June 14, 2023

Greater Princeton Youth Orchestra Shows Off its Ensembles in Season Finale

By Nancy Plum

The Greater Princeton Youth Orchestra (GPYO) is justifiably proud of its 63-year history, and especially in rebounding from the instability of the past three years. In the midst of the pandemic, GPYO hired a new music director, who wasted no time in bringing the ensembles within GPYO back to full strength. The four ensembles within the Youth Orchestra organization presented their final concerts of the season this past Sunday afternoon and evening in Richardson Auditorium, solidly demonstrating their mission of providing young musicians with challenging musical experience while cultivating a lifelong love of the arts.

Sunday night’s concert at Richardson featured the Concert and Symphonic Orchestras, both conducted by Jessica Morel, in works which were both operatic and programmatic (the Chamber Winds and Preparatory String Ensembles performed in the afternoon). With more than 80 players, the Concert Orchestra presented two opera overtures and a contemporary work which showed how far the Orchestra had come in a season. Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fidelio Overture, Op. 72 is full of contrasts between rich orchestral passages and solo instrumental playing. The Concert Orchestra has an army of strings and fewer wind and brass players, but the solo instrumentalists were well up to the challenges of the music, especially horn player Kamila Ouadah. Conductor Morel kept the tempos steady; another orchestra might have played this work faster, but the tempos selected worked for this ensemble.

Morel admittedly raised the bar for the Concert Orchestra players with Bruce Tippette’s 2012 Unconquered, a work with both audience appeal and pedagogical goals for young musicians. Concert Orchestra’s performance began with a well-unified string sound as Morel led the players through a rich and spacious instrumental palette. Tippette built much of the drama of this piece through the percussion, well played on Sunday by Darren Oommen and Gagan Chunduru. The Concert Orchestra supplemented the Beethoven and Tippette works with a dance-like performance of Camille Saint-Saëns “Bacchanale” from the opera Samson et Delilah, played with a dramatic yet joyful feel. The wind players effectively provided a “snake-charmer” atmosphere with clean melodic lines, and transitions among tempos were clean.

Morel’s other ensemble within GPYO is the Symphonic Orchestra, a smaller ensemble of the most advanced musicians. As part of Sunday night’s concert, GPYO honored its founder, longtime music educator Matteo Giammario, whose name is now attached to the GPYO Concerto Competition. This year’s Competition winner, Princeton High School senior and flutist Heidi Gubser, chose to perform a lively and spirited movement from Jacques Ibert’s 1934 Concerto for Flute and Orchestra. The Concerto’s closing “Allegro scherzando” is considered some of the most difficult music in the flute repertory, but Gubser had no trouble executing the running triplet figures and what one critic described as a “blast of fireworks suspended from mid-air.” Throughout the movement, Gubser maintained solid control over the complex line, especially taking her time in the cadenza.

The Symphonic Orchestra ended the concert with two programmatic works — a saucy opera overture and a composer’s poignant and descriptive tribute to his homeland. Gioachino Rossini’s “Overture” to La Gazza Ladra is full of humor over its somewhat silly but allegoric story. One of Rossini’s longer operatic overtures, this work is full of contrasts, and provided opportunities for clean solo and duet playing, including from flutist Eesha Gadde, oboist Sophie Wang, clarinetist Ben You, and a pair of horns played by Tyler Olmstead and Siddharth Balasubramanian. Flutist Heidi Gubser showed herself to be equally as expert on the piccolo, providing the charm often heard in Rossini’s opera overtures.

Bedrich Smetana’s set of symphonic poems known as Má Vlast describe Bohemia’s landscape and history, and the second poem “The Moldau” follows the course of the Vltava River as it flows through the countryside. In Sunday’s performance, a trio of flutes well portrayed the river, musically chasing one another through bubbling streams. Smetana’s trademark broad Czech melodies were heard in the string sections, and Morel encouraged a full orchestral sound as the river rumbled along. Dynamic swells were well-executed and the transition to a peasant dance section was clean, as the Symphonic Orchestra brought out the majesty of Smetana’s music.

The annual spring concert of the Greater Princeton Youth Orchestra is designed to both show off the progress and abilities of the instrumentalists and send the graduating seniors off with one more solid concert memory of their time with GPYO. The addition of seasoned conductor Jessica Morel as conductor provides an added benefit of a tremendous role model for the young musicians as she brings an international conducting background to a Princeton ensemble.