Princeton Festival Continues Season With a Concert of Chamber Music
Princeton Festival has placed a special emphasis on the music of 20th-century British composer Benjamin Britten this year. The cornerstone opera of the Festival’s 2016 season is Britten’s Peter Grimes, and this past Friday night, Concordia Chamber Players offered some of Britten’s more charming works for voice and instruments as the festival concluded its first week.
Concordia Chamber Players has been a regularly-featured ensemble with Princeton Festival, and Friday night’s performance at Miller Chapel at Princeton Theological Seminary showed what chamber music can be. With just five musicians, the Concordia Players held the audience in rapt attention with works of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Britten composed his works for the tenor voice from a personal standpoint — for performance by his lifetime collaborator and companion Peter Pears. Britten had an affinity for the folksongs of the British Isles, and set many of these tunes as “Folksong Arrangements” for solo voice and instruments. Tenor Nicholas Phan, joined by pianist Orio Weiss, proved himself to be an effective storyteller, always paying close attention to the text. For the most part, the six folksong arrangements performed Friday night were not overly strenuous vocally or extending into very high tenor registers, and Mr. Phan was able to focus well on expression.
Mr. Phan toyed with the dynamics well, recognizing that in strophic songs, the overall effect is all about the words. He was a particularly good narrator in Little Sir William, conveying change of mood and a slightly macabre twist at the end. Last Rose of Summer was especially tuneful, in the style of the Irish Danny Boy, and Mr. Phan was able to easily float his voice into the upper tenor register, and took an especially dramatic approach to the close of the song. Throughout the six folksong arrangements, Mr. Weiss’s fluid piano accompaniment rolled along, maneuvering particularly well through the interludes of Sally in our Alley as they became more intense between each verse.
Mr. Phan returned later in the concert for another Britten piece: Canticle III for tenor, horn and piano. Composed as a memorial to a friend of Britten and performed by the composer’s own friends, Still Falls the Rain, Opus 55 set a 1941 poem of Edith Sitwell. Beginning in the depths of the piano (again played by Orion Weiss), a horn played by David Jolley subtly came out of the texture. Mr. Phan sang a vocal line that was mostly a cappella, and not always melodic. With little help from the independent horn and piano accompaniment, Mr. Phan successfully brought out the varied moods of the piece.
Three instrumental musicians of the Concordia Chamber Players came together for a monumental work in Johannes Brahms’ Piano Trio No. 1 in B Major, Opus 8. The four-movement work was full of Brahmsian playfulness among the instruments, well executed by pianist Mr. Weiss, violinist Yoon Kwon, and cellist (and Concordia artistic director) Michelle Djokic. From the outset, the three musicians easily filled Miller Chapel with sound, and Ms. Kwon and Ms. Djokic communicated particularly well together while playing.
A more mature version of a youthful Brahms work, this trio had plenty of 19th-century drama and opportunity for expressive playing. An especially poignant moment in the first movement “Allegro” featured Ms. Djokic in a high register of the cello, answered by Ms. Kwon equally as high on the violin, with pure intervals between the instruments. The second movement “Scherzo” was marked by saucy interchanges among the instruments, with clean staccato strokes from the strings. The Concordia Players emphasized the gypsy flavor often incorporated by Brahms into his works, with a lyrical folk melody in the “Trio” passages. A piano trio is nothing without the effectiveness of the pianist, and throughout the work Mr. Weiss played with sensitivity and clarity. In the fourth movement “Finale,” the piano accompaniment rolled along effortlessly, combining with the string players to create a grand finish to the concert — solidly launching the rest of the Festival’s season.