Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXV, No. 18
Wednesday, May 4, 2011
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Music/Theater

Richardson Chamber Players’ Music Choices Return to 18th Century to Close Season

Nancy Plum

The Richardson Chamber Players paid tribute to a golden age of Parisian chamber music on Sunday afternoon in Richardson Auditorium with a program of two 18th century French composers. Although Jean-Philippe Rameau and Michel Pignolet de Monteclair were contemporaries (and sometimes rivals in their philosophies of music), there was a great deal of variety in their multi-sectional and character filled works. A Chamber Players ensemble of violinist Nancy Wilson, viola da gamba player Vivian Barton Dozor, flutist Colin St. Martin, and harpsichordist Wendy Young presented five of these delightful programmatic works, joined by soprano Martha Elliott for the Monteclair cantatas.

Rameau’s 1741 Pieces de clavecin en concert was published at a time of high activity in Paris for professional musicians, when Versailles lost interest in court concerts, and chamber salons soon appeared in private homes. Rameau, named the “premier musician of France” in his day, composed several collections of works for chamber instruments and harpsichord, an instrument also reaching its zenith in elegance and refinement. No doubt every home of note had a harpsichord, and the music of Rameau was tailor-made for private performance and entertainment.

The Chamber Players presented the three concerts from the 1741 collection out of order, beginning with No. 5. All are in three movements, with movement subtitles paying tribute to people Rameau knew or influential musicians and families in Paris at the time. The fugue of “Cinquieme concert” began with a clear harpsichord and subtle gamba part, with Ms. Wilson providing decisive violin playing. Ms. Barton Dozer knew when to step back on the viola da gamba, holding long suspensions with the violin. Mr. St. Martin played a flute which possessed a more hollow sound than what audiences are used to today; the early 18th century flute was transitioning between recorder and the instrument which we currently know. The upper register of the flute in particular tuned perfectly with the violin, especially in simultaneous trills.

The most virtuosic instrumental playing was heard in the “Fourth concert,” which opened the second half of the program. Dialogues between gamba and violin were majestically played, and Ms. Young was kept busy with Rameau’s signature hand-crossing technical requirements at the harpsichord. Ms. Young was especially delicate in the quick-moving motives in both hands. It was not always easy to hear the flute when Mr. St. Martin was playing softly; clearly the flute was not as dominant an instrument at this point in its history.

Ms. Elliott performed two cantatas of Monteclair composed in the “antique” style — telling tales of mythology and heroism, much like early opera. What is clear in all of Ms. Elliott’s concerts is that she loves to perform and tell a story — and these two cantatas provided plenty of opportunity. The cantata La Mort de Didon began with the dotted instrumental rhythm so prevalent in early 18th century French music, with flourishes and scales which also characterize the Italian music of the more well-known Vivaldi. Monteclair marked the first movement “marqué et detaché,” and the strings in particular obliged with clear and detached playing. Ms. Elliott had a fair amount of a cappella singing in this cantata, keeping the sound very dry and without vibrato. Toward the middle of the cantata, the sound began to shimmer with the trademark Elliot vocal sparkle, which rounded out the overall ensemble sound well.

In the second cantata, Monteclair’s Pan et Sirinx, Ms. Elliott was once again provided ample opportunity to narrate a great story, aided by understated duets between the voice and gamba, and later violin and gamba. Ms. Barton Dozor’s gamba playing was particularly featured when Ms. Elliott sang of youth and beauty. Some of Ms. Elliott’s best singing was in verses describing “hunting calls,” as she vocally depicted how the “deadly arrow flies.” Monteclair used the flute sparingly in this work, but all instruments and voice joined together to close the cantata joyfully.

The Richardson Chamber Players is taking a slightly different approach to their concert series next season, joining the community-wide practice of collaboration among arts organizations, in particular the University Art Museum. This season closed with impressive delicacy and finesse; next season is venturing into some more contemporary repertoire, but promises to be just as polished.

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