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The University's Richardson Chamber Players Bring Flavor of Latin America to Close 2003-2004 Season

Nancy Plum

Music from the Caribbean and Latin America has received a great deal of attention over the past decade, and for the past month, Princeton University has joined in the scholarly excavation. The University Concert series joined with the University Art Museum (currently presenting an exhibit of music of the ancient Americas) and other University departments to present a series of cultural events focused on music rooted in Latin America. Sunday afternoon's performance by the Richardson Chamber Players in Richardson Auditorium was a key performance in this series, presenting the music of such familiar composers as Heitor Villa-Lobos and Alberto Ginastera, as well as lesser-known, but no less significant composers.

Music of pre-Columbian Latin America is music of an ancient and undocumented age. Bits and pieces of instruments and music have survived, either literally or through the interpretations of the conquistadors and other observers of the time. As is the case in Western Europe, the Middle East and Asia, no notation survives, and as this music slowly rises from the past to our 20th-century ears, it is up to the imagination of scholars and composers as to how this music might have been performed.

Artistic Directors Michael Pratt and Nathan Randall chose to bracket this Chamber Players concert with a one-movement (but tri-part) work by Carols Chávez, Mexico's most significant early 20th-century composer. Xochipili: An Imagined Aztec Music is an attempt to reconstruct the music of ancient Mexico, using either Latin American (or Caribbean) instruments or similar musical effects on modern instruments. Like much of the music of Latin American and the Caribbean, there is a wide range of percussion, and Mr. Randall began the performance by introducing some of the more unusual instruments to be used, ranging from a turtle shell (which produced two tones a fifth apart) to the Haitian manman, a standing drum.

The percussion players in this work were joined by piccolo player Sato Moughalian, flutist Judith Pearce, clarinetist Evan Spritzer, and trombone player Benjamin Herrington, and were led by conductor Matthew Sullivan. With Mr. Sullivan keeping precise time, this piece was a mixture of old and new. The wind instruments effectively recreated the sacred rituals and poetry of Mexico, with a mellifluous extended clarinet solo. The trombone was the "odd instrument out," sliding between notes with a jarring timbre, but was certainly no less effective in matching the mood.

A newcomer to the Chamber Players stage was mezzo-soprano Desiree Halac, who was joined in Ginastera's Cantos del Tucumán by harpist Barbara Ann Biggers, Ms. Pearce, violinist Curtis Macomber and percussionist John Arrucci, who sat on what appeared to be a hollowed out box that was actually a drum. Ms. Halac sang with a rich and clean voice, articulating well every word in the text of Argentinean poet Rafael Jijena Sánchez. In the second poem, "Solita su alma," Ms. Halac was accompanied especially well by harp and flute providing exact punctuation to her phrasing. Ms. Halac returned later in the program for the delightful Cuatros Canciones (based on traditional melodies of Ecuador) of Chávez, which were scored and performed with an elegance borrowed from Puccini.

One of the composers this concert brought to the forefront was Silvestre Revueltas, who also lived in Mexico during the first half of the 20th century and who studied with Chávez. His Ocho por Radio was inspired by a weekly Mexican radio program, and demonstrated his inspiration from not only contemporary European and American music but also the street sounds of his native Mexico. Led by Michael Pratt, an ensemble of Mr. Spritzer, bassoonist Brian Kershner, trumpet player Brian McWhorter, and a string quintet played a rousing and raucous interpretation of the piece. The richness of Mr. Kershner's bassoon contrasted effectively with the strident (when necessary) clarinet playing of Mr. Spritzer, yet the clarinet also proved it could be mellow. The music was not always tonal or completely sounding in tune (which was deliberate), but was always precise and accurately reflecting its character.

The third significant early 20th-century composer, Villa Lobos, brought Brazilian influence to his Quinteto em Forma de Choros, a one movement work scored for flute, oboe, horn, clarinet, and bassoon. Oboist Matthew Sullivan seemed to have a central role in this piece, although virtuosity was required of all instruments. With Stravinsky-type pulsating rhythms contrasting with sweet melodic lines as well as Brazilian dance effects, this work enabled the players to pass the music around the quintet and explore a range of colors.

Although it is unclear why Mr. Pratt and Mr. Randall chose to close the concert with the same piece that opened it, the repeat performance of Xochipili was performed to audience ears that had grown a little more accustomed to the Latin American sound. The Chávez work certainly served as musical bookends in which to contain a forgotten bit of performance history.

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