Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 43
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
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Princeton University Orchestra Brings World-class Soloist for Season Opener

Nancy Plum

The Princeton University Orchestra scored a major coup in its season-opening concerts this past weekend. Rarely do student ensembles get the chance to perform with world-class soloists, but conductor Michael Pratt, celebrating his 30th year with the orchestra, took the opportunity to collaborate with a visitor to the University who also just happens to be one of the world’s finest pianists.

Czech-born Ivan Moravec is one of the world’s musical cognoscenti — he has played just about everything just about everywhere to world-wide critical acclaim. Schooled in the great European tradition which produced such musical masters as Kurt Masur and Wolfgang Sawallisch, Mr. Moravec maintains an extensive discography including piano concertos by Mozart, Ravel, and Beethoven. For the current academic year, Mr. Moravec has been designated the Bellknap Visitor in the Humanities, and while on campus will be appearing in recital and giving master classes, in addition to appearing with the University Orchestra this past weekend.

For this concert in Richardson Auditorium on Friday night (the program was repeated on Saturday night), Mr. Pratt invited Mr. Moravec to join the orchestra for a performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #3 in c minor, a work premiered by the virtuosic Beethoven himself. In a stage setting which placed conductor and orchestra very close together, Mr. Pratt took a clearly Classical approach to the opening Allegro con brio, managing to find drama in a not overly fast musical tempo.

The opening theme on the piano was crisp and clean, as Mr. Moravec played without a lot of flash, and without a great deal of pedal. Milking the second subject just ever so slightly, Mr. Moravec delivered a studied performance full of care; one knew this pianist was not going to miss a note. Mr. Moravec’s rendition of Beethoven’s closing cadenza to the first movement contained the most dramatic playing of the movement, and the easily flowing cadenza was in tandem with the orchestra.

The song-like melody of the second movement Largo was luxurious in the orchestra and silky from the pianist, as Mr. Moravec demonstrated clean and precise thirds in the right hand. Mr. Moravec led the way through the third movement, with the piano solo answered cleanly by a pair of oboes played by Brian Gurewitz and Justin Knutson. The orchestra, comparatively scaled down from the Wagner and Britten works which opened the program, maintained a solid performance level throughout the concerto, equal to the stellar playing of the guest soloist.

Princeton University Orchestra’s next performances will be on Friday December 14 and Saturday December 15 featuring the winners of the orchestra’s concerto competition, and Brahms’ Symphony No. 3. For information call (609) 258-5000.

In the first half of the program, Mr. Pratt took the opportunity to introduce this year’s orchestra to the audience in a unique way — through Benjamin Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. Commissioned for a British Ministry of Education film, this work is often performed with a narrator, but was presented on Friday night by the orchestra alone. Through this piece, which presents the instruments in various combinations, the ensemble demonstrated how quickly the players have come together musically in the six or so short weeks since school started.

Mr. Pratt allowed the piece to take off in a good tempo and with a full sound. The winds and brass were well gelled and all instruments spoke well within the orchestral fabric. The violas played with unified richness, as did the celli as they played in an almost identical register.

The Britten work was a gumdrop compared to the two Wagner works which opened the program. “Forest Murmurs” from Wagner’s opera Siegfried and “Siegfried’s Death and Funeral Music” from Twilight of the Gods both tell a story — one which was well depicted by the orchestra through the long melodic lines and musical clarity. The orchestra “murmured” well in the opening measures and a clean clarinet solo by Suzanne Westbrook was well paired with a solo flute.

Mr. Pratt set an immediately different tone when beginning the “Death and Funeral” music, emphasizing the recognizable yet transformed motives. The timpani and brass were exactly together to illuminate the funeral procession, and throughout the operatic excerpt, the ensemble played with a sound that was full without being bombastic.

Britten’s work in particular was written to increase musical awareness in children. In addition to the music itself, nothing increases musical awareness for any age group like a well-playing ensemble. The Princeton University Orchestra has started off the year with a dramatic and musical bang, and their concerts for the rest of the season will no doubt continue the trend.

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