May 1, 2013

Princeton University Orchestra, Glee Club Join to Perform Works by Poulenc and Ravel

The two works performed in the Princeton University Orchestra’s concerts this past weekend paid particular tribute to the performance’s honoree — former orchestra percussionist Stuart B. Mindlin. The music of early 20th-century France was marked by coloristic orchestral effects, many of which were scored into the percussion section. The compositions of Francis Poulenc and Maurice Ravel presented Friday night (the concert was repeated Saturday night) at Richardson Auditorium made full use of diverse orchestral palettes and showed some of the more unique percussion effects prevalent in music from a century ago.

These concerts were a collaborative effort between the University Orchestra and Glee Club, and began with the Glee Club showing the best sound heard from this ensemble in a while. Conductor Gabriel Crouch has amassed a good-sized chorus of more than eighty singers, yet the precision and clarity of sound produced in Poulenc’s Gloria made the ensemble sound like a concise chamber chorus. The Glee Club was accompanied by a substantial orchestra to bring out varied orchestra colors, punctuated by crisp brass, especially a trio of trumpets. Mr. Crouch kept the string lines sinewy and lean, allowing the vocal melodies to speak clearly above the orchestra. Throughout the six-movement work, one could hear dissonances clearly, with the tenors providing an especially full sound and the sopranos sounding like icing on an impressionistic cake. Inner voice parts were particularly well-blended, and a tricky a cappella passage in the second movement was meticulous.

Featured as soprano soloist in the Gloria was Clara Rottsolk, stepping in at the last minute. Ms. Rottsolk began her first solo passage with a strong and plaintive sound, and a vocal edge to match the accompanying lower strings. In a later movement, Ms. Rottsolk’s sound flowed effortlessly into the choral parts, backed by a steady pizzicato in the strings. The closing movement showed an especially warm orchestral sound, aided by two harps and topped by Ms. Rottsolk’s shimmering soprano, revealing Poulenc’s own version of a choral sunrise.

The true innovator of the orchestral sunrise was Maurice Ravel, whose works are renowned for building in driving intensity to brilliant heights. Ravel’s orchestration in his ballet score Daphnis et Chloé used the full range of orchestral instruments as well as a wordless chorus and a variety of percussive effects and musical devices popular in early 20th-century Europe. The stage at Richardson filled quickly with the very large University Orchestra assigned to play the ballet score, with the Glee Club split on either side of the balconies. Conductor Michael Pratt began the work subtly in the lower strings as the antiphonal chorus cleanly echoed the emerging sunrise in the lower instruments of the orchestra. Flutist Alison Beskin, principal hornist Max Jacobson and oboist Bo-Won Keum brightened the instrumental palette with elegant solo playing as the sound built in richness and sustained intensity.

The complete ballet score of Daphnis is divided into sections, with Mr. Pratt and the orchestra executing transitions smoothly and keeping the flow of the piece even. Among the percussive effects scored by Ravel was the use of a wind machine, adding an eerie color to the texture (and perking up audience interest), and a “Jeu des timbres” or glockenspiel, exploring the full scope of possible timbres. Precise winds startled the audience out of the impressionistic atmosphere, with the brass, especially trumpets, playing a key role in changing the orchestral colors. In the more familiar second suite, the sun rose through the strings, aided by languorous solos played by Ms. Beskin and alto flutist Marcelo Rochabrun. Throughout this section, the chorus built intensity and dynamic range well, with clear off-beat accents and choral sound flowing precisely across the stage between balconies. Especially impressive throughout the work was the ability of the chorus to be heard at all dynamics in the hall, especially when humming.

Although the second suite of Daphnis et Chloé is often performed by orchestras, the ballet score is rarely heard in its entirety. Both the University Orchestra and Glee Club demonstrated in these concerts that they were up to the challenge of these two impressionistic and inventive works, closing their seasons well with a well-deserved sense of achievement.