June 7, 2017

Princeton Festival Begins With Solid Performance of Concordia Chamber Players

With last Saturday night’s concert by Concordia Chamber Players, this year’s Princeton Festival is off and running. The Concordia ensemble brought only four instrumentalists to this opening concert of Princeton Festival’s 2017 season, but violinist Emily Daggett Smith, violist Ayane Kozasa, cellist Michelle Djokic, and pianist William Wolfram filled Princeton Theological Seminary’s Miller Chapel with a full orchestral-level sound in music both Romantic and contemporary.

The string musicians of Concordia Chamber Players began the concert with a tribute to an 18th-century giant by a late 20th-century composer. American composer Aaron Jay Kernis is renowned for his imaginative approach to orchestral color and instrumentation, and his 1991 Mozart En Route (Or, A Little Traveling Music) takes Mozart’s concept for the well-known A Little Night Music to new levels. The opening passages from Ms. Daggett Smith were almost Irish in character, with a driving rhythm from Ms. Kozasa and quick playing from Ms. Djokic. The three players together executed precise and sharp sforzandi and collectively maintained an element of swing throughout the piece. Although in one movement, this work contained several contrasting sections, and the trio of Concordia Players easily shifted among the moods and musical styles.

Ms. Daggett Smith and Ms. Djokic were joined by pianist William Wolfram to play Ludwig van Beethoven’s 1808 Piano Trio in D Major, a performance that confirmed the Concordia ensemble’s musical identity as a well-oiled chamber machine. Beginning with a fiery entrance, which resounded in the chapel, the trio of players passed musical material easily among themselves. Ms. Daggett Smith’s violin playing soared more in this piece than in the Kernis work, accompanied by very steady keyboard playing from Mr. Wolfram. The three players watched one another continuously, knowing instinctively when to build the dynamics and when to get out of one another’s way.

The second movement Largo assai (nicknamed the Ghost movement) was marked by clean thirds between violin and cello and a mournful melodic line begun in the cello, with typical Beethoven false entrances creating additional suspense. A well-played cadenza-like passage from the piano led to a more peaceful ending. Tension in the closing movement was created by harmonic suspensions among the players. Mr. Wolfram, playing an instrument whose upper register especially rang in the hall, was particularly impressive in this movement of continuous motion.

All four players came together for a piano quartet by Richard Strauss, a composer more known for massive orchestral works than chamber music. Strauss’s Piano Quartet in C minor showed very lush orchestral writing, even if only for four instruments, with moments of serenity and lightness interspersed with jarring shifts in what was very complex music. Ms. Kozasa played particularly expressively, with delicate phrase endings, and Mr. Wolfram led the music well from the keyboard. In this work, Strauss avoided the calm and songlike inner movements characteristic of the 19th century, but pastoral sections between violin and viola provided contrast to the piece. One could hear more expansive musical forms in the music, with particular shades of Strauss’s later Der Rosenkavalier in the third movement. Throughout the work, lush melodies were heard from all instruments, and Mr. Wolfram was particularly effective at subtly changing the dynamics a and leading the way through the music.

Princeton Festival’s offerings this year range from opera to Broadway to jazz, with lectures, movies, and dance in between. Concordia Chamber Players’ opening concert started the Festival off well, and has paved the way for a month of varied and exciting music.