October 25, 2017

Princeton University Orchestra Opens Season With Pillars of Sound

By Nancy Plum

With the opening of Princeton University’s Lewis Center for the Arts, there has been a new buzz of musical excitement in the community. One of the core University ensembles settling into the new state-of-the-art facility is the Princeton University Orchestra, which opened its 2017-18 season this past Friday and Saturday nights at Richardson Auditorium. Also celebrating conductor Michael Pratt’s 40th year leading the ensemble, the University Orchestra presented music of Mozart, Beethoven, and Mahler — works Pratt called “three sonic columns of sound” to usher in a “new era of music” at the University.

Pratt paid tribute to a piece he conducted his first year at Princeton by opening Friday night’s concert with Mozart’s Overture to The Magic Flute, which the orchestra also performed during the Lewis Center opening festival. Pratt took plenty of time with the dramatic opening chords, emphasizing the contrast between the traditional nobility and populist Singspiel style of the overture. Throughout the piece, violins were particularly clean, and accents were well placed. Light and clear wind solos were played by flutist Queenie Luo and oboist Ethan Petno.

The concert seemed to follow a path of symphonic development, beginning with the elegant simplicity of Mozart, passing through the stretched boundaries of Beethoven, and finally arriving at Mahler, the peak of revolutionary orchestral composition. Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, the second work on the program, diverged from the instrumental concerti of the time by beginning with the soloist, rather than the orchestra. Guest pianist Geoffrey Burleson, a member of the Princeton music faculty, played the opening passages in stately and hymnlike fashion. The orchestra answered the soloist well, bringing out accents in the music. Burleson demonstrated a particularly fluid left hand in long running passages, playing a dramatic yet effortless first movement cadenza which was almost a sonata in itself. Keyboard agility was the hallmark of this concerto, and Burleson was consistent in maintaining a solid interplay with the orchestra. Pratt and Burleson were always in tandem, with the orchestra and soloist perfectly timed in the closing movement.

Gustav Mahler was most renowned for pushing symphonic form to the outer limits of orchestration and musical effect, but his compositional roots were in traditional Romantic forms. Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D Major was conventional in its four movements, but was infused with music from Mahler’s other works as well as traditional popular songs. The University Orchestra expanded to full forces onstage for this work, and began the symphony with an almost imperceptible drone in the violins contrasting with wind solos and a crisp trio of offstage trumpets. The “Days of Youth” referenced in the first movement featured bird calls effectively depicted by wind solos played by flutist Nicholas Ioffreda and oboist Ethan Petno. The more than one dozen celli brought a bit of spring to the music, aided by subtle and clean horns.

The third movement featured variations on the tune “Frère Jacques,” altered in Mahler’s inimitable way and introduced as a melancholy solo by double bassist Megan Chung. Played by various soloists against an ominous and soft timpani part, the tune built in a haunting manner, depicting a hunter’s funeral and the animals following in procession. A quintet of flutes was especially effective in providing a chilling version of the tune, and a Klezmer-like oboe solo was provided by Petno.

The closing movement, marked “stormily agitated,” began with full bombastic orchestral sound, contrasted with a sweet musical effect from a trio of horns. Horn calls were particularly clean throughout the movement, as the music recalled themes from earlier movements and the orchestra brought the work to a strong and decisive close.

The path of this opening concert by the University Orchestra, from unassuming and graceful to expansive and revolutionary, seemed to mirror the evolution of musical performance on the University campus over Pratt’s 40-year tenure, with the crowning jewel of the Lewis Center offering vast new possibilities. If physical surroundings inspire musical performance, the new Center, combined with the traditional music facilities on campus, will allow the musicians of the University Orchestra to reach new heights.

The Princeton University Orchestra’s next performances will be December 7 and 8 at Richardson Auditorium. Featured will be music of Rossini, Tchaikovsky, and Dvorak. For information call the University ticketing office at (609) 258-9220 or visit www.tickets.princeton.edu.