February 7, 2024

Westminster Community Orchestra Showcases Concerto Competition Winners

By Nancy Plum

The Westminster Community Orchestra performed a veritable potpourri of instrumental and vocal music this past weekend. Sunday afternoon’s concert in Richardson Auditorium had something for everyone, from operatic excerpts to a world premiere to traditional Chinese music. Led by conductor Ruth Ochs, the 55-member ensemble showcased several student winners of the Orchestra’s Concerto Competition, as well as one of Rider University’s choruses. Taking a pep rally approach to drawing the audience into the performance, Ochs brought an additionally festive atmosphere to the afternoon.

The Community Orchestra displayed its own capabilities opening with Carl Maria von Weber’s “Overture” to his 1821 opera Der Freischütz. Considered the first German Romantic opera, Weber’s work was revolutionary in its folklore roots and unearthly portrayal of the supernatural. Ochs and the Orchestra began the work with a slow, dark, and mysterious introduction, as a quartet of horns set the Wolf’s Glen scene. The string sound was well balanced, with the second section of the “Overture” fully symphonic and martial. Clarinetists Russell Labe and Pamela Kotula provided graceful lines coloring the music well.

Princeton High School junior Daniel Guo has been playing alto saxophone for eight years, winning the Westminster Conservatory Achievement Award Competition twice. The alto saxophone is an instrument not often heard in concerto repertoire, and 20th-century French composer Pierre Max Dubois brought a light and airy approach to both soloist and orchestra in the Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Strings. Unlike the traditional concerto, Dubois’ work begins with a cadenza, rather than featuring the soloist at the end of a movement. In these opening improvisatory passages, Guo played the cadenza with poise and control, tapering nonstop fast passages with elegant phrasing and demonstrating a rich tone which easily filled the hall. A bit of klezmer style marked the “Allegro” portion of the movement, and the Orchestra provided a subtle accompaniment never detracting from the well-executed technical difficulty of Guo’s saxophone solo.

The second Concerto Competition winner featured was soprano Madeleine Neiman, currently a sophomore at Princeton High School. Nieman began vocal study at age 8 and has an extensive musical theater background to her credit. For this concert, she chose to sing two 18th-century arias from composers well representing the height of classical opera. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s operatic reputation is legendary, but equally as important in the evolution of the genre was his contemporary, Christoph Willibald Gluck. The arias in Gluck’s operas aimed to move away from the solo coloratura and vocal fireworks of the early 18th century to a more reflective and melodic style. Nieman wisely first sang Mozart’s “Voi che sapete,” a song of innocence usually performed by a “pants role” mezzo-soprano from The Marriage of Figaro. Nieman retained the naïveté of the character well, with clear vocal tone and diction against a light orchestral accompaniment. Her voice soared more on the lyrical and higher melodic lines of “O del mio dolce ardor” from Gluck’s rarely-heard Paride ed Elena. Neiman’s top register projected distinctly in the hall, and she relaxed well into the drama of the text. Her expressive singing was often answered by delicate and equally as sensitive winds.

Clarinetist Matthew Gao, currently a sophomore at the Lawrenceville School, chose to showcase his talent in Weber’s 1811 Concertino for Clarinet and Orchestra. Allegedly composed in three days, this work opened with the same dark introduction as the composer’s Freischütz overture, as Gao began the solo line in the clarinet’s high register. Taking his time on phrases, Gao found effective dynamic contrasts and easily maneuvered the racing scalar passages. Soloist and Orchestra ended the Concertino in majestic and symphonic form, with fast lines and extended trills heard from both Gao and several wind players.

Although not specifically a concerto soloist, Pennington School junior Jenny Zhu played an unusual solo instrument with the Orchestra to add even more uniqueness to the afternoon’s concert. “Jasmine Flower” featured Zhu playing a Chinese bowed erhu in a sweet arrangement of a traditional melody. Zhu added vibrato to the melodic lines in a similar manner to string players, and her graceful playing was enhanced by effective brass and wind solos.

Zhu’s performance led smoothly into the world premiere of Through the Mist by High Technology High School senior Evan Chang, a former student in Westminster Conservatory’s Young Artist Program. Chang’s inspiration from the Impressionistic school could be heard in the opening flute passages of the work, and the music showed a sophisticated compositional imagination. Ochs maintained a steady conducting beat to keep the piece flowing, and Chang’s orchestration elegance was highlighted by sparse percussion, Barbara Brown’s cello solo and scoring for English horn.

The additional “guest soloist” of the afternoon was the Rider University Chorale, which is under the direction of Tom T. Shelton and open to University students, faculty, staff and alumni, as well as members of the community. The 20-voice chorus performed two excerpts of Franz Joseph Haydn’s Missa brevis Sancti Joannis de Deo, also known as the “Little Organ Mass.” TheGloriamovement of this work is unique in its recalling of the 16th-century quodlibet, in which several phrases of the text are sung simultaneously. Although small in number, the Chorale presented this movement with well-blended alto and soprano sections and well-tuned singing. The “Agnus Dei” also showed a pure soprano sectional sound. The Chorale came to full vocal strength in “Down in the River to Pray,” a spiritual-rooted choral piece featuring mezzo-soprano Sarah Perry and soprano Kamanay Belcher as soloists. Perry had a good feel for the style of the music while Belcher demonstrated a light and clear voice, with both well in tune in a cappella passages. The overall choral sound was freer in this selection than the more restrained Haydn mass, and the women’s sections exhibited particularly good harmonies in this appealing arrangement.

Sunday afternoon’s Westminster Community Orchestra concert showed many different styles of music, but its reach and impact on the numerous soloists, players, and singers involved was undeniable. Especially with the young performers and composer heard, the audience no doubt came away with the feeling more than once that “that student is going to be someone.”