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Richardson Chamber Players Pay Tribute To American Chamber Music Composers

Richardson Chamber Players presented a concert this past weekend entitled “Quiet City,” named for incidental theatrical music by Aaron Copland, but devoted to the music of several 20th-century composers. The Sunday afternoon concert at Richardson Auditorium featured regular Richardson Chamber Player performers, and also included a number of Princeton University students who added great depth to the performance of the final Copland piece. In his introductory remarks, Music Director Michael Pratt commented that the five composers represented on Sunday’s program all lived at the same time, but “each could not have had a more different voice.” The musicians of the Richardson Chamber Players had no trouble finding the uniqueness in each composer.

No one is more identifiable in 20th-century American music than Leonard Bernstein, who composed some of the most recognizable tunes of the century. Bernstein composed Sonata for Clarinet and Piano on the edge of World War II and at a very young age, and the work clearly showed the beginnings of the innovative musical ideas which emerged in his musicals and orchestral music throughout the mid-20th century. Clarinetist Jo-Ann Sternberg and Elizabeth DeFelice both worked with Bernstein during his lifetime, and each had a good command of the composer’s rhythmic drive and jazz influence. Ms. Sternberg played with a mellow instrumental sound, finding direction in the very melodic lines and bringing out the tenderness in the lyrical melodies especially well.

Ms. DeFelice and Ms. Sternberg moved exactly together into the faster sections, and created quite a substantial sound in certain sections. One could hear in the piano accompaniment that Bernstein was quite a keyboard artist, and Ms. DeFelice executed well the precision required in the accompaniment, especially in the second movement.

Shortly before Bernstein wrote his clarinet sonata, Samuel Barber composed String Quartet in B minor, Opus 11. Barber intended the piece to be premiered by a string quartet ensemble from his alma mater, Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, but the work was not completed in time for the designated premiere event. When the String Quartet finally was premiered, the second movement Adagio exceeded Copland’s own description of it as a “knockout” — “Barber’s Adagio” has become one of the most beloved pieces in orchestral repertoire and certainly one of the most recognizable.

Following the first performances of String Quartet in B minor, Copland arranged the Adagio for string orchestra, and it became an instant hit through a national radio broadcast by the NBC Symphony Orchestra. However, as performed in its original form, this piece offered a more intimate and personal opportunity for string quartet musicians. Violinists Anna Lim and Sophia Mockler, violist Kyle Armbrust, and cellist Alistair MacRae presented a starker and less luxurious interpretation than audiences might be used to from hearing this piece in film scores, but one could clearly discern the counterpoint and dialogues among the players. The bulk of the musical drama fell on first violinist Ms. Lim, who played consistently with a light vibrato. This piece has many resting places, and the four musicians arrived at cadences together, making these points all the more poignant.

The Players moved into a more contemporary musical genre with Roy Harris’ Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight, a “Cantata of Lamentation” setting the poetry of American poet Vachel Lindsay. The 1914 poem “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight” links Lincoln’s torment of the tragedy of the Civil War with the horrors of World War I, and Harris brought both of these times to life through instrumentation of violin, cello, piano, and soprano voice. Ms. Lim, Mr. MacRae, Ms. DeFelice, and soprano Sarah Pelletier conjured numerous images of Abraham Lincoln through their collective performance. Ms. Pelletier sang with a rich and clear sound as if she were setting the scene of Lincoln’s life, telling the story well and paying particular attention to the poetic details of the text. One could hear Lincoln’s insomnia in the restless strings, and Ms. Lim and Mr. MacRae particularly achieved lyrical sonorities. Effectively accompanying the players was Ms. DeFelice, allowing the piano to “walk” through the score with harmonic chords.

Ms. Pelletier also performed Elliott Carter’s song cycle Tempo e Tempi, accompanied by oboe, clarinet, violin, and cello. Carter’s tribute to Italian culture was both song cycle and quintet, with all instruments being of equal importance. Premiered in 2000 when Carter was 90 (he was active through most of his incredible 103 years), Tempo e Tempi combined Carter’s settings of varied Italian poets into a work which explored a wide range of instrumental combinations and effects. Ms. Sternberg doubled on both clarinet and bass clarinet, and Matt Sullivan played both oboe and English horn as the other players handled syncopations and ostinato well. With instruments often in competing meters, this piece was described before the performance as “redefining what it means to play together,” and the Richardson Chamber Players’ performance found the complexities within the piece.

The Players closed the concert with Aaron Copland’s Quiet City, bringing together an ensemble of both professional and student musicians. Even though no longer connected to a play in its format as a concert piece, Copland’s work was programmatic in its dialogue between trumpet and English horn, played by Wayne du Maine and Matt Sullivan, respectively. The play for which the piece was written was not successful, but Copland’s depiction of a “nocturnal cityscape” was effective in capturing the broad spaciousness of music found in other Copland works. Mr. du Maine showed his vast experience in jazz, complemented by Mr. Sullivan’s lyrical English horn playing. Perfectly matched in pitch and timbre, these two artists, accompanied by the large ensemble of strings, painted a broad palette of colors and moods to bring the concert to a close.

 

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