There are numerous musical ensembles on the Princeton University campus which occasionally combine for joint concerts. An unusual musical collaboration took place this past week as the University Orchestra and Concert Jazz Ensemble combined their efforts in Richardson Auditorium for a program celebrating the concept of freedom. Dedicated to the memory and legacy of Nelson Mandela, Friday night’s performance (the concert was also presented Thursday night) intermingled the musicians of both ensembles for a concert that was “about as American as a concert can get.”
Current events have influenced musical composition for centuries, and Princeton University Jazz Studies director Anthony D.J. Branker found inspiration and message in the 2012 Trayvon Martin case in Florida. Dr. Branker composed Ballad for Trayvon Martin, that was premiered at these performances, as a “song of healing that speaks to the urgent need for all of us to continue to work together.” Featuring guest tenor saxophonist Ralph Bowen, Ballad for Trayvon Martin honored victims of several civil rights incidents of the 20th century, and musically brought together members of the Jazz Ensemble with the string sections of the University Orchestra.
Branker brought a sprightly energy to the conducting of his work, creating a flowing lilt in the Bach-like canonic entries from the strings. He placed saxophonist Bowen within the orchestra and alongside a trio of piano, double bass, and drums, allowing Bowen’s smooth and rich sound to emerge from the instrumental texture as Branker finessed the colors within the strings. Throughout the one movement piece, Bowen changed tempo with the pace of the work, but never lost the sleekness of the line.
University Orchestra conductor Michael Pratt added brass and winds for a second world premiere, demonstrating that American jazz is a continually evolving form. David Sanford’s Teatro de Strada was a more abstract piece than the Branker work and was commissioned by the University Orchestra and Concert Jazz Ensemble to also feature tenor saxophone soloist Ralph Bowen. The one movement work was marked by the improvisatory sounds of street music and the urban musical environment, with conventional harmonies juxtaposed against the free playing of Mr. Bowen. The University Orchestra was joined in the piece by the complete Concert Jazz Ensemble, including trumpets, trombones, and a trio of double bass, piano, and drums. Pizzicato strings showed the work’s classical side, while a bit of “wail” in the saxophone solo and solo brass parts emphasized the variety of colors within the complex piece.
The Princeton University Orchestra continued the “freedom” theme with a piece composed for a theatrical production that was a play concerned with oppression. Ludwig van Beethoven’s Overture to Egmont incorporated “the heroic triumph of good over evil” into crisp music performed with elegant wind solos by the University Orchestra players, especially oboist Katrina Maxcy, clarinetist George Liu, and flutist Marcelo Rochabrun. Led by the orchestra’s Assistant Conductor J.J. Warshaw, the familiar thematic passages were played very cleanly, and Warshaw clearly had the piece well in hand.
These three one-movement works were preludes to the final symphony on the program, which fit into the overall theme. Antonin Dvorak composed Symphony No. 9 in E minor just as jazz was emerging from the American musical scene and as his own expression of American musical idioms and traditions. A rich and clear lower string sound opened the first movement and with crisp rhythms and subtle dynamic builds the orchestra was off and running. Conductor Michael Pratt allowed the sound to flourish on its own, with tunes that recall the open spaces of early 20th-century America. Clean horns and elegant winds, including from clarinetist Paul Chang, flutist Lila Xie, and oboists Alexa McCall and Ms. Maxcy, kept the lively themes at the forefront.
The second movement Largo featured an eloquent English horn solo played by Tiffany Huang which became more expressive as the movement progressed. Mr. Pratt and the players brought out the “Goin’ Home” theme gracefully from a number of instrumental solos and combinations, from pairs of clarinets and oboes against pizzicato double basses to a solo string quartet. A sensitive horn solo by Gabe Peterson and intense playing by the orchestra brought the broad symphony and challenging program to a close.