Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 43
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
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Princeton University Orchestra Is No “Ugly Duckling” in Season Opener

Nancy Plum

Princeton University Orchestra conductor Michael Pratt always starts off his ensemble’s season with a demanding program. No matter how many seniors have graduated the previous spring, the University Orchestra manages to begin the year focused and concentrated on performing concerts of music which would challenge even the most experienced players. This was the case this past weekend as the orchestra presented the first concerts of its 2009-2010 season in Richardson Auditorium. The performance Saturday night (the program was repeated on Sunday afternoon) featured the music of Maurice Ravel, Sergei Prokofiev, and Dmitri Shostakovich, as well as one of the more delightful works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The program also featured two soloists with strong Princeton connections.

Soprano Martha Elliott, a graduate of the University, has collaborated with the orchestra a number of times in the past, and last year she and conductor Michael Pratt explored the music of Prokofiev in a performance of The Ugly Duckling with the Odessa Orchestra. Ms. Elliott and Mr. Pratt revived this short Prokofiev vocal work in the University’s opening concert, demonstrating the ability of both orchestra and soloist to change musical style and mood with the text. Ms. Elliott, singing the difficult Russian text from memory, told the fable in a light-hearted manner, with an inherent sauciness, and one could almost follow the story from her facial expressions. The scaled-down orchestra kept the music flowing well, especially from the winds, and the work remained animated through its somewhat unorthodox and unexpected ending.

The Princeton University Orchestra’s next concert will be on December 11 and 12 at Richardson Auditorium. Featured will be music of Tchaikovsky, Dukas, Strauss, and an unusual Duke Ellington arrangement in collaboration with the Princeton University Concert Jazz Ensemble.

The meat of the concert was one of Mozart’s most popular piano/orchestral works — Concerto for Piano and Orchestra #22 in E flat Major. Composed in 1785, this concerto shares a great deal of lyricism with The Marriage of Figaro, which Mozart was composing at the same time, and guest soloist Jennifer Chu had no trouble finding the grace and lyricism in the piece. Also a graduate of Princeton, Ms. Chu is currently pursuing doctoral studies at the Juilliard School, and has a very appealing style of play at the keyboard.

Mr. Pratt and the orchestra began the concerto with a crisp martial attack and especially nice suspensions from the winds. Pairs of clean horns and trombones led up to the piano entrance, which Ms. Chu played with elegant fluidity. Ms. Chu had a very light touch on the piano, finding the musical line through the direction of the phrases. No two scale passages sounded the same and her light touch belied the ability to find power when she needed it. Ms. Chu was perfectly timed with the orchestra, finding drama in the deceptive cadences. Mr. Pratt seemed to let the concerto play itself at times, with especially nice playing from flutist Jessica Anastasio and clarinetist Leo Kim.

Well into the final movement, the orchestra maintained a nice lilt to complement the graceful themes and playfulness of Ms. Chu’s playing.

The orchestra journeyed back into the 20th century with Ravel’s concise Alborado del Gracioso, featuring precise percussion and clean wind solos from oboist Justin Knutson and bassoonist Noah Brown. The concert closed with Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9, which was light and somewhat cheerful compared to the composer’s more monumental symphonic works. Ms. Anastasio set the character with a very chipper flute solo, especially when paired with the oboes. A clean and insistent trombone punctuated the first movement. Additional effective wind solos abounded throughout the symphony, especially from clarinetist Jeff Hodes and piccolo player Alison Beskin.

The Class of 2013 is well represented in the orchestra, showing a depth of playing that will last for several years to come. These players will certainly make a strong contribution to what looks to be an innovative season for the Princeton University Orchestra.

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