Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXV, No. 24
Wednesday, June 15, 2011
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Music/Theater

Tim Keyes Consort Presents Survey of Early American Music and Its Influence

Nancy Plum

The word “consort” conjures up a number of images from music history, but in many people’s minds, consorts tend to be on the small size. The north Jersey-based Tim Keyes Consort defied this definition this past weekend by bringing full forces to Richardson Auditorium for a musical New England Tapestry. Central to the concert was the world premiere of an oboe concerto also titled New England Tapestry, around which conductor Tim Keyes built a programmatic survey of 18th and 19th-century American music.

To assist the consort in some of the pieces was a 30-voice chorus, which sang in the opening Centennial Hymn by 19th-century composer John Knowles Paine and Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier. Mr. Keyes arranged this hymn specifically for the consort, demonstrating particularly nice writing for the brass with variety in the orchestration. The chorus sang with a full sound, even if a bit heavy in vibrato from the sopranos.

Mr. Keyes’ “celebration of the musical fabric that is the foundation of American music” focused on the simplicity of oft-overlooked post-Revolutionary music. Much of this music is rooted in the church, especially the Shaker tradition, and drew upon the European Baroque tradition which was at its height at the time. The tunes were long and melodic, such as the anonymous Shaker hymn Learned of Angel tune sung by the a cappella Tim Keyes Consort chorus. The ensemble sang this wordless chorus with appropriate lightness, showing well the lively rhythmic style of the period.

The performance gradually worked its way through American musical history, with one of the most interesting pieces being Geoffrey Petersen’s setting of the Shaker call More Love, which originated in a New Hampshire community in the late 1800s. Mr. Petersen based his 1996 composition on music heard at a Sabbathday Lake community in Maine, replacing the original orchestration of hammered dulcimer and handbells with harp and glockenspiel to accompany the chorus and flute. Flutist Paulette DiNardo played effectively while the choir provided the musical background, painting a lovely pastel musical palette. Mr. Keyes showed imaginative orchestration in another piece, an instrumental setting of George Whitfield Chadwick’s Pastorale, transcribing the different manuals of the organ to different families of instruments. The winds, especially the oboes, were especially clear within the texture.

The core of Saturday night’s performance was Mr. Keyes’ oboe concerto New England Tapestry, featuring guest oboist Nicholas Gatto, a New Jersey musician on the staff of The College of New Jersey. Throughout the concerto’s seven movements, Mr. Gatto played with a smooth clean tone one could listen to all day, especially in the long lines of the old American hymn tunes which were set in this concerto. Although some of the orchestral movements were a bit long (they were introduced by Mr. Gatto playing the set hymn tune on the oboe), the Tapestry overall succeeded in painting a musical picture of New England and capturing some of the musical styles of the past. The third movement “A Pleasant Day in Shaker” brought an Elizabethan style to the New World with the use of the harp, played by Merynda Adams. In the fifth movement “An Afternoon Well Spent on Summer Hill,” Mr. Keyes cleverly broke up the phrases of the tune (“Sweet Hour of Prayer”) among instrumental families and setting the words smoothly for chorus with oboe obbligato.

The final two movements well captured the theme of the concert with their setting of the Robert Lowry gospel hymn How Can I Keep from Singing, with its words attributed to an unknown Pauline T. These words have been set by numerous other composers, mostly over rich unfolding choral parts. Mr. Keyes’ took a different approach, reverting to a heavily rhythmic early American style which provided cute wind interplay but may have lost the elegant languidness of the tune. Regardless of his compositional choices, Mr. Keyes led the consort and chorus in a precise and clean performance of the music.

The mission of the Tim Keyes Consort includes combining students and teachers on the same stage and a strong focus on education. Several members of the consort have received scholarships to continue their musical studies, and no doubt the unusual repertoire programming of the ensemble will give them a leg up on their next musical adventures.

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