Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXV, No. 10
Wednesday, March 9, 2011
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The PU Orchestra Electrifies Audience With Three Concerto Competition Winners

Nancy Plum

One of the most pleasing musical signs of spring is the annual Concerto Competition sponsored by the Princeton University Orchestra. Three judges, this year Music Department Chair Scott Burnham, College of New Jersey faculty member and composer Routao Mao, and composer David Miller, selected three students who excel on varied instruments to perform complete concerti in a concert presented by the orchestra this past weekend. The music of Friday night’s performance (the concert was repeated Saturday night) spanned almost 250 years and featured three instruments with diverse timbres and character.

Princeton University Orchestra conductor Michael Pratt programmed the concert with the most avant-garde first. The guitar has long been a part of the orchestral fabric, but since the instrument became amplified in the 1930s, the guitar has developed a new home and repertory in the genres of jazz and rock-and-roll.

Graduate student Marc Dancigers brought these genres into the orchestral concert hall with his Concerto for Electric Guitar and Orchestra, in which he also starred as soloist. Contemporary audiences may think of the electric guitar in terms of Jimi Hendrix or Van Halen, but Mr. Dancigers showed that the instrument does have a place in the long repertory of concerti throughout music history.

Mr. Dancigers’ concerto began with piano and percussion, as the orchestra vamped until Mr. Dancigers was ready to come in on the guitar. His guitar sounded a bit like a saxophone in its amplification, and Mr. Dancigers soon demonstrated that virtuosity on the instrument required just as much agility and nimbleness of fingers as a violin. Mr. Dancigers scored this work for a large ensemble, creating sweeping orchestral palettes and sonorous melodies, especially from the horns. Mr. Dancigers composed the second movement in a style more like folk music, plucking out the broken chords on the strings. The composer wrote in the program notes that the third movement was influenced by both rock and blues, but the effect was also that of the big band style of the 1930s.

Flutist Jessica Anastasio returned the audience to the 18th century with Mozart’s Concerto for Flute and Orchestra in D Major, written when the composer was not much older than the students in the orchestra. The ensemble for this piece was considerably smaller and began the concerto with a courtly orchestral introduction. Ms. Anastasio’s solo flute rose above the orchestral texture, with very even 16th notes and a crisp dialogue between soloist and ensemble. Particularly exceptional about Ms. Anastasio’s performance was the clarity of her playing, especially in articulation and ornamentation. She gave the impression of seamless air, keeping scales chipper and playing them with ease. She clearly has been playing this piece for many years, and showed great precision in phrasing and variety of style, especially in the third movement Rondeau. Taking her time on the cadenzas which closed the movements, Ms. Anastasio proved to be a soloist who was a joy to listen to.

Between Mozart and Dancigers came the 20th century, with music full of dramatic contrasts and dark and brooding character. Jean Sibelius’ Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in d minor began like icicles on the Scandinavian landscape, and a haunting dialogue between soloist Yoon Won Song and clarinetist Leo Kim. Ms. Song built intensity well through the first movement with a solo line that was continuous and lush within the orchestral fabric. All concerti are about dialogues between soloist and ensemble, but Ms. Song demonstrated very clean exchanges of musical ideas between the solo violin and other instruments, including bassoonist Greg Rewoldt and violist Tien Chen. The first movement is almost a work unto itself, and Ms. Song maintained unremitting intensity building to the end. In the second movement, Ms. Song responded particularly well to the clarinets, oboes, and horns, drawing a luxuriant sound from the violin. Mr. Pratt asked for the lushest playing from the ensemble in this concerto, a demanding work which required strength and force to its swirling end.

The Princeton University Orchestra Concerto Competition often features students who are ready to graduate, showing how they have developed as performers while at the University, but leaving the audience sorry that they are leaving and will not be heard anymore with the orchestra. This year’s Competition in particular showcased performers who are innovative, technically proficient, and will hopefully be seen again on another stage.

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