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Richardson Chamber Players: A Variety of Old to Modern Timeless Music Featured In the Chamber Players' "Ancient Voices" Concert

Nancy Plum

The presence of a great many percussion instruments on the Richardson Auditorium stage before the Sunday afternoon performance of the Richardson Chamber Players indicated that the audience was probably in for an afternoon of very contemporary music. On the contrary, the Chamber Players subtitled their performance "Ancient Voices," and presented a variety of voices, both instrumental and vocal, including one of the most unique voices to graduate from Princeton in recent memory.

The concert centered on George Crumb's Ancient Voices of Children, composed in 1970 to the poetry of Frederico Garcia Lorca, one of the great poets of early 20th century Spain who was murdered by the Nationalists at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. His agonizing poetry on a mother's relationship with her son was set by Crumb as a collage of instrumental and vocal effects featuring two singers, oboe, mandolin, harp, piano, and percussion, as well as a host of exotic instruments representing characters themselves.

The cornerstone of the vocal line in this work is the mezzo-soprano, sung on Sunday by Princeton University faculty member Mary Nessinger. Ms. Nessinger began and ended her performance singing into an amplified piano, and in between sang in traditional vocal style, whispered through a cardboard tube, played a glockenspiel, and conveyed both worded and wordless text with intensity, passion and by the end, exhaustion, as she musically sought the soul of a child. Ms. Nessinger was especially mesmerizing in the fourth movement, singing in a ghostly straight tone.

The child who answered her was Anthony Ross Costanzo, a male soprano scheduled to graduate from Princeton this year, yet already embarked on an unusual and successful career. This work is scored for boy soprano, and although a male soprano voice does not float endlessly up into the atmosphere, as does a boy's voice, Mr. Costanzo was vocally well paired with Ms. Nessinger. His voice initially echoed off the acoustical boards behind which he was standing and by the end of the work, mother and son are singing together into the amplified piano for an unearthly effect.

All of the instrumentalists are kept very busy during this work, and oboist Matthew Sullivan, harpist Elaine Christy, and mandolin player Laura Oltman never lost concentration or rhythm in conveying their musical fragments. Percussionists John Ferrari, Tom Kolor, and Joseph Tomkins were precise among themselves in the very complicated percussion parts, joined by pianist Jennifer Tao. The piece was precisely conducted by Chamber Players Artistic Director Michael Pratt, in a work which was extremely well suited to this ensemble.

The Chamber Players did not lead off with this avant-garde work, but warmed up the afternoon with four lieder by Franz Schubert, performed by tenor David Kellett and accompanied by Ms. Tao. Mr. Kellett's voice is full of richness, with every pitch laden with color. This richness often made the words sound more ferocious than the text actually called for, but was certainly suitable for the second lied, Der Atlas. Again, the accompaniment of Ms. Tao was precise in rhythm and Schubertian articulation.

Soprano Martha Elliott lightened up the program with her interpretation of selections from Benjamin Britten's Folksong Arrangements, Book 6, accompanied by Laura Oltman on the guitar. The sparkliness of Ms. Elliott's voice and saucy vocal nature make guitar accompaniment a good match, although Britten's styles for the two instruments often seemed diverse. The fourth selection of the six songs, The Soldier and the Sailor, created the best overall acoustic effect between the two instruments, and best conveyed Ms. Elliott's ability to tell a story through song. Ms. Oltman was especially effective in the fifth song, Bonny at Morn, in allowing the guitar to speak its complicated accompaniment.

The program was titled "Ancient Voices," referring not only to the Crumb piece, but to the Schubert songs based on Greek and Roman mythology, and the Britten songs, based on old tales from a variety of sources. The clean and defined performance of the Richardson Chamber Players on Sunday afternoon underscored that these works are not ancient at all, but timeless in their contribution to music.

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