October 24, 2018

Princeton University Orchestra Opens Season with Substantial Symphonic Works

By Nancy Plum

The Princeton University Orchestra, never an ensemble to sneak quietly into the concert season, announced its arrival in the new academic year this past weekend with flair and a strong musical statement. In concerts presented Saturday night and Sunday afternoon at Richardson Auditorium, the Orchestra joined the ongoing tribute celebration to American composer Leonard Bernstein, and also started the year off with one of the most challenging works of the Romantic symphonic repertory. Conducted by Ruth Ochs (filling in this past weekend for Orchestra Music Director Michael Pratt), the University Orchestra showed itself more than up to its demanding season ahead.

 Leonard Bernstein’s ballet Fancy Free was the predecessor to the composer’s blockbuster On the Town — both collaborations with choreographer Jerome Robbins. The five-movement “Suite” from Fancy Free captured the ballet plot in abbreviated form, as well as Bernstein’s fusion of multiple American musical styles. In Saturday night’s performance, Ochs kept Bernstein’s music crisp and saucy, aided by precise rhythms from the strings and piano (with keyboardist Seho Young entertainingly looking the 1940s part in straw hat and tuxedo). Three trombones well punctuated the sound, while a pair of clarinets served as a bridge between scenes in the “Suite.” Bernstein’s orchestration often placed instruments in pairs, with well-tuned intervals from the University Orchestra players, and a bit of slide between notes from strings and brass recreated well the storyline’s bar atmosphere. Ochs also brought out the lushness of the music in later sections, contrasted with pairs of violas and trumpets, and an effective flute/piccolo combination.

Emmanuel Séjourné’s Concerto for Marimba and String Orchestra was composed in two stages over eight years. The original 2007 commission resulted in two movements, and in 2015, Séjourné was commissioned by the premiering marimba player for a third movement to complete the work. The marimba is an unusual instrument in itself for concerto treatment, and contrasting it with a relatively small string ensemble created two distinct musical palettes. Soloist Henry Peters, a junior at Princeton University, certainly had his following in the hall, as Ochs began the piece with decisive string playing contrasted with a free-flowing marimba solo line. Séjourné’s Concerto is Romantic in style, and Peters had no trouble playing with both force and delicacy. In a second movement cadenza, Peters definitively proved that just as much dexterity is required as the mallets glide across the keys of the marimba as with virtuosic runs on the piano. Not only was this Concerto appealing to hear, but this performance gave the audience an opportunity to closely observe and listen to an instrument often in the back of the orchestra.  

Nineteenth-century French composer Hector Berlioz revolutionized symphonic music, but in a different way than his predecessor Beethoven. Berlioz’s musical imagination stretched form and orchestration to the outermost limits, and no work of his was more evident of this than the 1830 Symphonie fantastique: An Episode in the Life of an Artist, in Five Parts. A cornerstone work of the Romantic era, this programmatic symphony was described by Leonard Bernstein as “the first musical expedition into psychedelia.” Although framed in a somewhat classical symphonic structure, Symphonie fantastique conveyed several episodes in the life of an artist (often considered Berlioz himself) through explorations of unusual instrumentation and ground-breaking compositional devices. Berlioz maintained so much control over the work that audiences in his time were given program notes written by the composer to explain the piece as it went along.

Princeton University Orchestra opened the five-movement work with light winds and strings, as Ochs set the scene with delicately-tapered phrases. Key to this work is Berlioz’s “idée fixe” — a musical representation of the “ideal being” with whom the artist was in love. This theme first appeared in the violins, and recurred throughout the symphony from different instruments. Despite the despair portrayed in the work’s story, Ochs brought out joy in the music, aided by elegant wind solos from oboist Christine Kwon, English horn player Camille Liotine, and flutists Nicholas Ioffreda and Haeley Ahn. The third movement duet between offstage oboe Kwon and onstage English horn Liotine was especially graceful in conveying an alpine atmosphere. The performance was also well-marked by crisp horns and klezmer-like clarinets as the storyline turned more grotesque in the artist’s dreams. Not everyone can turn their nightmares into symphonic works, but Berlioz created a piece which has stood the test of time as one of the most demanding.

The University Orchestra has a number of challenging projects this year, including a winter tour to Spain and a multi-faceted collaboration with conducting wunderkind Gustavo Dudamel. This past weekend’s concerts proved the Orchestra to be in solid form for the beginning of an exciting and motivating season.