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Vol. LXV, No. 42
Wednesday, October 19, 2011
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Concert of French Music Recalling the Past Presented by Richardson Chamber Players

Nancy Plum

Music performance at Princeton University has included more and more components in recent years. With a self-presented concert series, full-scale orchestra, chamber ensemble, and wide range of choirs, the diversity of musical experiences on the University campus is tremendous. This season, some of this diversity is coming together in a common theme; as part of a 10th anniversary of 9/11, visual and performing arts organizations on campus and in the community are collaborating to examine how the arts shape our collective memory of the past — not just in recent years, but back through centuries of history.

Richardson Chamber Players, the chamber ensemble based in the University’s Department of Music, presented its contribution to this collective theme on Sunday afternoon in Richardson Auditorium with a concert of three challenging works exploring “Memory and the Work of Art.”

Maurice Ravel’s suite Le Tombeau de Couperin followed a centuries-old musical tradition of composers immortalizing their predeceased colleagues with pieces of music. This suite was a tribute to a bygone rococo musical style, as well as a memorial to a human generation lost to World War I. Pianist Jennifer Tao, an international soloist, prize-winner, and recording artist, played three excerpts from Ravel’s suite, demonstrating fluid and masterful technique with strength of hands.

The three excerpts played by Ms. Tao were, like all the movements of the suite, dedicated to people whom Ravel had known who had died in the war. Prélude was full of liquid and flowing music characteristic of an impressionistic era of French composers. Ms. Tao played with very even touch and direction of phrase, building the movement in intensity and ending the selection in harmonic suspended animation.

In the next two excerpts, menuet and toccata, Ms. Tao easily found the lyricism of the music, playing especially gracefully in the top octaves of the piano. Toccata was by nature a free form, in which Ms. Tao demonstrated decisive performance, with well-blended crossed-hands technique, playing as if she had known these pieces all her life.

Ms. Tao was joined for the second piece on the program by violinists Anna Lim and Dean Wang, violist Jessica Thompson, cellist Susannah Chapman and soprano Barbara Rearick. Ernst Chausson’s Chanson Perpétuelle was rooted in a German Romantic musical style emphasizing dark and melodic colors, derived mostly from the piano. The 19th-century text to this chanson is full of despair and plaintiveness, and Ms. Rearick sang with appropriate nostalgia and control. The style of the music changed with the narrator’s remembrances, and Ms. Rearick shifted vocal colors well, giving the overall impression of wandering through endless woods, looking for a lost beloved. Instrumental solos marked key dramatic points with an elegant violin line from Ms. Lim and Ms. Thompson’s closing viola solo painting a mournful picture as the chanson dissipated to nothing.

The meatiest portion of the concert hearkened to one of the world’s most turbulent periods of history. French composer Olivier Messiaen was a World War II prisoner-of-war at a German prisoner-of-war (POW) stalag (camp), where he collaborated with a violinist, clarinetist, and cellist to create, with the help of a sympathetic guard, an instrumental quartet which both captured the horror of war and gave hope for the future. Isolated in a guarded barracks, yet surrounded by despair, Messiaen composed an eight-movement work inspired by verses from the biblical Book of Revelation and infused with his own personal religious mysticism. Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps (Quartet for the End of Time) was premiered at the POW camp before an audience of prisoners and guards, and has survived the decades since as a statement of perseverance and spirituality.

The four musicians for this piece, Ms. Lim, Ms. Chapman, Ms. Sternberg, and Ms. Tao, drew out the haunting phrases well and demonstrated exceptional technique in playing almost imperceptibly when necessary. Ms. Lim and Ms. Chapman had a passage in the second violin of moving phrases while simultaneously accompanied by piano notes resembling falling droplets. Ms. Sternberg in particular held the audience in rapt attention, afraid to move a muscle, in the third movement Abyss of the Birds. This quartet is a long, intense piece of music, and the players of the Richardson ensemble maintained their focus continuously to its end at the Ascension of Man.

This collaborative series of arts events in Princeton surrounding the theme of “Memory and the Work of Art” includes presentations in a number of disciplines as well as venues. The arts partners include both small and large organizations, and the connections among them can only help strengthen the arts in Princeton as a whole.

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