June 13, 2018

Concordia Chamber Players Open Princeton Festival With Musical Finesse

By Nancy Plum

Summer brings many traditions to the Princeton area: the P-rade, fireworks on Reunions weekend, and other signs that three months of summer days stretch out ahead. One musical tradition which has become a staple of audience calendars is the Concordia Chamber Players concert which opens the Princeton Festival each year. Concordia Artistic Director Michelle Djokic annually brings an ensemble of refined chamber music players to Miller Chapel, and this year in particular set the tone for the festival with a performance of dramatic late 19th and early 20th-century music.

With only three or four musicians on each piece, the Concordia Chamber Players concert on Saturday night at Miller Chapel stretched the ensemble into repertoire which even some of them had not known before. Zoltán Kodály’s 1905 Intermezzo for String Trio recalled the Hungarian peasant rhythms of the composer’s birthplace in a late Romantic harmonic style. The one-movement work, scored for violin, viola, and cello, opened with a Gypsy feel, with pizzicato cello replicating a zither. Violist Daniel Kim played melodies with a dark and rich tone, contrasted by pastoral lines from violinist Carmit Zori. Cellist Michelle Djokic kept the trio well unified as the three players easily moved among sections of the work. Djokic had her own opportunity to play a supple cello melody as the players brought Kodály’s lush work to a close.

Sergei Rachmaninoff composed Trio élégiaque No. 1 a decade earlier than Kodály’s Intermezzo, but the Rachmaninoff work had a very different nationalistic feel. Scored for violin, cello, and piano, Trio élégiaque was likely Rachmaninoff’s homage to a mentor or friend, and contained passages as virtuosic as any of the composer’s concerti. Zori and Djokic faced each other, rather than the audience, allowing for maximum communication as their two instruments accompanied rolling piano lines played by Michael Brown. Zori’s violin passages were often dark in mid-register, and Djokic displayed great strength of arm playing lyrical cello lines. Brown provided extensive cascading figures in the right hand on the keyboard, together with one short and dramatic solo piano section. Although the instrumental lines sounded very independent of one another, the three players came together often to create musical drama within the piece.

The ensemble paid tribute to another nationalistic composer in Jean Sibelius’ Suite in A major for string trio. Sibelius composed this work while in his early 20s, never intending the Suite to be published, and parts of the final movements have not survived. Like the two works preceding this on the program, Suite in A major paid tribute to Sibelius’s homeland with Finnish folk dance melodies. The second movement especially matched the gypsy feel of Kodály’s work, expertly led by violinist Zori.

The four players of the Concordia joined forces for Antonin Dvorˇák’s Piano Quartet No. 2 in E-flat Major, a work which was just one piece of a significant but underperformed repertory of chamber music from the Czech composer. Dvorˇák’s piano quartets were overshadowed by his even more monumental piano quintets, but the members of the Concordia Chamber Players easily demonstrated why this particular quartet can stand among the most significant late 19th-century chamber works.

The players began Dvorˇák’s four-movement work with a unison fanfare which recurred as an anchor in the piece. The movement took off in majestic fashion, with a long lyrical melody from second violinist Kim. Zori’s melodic passages were solidly aided by Brown’s flowing piano accompaniment, and the four musicians added an element of delicacy to contrast the musical drama. This was a substantial chamber work of four movements, showing lyricism and harmonic opulence characteristic of late 19th-century music. Brown’s piano accompaniment recalled a harp at times, with elegant string melodies creating poignancy and a song-like texture. The fourth movement “Rondo” in particular was marked by a folk dance flavor, with sounds of a Gypsy dulcimer heard from the piano, as the “Rondo” refrain called for nonstop and fierce playing from all four musicians. The audience at Miller Chapel was in rapt attention as the drama unfolded, and the Concordia Chamber Players succeeded in kicking off the Princeton Festival with a rousing opening concert.

The next events in the 2018 Princeton Festival include “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” June 10 to July 1 at the Matthews Acting Studio at 185 Nassau Street; and Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” which opens June 16 at 7:30 p.m. at McCarter Theatre Center’s Matthews Theater. For information visit www.princetonfestival.org.