October 13, 2021

PU Orchestra Celebrates Live Performance with Viennese, American, and Russian Orchestral Music

By Nancy Plum

After more than a year and a half, Princeton University Orchestra has resumed live performance in Richardson Auditorium, so one would think the musical world has returned to normal — but not quite. More than 100 strong, the University Orchestra performed two concerts this past weekend, but with players in masks (including the winds), no formal intermission, and ushers reminding audience members to keep their masks up and not congregate in the hallways, it was clear that things were slightly different than before the University shut down last spring. It was also evident that multi-page printed programs may be a thing of the past — audiences on Friday and Saturday night could refer to cards listing the program with a QR code to scan for more detailed information.

Some things never change, despite an 18-month “Luftpause” in the Orchestra’s performing life. The Richardson space on Friday night’s first of the Orchestra’s Peter Westergaard Memorial Concerts was full of students eagerly waiting to see their friends onstage and Princeton residents who turned out to hear the full orchestra resonate in the Richardson acoustics. Under the direction of conductors Michael Pratt and Mariana Corichi Gómez, the University Orchestra delivered a performance of both elegant and opulent symphonic music.

To celebrate the return to Richardson, Pratt opened the concert with a violin concerto by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart which brought out the composer’s playful side. The chamber-sized Orchestra was joined in Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3 in G Major by recent Princeton University graduate Hana Mundiya. A member of the class of 2020 who has an incredible number of performance credits for someone her age, Mundiya fit right into the light and refreshing orchestral texture which conductor Pratt elicited from the ensemble. Pairs of flutes and horns added color to the orchestral palette but were not overpowering, with the oboes demonstrating particularly well-tuned thirds throughout the work. Mundiya’s solo violin emerged elegantly from the musical texture in the first movement, with repetitions of phrases stylistically delicate. The ornamental figures in the solo line were clear, and Mundiya effectively took her time in the cadenza closing the first movement.

A lean sectional violin I sound opened the second movement “Adagio,” with Mozart adding flutes rather than oboes for a contrasting effect. Mundiya’s solo playing in this movement was sweet and aria-like — as tender as any of Mozart’s operatic arias. Pratt and the Orchestra closed the Concerto with a teasing and rollicking “Rondeau,” emphasizing the variety of instrumental colors within the movement. Mundiya played a swirling and joyous cadenza to this final movement, as the players effectively executed the unusual yet uplifting ending to the piece.

Aaron Copland composed the 1944 ballet Appalachian Spring with a fresh and open orchestral palette representing spring and renewal — very suitable for this University ensemble restart. With wide intervals and sweeping harmonies, this work has always reflected a truly American sound. With a very full stage of players (and in particular an army of strings), Friday night’s performance featured guest conductor Gómez, a 2021 graduate of the University and recent addition to the Department of Music staff. Opening the Copland work with Neerav Kumar’s elegant clarinet solo, Gómez took her time with the tempo, setting up the first movement familiar string theme slowly and suspensefully.

Throughout the work, the Orchestra maintained both decisiveness and spaciousness, with musical sections changing well, especially leading to the final “Simple Gifts” passages. Graceful wind solos and duets were heard throughout, as well as clean unison strings and solo playing from concertmistress Emiri Morita. Gómez closed the Copland work well with broad conducting strokes leading the Orchestra through the familiar “Simple Gifts” melody, keeping an agile lilt to the tune. An especially effective duet was also heard between trios of trumpets and trombones.

Conductor Pratt chose a towering symphonic work to really show off the University Orchestra’s return to the live stage. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s programmatic Scheherazade is a tour de force for both ensemble and solo instrumental playing. The University Orchestra announced this musical interpretation of 1001 Arabian Nights with a rich sectional sound from the lower basses, contrasted with clean flute and clarinet playing. Exceptional solo work was heard from concertmaster Bryant So, playing improvisatory passages gracefully accompanied by harp. This piece served well to slow the full and lavish symphonic sound for which the University Orchestra has become known.

Like the Copland piece, Scheherazade abounded in instrumental solos, including from oboist Vedrana Ivezic, flutist Christine Deng, and trumpeter Trevor Holmes. Violinist So’s intricate double-stop playing in the final movement, together with swirling flute solos, clean horns and subtle percussion, aided in bringing the Rimsky-Korsakov’s complex and challenging symphonic work to a close, confirming the University Orchestra’s return to a prominent place on the Princeton musical landscape.