Since the inauguration of The Princeton Festival five years ago, the Concordia Chamber Players has been an integral part of the musical activities. Currently based locally across the river at Trinity Church, in Solebury, Pa., the Players do not have far to travel for the festival, and many Princeton chamber music aficionados may be wondering why they do not hear more of this ensemble during the year. The Concordia Chamber Players no doubt increased their fan base after their Sunday concert at Miller Chapel as part of The Princeton Festival’s second week. Programming a very contemporary and technically difficult concert, the Players used the intimate space of Miller Chapel to show the audience close-up how challenging repertoire can bring an ensemble together.
Artistic director Michelle Djokic (who also plays cello in the ensemble) bracketed a light-hearted Milhaud piece with two works of extreme intensity. Estonian composer Arvo Pärt spent a portion of his career under Soviet musical repression, developing a style rooted in ancient chant and mysticism. His early music was banned for its 12-tone technique, but his late 1970s Fratres, scored for cello and piano, retains a mathematical structure in its medieval atmosphere. The one-movement work begins and ends with stark and intense passages from the cello, played with obvious passion and concentration by Ms. Djokic. Ms. Djokic was joined by pianist Rieko Aizawa, and the two musicians built the dynamics and energy of the piece together. Ms. Djokic’s solo line may not have been the most melodic, but she always played with direction and an aim to tell the story. Both instruments warmed up their sound as the piece moved along, and Ms. Djokic in particular demonstrated rich double stops toward the end of the work.
Arvo Pärt’s musical effects recur in Oliver Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, an eight-movement work which brought together Ms. Djokic, Ms. Aizawa, violinist Jesse Mills, and clarinetist Igor Begelman. Quartet for the End of Time has its roots in Messiaen’s incarceration in a prisoner-of-war camp in the early years of World War II. Among the other prisoners were a clarinetist, violinist, and cellist, and Messiaen’s Quartet was premiered on broken instruments to an audience of prisoners and guards. Although inspired by texts from the Book of Revelation, the work encapsulates World War II, much of which was still to come in 1941.
It is unusual for a chamber quartet to include sections for solo instruments, and the most notable in this piece was the third movement “Abyss for Birds,” scored for solo clarinet. Mr. Begelman played seemingly endless lines with ease and intensity, holding the audience in rapt attention with extended single notes which seemed to grow from nothing. In the movements in which all instruments played, the musicians showed their parts to be independent, yet fitting together. Mr. Mills seemed to be the leader in this piece, and the four musicians maintained solid communication, leading to precise rhythm in multiple unison passages throughout the work. This quartet had a driving and relentless intensity about it, and its difficulty was clear to the audience. Each instrument told a story at some point, with violin and cello playing movements accompanied by piano. The final movement in particular showcased the violin and piano ascending to the highest point of their registers in the appropriately titled “Praise to the immortality of Jesus.”
Darius Milhaud’s Suite for Violin, Clarinet and Piano broke the extreme intensity of the other works and it was brought to life with a spirited approach and exacting rhythm. A second movement duet between clarinet and violin brought out the French flavor of the piece, as Mr. Mills and Mr. Begelman complemented each other in graceful melodic sound. Throughout the piece, Ms. Aizawa provided solid, bell-like accompaniment in a work clearly influenced by early 20th-century jazz. The Milhaud work not only provided respite from two works born of repression and subjugation, but also showed how clean and accurate the Concordia Chamber Players have become in their history of working together.