In recent years, a number of Princeton University graduates have turned up performing on the nation’s leading concert stages. These students’ success is a credit to the musical training they received at the University, but also to one particular showcase of their collegiate musical experience. The annual Princeton University Orchestra Concerto Competition is as serious as any professional competition, and when the winners are presented each year in concert, audiences can be sure they are hearing the musical stars of tomorrow.
This year’s Orchestra Concerto Competition was adjudicated by individuals accustomed to hearing the finest in musical performance — Princeton’s Marna Seltzer, Dena Levine of Seton Hall University, Francine Storck of New Jersey Symphony, and David Hayes of Mannes College of Music. The University Orchestra presented this year’s three winners this past weekend in Richardson Auditorium in a program which interestingly progressed from earliest to latest in repertoire, but the soloists performed in order from oldest to youngest.
Countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen will graduate from Princeton this year, and will have no trouble walking from campus into a vocal performing career. Like recent graduate Anthony Roth Costanzo, currently on the roster of the Metropolitan Opera, Mr. Cohen has made a specialty of music of the castrato era, one of music history’s more insidious traditions, but one which produced some spectacular music. Castrati were the superstars of their time. Physical and musical anomalies — with the physique of a grown man combined with the range of a boy soprano — castrati and the composers who wrote for them created works with vocal tessituras and coloratura fireworks the likes of which 18th-century audiences had never heard.
For his portion of Friday night’s Concerto Competition Winner showcase (the concert was repeated on Saturday night), Mr. Cohen presented two of the tamer castrato operatic arias in terms of vocal virtuosity. Composer Nicola Porpora wrote some of the most extravagant operas of the 18h century, mostly for his brother, the renowned castrato Farinelli. His aria “Alto Giove” from the 1735 Polifemo stressed long vocal lines and dynamic intensity, both of which Mr. Cohen handled expertly. Accompanied by a small orchestra of strings and continuo, Mr. Cohen managed well phrases composed for a singer with a seemingly endless lung capacity, providing elegant ornamentation and flexibility in the closing cadenza. Conductor Michael Pratt kept the University Orchestra in a clean Baroque framework, tapering the sound when appropriate to accommodate the solo line.
Mr. Cohen’s second selection, “Scherzo Infida” from Handel’s Ariodante was in a similar style to the Porpora aria, and Mr. Cohen showed the same strengths with a more decisive vocal tone. Mr. Cohen was particularly attentive to the text, and despite the despairing nature of the words, took a gentle approach to the ornaments and cadenza. Although the Handel and Porpora operas were from the same 18th-century decade, the addition of a bassoon to the orchestra (gracefully played by Louisa Slosur) seemed to move the Handel aria historically ahead in orchestration.
Princeton University junior Edward Leung certainly has maintained a busy student career, studying at the Woodrow Wilson School and performing solo piano at a world-class level. Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Major is a work one expects to hear from a high-level professional orchestra, and its complexity and technical demands were a challenge well-met for both the University Orchestra and keyboard soloist.
Following the familiar horn introduction, Mr. Leung took immediate command of the piano. His well-timed chords fit right in place in the first movement, holding together the orchestral sound. Throughout the concerto, Mr. Leung never forgot he was part of an orchestra, but still managed to control a great deal of the musical suspense and dazzle the audience with riveting runs. The orchestra provided a solid accompaniment throughout, with Mr. Pratt taking a very Classical approach to the late 19th century concerto. Winds were particularly precise, with solos provided by flutist Marcelo Rochabrun and oboist Tiffany Huang.
The third soloist for the evening, sophomore violinist Emma Powell, was poised and calm as she tackled the demanding yet lyrical solos passages in Jean Sibelius’s Violin Concerto in D minor. Beginning the first movement with a crystalline sweet melody, Ms. Powell played excellent extended trills and was precise in both the lowest and highest registers of the instrument. Ms. Powell particularly took charge in the final Allegro, playing cleanly with timpani in the beginning and holding her own through the rollicking movement.
Mr. Pratt showed off the University Orchestra on its own to close the concert with a clean and bright playing of Ottorino Respighi’s The Pines of Rome. A very precise ensemble of trumpets and trombones played from the balcony, with trumpet solo played by Junya Takahashi. Mr. Pratt built the tension in this early 20th-century work in an impressionistic fashion, bringing the work to a joyous closing in the final tribute to the “Pines of the Appian Way.”