Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXV, No. 16
Wednesday, April 20, 2011
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Princeton University Orchestra Brings Beethoven, Mahler and Strauss to the Richardson Stage

Nancy Plum

In the written program of the recent Princeton University Orchestra concert, there was the annual list of the Orchestra’s graduating seniors and their plans for next year, in which one student commented that “Mahler’s ghost, it would seem, is particularly at home in Richardson Auditorium.” Mahler’s ghost would have had a busy day last Friday, between the Philadelphia Orchestra’s performance of Symphony #4 in the afternoon and the Princeton University Orchestra’s annual Stuart B. Mindlin Memorial Concert at night. University Orchestra conductor Michael Pratt often programs complete Mahler symphonies for this concert, which honors a former Orchestra percussionist, but expanded this year’s program to include Beethoven and Richard Strauss. Friday night’s concert in Richardson (the performance was repeated Saturday night) brought together extremely challenging repertory with a very large orchestral ensemble in which all players gave 110%.

Mr. Pratt began the concert with Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3, which opened the composer’s opera Fidelio in 1806. Mr. Pratt, who conducted Fidelio at the University a number of years ago, took advantage of the Beethoven work to warm up the ensemble’s clean and decisive playing. The winds effectively captured the sereneness of “middle” Beethoven, with a very light flute (played by Jessica Anastasio) topping off the lean string sound. Mr. Pratt moved the piece quickly into the opening theme, saving the ensemble’s loudest sound for the principal melody, aided by refined dialogs among winds, including Ms. Anastasio, oboist Bo-won Keum and clarinetist Jeffrey Hodes.

The five Mahler songs which were included on Friday night’s program told a story as much as the Beethoven overture. Although performed as a musical unit, Mahler composed the songs individually, and each set a different musical mood. Featured in this performance was mezzo-soprano Barbara Rearick, a University faculty member with vast international stage experience. Each song was scored slightly differently, and consistently effective through all of them were the winds. Ms. Rearick was a bit overpowered at times for the full orchestra, but overall her clean rich tone cut through the ensemble well and her upper register was particularly brilliant. Ms. Reardon matched the atmosphere of the text, including a serene style to complement the sensitive words of the second song.

The violins of the Orchestra rolled along, and the final song included a subtle dialog between English horn player Andrew Mayfield and a solo harp. Wind solos were elegant, especially oboist Katrina Maxcy and flutist Ruth Chang. A pair of clarinets often had the opportunity to play very clean thirds.

Mr. Pratt balanced the Beethoven and Mahler pieces with another story-telling work. Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra! has been well-known from its opening motive, used in movies and commercials, but the piece is so much more than its opening intervals. Mr. Pratt and the University Orchestra, back to its massive size with an especially large wind section, brought out more lightness and sparkle than the dramatic opening would indicate. As the double basses swelled the musical tension, the trumpet section played as one instrument. Strauss probably envisioned a grander pipe organ than the electronic instrument played by J.J. Warshaw, but the effect was clear, with brass underpinnings similar to Mahler. The strings maintained a very lean sound for as many of them as there were, and a double string quartet brought out the chamber elegance within the work. Violist Eddie Skolnick provided a graceful solo, joined by cellist Han-wei Kantzer, oboist Justin Knutson, horn player Ian Arnold and clarinetist Leo Kim.

In his spoken commentary, Mr. Pratt noted that the music for this evening was very difficult, and congratulated his players for their hard work, both for this concert and over the year as a whole. The graduating seniors certainly had their hands full with this concert, but will leave the University with musical memories of solid work well done and an achievement beyond the scope of the usual University orchestra.

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