Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 44
 
Wednesday, October 31, 2007
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Music/Theater

Tchaikovsky, Britten, Schola Cantorum, Area Boychoirs, Illustrate Russian Pathos

Nancy Plum

For a number of years, the Westminster Conservatory Orchestra has been providing amateur musicians in the area with the opportunity to play the orchestral masterworks. “Amateur” does not mean casual or unpolished by any stretch of the imagination — each conductor of this orchestra over the years has expected the best from the players. This past Sunday’s concert in Richardson Auditorium, subtitled “Russian Pathos and the Miracles of Saint Nicolas,” was no exception; conductor Ruth Ochs programmed two works to raise the playing level of the ensemble members. Ms. Ochs is beginning her third year with the Conservatory Orchestra, and has no qualms about taking on the most challenging of the major works.

One would expect dark and murky, yet poignant music from Tchaikovsky, but for those not familiar with the Russian composer’s symphonic works, his Symphony No. 5 in E minor is a good introduction to his more Classical side. Throughout the four-movement work, Ms. Ochs was successful in keeping the overall atmosphere from falling into 19th century lugubriousness. Her conducting style was clean and contained, which kept the orchestra from becoming bogged down.

The first movement opened with lean and dark lower strings and a sectional clarinet solo (Played by Daniel Beerbohm and Karen Pitts) which was so stark it sounded almost empty. Ms. Ochs kept the string chords exact and sharp — a job made easier by the familiarity among the players. Many of these musicians have been in the orchestra for a number of years, and are clearly very comfortable playing within their sections. This comfort level was demonstrated as the first movement of the Tchaikovsky symphony rolled along, with pizzicato strings speaking very well against the horns. The horns were impressively clean throughout the symphony, especially given how much they had to do. Solo winds were also impressive in the work, including Mr. Beerbohm and bassoonist Greg Rewoldt.

Tchaikovsky liked dichotomy — luxurious melodies are often juxtaposed against stormy musical chaos. Such was the case in the second movement Andante cantabile, in which a stormy drama disrupted a subtle horn solo, played by Deborah Crow. All principal brass and wind soloists were well matched, and the strings played lushly, as one would expect from this period of music. Solid timpani accompaniment was also provided by George Argila.

Ms. Ochs paired Tchaikovsky’s symphony with an unusual choral work on an unusual topic. In 1948, English composer Benjamin Britten was commissioned to write a new work for the centenary of the college attended by his long time tenor collaborator Peter Pears. As in many of Britten’s choral/orchestra works, the orchestra for Saint Nicolas Cantata was scaled down to stark and lean colors, in this case strings, percussion, and piano four hands (very ably played by Michael Jacobsen and Marilyn Shenenberger). For this performance, the Conservatory Orchestra was joined by the Westminster Schola Cantorum and Pennsylvania’s Keystone State Boychoir, and the work was conducted by Schola Cantorum conductor James Jordan.

It seems that at Westminster Choir College, there is a choir for every year of enrollment, and Schola Cantorum is primarily a second year ensemble, despite being a huge chorus. The chorus (prepared by James Jordan) was continually well balanced and blended, and the women of the ensemble were especially clean in the second movement, which told the story of the birth of Nicolas. Britten used boychoirs a great deal for effect, and this work is no exception. The Keystone State Boychoir, prepared by Joseph Fitzmartin and Steven Fisher, have come into their own over the past few years, having worked out the kinks of being a new ensemble, and have developed a solid vocal sound with a good treble core which makes a boychoir unique. The alto sound of the choir was also not overly heavy, which was refreshing to hear in a boys’ chorus.

Nicholas Van Meter stepped out of the ensemble to sing the role of the young Nicolas with solid diction and clarity, and was later joined by two of his treble comrades for a very nice trio.

Singing the role of the adult Nicolas was tenor Charles Walker, whose performing career has included both Broadway and opera and who is on the voice faculty of the Choir College. Britten solo roles often require the straightest of tones to convey despair and desolation, and Mr. Walker expressed these moods well, albeit occasionally a little tight in the upper register. Unusual staging for both soloists (Nicolas was “crossing the bridge” of time from the audience to the stage) made both singers hard to hear, but Mr. Walker had no trouble communicating with the audience once he reached the stage. He carried well the subtle poignancy and intensity of the words when necessary (even if interrupted at a most intense moment by a cell phone ringing), and Mr. Jordan had all forces well in hand throughout the work.

This performance was a good collaboration among ensembles at Westminster and its Conservatory, and it was nice to hear, in a community with a solid representation of children’s choirs, that there are also communities in Pennsylvania accomplishing the same musical ideals in children’s voices.

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