October 28, 2015

Princeton University Orchestra Opens Season With So Percussion

Music Rev

The Princeton University Orchestra launched its 2015-16 season this past weekend with both old and new, challenging this year’s roster of musicians to draw on their highest level of playing. Conductor Michael Pratt paired the newest in performance imagination with a masterwork rooted in orchestral tradition, at the same time showing off one of the orchestra’s more talented members.

This year the University Department of Music has established a collaboration with the innovative So Percussion group as Edward T. Cone Performers-in-Residence. In its residency, So Percussion has been deeply entrenched in bringing their unique approach to the percussion around us to the students at the University, and Friday night’s concert at Richardson Auditorium was one more example of this creative and inventive combination of ensembles. Composer David Lang’s concerto man made, for percussion quartet and orchestra, made full use of the unique performance techniques and instruments of the So ensemble, complemented by the backdrop of a full orchestra. Lang’s man made began with the members of So Percussion supplying a rhythmic base with twigs snapped in various timings. No part of the twig was wasted — even dropping the pieces on the floor became part of the rhythmic pattern. The four percussionists were gradually joined by the orchestra in varying degrees of instrumentation. 

As So Percussion moved to play four sets of wine bottles, perfectly tuned to one another, the sound built in drama. By the time the solo percussionists had moved to marimbas, steel drums, and four garbage cans, the overall sound had developed a sense of cacophony, but in a busy city street kind of way. So Percussionist Josh Quillen in particular showed himself to be a particularly physical player on all instruments, and one certainly could not argue with the precision of the ensemble as a whole. Lang’s work showed jazz influence in allowing the soloists space to seemingly improvise on their own, and throughout the work, conductor Mr. Pratt kept soloists and orchestral ensemble well in line. In Friday night’s performance (the concert was repeated Saturday night) this piece was a study in sound, with exact timing and concentration required from all players.

The University Orchestra took a breather from the intensity of the Lang work with Aaron Copland’s Clarinet Concerto, commissioned in 1950 by the great swing artist Benny Goodman. The orchestration for this piece was scaled back considerably to strings, piano, and harp, with the solo clarinet as the only wind color in the orchestral texture. Leaving the clarinet so exposed might create a great deal of pressure on the soloist, but Princeton University senior Paul Chang (a winner of last year’s Orchestra Concerto Competition) was well up to the task. Throughout the two-movement work, Mr. Chang maintained serene composure while maneuvering an intense solo part with numerous large skips in the melodic line. The first movement recalled the spaciousness and gentle pace of other Copland works, and Mr. Chang consistently took a sensitive approach to the music. Most impressive were the numerous delicate conversations between solo clarinet and strings, and clarinet and harp. Mr. Chang played the cadenza which linked the two movements with a very open feeling, leading to a virtuosic bridge to a movement marked by crisp rhythms and an appropriate amount of sauciness from the soloist. Use of piano gave the work a sense of Americana, and Mr. Pratt led the orchestra through the work’s subtle jazz atmosphere.

The University Orchestra closed the evening with Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 2 in C Major, which was everything a mid-19th century symphonic work should be. Beginning with subtle strings against crisp trumpets, the University Orchestra played the first movement reverently, transitioning into the “Allegro” well. Mr. Pratt kept the orchestral color chipper, with a majestic feel, bringing out well the sforzandi and joyful nature. The opening movement was a wild ride in terms of orchestral lushness and orchestral drive, all well handled by the players. As with many 19th-century works, wind and brass solos abounded, including well played passages from oboist Tiffany Huang, flutists Alexia Kim and Nicole Odzowski, and horn players Nivanthi Karunaratne and Allison Halter. Especially in the third movement, the same poignant melodic fragment was passed among instruments, setting up a joyful fourth movement to close the evening.