December 11, 2019

Princeton University Orchestra Presents Two Monumental Romantic Symphonic Works

By Nancy Plum

In a concert taking place as University students are preparing for Christmas vacation, the Princeton University Orchestra presented a program which certainly entitled its members to enjoy their holiday break. Led by conductor Michael Pratt, the Orchestra performed two large-scale Romantic symphonic works which showed the strength and power of the ensemble, even before the school year is half over. Friday night’s performance at Richardson Auditorium (the concert was also presented Thursday night) featured Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4 in E-flat Major. Both in the prime of their compositional lives when these works were composed, Rachmaninoff and Bruckner were archetypes of the lush orchestration and emotional drama which marked 19th-century music.

Rachmaninoff based his 1934 Rhapsody for solo piano and orchestra on a melodic theme from the last of Niccolò Paganini’s 24 violin “Caprices,” likely composed in 1807. Beyond a virtuoso violinist as well as composer, Paganini was alleged to have cut a deal with the devil in return for his extraordinary talent. In particular, “Caprice” No. 24 was considered one of the most technically difficult pieces ever composed for violin, and Rachmaninoff brought the same demonic virtuosic requirements to the piano soloist. Pratt and the Orchestra began the Rhapsody decisively, with the theme’s fiendish quirkiness evident from the outset. Precise in rhythmic punctuation, the Orchestra continually demonstrated graceful lyricism and delicate ends of phrases.

Featured in the Rachmaninoff Rhapsody was pianist Francine Kay, a member of the performance faculty at the University. Throughout the 24 variations of the Rhapsody, Kay achieved the seemingly impossible technical demands with focus and intensity, showing especially strong and fluid playing which allowed the uppermost register of the piano to resound in the hall. Often executing flawless extended passages of crossed hands, Kay kept the audience at rapt attention while Pratt maintained effective suspense and drama from the Orchestra. Instrumental soloists adding color and finesse to the performances included oboist Vedrana Ivesic and horn player Benjamin Edelson. 

Pratt paired Rachmaninoff’s technically fierce work with a towering symphony of Bruckner, a composer whose music was just as forward-looking as that of Rachmaninoff, but was also a meditation on the miracle of nature and God’s beauty. Beginning with a low rumble of strings, Symphony No. 4 recalled the Alpine grandeur of the composer’s native Austria through majestic brass writing. French horn soloist Linus Wang effectively carried the bulk of the challenging horn solo work, but all the brass deserve credit for adding the appropriate expansive atmosphere. Lang’s initial horn solo in the first movement called out over the Alpine mountains as the thunderstorm in the orchestration built. Answered by pairs of flutes and clarinets and a rich sectional cello melody, the movement later evoked a peaceful walk through the hillside.

Throughout the four-movement work, Pratt consciously observed “Bruckner time” — the unhurried pace at which the composer unfolded his music. The second movement was somber yet light, with horns playing as if from afar. With the viola section placed at the edge of the stage, a prominent sectional viola melody showed dynamic contrasts and refined phrasing. A quartet of horns presented a spirited hunting call in the third movement, with the rest of the brass clean and precise in rhythm. Pratt maintained clarity within the lush orchestration of this movement, as the ensemble effectively grew in sound to full volume. The Orchestra kept the musical tension well under wraps in the closing movement, and the Symphony ended majestically with a characteristic Bruckner brass chorale from four trombones, tuba, and horns. More than one hour long, Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4 was a challenge for the players in intensity and stamina. In both the Rachmaninoff and Bruckner works, the Princeton University Orchestra showed its mettle, never seeming to run out of energy or drive.

The Princeton University Orchestra will present its next set of concerts on Friday, March 6 and Saturday, March 7, 2020 at 7:30 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium.  Conducted by Michael Pratt and Reilly Bova, these performances will feature winners of the 2020 Concerto Competition, as well as music of Carl Maria von Weber and University graduate student Annika Socolofsky. Ticket information can be obtained by calling the University ticketing office at (609) 258-9220 or by visiting