October 11, 2023

Princeton University Orchestra Opens Season with Captivating Cello Soloist

By Nancy Plum

Fall always brings lively audiences to Richardson Auditorium for the University’s ensemble concerts, with anticipation of the new academic year and students cheering each other on. Princeton University Orchestra began its 2023-24 season this past weekend with two performances in Richardson featuring both the newest Orchestra roster of talented students and one student musician in particular who successfully tackled one of the most difficult works in the repertory.

Led by conductor Michael Pratt, Friday night’s performance (the concert was repeated Saturday night) continued the ensemble’s multi-year tradition of paying tribute to Ukraine with the playing of Elegie by Ukrainian composer and ethnomusicologist Mykola Lysenko. The Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff works which comprised the bulk of Friday’s program showcased the full capabilities of the Orchestra, and Pratt felt that for this season opener, the voice of Ukraine should also be heard. Lysenko originally composed Elegie as a solo piano piece, and the instrumental version played by the Orchestra was created by composer Vsevolod Sirenko and one of Princeton’s own — Class of 1983 graduate Hobart Earle, currently conductor of Ukraine’s Odesa Regional Philharmonic. This arrangement preserved Lysenko’s keyboard charm while reflecting the composer’s desire to retain Ukraine’s distinct identity within the country’s Russian historical influence.

Beginning with Alessandro Troncoso’s lyrical flute solo, the University Orchestra brought out the music’s melodic lushness and poignancy. Conductor Pratt created effective rubatos, aided by clean horn playing and allowed the piece to fade away as an expressive musical commentary.

Dmitri Shostakovich composed Concerto No. 1 for Cello in 1959 for renowned Russian Mstislav Rostropovich. Considered one of the most challenging pieces in the cello/orchestral repertory, the four-movement concerto includes both a motivic acknowledgement to the composer and a quirky musical acquiescence to Russian dictator Josef Stalin, whose political actions could not help but influence Shostakovich’s music. The concerto is scored for unusually small wind and brass sections, as well as an extended cello solo cadenza.

Featured cello soloist in the Orchestra’s performance was University senior Aster Zhang, who was a winner of last year’s Orchestra Concerto Competition. Zhang has already amassed an impressive resumé of performances both nationwide and abroad and is combining her performance and conducting studies with University certificates in finance and applied mathematics within a degree program in economics. From the opening solo cello passages, Zhang showed herself to be poised and accomplished, intent and decisive in bringing the most out of the music.

The Orchestra began Shostakovich’s work with martial winds against Zhang’s crisp solo playing. Zhang explored a wide range of dynamics throughout the performance, with even the softest playing speaking well in the hall. Considering the large numbers of strings onstage, Pratt kept the overall sound well under control. As the sole French horn, Clara Conatser added a lyrical color to the orchestral palette, and passages for solo cello and solo horn were especially elegant.

The second movement “Moderato” was marked by lush and mournful strings, and a linear melody from soloist Zhang was richly accompanied by sectional violas. Climbing double bass lines provided a solid foundation to the sound, offset by a delicate combination of solo cello and celeste. Zhang played the improvisatory cadenza which followed this movement taking command of the double stops and simultaneous melodies, concluding with rapid and fiery virtuosity. Zhang especially verified her poise and professionalism in the closing movement, when upon snapping a string on the cello, she seamlessly finished the concerto with the instrument of principal cellist Brandon Cheng — a sign of true collaboration between Orchestra and soloist.

Pratt and the University Orchestra concluded Friday night’s concert with a spirited performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, Op. 45. Rachmaninoff’s 1940 three-movement work, the last of his life, was both a study in orchestral colors and a summary of Russian musical traditions past, including quotes from liturgical chant and folk song. Pratt kept tempi moving along throughout the Dances, with a great deal of dialog among the winds. Bass clarinetist Nirel Amoyaw and saxophonist Isaac Yi added unique instrumental colors, and a solid brass section created a percussive contrast to cinematic strings. Pratt called Symphonic Dances one of his personal favorites, and Friday night’s performance allowed both players and audience to enjoy the rich and complex music of all the composers presented.

Princeton University Orchestra will present its next set of concerts on Friday, December 1 and Saturday, December 2 at 7:30 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium. The Orchestra will be joined by the University Glee Club for these performances; ticket information can be obtained by visiting tickets.princeton.edu.