March 15, 2017

Princeton University Orchestra Presents This Year’s Concerto Competition Winners

University orchestras frequently sponsor student concerto competitions, with resulting performances of single movements of a winning concerto or a standard work from the Baroque or Classical periods. Not the Princeton University Orchestra — the 2017 Concerto Competition winners presented this past weekend played some of the most difficult music in the concerto repertory. Hornist Nivanthi Karunaratne and pianists Kevin Chien and Seho Young chose complete and substantial works from the 19th and 20th centuries for their performance with the University orchestra. Led by conductor Michael Pratt in a performance last Friday night at Richardson Auditorium (the performance was repeated Saturday night), these remarkable soloists demonstrated performance abilities and composure way beyond their years. 

Princeton University junior Nivanthi Karunaratne undertook a challenging piece for her chosen instrument in Richard Strauss’s Horn Concerto No. 2 in E-flat Major. Composed in 1942, toward the end of Strauss’s life, this three-movement work was full of lush and rich musical effects beginning with the opening horn solo. Despite its 20th-century composition, his concerto contained a great deal of fluid and quick-moving passages for solo horn, which Ms. Karunaratne easily handled with grace and accuracy. This was a soloist clearly unafraid of whatever the music presented, and her solo runs in particular were effortless.

Ms. Karunaratne consistently showed solid strength and breath in the long melodic lines. Mr. Pratt and the orchestra found lyricism in Strauss’s orchestral writing, with dynamic contrasts in the lighter passages. Ensemble hornist Allison Halter played an elegant echo to Ms. Karunaratne’s horn solo, and lyrical wind solos complemented the solo horn line well. All horns joined Ms. Karunaratne in the final movement to close the concerto with full force.

The two other concertos presented in the concert were for piano — featuring two University student pianists with surprisingly extensive international experience. Senior Kevin Chien has won piano competitions in the United States and Canada, and has performed in Europe. Sophomore Seho Young has performed in Japan, Russia, Poland, and Italy, and has won several competitions in the United States. The concertos these young men selected for performance with the University orchestra were among the most intricate and demanding in the repertory — Franz Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major and Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor.

Liszt revolutionized piano performance and technique, and Mr. Chien dove right into the work that occupied 25 years of the composer’s life. Mr. Chien’s opening octaves on the piano (often moving at lightning speed) were clean, and he took plenty of time conveying the drama of the music. Within all the virtuosity there was grace to be found, including solos by clarinetist Brian Kang and oboist Amelia Hankla. Mr. Chien found a great deal of power from the piano, with amazing gracefulness on phrase endings in the piano’s uppermost register. Liszt’s orchestration included playful use of the triangle against the piano, as Mr. Chien’s keyboard flourishes were perfectly timed with the orchestra. The solid ending to the one-movement multi-section concerto showed the influence of Beethoven on Liszt as orchestra and soloist brought the work to a decisive close.

Rachmaninoff’s piano concertos are some of the most popular piano/orchestral works heard. These pieces are known for drama and virtuosity, and Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor was no exception. Soloist Seho Young also found grace in the quick running lines, as the orchestra showed a smooth flow in the opening passages. Mr. Young’s piano flourishes were clean, against an army of lower strings in the first movement Allegro. The sound from the full orchestra was regal, with the solo piano part nonstop. Mr. Young showed that he knew this concerto very well, and always had a plan for where the music was going.

Mr. Young’s elegant solo piano part was often answered by equally elegant winds, including flutist Nicole Ozdowski, clarinetist David Kim, and hornist Allison Halter. In the first movement, bassoonist Timothy Ruszala provided a graceful counter melody to the solo piano. The second movement was marked by a poignant oboe theme from Tiffany Huang, accompanied by lush and broad orchestration and a piano solo that was always right with the orchestra. Rachmaninoff used brass sparingly in this piece, as three trombones and one tuba added a hymnlike character to the final movement. The Rachmaninoff concerto was a huge piece for a student pianist to handle, but like the other two soloists heard in this concert, Mr. Young played as if he does this every day.