March 6, 2024

Princeton University Orchestra Presents Concerto Competition Winners and World Premiere

By Nancy Plum

The annual Princeton University Orchestra Concerto Competition has always shown the depth of talent in the University student body. This year was no exception, with the Orchestra performing a showcase concert of the Competition winners this past weekend. Under the direction of PUO Conductor Michael Pratt, the Orchestra played three full and complex concerti featuring tuba, cello, and violin soloists. As a bonus, the ensemble presented a world premiere of a collaborative work with the University’s African Music Ensemble and the West African Dafra Kura Band.

The Concerto Competition winners were young this year, with three underclassmen displaying impressive technical dexterity in the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Robert Schumann, and Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Sophomore Wesley Sanders and the University Orchestra opened Friday night’s performance in Richardson Auditorium (the concert was repeated Saturday night) with Vaughan Williams’ Concerto for Bass Tuba. The first major concerto ever written for tuba and orchestra, the 1954 concerto packed within its three movements virtuosic requirements well illustrating the full capabilities of the instrument.

Conductor Pratt led the Orchestra in a brisk and chipper opening to the militaristic first movement, with Sanders beginning the solo part with clean runs and exact rhythms. A supremely confident player, Sanders easily found dynamic contrasts and lyrical passages within the brisk orchestral texture. He began the first movement cadenza low in the tuba’s register, with the instrument’s resonant lower notes ringing off the Richardson walls. In both the cadenzas which closed the first and third movements, Sanders took his time, maneuvering challenging passages well. The third movement in particular showed Sanders’ proficiency on exceedingly quick runs, as well as effortless breath control.

The second Competition winner, sophomore cellist Kaivalya Kulkarni, performed a piece written 100 years earlier than Vaughan Williams’ tuba concerto, but equally as demanding. Composed not long before the composer’s death, Robert Schumann’s Concerto for Violoncello was never publicly performed in Schumann’s lifetime, but was novel in its instrumentation. Schumann gave his motivation for writing the composition that “there were so few works for this lovely instrument,” and throughout the performance Friday night, Kulkarni brought out the richness and lyricism of the 1907 Italian instrument he played.

The concerto was dark from the outset, with a melancholy solo cello line against the rest of the strings. Kulkarni consistently played with ease and expression, moving through phrases well. In the first movement, his continually running solo passages were complemented by a subtle pair of horns. The second movement “Langsam” was marked by a lilting duet between Kulkarni and principal cellist Brandon Cheng. Quick and agile solo technique was required for the closing movement, as conductor Pratt kept the orchestral sound restrained against Kulkarni’s nimble playing. Well-unified winds provided drama, with solo oboe and a pair of flutes setting up Kulkarni’s recitative-like final cadenza.

University freshman Daniel Lee was featured in one of the most challenging pieces in the concerto repertory — Tchaikovsky’s 1878 Concerto for Violin. The Orchestra opened the first movement with a trademark Tchaikovsky rich melody in the strings in dialog with the winds. Lee’s first solo lines introduced a sweet and poignant melody, and he showed himself to be thoroughly comfortable and in control of the technical demands of the music. He clearly knew the piece well, keeping the ornaments and double stops clean within heroic but emotional passages. Lee played especially supple arpeggios and dynamic variety in the cadenza which closed the first movement.

The second movement took the form of a graceful Italian “canzonetta,” with Lee’s solo Russian melody well complemented by solo winds. Throughout the concerto, Lee demonstrated solid conviction and imagination of how to interpret the music, particularly finding variety in the rondo-like final movement.

Within the University’s stable of instrumental groups are ensembles dedicated to music of diverse cultures. One of these is the University African Music Ensemble, a relatively new organization exploring sounds and rhythms originating from cities across Africa. The Ensemble joined the Princeton University Orchestra in Friday’s concerto to perform the world premiere of Be Kunu: A Contemporary Exploration of Ancient Mandingo Strings, composed by Burkina Faso native and University faculty member Olivier Tarpaga. Joining the two ensembles were five musicians of Dafra Kura Band, singing Tarpaga’s text and playing Indigenous West African instruments.

Tarpaga’s work was comprised of four musical scenarios, including his own tribute to his daughter and a song of inspiration. All the movements contained a great deal of repetition and exacting drumming, effectively provided by the 13 members of the African Music Ensemble. From within Dafra Kura Band, Wassa Kouyaté conveyed expressive text accompanied by the kora, a plucked instrument combining the qualities of lute and harp; and Boubacar Djiga played the djeli n’goni, a stringed instrument sounding much like its descendent, the banjo. Issouf Dembélé solidified rhythms with a balafon — a gourd-resonated xylophone and two other band members played electric guitars. Along with members of the University Orchestra, the stage was full of very interesting instruments for Tarpaga’s piece, and the joining together of these ensembles made for a spirited and uplifting performance. With composers from England, Germany, Russia, and West Africa represented, this past weekend’s University Orchestra performances brought together four distinctive cultures, and showed that great music does not lose its appeal across the ages.

The Princeton University Orchestra will present its next performances on Friday, April 19 and Saturday, April 20 at 7:30 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium. The Stuart B. Mindlin Memorial Concert will feature the University Glee Club and Orchestra together with soloists Anthony Dean Griffey, Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, and Andrew Foster Williams in Sir Edward Elgar’s “The Dream of Gerontius.” Ticket information can be obtained by