Musical events in Princeton always draw a good crowd. Free musical evenings are guaranteed to draw an even better crowd, and such was the case last Tuesday night when a free concert of British string orchestral music was presented in Princeton University Chapel. Announced as a “gift to the Princeton community from Bill and Judith Scheide,” this concert featured late 19th and early 20th-century music suitable for the venue in which it was performed.
The University Chapel is not often used for orchestral music, and while lush choral passages often get lost in the vast Gothic arches, it was remarkable how clean the instrumental sound was. Conductor Mark Laycock, leading a chamber orchestra of local professionals, clearly had a sense of how to work the acoustics so that even the lightest pizzicato from the double basses could be heard in the back of the hall.
The repertoire selected by Mr. Laycock was among the more substantial from British orchestral composers, full of expansive lines and broad orchestral strokes. There was no raised platform in the chapel for the performers, so only those in the front or on the aisles could see well; for many in the audience this was music which would wash over them, however no details were lost in the process. Mr. Laycock conducted with sweeping gestures to bring out grandeur, especially in the two pieces of Sir Edward Elgar. The instrumentalists, led by concertmistress Kimberly Fisher, played decisively from the start, with the hall providing plenty of acoustical room for the sound. String rhythms could clearly be heard, with clean scales in the Allegro of Elgar’s Opus 47 Introduction and Allegro. The Introduction included a lyrical viola solo, gracefully played by Sarah Sutton. Throughout the long first selection of Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, the orchestral sound was well-nuanced, with the pizzicatti especially well heard.
English music of this period is known for its tunefulness, heard in this performance in the music of Peter Warlock and Gustav Holst. In a concert of all string music, tunes can make a difference, and this ensemble was successful in finding the lilt and supple flow in Warlock’s Serenade. Holst’s music can be chipper as well as melodic, and the Air from his Brook Green Suite in particular captured the lute character of 16th-century English music. John Ireland’s Minuet from A Downland Suite moved the evening into a lighter mood, with the orchestra capturing an English countryside feel through graceful upbeats and accents and clean pizzicatti from the double basses. This piece ended with particular charm as the music delicately faded away. The orchestra found a different musical character in Gerald Finzi’s Romance, a piece full of suspensions and contrasts. Mr. Laycock worked to pull the sound through the melancholy yet peaceful ebb and flow of the piece, with Ms. Fisher’s violin solo blending well with the rest of the ensemble.
Mr. Laycock closed the concert with what may have been the most familiar piece — Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. By moving part of the orchestra back in the chancel, Mr. Laycock was able to create a fuller sound, with the especially rich tune in the lower strings. The second orchestra back by the altar was able to achieve an echo effect, contrasted by melodic solos from Ms. Fisher, Ms. Sutton, and cellist Adrian Daurov.
This concert was the Scheides’ gift to the Princeton community, and informality was the word for the evening. People came in a wide variety of summer dress, at times meditating on the music and at times browsing through electronic devices to read to a rich musical accompaniment. Despite this concert being the tail-end of a busy summer musical season in Princeton, the chapel was full, and the evening’s experience included some of the best orchestral playing heard all year in the area.