May 3, 2017

The Princeton University Orchestra Presents Majestic Performance of Mahler

As temperatures warm up and spring buds make their presence known, one thing is musically clear in the Princeton community — the Princeton University Orchestra will show its best in the annual Stuart B. Mindlin Memorial Concerts. The student musicians of the orchestra were not born when these commemorative performances were first established, and the Mindlin children are all grown and on to amazing careers of their own, but one thing has never changed over the past close to 30 years — the University Orchestra has taken on the most challenging works in the repertory to end its concert year in a musical blaze of glory. This past weekend’s final performances of the orchestra’s 2016-17 season featured two towering composers of the 20th century in Paul Hindemith, who spent a good part of his career in the United States, and Gustav Mahler, who never fails to disappoint those looking to hear the most complex and dramatic of orchestral writing. 

Paul Hindemith initially conceived Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Weber as a ballet, but his emigration to the United States in 1940 interrupted his plans. Hindemith reworked the music into a symphonic suite, and the resulting four-movement work was premiered by the New York Philharmonic in January 1944 and subsequently became one of the composer’s most popular orchestral pieces. Each of the movements incorporated music from German composer Carl Maria von Weber, one of the most influential, yet underrated, composers of the early 19th century.

In Friday night’s performance at Richardson Auditorium (the concert was repeated Saturday night) University Orchestra conductor Michael Pratt and the players began the work with sharp and decisive winds against steady brass and lower strings. Symphonic Metamorphosis showed itself immediately to be dynamic but lyrical, with a bit of a Far Eastern twist. The piece was quirky in a manner similar to Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev, marked in the performance by chipper solos from oboist Ann-Elise Siden and clarinetist Yang Song. An element of jazz in later movements showed why this work appealed to wartime American audiences, and the brass sections of the orchestra were consistently clean. The middle movements featured especially elegant solos from flutist Alexia Kim and hornist Kyle Lang.

Mahler’s music has been described as “every emotion anyone ever felt times a thousand,” and the composer’s Symphony No. 5 in C-Sharp Minor, written in 1901 and 1902, paints an elaborate canvas of orchestration and moods while requiring the highest level of solo performance. The University Orchestra wisely listed in the program the names of the two principal soloists in the work, and trumpet soloist Henry Whitaker began the first movement with clean and precise triplets in the opening fanfare. Throughout the symphony, Mr. Whitaker showed himself to be a confident and fearless musician. The opening melodic theme was played by the violins with a tinge of sadness, as if remembering something from long ago. Mr. Pratt led the orchestra through Mahler’s numerous emotional shifts in the music, as the movement contrasted mournful passages with an almost circus-like swirling strings.

The third movement also featured an instrumental solo, with hornist Nivanthi Karunaratne taking the lead. For this movement, she moved to center stage within the orchestra, creating an echo effect at times with the rest of the horn section. As much as there was going on musically, Ms. Karunaratne was always clear above the orchestral texture, becoming quite forceful later in the movement. Mr. Pratt brought out the Viennese lilt in passages which were often quirky in rhythm and effect. Ms. Karunaratne’s solo lines were well-matched by the rest of the horn section, as well as instrumental solos by trumpeter Mr. Whitaker and oboist Tiffany Huang.

A complete change of pace came in the fourth movement, as Mr. Pratt and the orchestra drew out the tenderness in a string Adagietto, lightly contrasted by a trio of harps. In an unusual occurrence for Mahler, there were no twists of harmony in this movement, just pure Classical orchestral writing, which the orchestra smoothly conveyed. Mahler symphonies often end gloriously, and No. 5 was no exception. Mr. Pratt and the University Orchestra moved the drama of the music along, observing well, periodic breaks in the music. Wind solos abounded, including oboist Ms. Huang, clarinetist Brian Kang and flutist Queenie Luo.

The final concert of the University Orchestra season always signals the end of an academic era, as the senior class graduates and the orchestra anticipates the arrival of new players in the fall’s incoming freshman class. An unusually large group of seniors are graduating this year — almost 25 percent of the ensemble — including players who have been pillars of the orchestra during their University musical career. This concert featured several, but all of them, including oboists Emily Chen and Amelia Hankla, as well as concertmasters Demi Fang and Emma Powell, have been mainstays of their sections and will be missed by colleagues and audience members alike.