Princeton University Orchestra Unveils 2014-15 Ensemble in Concerto Performance
With a sea of musicians on the Richardson Auditorium stage, the Princeton University Orchestra launched its new season this past weekend with a concert of lush and Romantic music featuring two exceptional soloists. By the end of Friday night’s concert (the performance was repeated Saturday night), conductor Michael Pratt was understandably proud of how the students rose to the challenge of this year’s opening night.
The works on the program were linked by their use of indigenous music as well as concerto structure. The piano concerto of Edvard Grieg and bass clarinet concerto of Jonathan Russell were clear in the role of the solo instruments, but more veiled was the structure of George Gershwin’s Cuban Overture as a concerto for the unique percussion instruments Gershwin encountered in his travels to the Caribbean nation. Collectively, the members of the orchestra clearly had a good time as the musical school year got off to a joyous start.
Sophomore Marc Fishman was a winner of last year’s Princeton University Orchestra Concerto Competition, saving his prize-winning performance for this season. With its opening chords and flowing arpeggios, Edvard Grieg’s 1868 Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16 is recognizable, and challenging for a performer of any age. From the start, Mr. Fishman took his time on the decisive chords and sinuous solo passages, maintaining a thoughtful and exacting approach to the music. Grieg was inspired by Schumann in the composition of this three-movement work, and the music well reflects the luxurious orchestral writing and keyboard virtuosity of the late Romantics of northern Europe and Russia. Mr. Fishman executed light playing of the opening passages and found the playfulness of the second theme, with both drama and delicacy in the cadenza which closed the first movement.
Mr. Pratt wisely allowed the piano soloist to dictate some of the pacing of the concerto, and built the accompanying orchestral swells effectively. The University Orchestra showed itself in strong form throughout the concerto, from a lyrical sectional cello melody in the first movement to the majestic and lush third movement. Within the orchestra, elegant instrumental solos were provided by flutist Marcelo Rochabrun and hornist Bryan Jacobowitz.
A different kind of concerto style was heard from Jonathan Russell’s Concerto for Bass Clarinet, performed by the orchestra in a world premiere. Mr. Russell, currently a PhD candidate in composition at Princeton, has composed a work which seeks to show a “virtuostically wide range of colors and approaches to the instrument.” In composing this work, Mr. Russell emphasized all the bass clarinet’s unique musical effects, including the instrument’s “altissimo” passages and the use of “throat harmonics,” a technique he describes as “changes in throat position to create buzzy overtones of the fundamental pitch in the manner of a throat singer.”
Mr. Russell began the solo line of his concerto with a single held note, played with minimal vibrato, hauntingly accompanied by strings. The concerto proved to be an appealing work to hear, often with a melancholy reminiscence of Samuel Barber’s orchestral works. Mr. Russell moved easily through all the registers of the instrument, incorporating funk and jazz styles in long melodic lines. The orchestra played a solid rhythmic ostinato, broken by occasional instrumental solos. With an extended cadenza that was more of a meditation than a standard 19th-century cadenza, this work succeeded in introducing the audience to the full capabilities of a unique instrument.
Bracketing these two concerti were sprightly works by Antonin Dvorak and George Gershwin. In the opening work of the program, the University Orchestra brought out well Dvorak’s gift for melody in Carnival Overture, Op. 90, and the augmented percussion section seemed to have the best time in Gershwin’s Cuban Overture. After three lush works, Gershwin’s one-movement Overture was as fun as it should have been, with maracas, bongos, a gourd, and claves spicing up the rhythm. This piece seemed to be a concerto for Cuban instruments, and Mr. Pratt and the players took a sufficiently saucy approach to close the concert in high spirits.