March 11, 2020

Princeton University Orchestra Presents Concerto Competition Winners

By Nancy Plum

The Princeton University Music Department is understandably proud of the depth of talent within its “Orchestra family.” In these days when student activism often leads to political change, the University Orchestra staged a “Student Takeover” this past weekend by featuring an undergraduate conductor and graduate student composer, as well as two student instrumental soloists, in a pair of concerts at Richardson Auditorium. Friday night’s performance (the concert was repeated Saturday night) included two high-spirited concerti, a contemporary work by a University graduate student, and an opera overture conducted by a University senior.

Each of the four works on Friday night’s program was equally significant in showcasing the University’s talented musicians. Senior Reilly Bova, a conductor as well as principal timpanist for the University Orchestra, led the ensemble in Carl Maria von Weber’s 1821 “Overture” to the opera Der Freischütz. Revolutionary in its roots in German folklore and orchestral effects, this “Overture” provided Bova with the opportunity to maintain firm control over the ensemble and the dramatic changes in mood. Conducting from memory, Bova brought out a gentle pastoral nature from a quintet of horns and built suspense well throughout the piece. Throughout the “Overture,” Bova demonstrated solid capabilities from the podium, showing the training from his numerous music department activities during his Princeton career.

Annika Socolofsky, a Ph.D. candidate and fellow in composition at Princeton, has created a research focus for herself based on country music legend Dolly Parton. Parton’s expansive repertory of descriptive songs contains several levels of meaning from Parton’s life, and Socolofsky has found compositional inspiration and similar variety of levels in the myriad of vocal timbres she hears in Parton’s singing. Socolofsky’s 2018 one-movement Gaze, which she revised in 2019, reflected an orchestral palette built around a single pitch full of musical detail, replicating the rich colors of Parton’s melodic writing. As led by University Orchestra conductor Michael Pratt, the Orchestra well conveyed Socolofsky’s musical devices, including passages of a double string quartet accompanied by innovative percussion, and the unique sound of a percussionist bowing a xylophone with two bows to create an unusual orchestral shading. When the music called for complete chords, the chords were full of musical detail, and the piece effectively showed why Socolofsky has been commissioned by numerous performing organizations throughout the United States.

This year’s Princeton University Orchestra Concerto Competition yielded two winners featured in this past weekend’s concerts — pianist Vian Wagatsuma, remarkably only a freshman, and violinist Fumika Mizuno, a junior at the University. Rather than several instrumentalists playing single movements from multiple concerti, the Orchestra presented only these two soloists, each playing a complete concerto. Wagatsuma’s showcase piece was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s 1785 Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major. Composed a mere six years before the composer’s death, this work reflected the frenetic pace of Mozart’s life at the height of his career, yet contained the instrumental subtlety and graceful melodic lines for which Mozart is known.

Accompanied by a chamber-sized orchestra, Wagatsuma began the piano solo with a fluid right hand and extended trills, which clearly took great strength of arm.  She kept the piano solo light and playful, with lines always showing direction. Wagatsuma easily found a graceful flow in the music, was strong and decisive when she needed to be and executed delicate cadences. Her first movement closing cadenza was more virtuosic than the rest of the solo part to that point, setting up well the elegant “Elvira Madigan” theme of the second movement andante. Wagatsuma and the University Orchestra also kept a playful mood through the closing third movement allegro.

Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto Op. 14 was composed during World War II, written while Barber was on the faculty of Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music. Violinist Fumika Mizuno already possesses extensive experience working with international conductors and at high levels of performance, and she showed solid confidence with this lyrical work. Playing with significant vibrato, Mizuno played the broad expansive melodies with ease, seemingly lost in her own world while the Orchestra ebbed and flowed around her. Conductor Pratt kept the Orchestra well under control throughout the Concerto, and Barber’s fresh and open melodies rolled through the hall. Oboe soloist Jeremy Chen opened the second movement elegantly with thematic material that was picked up by a lean and sweet sectional cello sound. Mizuno closed the Concerto well with fast and furious technique in a movement that required continuous violin playing, leaving no doubt that she, as well as the other student soloists, conductor and composer featured on this program, will have solid careers in music if they choose.