The Princeton University Orchestra is no stranger to Gustav Mahler — rarely have more than a few years gone by when the orchestra has not tackled one of the composer’s monumental works. Orchestra Conductor Michael Pratt has a well-known affinity for Mahler, and has also expressed that for the students who incorporate the orchestra into their busy Princeton collegiate lives, Mahler is music they “need to get to know if they are to develop a strong sense of the unfolding of musical history.” Last year was Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 in the spring; this past weekend was time for Symphony No. 4. Mr. Pratt noted that there was not much distance between the two symphonies, but regardless of the apparent lightness and ease of Symphony No. 4, this work was as great a challenge to the orchestra players as any of the other Mahler works they have tackled over the years.
Many ensembles would think a Mahler symphony to be sufficient for a full program, but for Friday night’s concert at Richardson Auditorium (the concert was also presented Thursday night), Mr. Pratt expanded Mahler’s concept of music and literature by pairing the Mahler work with a set of pieces just as innovative in our time as Mahler’s compositions were in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Four Sean-nós Songs, a setting of four Irish folk songs for voice and orchestra, was a co-compositional effort between two Princeton music faculty members — Donnacha Dennehy and Dan Trueman. All of these folksong arrangements featured Irish vocalist Iarla Ó Lionáird, who will join the Princeton University Orchestra on their upcoming tour to Ireland.
Opening with the text “I am stretched upon your grave,” Dr. Dennehy’s arrangement of the first song, “Taím Sínte,” was clearly not a light-hearted view of the world. The text was dark, yet the music had a lyrical and melodic sound not unlike the ethereal voice and orchestra music from recent epic films. Mr. Ó Lionáird expressively sang melodic lines full of indigenous ornamentation, aided by a light oboe line played by Tiffany Huang.
Dan Trueman showed a compositional style with heavier orchestration than that of Dr. Dennehy. A co-founder of the Princeton University Laptop Orchestra, Dr. Trueman has a vivid imagination of sound, and in his arrangements, one could hear such unusual instrumental touches as bowing the xylophone and a very sparse texture of second violins and violas on specific text. The three final arrangements flowed from one to another, as Mr. Ó Lionáird conveyed the strophic texts in both Gaelic and English. Dr. Trueman made full use of the orchestra, but not all at the same time, accompanying the voice at one point with two violas or holding the trumpets to emphasize the drama of the third song, “Siúl a Rún.” The ending of the entire set was impressive as the orchestra disappeared from under the voice without being noticed.
In his introductory remarks to the audience, Mr. Pratt noted that in the case of both of the works presented in the concert, the traditional language set was intended to be sung or read to a small group of people. In the case of Mahler’s symphonies using text, the composer raised this art form to a universal level. Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 closes with a movement for voice and orchestra, sung by Princeton graduate Katherine Buzard. With a colossal orchestral ensemble including thirteen celli, Mr. Pratt began the symphony with quick winds and light strings. Clean pairs of horns brought out accents well and pastoral melodies recurred from oboist Alexa McCall and bassoonist Louisa Slosar. Concertmistress Caitlin Wood easily switched back and forth in the second movement between instruments to play the “Devil’s violin” — an instrument deliberately played just out of tune enough to be quirky.
Throughout the symphony, Mr. Pratt maintained a joyous tempo and mood. Hornist Nivanthi Karunaratne played consistently sensitive lines, including a nicely sustained note leading to the coda of the first movement. The third movement was marked by hymnlike playing the lower strings, with the celli elegantly playing in the upper register, so unified one could not tell if it was a solo cello or the entire section. Against all these strings, Ms. McCall provided a refined oboe solo as the movement flowed along.
The fourth movement belonged to Ms. Buzard, singing texts from the 19th-century Das Knaben Wunderhorn. Gracefully accompanied by clarinet and Ms. Huang on the English horn, Ms. Buzard sang with a voice full of innocence, yet full enough to be heard over the lush orchestration. The English horn in particular provided the orchestral assurance that all would be well in Mahler’s exploration of some of life’s deepest questions.
Princeton University Orchestra’s next performance will be on, March 6 and 7 in Richardson Auditorium. Featured will be music of Respighi, as well as the winners of the Concerto Competition. For information visit www.princetonuniversityconcerts.org.