adagietto, Mahler's instrumental love song to his wife Alma, which is often excerpted as a poignant orchestral work on its own. This movement has had a wide range of interpretations over the years (often through all ranges of lugubrious), but in Sunday's performance it was played at an appropriately Romantic tempo which accentuated the strings and harp.

Twenty years ago, this ensemble would never have considered Mahler, or likely any other composer from the late 19th or early 20th century. In taking over the ensemble so many years ago, Mr. Laycock clearly had a vision for both the orchestra and himself as a conductor. Fortunately, both have been able to grow together, giving players and audience members the opportunity to evolve.

The Orchestra's next concert is on November 13 at 4 p.m. at Richardson Auditorium. Featured will be pianist Michael Boriskin, and Prokofiev, Perle and Sibelius. For information call (609) 497-0020.



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