June 13, 2012

Greater Princeton Youth Orchestra Opens Princeton Festival With Orchestral Majesty

Some artistic changes in performing ensembles take place with a great deal of fanfare, and others slip under the radar. The Greater Princeton Youth Orchestra has undergone a tremendous artistic change this year, not of their own doing, as Music Director Fernando Raucci temporarily withdrew from the organization for medical reasons. In any organization dealing with children, even a temporary loss of an influential figurehead is difficult, but the GPYO has rallied well to keep its musical family environment together. As the opening event of the Princeton Festival, the GPYO presented its spring concert this past weekend in Richardson Auditorium, showing that its student membership can be flexible under different types of leadership.

The GPYO has several ensembles within its structure representing different instrumentations, and the Concert Orchestra presented several works for strings. Conducted by Arvin Gopal, the Concert Orchestra used the string texture to find contrasting dynamics and colors within the rhythmic drive of three relatively contemporary pieces. Lower strings were a bit in short supply for this ensemble, but solo double bassist Peter Adams and cellists Rachel Asir and Pallavi Velagapudi made their presence known, especially in the contemporary arrangement of Jean Gabriel-Marie’s La Cinquantaine. Saturday night’s performance was a concert of great orchestral melodies, the first of which was head in the ‘Pavane’ of Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite for String Orchestra. By focusing on the rhythmic energy of these pieces, Dr. Gopal, conducting from memory, kept the mood of the music and closed the pieces particularly well.

High-quality music for wind bands is also hard to come by, but Adam Warshafsky, conductor of the GPYO Symphonic Winds, presented two effective late 20th-century pieces from living composers. Most impressive was Frank Ticheli’s Sanctuary, scored for concert band. Mr. Warshafsky brought out the majesty of the piece, aided by solos from oboist Melissa Maslyn and French horn player Anna Clifford.

Pianist Julian Edgren, featured in the GPYO Symphonic Orchestra’s performance of an excerpt from Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, is a triple threat. Concurrently excelling at piano and violin, Edgren serves as Concertmaster for the Orchestra, and when not garnering awards and solos in music, wields a tennis racket for the Princeton High School varsity tennis team, with which he had a most impressive season this past year. Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto is one of the most challenging concerti in the repertory, and Symphony Orchestra conductor Kawika Kahalehoe certainly raised the bar for the players by programming its first movement. Mr. Edgren played the opening deliberately, building a crescendo leading to the Orchestra’s familiar rich string melodic entrance. With a fluid right hand, Mr. Edgren played with a great deal of feeling as the motion never stopped in the piano. Mr. Kahalehoe built orchestral dynamics to a decisive recapitulation of the opening theme, and the music maintained a nice flow, with fresh and youthful-sounding solos from some of the players.

Mr. Kahalehoe balanced the rest of the concert with familiar orchestral movements, including excerpts from Smetana, Borodin and Dvorak. Mr. Edgren rejoined the Orchestra as Concertmaster for these works, whose signature tunes were no doubt familiar to the audience. In the Borodin Polovtsian Dances, elegant solos were heard from oboist Heeyoung Park and English hornist Emma Coleman. Placing percussion on either side of the stage increased the rhythmic drive of the music, and these Dances moved right along.

More recognizable tunes were found in the fourth movement of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, especially from the horns as a section and clarinetist Ray Hou as a solo. The Orchestra demonstrated a great deal of precision in this movement, with graceful changes in dynamics amidst a lively tempo.

All of GPYO’s conductors Saturday night referenced the challenges of forging ahead this past year without their beloved Music Director, which made the performance not only a celebration of the student musicians (especially the graduating seniors) but also a congratulatory event for the organization as a whole for making it through the year. The players no doubt hope that Mr. Raucci returns soon, but in the meantime, the ensembles and music are in good hands.