May 10, 2023

Princeton University Sinfonia Closes Season with World Premiere

By Nancy Plum

The most recognized orchestral ensemble on Princeton University’s campus might be the University Orchestra, but Princeton University Sinfonia has had just as much impact providing students and audiences with opportunities to hear both symphonic masterpieces and lesser-known works. Conducted by Ruth Ochs, Princeton Sinfonia performed its final concert of the season last Friday night at Richardson Auditorium, presenting a world premiere amid musical reflections of Irish culture and a nod to the Cinco de Mayo holiday.

The world premiere was of a piece by University sophomore Toussaint Santicola Jones. Inspired by the Leonora Carrington painting Red Horses of the Sidhe in the Princeton University Art Museum, Jones created a two-movement work musically depicting Carrington’s landscape and incorporating ancient Irish mythology. The resulting Naked, Upon the Road to Tara was an appealing orchestral work making full use of the large Sinfonia ensemble.

The sound of the opening movement rose up from the lower instruments of the orchestra, with very present bass and steady timpani provided by Barak Nehoran. A crisp trio of trumpets well punctuated the rich symphonic palette. The second movement began with Wesley Sanders’ solid tuba solo, which throughout the movement seemed to tell the story within the cinematic texture. Composer Jones clearly had a strong following on campus as Ochs effectively led the Sinfonia through his imaginative work.

Within Sinfonia’s ranks are smaller ensembles exploring repertoire for specific instruments. Two of these groups of players were showcased Friday night, with a quartet of flutes and a septet of clarinets playing chamber works with unusual orchestral colors. The Sinfonia Flute Choir solidly played the first movement “Allegro Assai” of Friedrich Kuhlau’s Grand Quartet in E minor for four flutes. Sara Akiba, Gina Arnau. Joyce Chan and Sharv Dave infused Kuhlau’s music with late 18th-century grace and elegance, providing crisp accompaniment and cadences complementing a charming melody.

The Sinfonia Clarinet Ensemble, comprised of seven solid players, performed Three Tangos by popular Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla. Bass clarinetist
Jacob Jackson anchored the ensemble well as Derek Edwards played particularly expressively, with an overall well-blended instrumental sound.

Sinfonia devoted the second half of the program to the keynote piece of the concert — Symphony in E minor by American composer Amy Beach. Composed in 1896, this was the first symphony by an American woman to be published and performed by a major orchestra and was Beach’s “breakthrough” piece in a male-dominated field of music composition. Subtitled the “Gaelic” symphony, Beach’s work was infused with the “laments, romance and dreams” of the Irish people in a musical tribute to the large immigrant community at the time in Beach’s hometown of Boston.

Ochs began the symphony in a quick tempo and with a joyful feeling, with strong solos from hornist Daniel Liu, clarinetist Ethan Spain and trumpeter Hannah Ulman. Liu in particular was busy during this piece, as Beach wrote extensively for horn solo. The second movement was marked by a “siciliano” rhythm, but with much more lilt. Oboist Katya Williams added to the elegance, accompanied by clarinets and bassoons. Beach saved a surprising touch on English horn for late in the movement, gracefully played Friday night by Quinn Haverstick.

Concertmaster Cody Mui provided refined solo playing in the third movement “Lento,” often answered by principal cellist Noelle Kim. The 12 cellos within the Sinfonia played a rich sectional sound as the Irish theme was passed around the orchestra. The closing “Allegro” showed the full brass capabilities, as hornist Soncera Ball joined Liu in solid solo playing.

As a composer, Amy Beach saw no path to a professional musical life until her mid-40s, when her career took off and she successfully challenged the prevailing convention to be a traditional housewife. Despite the late start, Beach went on to publish more than three hundred works and her music was widely performed throughout the United States and Europe. In Friday night’s concert, Ruth Ochs and the Princeton University Sinfonia explored innovative and ground-breaking composers, instrumental combinations, and musical themes to give both sides of the stage something to think about.