December 8, 2021

PU Orchestra Journeys to Alice’s Wonderland in Winter Concerts

By Nancy Plum

Princeton University Orchestra presented its winter concerts this past weekend in Richardson Auditorium on the campus of the University. Rather than look toward traditional holiday music heard at this time of year, the Orchestra continued to announce its arrival in the 2021-22 season by performing two challenging and majestic symphonic works, featuring a recent graduate who had a solid musical career while at the University. 

Led by Orchestra conductor Michael Pratt, the concerts Friday night and Sunday afternoon were about courage — in particular from guest soprano soloist Allison Spann, a member of the Princeton class of 2020. Nothing showed her fierceness as a vocal performer more than her choice of David Del Tredici’s Final Alice for the 2019 Princeton University Orchestra Concerto Competition, the winning of which earned her a spot in these concerts. The University Orchestra presented selections from this quirky yet vocally demanding work in this past weekend’s concerts, inviting the audience into what Pratt called the “wacky world of Lewis Carroll set to the equally wacky music of David Del Tredici.” Spann saw this piece, which musically sets the last two chapters of Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, as a source of escape from the past year and a half, and through theatricality and command of the very difficult vocal lines, brought the audience at Richardson Auditorium along with her.

Spann came onstage in character from the outset — looking completely lost and eventually sitting cross-legged on the stage ready to tell the audience a story. Although equally narrated as sung, the selections from Del Tredici’s Final Alice performed took a great deal of voice throughout, asking the soprano soloist to sing in a very high register for extended periods of time and maneuver demanding intervals over a cacophony of orchestral accompaniment. Spann was continually stretched to the top of her vocal range, but was always in command of the difficult music and dynamic demands while simultaneously communicating well with the audience. A particularly expressive moment was an aria sung by Spann accompanied by harpist Leila Hudson.  

Pratt paired Del Tredici’s rarely-heard music with a work from the full-bodied Russian Romantic musical tradition. Sergei Rachmaninoff’s 1908 Symphony No. 2 in E Minor exhibited rich orchestration and passionate melodic writing which turned the corner on the composer’s career after the disastrous premiere of his first symphony. Pratt and the University Orchestra began Rachmaninoff’s four-movement work with a lower string sound which seemed to rise up from the deep, answered by the lower winds. Majestically Russian, the music from the beginning evoked the ice of a Siberian winter. Throughout the first movement introduction, the upper strings played with intensity, and the Orchestra was able to turn the music lush and Romantic on a dime.  

An English horn solo from Sarah Choi led the Orchestra to the first movement “Allegro” and a unison violin melody which always maintained direction. A number of wind solos emerged from the orchestral texture throughout the Symphony, including from Choi, clarinetist Neerav Kumar, bassoonist Gabriel Levine, and flutist Alexander Tsai. Concertmaster Dane Jacobson also played a number of expressive solos throughout the four movements. Clean brass playing provided a triumphant flavor, and well-blended winds added a playful touch.  

The second movement showed precise and well-accented strings and especially clean horns, and a particularly luxurious second theme. With close to 30 violins alone, Pratt was able to augment the natural lushness of the work with a rich string sound, especially in the third movement “Adagio.” The third movement featured two opulent melodies, one from clarinetist Kumar and the other from the violin section as a whole, and Pratt was able to build the musical tension well to take the music to full orchestral passages. The University Orchestra closed the work keeping the sound under wraps in the fourth movement, emphasized by the funereal use of timpani and well executed dynamic contrasts.  

Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 is the type of work the University Orchestra would normally save until the spring Stuart Mindlin Memorial Concerts — celebrating the end of the academic year and the Orchestra players’ hard work. The ensemble’s presentation of this work so early in the concert season will no doubt make the audience wonder what else Michael Pratt and the University Orchestra have up their musical sleeve for the rest of the year.