Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 50
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
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PU Orchestra and Concert Jazz Ensemble Combine for Holiday Classic Performance

Nancy Plum

Nothing says “holiday season” quite like the Nutcracker suite, however the version presented at Richardson Auditorium this past weekend was not the usual serene ballet with visions of sugar plums and flowers hovering in the air. A combination concert between the Princeton University Orchestra and Concert Jazz Ensemble created an unusual holiday treat — Tchaikovsky’s memorable music in its original format and a very updated version by a couple of 20th century jazz legends.

The warm-up for the concert on Friday night (the performance was repeated Saturday night) was a musical event in itself, as violinists and celli tuned up against an undercurrent of trumpets, saxophones, and snare drums readying themselves for the evening. Alternating orchestral and jazz playing, the two ensembles presented the eight movements from Tchaikovsky’s Suite From the Nutcracker, and its alternative arrangement by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, in a clever and provocative juxtaposition. Very nice to see onstage were the members of the Concert Jazz Ensemble, who normally would not be heard with their colleagues in the orchestra.

Jazz Ensemble conductor Anthony D.J. Branker led off the performance with Ellington and Strayhorn’s arrangement of the Nutcracker’s opening overture. Clean ensemble playing indicated how hard this band has worked to become unified, with the arrangement enabling a solid big band sound in the old-school Glenn Miller style. Each of the twelve brass and wind players in the Jazz Ensemble was comfortable taking small and extended solos, and in this opening movement, it was saxophonist William Colby Pines’ turn to show his well-grounded playing.

The Princeton University Orchestra next performance is January 9, 2010 at Richardson Auditorium. Featured will be music of Handel, and will include the winners of the Princeton University Voice Competition. For information call the Richardson box office at (609) 258-5000.

Orchestra Music Director Michael Pratt joined in with the orchestra’s rendition of the same movement, matching the dynamic builds of the Jazz Ensemble and setting the scene for the rest of the suite with a light and refined string sound. Wind solos from the flute and clarinet sections also marked these opening portions of the suite.

This suite progressed in this unique alternating manner, reflecting both ensemble and solo capabilities from the players. In the Jazz Ensemble, tenor saxophonist Audrey Welber (also doubling on clarinet) was quite busy, doing solos in a number of movements on both instruments. In the first half of the suite, double bass accompaniment to the Jazz Ensemble was provided by Allison Wood, and later by Matt Wong, both of whom played crisply and decisively to keep the rhythm on point. Also keeping the rhythm moving forward were pianist Jason Weinreb and drummers Kevin Lackey and Will Kain, who made the most of the varied percussion styles used by Ellington and Strayhorn in this arrangement.

The University Orchestra was also not short on refined solo work, including flutist Allison Beskin and solos from the clarinet and English horn sections. Crisp horn work marked the familiar “Waltz of the Flowers” as Mr. Pratt combined a classical flavor with a lushness which reminded the audience that Tchaikovsky was a solidly 19th century composer.

The concert closed with two pieces related in their depictions of musical fantasy. Paul Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice connotes another kind of holiday tradition — perhaps impending trips to Disneyland — and the players in the University Orchestra capitalized on the childlike implications of this piece by appearing in sorcerer’s hats (a few were also apparent in the audience). Mr. Pratt linked this piece with another mischievous work in Richard Strauss’ programmatic Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. In both of these pieces, the orchestra brought out the storylines with sprightly tempi and confident themes. The bassoon section deservedly took special commendations at the end of the Dukas piece for their playing of the familiar “broom” theme. Clean playing could also be heard from the horn and trumpet sections.

Mr. Pratt played quite a bit with the drama of the Strauss tone poem, especially drawing out the end of the piece as the main character Till gets out of yet one more jam. The viola section provided a nice rich sound in this piece, and concertmistress Alyse Wheelock and oboist Justin Knutson provided especially polished solo work.

This concert was full of fun, no doubt in part to relieve some stress from the players’ end of the semester academic pressures. Despite the musical playfulness, the musicians were all business when it came to playing cleanly and precisely.

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