The Princeton University Orchestra concerts this past weekend had something for everyone, featuring two student instrumental soloists, one faculty vocalist, and two conductors. The music spanned close to 200 years, with a variety of ensemble combinations.
Saturday night’s performance in Richardson Auditorium (the concert was also presented Friday night) focused on student talent in the first half, with two exceptional underclassmen who were winners of this year’s University Orchestra Concerto Competition. Australian junior Nicholas Stead took on one of the most difficult piano concerti in the repertory — Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. Composed as a single movement concerto for a performer who had lost his right arm, this work presented Mr. Stead with the unique challenge of avoiding the temptation to add his right hand to the full keyboard range of the music. The strength required of the left hand was substantial to sustain the slow and intense dynamic and harmonic crescendo as the piece seemed to rise from the sea.
Conductor Michael Pratt led a smooth and flowing Allegro, emphasizing the many coloristic effects and percussive orchestration. The solo piano part required the same dexterity from the left hand as the most difficult works for two hands, and Mr. Stead showed no difficulty handling the intricate lines. Timing between piano and clarinets was exact, and the concerto was enhanced by elegant instrumental solos from English hornist Tiffany Huang and bassoonist Louisa Slosar. No one created musical sunrises better than Ravel, and as the University Orchestra reached full force at the end of the piece, the effect was dramatic.
Sophomore violinist Jessie Chen selected his solo challenge from the late 19th century, with the four-movement Scottish Fantasy of Max Bruch. Each movement incorporated a different folk song with its own unique character. The late 17th-century tune “Auld Rob Morris” was set for plaintive violin solo and orchestral accompaniment, giving the impression of the broad landscape of Scotland. Mr. Chen maintained a very folk-song style while conveying the tuneful theme against the broad string strokes of the orchestra. Mr. Chen was decisive when he needed to be, as the orchestra, led by Ruth Ochs, built the intensity of the movement well. The second movement country dance included numerous double stops for the violin soloist, and Mr. Chen was joined in a playful duet by flutist June Yoon. The most virtuosic passages for the violin solo came in the fourth movement, which Mr. Chen played against an elegant harp accompaniment.
In commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Benjamin Britten’s birth, the University Orchestra presented the composer’s dramatic cantata Phaedra, based on the mythological story of the daughter of Minos of Crete. Mezzo-soprano Barbara Rearick, a member of Princeton’s voice faculty, dramatically conveyed the text with its minimalistic accompaniment provided by a small orchestra including harpsichord. Britten sought a Baroque approach to this piece, but the harpsichord in this case had a more percussive and pointillist effect than the usual accompanying chords heard in Baroque music. Ms. Rearick worked effectively to present a vocal line that was not always melodic, accompanied by graceful accompaniment, especially from cellist Bradley Berman. Mr. Berman played an especially poignant melody toward the end of the work, as a commentary on the death of Phaedra, as conductor Mr. Pratt allowed the piece to fade away. The concert closed on a chipper note, with a spirited performance of Mozart’s Symphony No. 38 in D Major. The University Orchestra had no trouble finding the drama in Mozart’s music and the six wind players providing flute, oboe and bassoon accompaniment were especially strong in the Finale.