March 8, 2023

Princeton University Orchestra Acknowledges One of Its Own in Pair of Concerts

By Nancy Plum

Princeton University Orchestra has a history of paying tribute to past members, including the annual Stuart B. Mindlin performances honoring a past percussionist with the Orchestra. This past weekend’s concerts by the Orchestra honored class of 2003 ensemble cellist Daniel Ulmer, who passed away prematurely but had a significant impact on the Orchestra during his time at Princeton. Friday and Saturday night’s performances at Richardson Auditorium also presented two winners of the University Orchestra’s 2022-23 Concerto Competition.

Lest anyone think that the Orchestra members spend too much time on music, both of this year’s Concerto Competition winners already have accumulated diverse achievements rivaling people twice their age. Piano soloist and senior Richard Qiu is graduating with a degree in economics and certificates in Music Performance, Statistics and Machine Learning, and Technology and Society. Student conductor Adrian Rogers, also a senior, is earning a degree in economics and a certificate in Music Performance, but has added certificates in Architecture and Engineering, and History and the Practice of Diplomacy to his resumé. Any of these academic focuses is a career unto itself, and the confidence and drive of these two students was evident in their self-assured performances with the University Orchestra.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s 1786 Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor was unusual in its minor key and its wind scoring of both oboes and clarinets. Mozart used minor keys selectively, with different keys representing diverse emotions. One of only two Mozart piano concertos in a minor key, No. 24 has neither the horror and tragedy of the G minor Don Giovanni nor the darkness of the Requiem’s D minor key. Guest soloist Richard Qiu chose this work relating the contrasting somber melodies and bright passages to the ups and downs of his time at Princeton University. With 17 years of piano performance to his credit, Qiu was well up to the technical challenges of the work, and it was fitting that someone with such success at a young age should perform the music of a compositional child prodigy.

In Friday night’s performance at Richardson Auditorium (the concert was repeated Saturday night), Princeton University Orchestra conductor Michael Pratt and a scaled-down ensemble began the concerto delicately, leading to a forceful yet flowing full sound. Qiu also began the piano solo gracefully, with a playing style backed by clear intent and command of the score, as well as effortless crossed hands and clean runs. Qiu found the joy in Mozart’s music, accompanied by an Orchestra featuring crisp wind passages and a steady pair of horns.

The second movement “Larghetto” was pure Viennese, as Qiu provided a dreamy piano bridge leading back to the principal instrumental theme. In this movement, the winds acted as a concertante ensemble against the full ensemble, with several wind players, including oboist Abigail Kim, provided elegant solo work. The final movement was a series of variations on an orchestral theme, each more elaborate and fiery than the one before. Qiu demonstrated a particularly decisive left hand, with the right hand playing increasingly complex nonstop passages. Mozart’s playful character was evident at the end of the work, as conductor Pratt and the instrumentalists brought out the martial and dramatic effects of this complex concerto.

Like the composer whose piece he conducted, Rogers was immersed in music from a young age, and immediately took command of both the score and the Orchestra from the podium in George Gershwin’s 1932 Cuban Overture. Gershwin drew inspiration for this piece from his travels to the raucous playground which was Havana, Cuba in the early decades of the twentieth century. As one might expect from a work rooted in Cuban musical style, the University Orchestra contained a large percussion section, including claves, maracas, and the Caribbean güiro. Like pianist Qiu, Rogers was a poised and self-assured competition winner, leading the Orchestra with a strong beat and solid knowledge of the piece’s musical effects. Rogers conducted the ensemble in a suitably boisterous performance as wind players seemed to bend pitches to recreate a rowdy Havana. Aided by seven percussion players, the Orchestra changed textures well, with Rogers cleanly guiding the instrumentalists through the final coda. The performances of the two Concerto Competition winners bracketed a solid rendition of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s 1898 Ballade for Orchestra, led by Michael Pratt, with the ensemble crisply maneuvering the varied styles in this dramatic musical essay.

As the Princeton University Orchestra prepares for its upcoming tour to Eastern Europe and the last few months of the season, paying tribute to a former member with high-quality performance reaffirmed what the players have long recognized as the “camaraderie and lifelong bonds cultivated in the halls of Richardson.”