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Vol. LXIV, No. 52
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Wednesday, December 29, 2010
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University Orchestra Celebrates Winter With Shostakovich Symphony and Concerto

Nancy Plum

It was fitting that for its winter concert, the Princeton University Orchestra chose music of a 20th century Russian composer torn between two careers featuring another 20th century Russian native also equally at home in two performing careers. For the orchestra’s performance on Friday night (the concert was repeated Saturday night) conductor Michael Pratt chose a concerto and symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich, who divided his early career between that of pianist and composer. Joining the orchestra for this set of performances in Richardson Auditorium was Ignat Solzhenitsyn, who has maintained a dual career between the piano and the podium. Mr. Solzhenitsyn was the featured soloist in Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No.1 in c minor and led the ensemble in Shostakovich’s Symphony No.8, also in c minor. The concerto seemed second nature to Mr. Solzhenitsyn and he proved equally at home in the monumental symphony.

Shostakovich scored his first piano concerto “with the accompaniment of string orchestra and trumpet,” implying a great deal of intricacy among the three components of the piece. Mr. Solzhenitsyn demonstrated a light touch on the keyboard, showing himself to be an exacting pianist and knowing instinctively how to communicate with the conductor. The upper register of the keyboard in particular gave a crystalline effect of icicles in the end of the first movement and the short third movement.

The orchestra will present an evening of scenes with the students of Music 214 on Saturday, January 8, 2011, prior to leaving for their United Kingdom tour later that month. For information contact the Richardson box office at (609) 258-5000.

Seated in the violin section (perhaps to further demonstrate that he was not a soloist), trumpeter Kevin Halenda, a junior at the University, added a saucy touch to the concerto’s first movement. He further provided long and smooth solo lines and clean quick motives in the piece’s later movements. Conductor Michael Pratt kept the accompanying Orchestra subtle, with steady cello pizzicatti in the first movement and an emphasis on the chorale-like texture in the Lento. The final movement, full of musical quirks and circus-like effects, was played effortlessly by all parties involved, with piano chords exactly timed with the strings.

Dmitri Shostakovich lived through a wide range of tumultuous leadership in Russia, from a Czar through a Revolution to Stalin. He composed Piano Concerto No.1 in 1933, while life in Russia still may have not yet become grim. Symphony No.8, dating from 1943, was a totally different story. Composed at the height of World War II, this work is a continual push and pull between dramatic and calm, minor and major. Mr. Solzhenitsyn took the podium for this piece, immediately showing his natural affinity for the style and period of music.

Leading the very full stage of players with broad conducting strokes, Mr. Solzhenitsyn was forceful from the outset, building tension and intensity beginning with the lower strings. He repeatedly found new directions in the sound, allowing the music to build to its most discordant without becoming strident. In the long first movement, the transition from the Adagio to the Allegro was slow and steady, reflecting the ebb and flow of the worldwide conflict surrounding the piece’s origins. A voice of reason in the form of a solo English horn, was sensitively and reflectively played by Lija Treibergs, taking plenty of time on the solo lines.

A number of wind solos came to the forefront during the work, including bassoonist Noah Brown, contrabassoonist Alexa Witowski, flutist Ruth Chang, clarinetist Jeffrey Hodes, and piccolo player Jessica Anastasio. Shostakovich frequently scored this piece in trios of instruments (including the bass instruments of the family), and particularly effective were trios of clarinets, bassoons, and oboes. Throughout the symphony, Mr. Solzhenitsyn kept the music relentless, taking control of accelerating tempi, punctuated by very quick cross-hand timpani playing by Mike DiStefano. The theme and variations of the final Largo were particularly effective, as Ms. Anastasio, Ms. Chang, Mr. Hodes, and E-flat clarinetist Leo Kim passed the theme around. A pizzicato section for violas at the conclusion of the piece offered an amazing sense of hope, especially considering that at that time, no one knew where the war was going, and the alternative to hope was unthinkable.

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