May 2, 2012

Princeton University Orchestra Presents 20th Century Giants in Season’s Last Concert

Princeton University Orchestra’s annual Stuart B. Mindlin Memorial Concerts are a celebration from many standpoints. Besides honoring a former member of the orchestra, these concerts also celebrate the graduating seniors in the ensemble, often include guest vocal artists, and traditionally challenge the orchestra to play some of the most difficult music there is. Friday night’s University Orchestra concert in Richardson Auditorium (the concert was repeated Saturday night) brought together works by two revolutionary composers that drew the best in rhythmic precision from the players.

The gestation of Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck crossed over the entirety of World War I, so it is not surprising that the “three fragments” from the opera that were played by the ensemble were dark, with a somewhat disturbing text for the soprano soloist. Conductor Michael Pratt fielded a colossal number of players for this concert, joined by the always solid Sarah Pelletier. Given the lushness of Berg’s orchestral writing, Ms. Pelletier drew wisely on her previous experience with the opera and a formidable upper range to convey the story. With a well-blended brass accompaniment in the opening “fragment,” Ms. Pelletier took a maternal approach to the text, with the martial text especially well-timed with the orchestra. Ms. Pelletier continually kept the German text clean, saving the most vocal strength for the close of the second “fragment.” The final “fragment” brought the culmination of all that preceded, couched in the simplicity of child’s play, as the orchestra built intensity through melodic scales which seemed to end nowhere.

This piece, as well as the Stravinsky work which followed, provided ample opportunities for the seniors in the orchestra to shine as soloists. In the opening “fragment,” instrumental solos by clarinetist Jeffrey Hodes and cellist Francesca McNeeley punctuated the shimmering strings as the music passed through the sections.

Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring was equally as avant-garde as Berg’s music, especially if the legend of its riot-filled premiere is true. Composed in the decade before Wozzeck, The Rite of Spring ballet score depicts raw and earthy “pictures of pagan Russia,” with pulsating rhythms and emotional intensity which was likely a shock to early 20th-century French audiences. Mr. Pratt and the University Orchestra presented the complete ballet score, consisting of fourteen connected sections divided into two parts. Starting with the opening bassoon solo elegantly played by Louisa Slosar, the orchestra played with a subtle underpinning which made the offbeat accents all the more jarring. Stravinsky’s music kept returning to the solo bassoon, as the orchestra musicians played accents in unison with almost simultaneous physical gestures as the players ended the first movement in an appropriate wild frenzy. Mr. Pratt kept the music flowing well, with conducting gestures precise among changing shifts in material. This music was clearly demanding on the players, with such effects as a long continuous clarinet trill well shared by two players without a gap in the sound.

Stravinsky’s music focused heavily on the winds, with many different colors coming from the clarinet section alone. Ms. Slosar and English hornist Drew Mayfield added grace to the instrumental palette, with very light flute as “icing.” Instrumental soloists scattered throughout the ensemble brought out the folktunes used in this work with clarity. In “The Sacrifice,” a very subtle pair of trumpets punctuated the pulsating winds. Key to the success of this piece was the precision in the strings — each player’s bowing was exactly the same as everyone else’s, giving exactness to the rhythm which is so important in Stravinsky.

Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in particular is characterized as a demonstration of orchestral virtuosity. The Princeton University Orchestra more than showed its mettle in this concert, with Mr. Pratt looking justifiably pleased with the performance and the players clearly enjoying their last few musical weeks of school.