October 23, 2019

Princeton University Orchestra Begins Season With Resounding Percussion Concerto

By Nancy Plum

Things must have been lively in the Louisville, Kentucky, home in which Princeton University sophomore Elijah Shina grew up. He may well have been the kind of child that found rhythm in every empty box or can in the house and saw a potential drum on every surface he touched. These are the children who grow up to be great percussionists, and Shina has brought his great sense of inner rhythm to Princeton University and to the University Orchestra’s opening concerts this past weekend. A co-winner of the Princeton University Orchestra 2019 Concerto Competition, Shina showed virtuosic agility on a myriad of percussion instruments in a 20th-century concerto demonstrating a wide range of orchestral colors and effects.

Concertos for percussion were unusual in 20th-century American music. Chicago-born Joseph Schwantner, intrigued by the infinite array of timbres and sonorities available in an orchestral percussion section, composed the 1995 Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra on commission from the Philharmonic-Symphony Society of New York for the New York Philharmonic’s 150th anniversary. The resulting work, performed by the University Orchestra this past Friday and Saturday nights, was a musical collaboration between soloist and ensemble demanding the highest level of skills and techniques from an entire section of percussionists, not just the soloist.

This past weekend’s University Orchestra performances were a commemorative tribute to composer, theorist, and former University professor Peter Westergaard, with whom Michael Pratt had collaborated on numerous musical productions. In this first Peter Westergaard Concert, Friday night’s performance of the Princeton University Orchestra in Richardson Auditorium was as much visual as aural; the stage was jam-packed with instrumentalists, and Shina’s solo role required his moving among locations on the stage. The fact that the Princeton music department has access to so many instruments was remarkable enough, but University Orchestra conductor Michael Pratt had assembled more than 100 players onstage in the ensemble.

The orchestration for this work included such familiar percussion instruments as timpani and drums, but also featured obscure instruments and treatments, including multiple marimbas and xylophones, ancient cymbals, and a small gong which was dipped in water as it was played.  Shina began the Concerto at the rear of the stage, amidst three other percussionists and a timpanist. Playing first on the bass drum, Shina moved easily among numerous instruments, often with very little time to spare. When all four percussionists played together, the musical effect was like thunder, and the multiple keyboard percussion instruments playing both similar and contrasting lines simultaneously created a musical palette of raining glass notes.

Shina moved to the front of the stage for the Concerto’s second movement, playing an amplified vibraphone, a two-octave set of crotales (antique cymbals), eight almglocken (tuned cowbells) and a water gong — a small gong immersed in a tub of water while being played which created a variety of overtones. The crotales produced harmonics ringing high into the space of Richardson Auditorium, and the audience was able to get a close view of Shina’s strength in his arms and wrists as he executed a heartbeat motif on the bass drum and sending the recurrent sonorities from the vibraphone out into the hall.

The lower strings and brass of the Orchestra opened the Concerto’s third movement in an ominous character, with the percussion sound augmented by tambourine and woodblocks. This piece would not work if the rhythm was not exact, and Shina and all the musicians of the Orchestra were precise and meticulous in the complex meters and patterns. So in control of the solo part was Shina that when a drum stick accidentally flew out of his hand, he reached for another without missing a microsecond of rhythm. Shina showed his command of more delicate music with an encore of a Bach keyboard work elegantly played on the marimba, well replicating all the colors of a church organ from Bach’s time.

The Orchestra continued its tribute to Westergaard with a solid performance of Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 in E minor, a work which made full use of the large sections of violas, celli, and double basses in the ensemble. Opening the Symphony in a fairly quick tempo, Pratt and the Orchestra presented the four-movement work as refreshing yet dramatic, with a majestic full sound. Wind solos throughout the piece added a clean and light Viennese touch to the music, including from oboist Ethan Petno, clarinetist Hanson Kang, and flutist Nicholas Ioffreda. Dotted rhythms in the closing movement were especially precise, and a trio of well-blended trombones played chorale-like passages with reverence, leading to a decisive close well punctuated by timpani.

In these opening concerts of the new season, the Princeton University Orchestra not only paid tribute to an esteemed figure in the University’s musical history, but also suggested that if the beginning of the season is at this high a level, one can only imagine where the Orchestra goes from here.