Campaign rhetoric trumpeted by strings and winds?

That was Clint Needham's kickoff point for his

Radiant Nation

, the work Symphony in C played Saturday as the prize winner in its Young Composer's Competition. The Texas-born Needham uses no words to capture the spirit of the Obama election, but slyly turns instruments into voices declaiming, snipping and even bloviating on his themes of hope and sardonic comment.

Although his aim was specific, he was doing what composers do, shaping moods and contrasts by graphic and subtle instrumental touches. His piece moves from high strings with quiet piano to a kind of sonic battleground in which lyrical moments survive trombone glissandos and the metrical energy of the orchestra pushes time and color forward.

Needham, a doctoral student at Indiana University, uses a large orchestra with lots of percussion, but his music is transparent as he makes every instrument count. It was easy to smile at this piece, for it captures a sense of giddy overstatement - the stuff of campaign rhetoric - within its below-the-surface dignity.

The composer was present at Rutgers University's Gordon Theater in Camden to share the applause with conductor Rossen Milanov.

Milanov's subject was Scandinavian music. He followed Needham's brash Americana with Grieg and Sibelius, composers whose rhetoric tends toward somber understatement. Young Israeli pianist Alon Goldstein found gentleness in Grieg's

Piano Concerto

, using his solid technical command to explore poetic corners and to balance them with sturdy expressiveness. He and the orchestra shared a close sense of ensemble. Solo instruments were chamber musicians meeting Goldstein's suggestions mood for mood. The middle movement stood for their closeness: delicacy and coherence of piano and orchestra seemed complete.

The orchestra reached highest in Sibelius'

Symphony No. 5

, in which the brooding instrumentation let the brass take prominence. The horns and trumpets played large roles following Milanov's well-graded sense of color. The strings built the later movements with their precision and balance.

This symphony has a highly integrated form from first note to last, pegged to two overwhelming full-orchestra outbursts. Milanov prepared those climaxes to enable the orchestra to make its best impact, especially just before the final, widely spaced chords.