The Princeton University Music Department is accustomed to showing off its orchestra, but it is not often the community gets the chance to hear from the composition program. The University Orchestra, led by conductor Michael Pratt, presented an unusual collaboration with a University composer, combining vocal and orchestral performance with imaginative literature to create a full evening of music. The University Orchestra’s concert on Friday night (the program was repeated Saturday night) linked an innovative theatrical piece with three late 19th and early 20th-century giants.
Gilad Cohen, whose world premiere Dragon Mother opened the concert, is currently a Ph.D. candidate in composition at the University. It was fitting that the orchestra’s concert was started a bit earlier than usual to accommodate Dr. Cohen’s participation in the nearby Lewis Center for the Arts production of Kiss Me, Kate, as it was quite evident from the start of Dragon Mother that Cohen has a way with musical theater. The term “Dragon Mother” conjures many images these days, most recently as a mother pushing children to succeed at any cost. This was not at all the type of Dragon Mother librettist Sean Patterson had in mind; the fierce mother portrayed by soprano Martha Elliott was more over-protective than driven, surprised at her own overly-defensive qualities. Mr. Patterson’s text was very visual, and Ms. Elliott sent the text to the back of the hall, showing no trouble with the extensive and dramatic musical scenes. Uncharacteristically miked, Ms. Elliott sang with her usual clarity of tone and command of contemporary music, accompanied by a very rich orchestration. Especially at the end of the first section of text, one could imagine “spinning” visuals as the mother reflected back on her life and raising her daughter.
Cohen’s somewhat jazzy orchestration required precision from the instrumentalists, especially the winds. Principal oboist Bo-won Keum played an introspective solo in the opening section of the text, and lyrical trombone playing contrasted the more intense third section of text. Cohen gracefully depicted the passage of time on an English horn, played by Katrina Maxcy.
The Cohen piece in itself was a major accomplishment for the orchestra, but the ensemble did not stop there. Also featured in this performance were winners of the orchestra’s 2012 concerto competition. The concerti selected by the two winners, horn player Max Jacobson and violinist Caitlin Wood, were also challenging for the players and spellbinding for the audience. Mr. Jacobson, a senior at the University, played Richard Strauss’ Horn Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major as if he had known the piece all his life. With a father who was a horn player, Strauss composed well for the instrument, and the horn plays major roles in his tone poems. Mr. Jacobson started the concerto with clean hunting calls, following up with a lyrical, almost Mozartean melodic line. Ruth Ochs guest conducted this piece and she kept the tempo moving along, maintaining a triumphal character as light strings provided a subtle accompaniment. Mr. Jacobson played the solo line seamlessly as principal cellist Nathan Haley led the section in elegant playing which added to the orchestration. The solo line required a tremendous amount of air, but one would never have known it from Mr. Jacobson’s effortless playing.
Strauss’ orchestration can be bombastic in its rich Romantic texture, but not in the case of this concerto. The second movement in particular was marked by clean winds against pizzicato strings and a clean sectional cello line. In the third movement Allegro, Mr. Jacobson moved well through the quick solo line against playful interplay between two flutes.
The second soloist for the evening, sophomore violinist Caitlin Wood, who played Bartok’s Violin Concerto No. 2, commanded the stage like a real pro. Pratt started the concerto with a low rich sound in the violins and steady harp playing. The solo violin lines were disjunct, but did not sound it as Ms. Wood played with confidence. A gracefully climbing bassoon line was played by Louisa Slosar, with equally as agile lines from English horn player Drew Mayfield and hornist Kim Fried. The close of the first movement featured an impressive solo cadenza which picked up speed as Ms. Wood executed clean double stops.
These were two hefty concerti for the evening, and Mr. Pratt wisely chose to close the evening with a musical chance for the players to relax a bit in Copland’s El Salon Mexico. The trumpets had their chance to demonstrate crisp playing to infuse the work with its Mexican flavor, as the clarinets and bassoons played the rhythmic lines cleanly. As with any Princeton University Orchestra performance, the audience was heavily cheering on their friends, especially the soloists, as Mr. Pratt and the players brought this evening of challenging works to a close.