November 22, 2017

Richardson Chamber Players Journey Through the Music of Bohemia

By Nancy Plum

The Richardson Chamber Players showcase several aspects of Princeton University’s music department; it is a premiere instrumental ensemble focusing on rarely-performed repertoire, and allows University performance faculty to perform alongside their students. Seven members of the Chamber Players presented a concert Sunday afternoon in Richardson Auditorium, exploring the music of Bohemia. Subtitled “Echoes of Vltava,” the concert of works by Bohemian composers referenced the River Vltava, which originates in the Bohemian Forest and flows through the western Czech Republic. It was a fitting title for a late fall afternoon performance in which six instrumentalists and one singer presented smoothly-flowing music of the highest technical demands.

The 19th-century Antonín Dvoˇrák is the most well-known of Bohemian composers, and his music is rooted in a deep regional tradition which continued on to the works of his students. One of these students, Josef Suk, was also Dvoˇrák’s son-in-law, strengthening the connection between the two composers. Suk’s most significant piano work, Life and Dreams, was conceived in Suk’s grief in losing both his father-in-law and wife in a short span of time. The two movements of this ten-movement piece performed Sunday afternoon captured the emotional turmoil of these two calamitous events, as well as the peacefulness of acceptance.

Pianist Francine Kay has performed as soloist with orchestras worldwide, and like the other musicians in Sunday’s concert, is a member of the performance faculty at Princeton University. A very unassuming soloist, Kay opened the fourth movement excerpt from Life and Dreams with a sense of urgency, with a good command over the quirky cadence endings which kept the audience slightly off balance. This movement reflected a bit of emotional chaos, with feathery passages breaking up the power which Kay drew from the piano. Kay also performed the reflective closing movement to the work, taking her time with the distinctive melodies and musical effects reflecting the movement’s dedication “to the forgotten graves in the corner of the Kˇrekovice cemetery” — Suk’s own final resting place.

Bedˇrich Smetana, a generation before Dvoˇrák, was considered the “father” of Czech music, and his works were considered musical symbols of 19th-century Bohemian nationalism. Like Suk, Smetana experienced a period of intense grief, losing three daughters and his wife in the 1850s. Similar to Beethoven, Smetana battled deafness later in life, yet through it all produced some of the most significant works of his compositional output. Smetana’s 1879 song cycle Five Evening Songs was one of the last works he composed. Composed for soprano and piano accompaniment, the five-movement Evening Songs sets the poetry of 19th-century Czech poet and writer Vítˇezslav Hálek, texts also set by Dvoˇrák. In Sunday’s concert, pianist Kay accompanied soprano Sarah Pelletier in an expressive and sensitive interpretation of Smetana’s setting. Pelletier always had the words in mind while singing, making significant points to the audience when necessary, and singing especially purely in closing emotional verses. Some of the five songs resembled Mendelssohn in their peaceful endings, and Pelletier took plenty of time setting the appropriate mood for each song. As accompanist, Kay knew instinctively when to allow Pelletier’s voice to take center stage and when to swell the sound from the piano.

Student and faculty musicians came together for Dvoˇrák’s massive Piano Quintet No. 2 in A Major, composed in 1887. Violinist Eric Wyrick, concertmaster of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra as well as a faculty member at Princeton University, was joined by second violinist Kristin Qian, a University senior majoring in molecular biology and who is involved in activities throughout campus. Kay was again at the piano, and violist Jessica Thompson and cellist Thomas Kraines rounded out the quintet. Dvoˇrák’s music borrowed heavily from Czech culture, and the folk elements of Dvoˇrák’s Quintet were brought out well by the musicians. In this work, the piano was much more present than in previous works on the program, becoming an equal partner with the string quartet.

Serene melodies were evident from the outset, played by cellist Kraines and violinist Wyrick, who seemed to take the lead among the players. Thompson also had numerous opportunities to provide rich viola lines, often answered by other instruments. Qian played confidently, always keeping her fellow musicians in mind as the movements of the Quintet unfolded. This one piece lasted almost as long as the entire first half of the program, but it was a complex and intricate work offering all players the chance to convey Dvoˇrák’s musical sense of nationalism. The Chamber Players were especially effective in closing the work with a feeling of the Bohemian countryside and tribute to a region with a deep musical tradition.

The Richardson Chamber Players’ next concert will be on Sunday, March 11, 2018 in Richardson Auditorium. Featured will be the music of “Bernstein and Friends.” For information visit the University ticketing webpage at