December 6, 2023

PU Ensembles Come Together for Joint Concert of Orchestral and Choral Music

By Nancy Plum

The Princeton University Orchestra and Glee Club joined forces this past weekend at Richardson Auditorium to present an unusual gem of a concerto from one of the most creative periods of French musical history. Orchestra conductor Michael Pratt and Glee Club director Gabriel Crouch brought together the two ensembles to perform a concerto for two pianos, multiple saxophones, orchestra and chorus by 20th-century composer Germaine Tailleferre, whose compositional output has remained largely unexplored until recent decades. Combined with the music of Brahms and Mozart, the Tailleferre work created a solid anchor for the Orchestra’s annual tribute to former University faculty member and composer Peter Westergaard.

The University Orchestra opened Friday night’s concert (the performance was repeated Saturday evening) with one of the University music department’s talented students leading the ensemble. Senior Aster Zhang has performed extensively as a cellist both nationally and worldwide and is also trained as a conductor. For her portion of the program, Zhang led the Orchestra in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Overture” to The Magic Flute. Conducting without a baton, Zhang was poised and professional from the outset, leading a stately opening and smooth transition to the quick-moving passages. The string sound was consistently light, and musical punctuation clear. Taking her time in slower sections, Zhang showed Mozart’s drama well, aided by elegant wind solos.

A short Johannes Brahms motet conducted by Gabriel Crouch and sung by the Glee Club served as a warm-up to the Tailleferre concerto, with a choral sound from the Glee Club well suited to both pieces. “Unsere Väter hofften auf dich” was originally part of Brahms’ 1889 Fest- und Gedenksprüche collection of psalm settings. The text was steeped in reassurance, and the 90-voice Glee Club conveyed the words with a well-unified vocal tone. The chorus successfully revealed Brahms’ trademark counterpoint, and the homophonic chordal passages came together as solid blocks of sound.

Tailleferre was born into a renowned era of French music and was acquainted with all the greats of early 20th-century French composition. Much of her music was either lost in World War II or otherwise unknown until after her death, with her 1934 Concerto for Two Pianos, Saxophones, Chorus, and Orchestra only receiving its second performance in 2015. Conductor Michael Pratt led the Orchestra and Glee Club in an animated performance of this work with piano soloists Margaret Kampmeier and Geoffrey Burleson, as well as a quartet of saxophonists. Kampmeier and Burleson, both Princeton University music faculty members, had their hands full with continual and percussive piano lines. Following a chipper and jazzy opening, both pianists sustained the steady rhythm of the piano parts within the orchestral texture throughout the first movement.

Saxophonists Rachel Chen, Jacob Jackson, Alessandro Troncoso, and Marcello Troncoso each played a saxophone of a different register, adding an orchestral color which Tailleferre might have come across during her stay in the United States in the 1920s. Her close collaboration with Impressionist composer Maurice Ravel was evident throughout the Concerto, especially in the use of a wordless chorus, solidly performed by the University Glee Club.

While the opening movement depicted an almost circus-like atmosphere, the second movement “Larghetto” was dramatic in its deliberate and pointed keyboard lines, punctuated by Milo Salvucci’s celeste playing. The choral passages were reverent, effectively sung with a light texture by the Glee Club. Soprano saxophonist Jacob Jackson added a clean solo contrasting a brass section which was playing with flair.

Mysterious celli and double basses opened the closing movement, answered by the tenors and basses of the chorus singing swing-like non-word syllables. Kampmeier and Burleson provided definitive piano lines against syncopated fugal orchestral passages, and the Orchestra and soloists well handled the harmonic shifts as led by Pratt. This was an unconventional concerto in that the pianos were almost never heard on their own, but the overall orchestral effect was much like Paris between the world wars — full of vivid colors with an underlying turmoil.

The University Orchestra closed the concert with a Brahms symphony, which was well within the ensemble’s wheelhouse. A tower of classicism, Symphony No. 3 began much like the Magic Flute overture, but rather than create drama, the first movement took off orchestrally. Conductor Pratt maintained a graceful flow to the music, with refined wind passages contrasting with rich string playing. The second movement “Andante” was marked by elegant wind solos, including oboist Abigail Kim, flutist Alessandro Troncoso and bassoonist Annie Jain. Clara Conatser and Spencer Bauman provided clean horn lines as the brass joined together for a regal close to the movement. The Orchestra closed Friday night’s concert heroically, with sharp and decisive forte sections complemented by reflective passages to close the work.

The Princeton University Orchestra will present its next pair of concerts on Friday, March 1 and Saturday, March 2 at Richardson Auditorium. These performances will feature the winners of the Orchestra’s Concerto Competition, in collaboration with the Princeton University African Music Ensemble. Ticket information can be obtained by visiting