January 16, 2013

Princeton University Department of Music Presents Baroque Cantata Concert

Each year at this time, the Princeton University department of music presents a concert showcasing a performance aspect of the department. This year the class Music 214, Projects in Vocal Performance, offered its members the opportunity to put a semester’s work onstage, and rise to the challenge of the performance practices they had been studying. Nine members of the class, accompanied by seven classmates (with one singer also playing violin) presented nine works from the late 17th and early 18th century in a concert of “Baroque Solo Cantatas.” Many of these students regularly perform with other University ensembles, but taking a complex Baroque piece of music from study to formal performance was a totally new experience.

The two faculty instructors for the class, vocalist Martha Elliott and harpsichordist Wendy Young, left repertoire choices up to the students, who combined themselves into appropriate instrumental and vocal combinations. Keyboard players who were unfamiliar with Baroque performance techniques learned the art of playing from a figured bass on the harpsichord, an instrumental which may have been totally new to them. The resulting concert Saturday night at Richardson Auditorium was a smoothly-flowing performance of opera excerpts and cantatas displaying impressive vocal talents and abilities for University-level singers.

Ms. Elliott and Ms. Young constructed the concert with the first half featuring mostly the sopranos and bass/baritones. Soprano Sophia Mockler performed one of the earlier pieces on the program, with two arias and a recitative from an opera by Alessandro Scarlatti. Accompanied by flute and harpsichord, Ms. Mockler was well poised, singing with a clean sound, light vibrato, and a voice which filled the hall well. Flutist Alison Beskin, principal flutist of the University orchestra, demonstrated especially elegant phrasing. Given that the flute is a principal obbligato instrument of the 18th century, Ms. Beskin was busy on Saturday night, accompanying several singers and always playing with refinement and accuracy.

Bass/baritone Edward Wang and tenor James Walsh chose cantata excerpts of J.S. Bach, among the trickiest to perform for both singers and instrumentalists. Mr. Wang sang with graceful low notes and well-handled runs, with great potential for a big sound down the road. Graduate student Stephen Raskauskas showed notable fluidity on the harpsichord, obviously very comfortable with the instrument. Mr. Walsh comes from an extensive choral background, which was evident in his polished rendition of a Bach aria. The only tenor on the program, Mr. Walsh demonstrated that he has clearly been around the professional choral arena, even at his age.

The music of Jean-Philippe Rameau is part of the bridge to the Baroque era, and is often difficult to perform because of its rapid shifts in harmony and texture. Soprano Heather O’Donovan sang with just the right amount of vibrato and phrase endings which tapered in the upper register. Flutist Ms. Beskin and violinist Brianna Leary played the difficult transitions with precision, especially with simultaneous trills which recurred throughout the short recitatives and airs. Ms. Leary effectively led the way through the next piece as baritone Dale Shepherd sang a selection of Telemann with a smooth baritone sound and an easy flow to the recitative passages. Music of Handel was represented by baritone Robert Kastner, who handled well the technical difficulty and runs of Handel’s vocal cantata as Derek Wu played some of the most challenging harpsichord passages of the evening.

The second half of the concert showed that there is no shortage of mezzo voices on the University campus, with music that was likely performed for the unique castrato voice. Mezzo-sopranos Marie-Gabrielle Arco and Tessa Romano showed that they are both experienced singers, with Ms. Arco alternating the emotional recitative style of Giovanni Battista Ferrandini with the sensitivity of Ferrandini’s cavatinas. Ms. Romano sang with a rich lower register and smooth shifts among the registers as two violins, cello, and harpsichord provided lilting accompaniment. Counter-tenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, a star of last year’s concerto competition, proved that this past year only strengthened the brilliance of his upper register and his own confidence in the unique instrument that he has. The Clerambault aria performed by Mr. Cohen was clearly a soprano aria, reaching high into the upper register of the voice. Mr. Cohen had no trouble with the highest notes, and clearly enjoyed himself as he spun off melodic lines.

The Princeton University Music 214 class clearly worked hard on the performance practice techniques and repertoire presented in the curriculum. However, this was much more than a class — as the young performers on Saturday night proved, this class could easily rival vocal education in any top music conservatory.