Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 43
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
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Princeton University Orchestra Opens Season in Preparation for Overseas Tour

Nancy Plum

After more than 30 years of leading the Princeton University Orchestra, conductor Michael Pratt probably still looks forward to what will walk in the door at the start of the school year and what the Orchestra will be able to draw on for its extensive repertory of challenging works. What the Orchestra has this year is an army of strings — 30 violins, ten violas and celli, and seven double basses. Mr. Pratt put these strings to good use this past weekend as the University Orchestra opened its season with an eye toward a winter break tour to the United Kingdom. Mr. Pratt linked the U.S. and U.K. in Saturday night’s concert in Richardson Auditorium (the performance was repeated Sunday afternoon) with the music of three prominent composers from both sides of the Atlantic.

Benjamin Britten’s Sea Interludes are not often heard outside the context of the opera from which they are derived — Peter Grimes. The four short vignettes depict the ambience of the sea, conjuring scenes of dawn, the morning, moonlight and a storm. The University Orchestra began Dawn with an extremely lean violin sound, especially considering the number of violins. Two precise harps added to the delicacy of the orchestration, and the sinewy but rich string sound was further contrasted by pairs of clarinets and oboes. The horn chorale was more refined as the piece went on, and an especially mellow line was heard from the celli and violas.

Britten’s orchestration called for elaborate percussion, and the four members of the Orchestra’s percussion section were consistently clean and precise. Timpanist Karis Schneider kept the closing Storm movement moving forward as the Orchestra decisively played the final chords.

The Princeton University Orchestra will present its next concert in Richardson Auditorium on December 10 and 11. Featured in these performances will be the music of Shostakovich. Ticket information can be obtained by calling the Richardson box office at (609) 258-5000 or by visiting the Orchestraís webpage on the Princeton University website,

Mr. Pratt drew from the Music Department faculty to complement the Orchestra in Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto, Opus 14, written in 1939 on the brink of war and on two sides of the Atlantic. Barber composed the first two movements just prior to the outbreak of World War II, and finished the piece in Pennsylvania. The third movement differs considerably from the first two, but one constant in the work in the continually expressive nature of the solo violin, played in this performance by Sunghae Anna Lim. In the first two movements, Ms. Lim seemed to be in her own world of lyricism and expressive playing, but was still well connected to the Orchestra. Ms. Lim had a number of sensitive duet passages with clarinetist Jeffrey Hodes, well backed by bassoonist Greg Rewoldt. The smaller size ensemble played the sweeping melody, with its graceful turns and figures cleanly, aided by pianist Anna Tchetchekine and some excellent solo work from oboist Lija Treiberg. Ms. Lim was more virtuostic in the third movement Presto, supported by an offbeat accompaniment by the strings and winds. She continued to be extremely focused, and both soloist and Orchestra finished the work with a decisive flourish.

In his written introductory remarks to the concert, Mr. Pratt noted that the last time the University Orchestra played Aaron Copland’s complete ballet score Appalachian Spring was shortly after 9/11, noting in particular the poignancy of its signature tune, Simple Gifts. Setting the scene was clarinetist Leo Kim, as the ballet unfolded like the Great Plains. Solo themes were passed around the Orchestra, from concertmistress Alyse Wheelock to flutist Jessica Anastasio to oboist Justin Knutson. Bassoon and horn blended well into each other and the brass shifted nicely among the different styles of music. The sound was well topped off at times by the piccolo. There were some abrupt shifts between sections, which Mr. Pratt controlled well.

The initial Simple Gifts theme was played very slowly and richly by the violins and violas, and the brass choir rendition was clean. Triads created open space in the thematic material, and quick themes in the winds provided the contrast. The Orchestra closed the ballet very broadly, allowing the music to elegantly dissipate away.

The University Orchestra is planning an ambitious tour in January, featuring the music heard in this past weekend’s performances. Between now and January, the Orchestra has plenty of time to refine what has already started as a solid ensemble sound.

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