June 12, 2019

Greater Princeton Youth Orchestra Presents Annual Spring Concert

By Nancy Plum

For close to six decades, the Greater Princeton Youth Orchestra has been offering a comprehensive range of orchestral training programs to young musicians in the area. This past Saturday night, GPYO presented its Senior Division Spring Concert, showcasing the winner of the Orchestra’s annual Concerto Competition. This year the competition was won by oboist Michael Chau, a senior at South Brunswick High School, who demonstrated musical talent and composure well beyond a student just graduating from high school. Chau easily mesmerized the Richardson Auditorium audience with his versatility and technical skill, performing one movement from a Mozart oboe concerto with GPYO’s flagship ensemble, the Symphonic Orchestra.

The four ensembles in the GPYO organization include students from elementary through high school, and the two orchestras performing Saturday night included the Concert Orchestra, comprised of students from middle through high school. Conducted by Christopher Beckett, the Concert Orchestra performed the first movement of Symphony No. 41, one of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s most popular works. Nicknamed the “Jupiter” Symphony, this work requires musical grace and precision, both of which the Concert Orchestra delivered. The ensemble was an appropriate size for Mozart, and Beckett was successful in contrasting the opening decisive chords with lyrical string passages. Conducting with supple gestures, Beckett found drama in the varying sections of the movement, aided by winds playing very cleanly in exposed sections.

Beckett and the Concert Orchestra followed the Mozart work with an equally as well-known movement from Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. This Symphony’s second movement allegretto builds intensity and drama through repetition, with brief respites of Viennese joy interspersed. As played by the Concert Orchestra, the opening theme was clean and solid from the lower strings, with an especially lean cello melody. The first violins entered like icing on a musical cake, and Beckett brought out well changes of character as instruments added themselves to the texture. The Concert Orchestra closed their portion of the program with a rollicking performance of Bedrich Smetana’s “Dance of the Comedians” from his 1870 comic opera The Bartered Bride. With fast-moving strings and clean clarinets and oboes, punctuated by “oom-pahs” from the horns, the Concert Orchestra’s performance of this operatic excerpt was effectively a bit raw, as if depicting a street fair.

The keynote piece of Saturday night’s concert was the Symphonic Orchestra’s performance of the first movement of Mozart’s Oboe Concerto in C Major, conducted by Kawika Kahalehoe and featuring Michael Chau as soloist. Looking as if he had been onstage all his life, Chau demonstrated steady quick solo lines, with precise ornaments and turns. He seemed to possess endless air, especially taking his time in the closing cadenza to the movement, with total control over the musical effects. So impressive was his performance as soloist, the audience at Richardson applauded at the conclusion of his cadenza, rather than the movement, as if it were solo in a jazz piece.

The other works performed by the Symphonic Orchestra represented the British Isles, with the ensemble demonstrating a lush instrumental palette in works of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, and Percy Grainger. A broad string sound was featured in Grainger’s Irish Tune from County Derry, with the “Danny Boy” melody richly played by lower strings. Vaughan Williams’ “Prelude” to the 1941 British war film 49th Parallel showed a spacious musical palette, marked by especially clean playing from hornists Katelyn Meyer and Nikhil Sampath. Chau again played small solos from within the ensemble in Holst’s A Somerset Rhapsody, finding a great deal of phrasing in the composer’s great melodic writing.

As artistic director of the Greater Princeton Youth Orchestra and conductor of its Symphonic Orchestra, Kahalehoe emphasizes to the players staying together as an ensemble and showing unity within the Orchestra. As GPYO looks forward to its 60th anniversary season next year, it is apparent that the musicians of GPYO’s ensembles take these words to heart and work incredibly hard toward building solid orchestral performances.