Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 19
Wednesday, May 9, 2007
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Richardson Chamber Players Present Slice of Life In 18th Century Vienna

Nancy Plum

Princeton University's Richardson Chamber Players presented a third concert in the series dedicated to patronage in the arts on Sunday afternoon in Richardson Auditorium, featuring music of 18th century Vienna, all of which had some connection to patronage. It is getting to the end of the school year, and the Chamber Players closed the school year elegantly and simply, with a small ensemble of violin, viola, cello, clarinet and piano, playing music of only three composers. Although these three works had some link to the patronage of the day, they also demonstrated the trend at that time toward composing music which any of the thousands of amateur musicians in Vienna at the time could play.

The music of Johann Sebastian Bach came to Vienna through Princess Anna Amalia, sister of Frederick, King of Prussia. Bach's music traveled from Anna's soirees to classical Vienna via the Austrian ambassador, who held his own soirees, with Mozart as a regular guest. Mozart subsequently arranged several of Bach's keyboard works for strings, including three fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavier. Preceding each with a newly-composed introduction, Mozart set these transcriptions combining the Baroque motives and suspensions with the elegance of the Classical period.

Violinist Sunghae Anna Lim, violist Louise Schulman and cellist Caroline Stinson presented these three works as if they had been playing together for years; with rhythmic precision and a confluent performance style. Ms. Lim led much of the music with clarity and grace, and Ms. Schulman was especially unassuming and unpretentious, allowing the cello and violin to speak their lines. The introduction to the third fugue was the most Mozartean, with delicate filigree for the violin and complete with deceptive cadences and lines laced with trills. One can easily imagine this fugue being played in a parlor in Vienna.

As a son of an Emperor, Archduke Rudolph Johann Joseph Rainer certainly had patronage in the blood, and like many patrons of the arts at the time, sought to be an active performer and/or composer himself. Beethoven came across Archduke Rudolph early in his career, and the Archduke took composition lessons from Beethoven for more than twenty years. The Archduke's Sonata in A Major for Clarinet and Piano, published in 1822, was clearly written while under the tutelage of Beethoven. This performance featured clarinetist JoAnn Sternberg, a member of the Chamber Orchestra of St. Luke's and on the faculty of Princeton University; and pianist Jennifer Tao, a regular performer with the Chamber Players.

From the opening classical triadic accompaniment, there are shades of Beethoven harmony and a lot of character in a piece probably considered a student work. Ms. Sternberg played with a light and playful texture, bringing out the spirit of the piece. She presented the tapered phrases well, as well as the phrase repetitions, and was well matched by Ms. Tao at the piano, with very even runs, especially at the end of the first movement. All of the notes of the clarinet spoke with clarity throughout the registers, and one could also imagine that this piece could get a lot of mileage in an amateur musical society.

The second movement "Tempo di Menuetto" paralleled Mozart's aria-like second movements, and was played with grace by Ms. Sternberg. In the following "Trio," the clarinet and piano were in tandem for the phrases and Ms. Tao kept a very light left hand throughout. In the closing "Andantino," the tune was simple, but treated in a complex way, and Ms. Sternberg brought out well the variations, whether they were decorating the melody with continually flowing accompaniment, or with rhythmic complexity.

The master himself was saved for last — Beethoven's Trio in E-flat for Piano, Violin and Violoncello brought together Ms. Lim, Ms. Tao and Ms. Stinson in a work tailor-made to be sold to amateur musicians (which it likely was in its time). Beethoven's chamber works were novel in that all instruments, including those previously used for continuo were independent voices, and this piece in particular was likely composed for Beethoven himself as performer. As independent voices, the violin and cello did not overpower each other, and all players moved together with synchronous dynamic changes. Throughout this work, Ms. Tao was very light on the keyboard, serving as an equal partner to the violin and cello.

A concert series built around the concept of patronage works well in Princeton to remind audiences of the value of supporting the arts. This particular season of the Richardson Chamber Players, conceived by Artistic Directors Michael Pratt and Nathan Randall, also succeeded in presenting unusual works elegantly performed, with just the right touch in concert programming.

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