Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXV, No. 9
Wednesday, March 2, 2011
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Richardson Chamber Players Brings 19th Century Vienna to Princeton

Nancy Plum

For Sunday afternoon’s concert, the Richardson Chamber Players revived a little known and long since gone musical form of entertainment. In early 19th century Vienna, a common evening activity was to gather friends together to pursue reading, sharing their creative works, or other artistic activities, all to the accompaniment of Franz Schubert. With more than enough repertory to choose from (including over 600 Lieder alone), Schubert was an immensely popular composer whose lyrical melodies became the basis for the Viennese “Schubertiade.” The Richardson Chamber Players re-enacted this unusual essence of Vienna in Richardson Auditorium with a presentation of four Schubert songs and one extended chamber work, all performed by Princeton music faculty members. Successfully giving the audience the feeling of dropping by someone’s private home, Sunday afternoon’s concert was both educational and highly entertaining.

Baritone Gabriel Crouch is principally known to Princeton audiences as the conductor of the University choral ensembles, but his parallel career as a singer has been just as successful. Mr. Crouch opened with two Lieder, strophic and poetic songs set to Schubert’s trademark rolling accompaniment. Mr. Crouch was accompanied by pianist Jennifer Tao, who maintained a very steady piano part, adjusting well to Mr. Crouch’s light and lyrical sound, especially in the first selection. Mr. Crouch sang with dynamic contrast to match the text, and drew out vowels purely and precisely until the end of the note (paying credit to his background as a King’s Singer). He sang the second selection, “Nacht und Träume,” with heavier sound, not at all thrown by the quiet intensity of the piece. Although not an opera singer by trade, Mr. Crouch sold the stories of these two songs well.

The Richardson Chamber Players will present its next performance on Sunday, May 1 at 3 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium. Titled “Fleur de Lys,” the concert will feature works of Rameau and Monteclair. For information contact the Richardson box office at (609) 258-5000.

Tenor David Kellett is an opera singer by trade, having premiered several operatic works of Princeton composer Peter Westergaard in the past. Mr. Kellett brought a significant amount of drama to Schubert’s “Mondenschein” and “Nachthelle,” both set for tenor and male chorus. Mr. Kellett was also accompanied by Ms. Tao, as well as twelve men of the Princeton Chamber Choir and Mr. Crouch doubling as both conductor and singer. In both of these songs, the solo vocal line was written high enough above the choral line to create a dramatic effect. Mr. Kellett is clearly used to projecting to the back of large halls, and sang with point and attention to drama. Solo voice and chorus worked together precisely, effectively combining Schubert’s mastery of Lieder melody and choral writing.

Schubert’s Octet for Winds and Strings in F Major brought to the stage eight members of the University instrumental faculty. Paired with Beethoven’s Septet, Opus 20 in its 1824 premiere, Schubert’s Octet provides ample opportunity for instruments often buried in the orchestral fabric to shine. A mixture of strings and clarinet, bassoon and horn, this six-movement work was clearly a piece that would have been popular in someone’s 19th century salon. The players sat facing each other as groups of strings and winds, with double bassist Jack Hill as the point person between the two families of instruments. The opening adagio was a little over dominated by the horn sound, and for the first few movements, the upper strings were a bit hard to hear. Cellist Susannah Chapman demonstrated very nice runs, and all of the solos stepped out of the texture well. Seated on the edge of the stage, first violinist Anna Lim and clarinetist Jo-Ann Sternberg led their instrumental families well. The early movements were also full of short disjunct sections tied together, and the combined ensemble moved effortlessly through the varying styles. The adagio second movement was marked at the end by very nice thirds among the two violins and viola.

The andante fourth movement was among the most interesting, taking a melody Schubert had previously composed and spinning it around all the instruments. Especially nice to hear were Robert Wagner’s bassoon playing and Dov Scheindlin’s rich viola. At one point in the movement, the cello and viola sounds were almost interchangeable. Chris Komer provided an especially pleasing horn melody in the fifth movement, well echoed by the first violin. The Chamber Players brought the afternoon to a close with a show-stopping finale to the Octet. As with many of their other concerts, the Richardson Chamber Players always succeed in bringing more obscure works and music history to the forefront, and this concert was no doubt as pleasing to play as it was to listen to.

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