March 2, 2022

Princeton University Orchestra Presents Concerto Competition Winners in Winter Concert

By Nancy Plum

Princeton University Orchestra returned to the Richardson Auditorium stage last week with a concert featuring both guest conductors and soloist winners of the University Orchestra Concerto Competition. The performance Friday night (the concert was repeated Saturday night) showed convincingly the impact of University Orchestra conductor Michael Pratt’s long tenure with the Orchestra and the depth of the University music program.

Soprano Marley Jacobson, a University senior who had a leading role in last season’s  “pandemic” virtual opera La Calisto, led off the evening with a performance of a concert aria by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Mozart composed the orchestrally accompanied “Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio!” for soprano voice and oboe obbligato for his sister-in-law and as an interpolation into another composer’s opera in which she was performing.

Orchestra conductor Michael Pratt led the ensemble in this work, demonstrating well-blended winds and horns, with an especially elegant oboe solo by Vedrana Ivezic. Jacobson sang Mozart’s concert aria of plaintiveness and emotional confusion with the lyrical poise and vocal self-assuredness of the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro. Ivezic’s contrasting oboe solo line was equally vocal in character, and the two instruments together were often delicately answered by pizzicato playing from the lower strings. From a 21st-century viewpoint, Mozart seemed to like torturing sopranos with huge intervallic skips, and Jacobson was well prepared for the technical challenges of this piece.

The classical music tradition of Armenia has been represented for the past 100 years by composer Aram Khachaturian. Originally intending to become a biologist, Khachaturian turned instead to music and composed works capturing the exotic colors and rhythms of the region, as well as the Mugham melodic themes which fascinated him as a child. Khachaturian composed the Adagio pas de deux as part of his 1956 ballet Spartacus, and the movement contained some of the most memorable melodies in the entire ballet. Conducting this piece in Friday night’s concert was University senior Montagu James, also a violinist and composer who has had several works commissioned by Princeton University Sinfonia. 

The Adagio contained great opportunity to exploit romanticism and bring out long melodic lines and conductor James began the work elegantly, allowing the music to unfold on its own. A solo flute played by Annette Lee sparkled in an extended trill over the orchestral palette. From the outset, James took the stage and quickly showed a secure comfort level in leading an orchestra, looking as though he had been on a podium for years. He employed graceful conducting gestures to maintain the instrumental color, showing solid command over the dynamics and leading the piece through effective ebbs and flows. The Adagio stretched out cinematically, aided by a lush and clean violin sectional sound and an army of celli adding a solid underpinning. Propelled by a strong and clean brass section, the transition to a broad final section was clean.

Nineteenth-century German composer Johannes Brahms wrote two orchestral overtures; the more familiar work is the Academic Festival Overture, but the 1880 Tragic Overture, Op. 81 is no less impactful. The University Orchestra, led by guest conductor and University senior Elijah Shina, took the audience at Richardson Auditorium through the Overture’s whirlwind of emotions, ranging from heroic expansiveness to quiet calm.

An energetic conductor from the beginning, Shina well captured the elegance and lyricism of Brahms. Using broad conducting gestures to drive the music forward, Shina elicited crisp and decisive phrases from the Orchestra while maintaining a smooth flow to the music. Like James, Shina demonstrated a high comfort level on the podium, keeping tempi steady while not ignoring accents and musical effects, and effectively closing the work with typically authoritative Brahms chords.

Béla Bartók’s Viola Concerto dates from shortly after the end of World War II and the last years of the composer’s life. Bartók had completed the work only in draft form when he died, and the piece was made ready for its premiere performance by Bartók’s musical executor, who filled out the harmonies and finalized the orchestration. The viola soloist Friday night was University freshman Andrew Jung, who also performs in the University Orchestra and with a cappella ensembles on campus.

The Orchestra performed Bartók’s Concerto with smaller string sections, fitting in well with the orchestral lushness tempered by a bit of minimalism which is Bartók’s music. The work began with the viola soloist, and Jung played the long melodic lines and cadenza-like passages with technical precision. The melodic repetitions and numerous short motives were characteristic of Bartók, and Jung maintained unyielding control over the technically difficult lines. Conductor Pratt kept the sound well contained, especially aided by very clean flute playing by Christine Deng and Annette Lee.

Like all the student soloists and conductors in this concert, Jung displayed great confidence in front of the Orchestra, executing well particularly dramatic sections for solo viola, as well as quick-moving dissonant passages. A trio of trumpets brought majestic flavor to the piece, and a trio of horns was very effective in providing contrasting color and punctuation to the solo viola lines. Jung executed complex double stops with a Gypsy effect toward the end of the work, finding dynamic variety in the line while maintaining relentless drive, as both conductor and soloist led the Orchestra to a swirling close to the evening.