October 12, 2022

Princeton University Orchestra Opens Season with Stellar Soloist

By Nancy Plum

The Princeton University Orchestra opened the 2022-23 season this past weekend honoring a longtime member of the University Music Department and featuring a dynamic and outstanding piano soloist from within the student body. Under the direction of conductor Michael Pratt, the University Orchestra showed its collective ability to take on any challenge while exploring the most difficult of musical repertoire in the ensemble’s annual Peter Westergaard Memorial Concerts. Friday night’s performance at Richardson Auditorium (the concert was repeated Saturday night) included two works composed less than 50 years apart, but each a technical wonder in itself and demanding the most from the Orchestra players. 

Composer Frédéric Chopin may have been born in Poland, but his music was heavily influenced by his residency in early 19th-century Paris. Much of the repertoire from Chopin’s all-too-short life was for solo piano, and his music has been an influence on piano composition ever since. Chopin composed only two piano concertos, and his earliest work in this genre bridged musical evolution between the tunefulness of Mozart and the complexity of the mid-19th century composers.

Composed when Chopin was merely 20, Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 11 in E minor was a rich symphonic work full of revolutionary musical colors from both piano and orchestra. The first movement’s extended instrumental introduction displayed long melodic violin lines, clean light winds and Chopin’s obvious affinity for the cello. For this past weekend’s performances, the University Orchestra featured senior Kyrie McIntosh, who has studied piano since early childhood. Exuding confidence at the keyboard from the outset, McIntosh began the piano solo with a dramatic flourish. In a movement of wistful reflection, McIntosh demonstrated great fluidity in both hands and considerable sparkle in the highest registers of the keyboard. McIntosh effectively introduced a gentle second theme, accompanied by clean horn playing from Selena Hostetler, and later contrasted by McIntosh’s dramatic left-hand octaves against a nonstop right hand. 

An introspective second movement “Romanze” was marked by a Schubertian solo piano part as McIntosh took his time through the elegant passages, with Pratt leading the Orchestra in tandem. His playing was complemented by a bassoon counter-melody, gracefully played by Gabriel Levine. The quirky rhythms of the Polish “Krakowiak” dance enlivened a duet between the piano and strings in the third movement “Rondo,” with McIntosh tapering phrases well. The spirited refrain of the “Rondo” was well punctuated by brass, and McIntosh led the concerto to a majestic close with perfectly timed solo running passages. 

Originally composed in 1874 as a set of piano pieces, Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition was orchestrated in the early 20th century by French impressionistic mastermind Maurice Ravel. Any music subjected to Ravel’s instrumental imagination is bound to have attention-grabbing musical effects, and the University Orchestra brought out all of these in Friday night’s performance. The 11 movements of this suite were a tribute to Mussorgsky’s friend, Russian artist Victor Hartmann, with each movement musically capturing Hartmann’s innovative visual art style. 

The opening trumpet solo by Trevor Holmes announced what would be a crisp yet rich performance of these short musical vignettes. Trumpeters Holmes and Gabriel Chalick led the way through the “Promenades” which recurred after several of the movements. Decisive string playing conveyed a regal character, while the unusual wind orchestration and extensive percussion effects illuminated the stories within Hartmann’s paintings. Percussion played a key role in the depiction of a grotesque little “Gnomus,” and saxophone player Bryan McNamara added a unique color to the tale of “The Old Castle.” English horn player Sarah Choi also added to the musical intensity with languorous melodic lines. 

The fifth movement “Bydlo,” describing a rustic oxcart, featured tuba player Wesley Sanders ploddingly moving the oxcart along. Ravel’s orchestration showcased all parts of the orchestra, and conductor Pratt allowed each solo instrument to speak well above the texture. Especially humorous was the depiction of “The Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells,” with the flutes and piccolo providing abundant chirping. 

The 11 movements of Mussorgsky’s suite flowed seamlessly, with Pratt and the Orchestra bringing out each movement’s character well. The very full ensemble on the Richardson stage ended the work majestically in opulent 19th-century Russian style, with the triumphal rendition of the closing movement “Great Gate of Kiev” having particular relevance in today’s world.

The Princeton University Orchestra will present its next set of concerts on Friday, December 2 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, December 4 at 3 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium. These concerts will include music of Alexander Borodin and Gustav Holst and will also feature the Princeton University Glee Club. Information about these concerts can be found at tickets.princeton.edu.