April 20, 2022

PU Orchestra’s Stuart B. Mindlin Memorial Concerts Return to Richardson Auditorium

By Nancy Plum

Each year, the Princeton University Orchestra designs its final concert of the season as both a tribute to former Orchestra percussionist Stuart Mindlin and a send-off to the ensemble’s graduating seniors. Over the years, these performances have often presented a single massive orchestral work, but as with many musical events these past months, things are a little different. Led by conductor Michael Pratt, the University Orchestra performed four pieces which may have looked as though they had little in common but were in fact interconnected through their themes of common struggles against tyranny, racism, and intolerance toward diverse backgrounds. The four works of Ludwig van Beethoven, Carlos Chavez, William Grant Still and Leonard Bernstein spoke to both liberty and loss, as well as hope and love, with messages the graduating seniors can take with them as they launch their new lives outside the University.

The Orchestra opened Friday night’s concert at Richardson Auditorium (the performance was repeated Saturday night) with a classic well-known to the ensemble. Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3, Opus 72a was intended for an 1806 production of Beethoven’s opera Fidelio. In a single movement, this work travels from the despair of the prisoner Florestan to energetic fire and finally to victory through Beethoven’s trademark symphonic joy. From the solid opening chords, the Orchestra was always responsive to Pratt’s musical leadership, with the drama of the music building slowly through the introductory passages. Flutist Christine Deng’s chipper playing aided in a smooth transition to the overture’s familiar themes, with a trio of trombones and pair of trumpets adding subtle brass color, as well as a dramatic offstage trumpet. Dynamic swells were well-executed, and drama was maintained through effective sforzandi and the precise playing of timpanist Elijah Shina. Flutist Deng and oboist Jeremy Chen were paired in expressive musical passages, and the Orchestra was effective in creating a fast and furious musical swirl to the closing coda.

Friday night’s concert brought together the music of four completely different cultures, and the Orchestra moved easily from traditional Beethoven to the innovative 20th-century Mexican composer, conductor and teacher Carlos Chavez. Chavez extensively researched the music and instruments of the indigenous Native American cultures of Mexico, and incorporated these rhythms and melodies into his own works. Chavez’s 1936 Sinfonia India called for a large percussion section providing pulsating effects from all of the players, but especially timpanist Shina. The piece contained many of the same mixed meters heard later in the concert in the music of Bernstein, and conductor Pratt led the Orchestra well through the work’s varied sections. A quartet of principal string players provided broad and spacious music, especially when in unison. Contrasting the string sound was elegant wind playing by clarinetist Allison Yang, flutist Audrey Yang, and oboist Jeremy Chen. 

Pratt introduced the music of American composer William Grant Still as interpretive of what it is to be a Black person in America, and Still’s 1924 symphonic poem Darker America sought to capture the triumph of a people over their sorrows through fervent prayer. Still scored this work for very light winds against a lush string palette, and English horn player Vedrana Ivezic well conveyed the “sorrow theme” of this piece, especially when paired with oboist Darren Chiu and clarinetist Emily Liushen. The music was also marked by a dramatic sectional celli solo from the more than 10 cellists in the Orchestra, and Pratt and the players concluded the piece introspectively, as if the conflict between sorrow and hope was not quite settled.

The musical interpretations of cultural intolerance and unresolved differences heard in the first three pieces of this concert all came together in Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. Bernstein’s musical set the theater world on fire when it premiered in 1957 with its jazz rhythms, soaring melodies and raw delving into issues of intolerance and racism. Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances captured the most popular elements of the theatrical score while maintaining the overall poignancy of a timeless plot. Pratt and the Orchestra drew out the dynamics well in a saucy opening of the “Jets” theme, with clean muted bass and fast fingering from the cellists of the ensemble. Especially poignant passages were heard from a string quartet of players, as well as Benjamin Edelson’s horn solo on “Somewhere.” Harpists Allana Iwanicki and An-Ya Olson added refinement to the orchestral color, and the wind sections were well led by clarinetist Neerav Kumar, flutist Alex Tsai, oboist Ivezic, and bassoonist Annie Jain. 

This was the first Stuart B. Mindlin Memorial Concert in three years at the University, and the evening well captured commitment and intrepidness. As with other University ensemble performances, the Orchestra partnered in this concert with the “02.24.2022” student Ukrainian Refugee Appeal, making the performance bigger than the ensemble itself. Conductor Pratt referred to this year’s graduating class as heroic; having spent at least half of their Princeton careers coping with pandemic restrictions and finding new ways to be creatively productive, the seniors of the University Orchestra, as well as the rest of the players, certainly spoke to current struggles through their music.