Princeton University Orchestra conductor Michael Pratt introduced this year’s Stuart B. Mindlin concert as a journey. For this past weekend’s concerts, the University Orchestra girded its musical loins and performed Gustav Mahler’s abstract, complex, and ultimately romantic Symphony No. 3 in D minor. Joined by the American Boychoir and the women of the Princeton University Glee Club, the more than 180 musicians on stage and in two balconies embarked on a 90-minute voyage through what Mr. Pratt described as Mahler’s “extraordinary vision and imagination.”
For Friday night’s performance in Richardson Auditorium (the concert was repeated Saturday night), Mr. Pratt suggested the audience think of the six-movement work as a movie. Mahler certainly had a great deal of musical action in mind when he conceived this work in the mid-1880s. Mahler wrote that a symphony “must be like the world. It must embrace everything,” and in the case of his third symphony, “everything” included nature and its relationship to the world and human emotion.
Mahler’s symphonic works are marked by pointed and expressive use of brass, and the eight horns of the University orchestra did not disappoint in the opening fanfare. Answered by sharp bowings from the expanded string sections, the brass sections collectively maintained a sense of suspense well through the first movement, especially in the trumpets’ muted extended suspensions. Mr. Pratt and the orchestra players brought out the melodic quirkiness often found in Mahler’s works, aided by strong trumpet lines and sweet instrumental solos from oboist Katrina Maxcy and concertmistress Kate Dreyfuss. Mahler asks a tremendous amount from players of his music, and Mr. Pratt guided the instrumentalists well with careful and well-planned transitions among sections. He also emphasized the Romantic tunefulness in what seemed at times like musical chaos. Throughout the movement, there was always clarity among the players and the music always sounded fresh, with clean cellos and double basses, four well-unified piccolos and solos from hornist Kimberly Fried, English horn player Alexa McCall, and clarinetist Paul Chang.
The second through sixth sections are abstract character pieces, through which Mahler depicts his perception of nature. The second movement, subtitled “What the flowers in the meadow tell me,” was well led off by Ms. Maxcy, with violins which were lush but as clean as if playing lieder. Solos chased one another around a bit within the orchestral fabric, including violinist Ms. Dreyfuss, flutist Lilia Xie, and Ms. Maxcy, and transitions were always graceful. Bassoonist Luisa Slosar steadily held the rhythm of the third movement with trumpeter Nicolas Crowell providing the work’s signature posthorn solo from the balcony.
Mahler revolutionized symphonic writing by incorporating voices, and in the fourth and fifth movements of Symphony No. 3 a solo mezzo-soprano voice and two treble choirs joined the orchestra. Mezzo-soprano Barbara Rearick a member of the voice faculty at Princeton, settled well into the text of Nietzsche’s poem after sitting quite a while before singing, and her voice effectively built in intensity as she sang of man’s suffering. In depicting “what the morning bells tell me,” the women of the University Glee Club and the 40-voice American Boychoir served effectively as angels. Although the text of “Bimm Bamm” might not lend itself to dramatic interpretation, the American Boychoir’s singing was laser-like, with impressive strength in the alto part. The women of the Glee Club, singing from across the balcony, lithely presented the “Poor Children’s Begging Song” from Das Knaben Wunderhorn with equal clarity from both soprano and alto sections.
As the Romantic lushness of the symphony flourished toward the close of the work, Ms. Maxcy effectively led the audience toward the end of the evening’s musical odyssey. Ms. Xie’s flute solos flowed seamlessly into those of other winds, and the University orchestra brought the symphony to a grand close as a testament to their collective achievement this year.
The orchestra’s presentation of Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 was certainly a journey, but as Mr. Pratt mentioned in his introductory remarks, there were a number of journeys being embarked upon that night. Twenty-five seniors graduated from the orchestra this year (but with an apparently huge pool of players ready to step in next year), with a number of Glee Club singers also graduating from Princeton and the eighth grade of the American Boychoir preparing for their journey into high school. These students’ collective final performances at Richardson will no doubt stay with them as a reminder of the all-encompassing power of music and the written word.