March 13, 2019

Princeton University Orchestra Presents Winners of 2019 Concerto Competition

By Nancy Plum

One musical bright spot after every winter in Princeton is the spring concert of the Princeton University Orchestra, when the ensemble presents winners of its annual Concerto Competition for undergraduate students. As evidenced by the audience reaction in this past weekend’s concert at Richardson Auditorium, this year’s winners have not been squirreled away practicing to the expense of everything else, but are fully participating in the Princeton University experience, with armies of friends who came to support them in their solo performances. Four of this year’s winners performed with the University Orchestra Friday night (the concert was repeated Saturday night), demonstrating musical poise, technical dexterity, and the culmination of their enormous capacity for hard work. 

University Orchestra Conductor Michael Pratt warmed up the audience Friday night with the magical world of childhood as conjured by French composer Maurice Ravel in his five-movement Mother Goose Suite. Opening the first movement “Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty” in a languid tempo marked by graceful flute and horn solos, Pratt and the Orchestra set an enchanted scene. Wind solos were clean against violins that were so lean and agile, it was hard to believe there were more than 25 of them. The “Tom Thumb” movement was well complemented by solos from the winds, especially English horn player Ethan Petno. Pratt maintained a supple lilt to the third movement, contrasting with a broad instrumental palette as the Orchestra brought out Ravel’s trademark orchestral sunrise closing the Suite.

Haeun Jung and Katie Liu are both juniors at the University, concentrating in molecular biology and operations research, respectively. In conjunction with their demanding academic careers, Jung has won numerous state awards for violin, and Liu has proven proficient on both violin and viola. The two talented instrumentalists joined the Orchestra for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola in Eb Major. Together with the Orchestra, Jung and Liu were successful in bringing to life the contrasting instrumental colors Mozart, also proficient on both violin and viola, intended for both instruments.

Both soloists were in synchrony with the Orchestra from the outset, playing with the ensemble when not performing on their own. The solo parts were often a conversation between violin and viola, and Jung and Liu demonstrated both independent performing styles and solid awareness of each other and the accompanying Orchestra around them. Jung was a more decisive and physical player on the violin, while Liu found an elegant and graceful tone from the viola. Mozart’s music traveled seamlessly between the two solo instruments, often capturing the same rich conversational style heard between characters in the composer’s operas. The closing cadenza to the second movement andante was dramatic and a bit mournful, foreshadowing Mozart’s Requiem to come.

For his solo clarinet performance, University junior Hanson Kang chose a work of a 20th-century French composer, who despite his prolific output, seems to be little known. Clearly not one to shy away from a challenge, Kang was featured with the Orchestra in Jean Françaix’s 1967 Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra, a work considered almost unplayable when composed because of its technical difficulty. The four-movement work composed in a difficult key for the clarinet, and Françaix himself described the piece as full of “loops, wing-turns, and nose-dives which are terrifying for the soloist.” Seemingly ignoring his vocally loud cheering section until the Concerto was over, Kang demonstrated solid breath control and lightning-quick runs, while maintaining the humor and fun intended by the composer. This Concerto, especially in the cadenzas, seemed truly improvisatory, with Kang appearing to make it up as he went along, although every note was intended. Kang emphasized a great deal of phrasing in a quirky second movement waltz, and played an expressive solo line against an ethereal orchestral texture in the third movement. A rollicking and jaunty closing movement served as a backdrop to the clarinet fireworks and non-stop playing required of the soloist, with Kang well up to the task.

The fourth soloist presented, University senior Lou Chen, was not an instrumentalist — his solo with the Orchestra was conducting the ensemble in Johannes Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture. Chen has been conducting instrumental ensembles both on and off campus through much of his time at Princeton, and he was clearly comfortable on the podium. Most impressive about the Orchestra’s playing of the Brahms Overture under Chen’s leadership were the dynamic contrasts and swells Chen asked of the players — the music was always going somewhere. Chen was a precise conductor, bringing out both the regal nature of the piece and the humorous passages rooted in old-time drinking songs with effective changes in gestures to which the Orchestra responded. A winner of musical awards and clearly an innovative conductor, Chen proved himself well in the University Orchestra’s concerts and undoubtedly has a bright future in the field if he chooses that direction.