April 18, 2018

Richardson Chamber Players Explore “Voices of America”

By Nancy Plum

Richardson Chamber Players journeyed into a new comfort zone this past weekend with a concert celebrating chamber pieces by African-American composers. The 11 members of the Chamber Players performing Sunday afternoon at Richardson Auditorium presented works ranging from the familiar Duke Ellington to a world premiere by one of the University’s own graduate students. A rare collaboration among Princeton University’s jazz and classical faculty, this concert not only showed the versatility of the Chamber Players musicians but also how far outside the box these individuals have traveled in their musical careers.

New York native Alvin Singleton’s compositional style is rooted in the 20th-century jazz of Herbie Hancock and Thelonious Monk, as well as Singleton’s compositional studies with Roger Sessions and Milton Babbitt. He based the one-movement Sweet Chariot on the traditional tune “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” with the piece more fantasy than actual interpretation of the melody. Sweet Chariot is scored for two flutes, bassoon, soprano saxophone, and cello, but with several players doubling or tripling up on different instruments, five musicians quickly turned into an ensemble of ten. This work featured very crisp playing of fast and repetitive passages, especially from flutists Jayn Rosenfeld and Aawa White, along with bassoonist Robert Wagner. Oliver Santana’s saxophone playing (on two different types of saxophone) added a unique sound to the ensemble, and melodic passages from Wagner were particularly soothing.

George Walker’s Bleu, for solo violin, was expertly played by Adda Kridler, a soloist whose performing career has crossed genres from classical to Broadway to Cuba. With a Harvard undergraduate degree in cognitive neuroscience, Kridler would understandably have a solid intellectual approach to the music. Based on an eight-note scale, Bleu made serious technical demands of the soloist, but also created a dichotomy of tension and sweetness which was well emphasized by Kridler. Shifting easily among the moods of the work, Kridler handled the quick passages cleanly, creating drama by taking her time between phrases.

Once in a great while, a musician will take an instrument associated with more popular genres and raise it to a level of virtuosity and cross into classical repertory. Princeton University PhD student Kendall K. Williams has made a career moving the steel pan, an instrument part of a steel band, to the forefront of the classical stage. However, for Taking a Chance, given its world premiere Sunday afternoon, Williams put aside the steel pan and focused on nine members of the Richardson Chamber Players. Scored for flute, clarinet, bassoon, saxophone, violin, cello, double bass, piano, and drums, this piece took a six-note melodic motive and varied it through orchestral color, dynamic variety, and the percussion of the piano. Flutist Rosenfeld led things off with a saucy melodic line, answered by the rest of the ensemble in various instrumental combinations, all expertly accompanied by pianist Margaret Kampmeier. Throughout the work, the musicians were always together as thematic riffs were passed around, with clarinetist Jo-Ann Sternberg providing especially smooth playing when her turn came around.

The fourth significant work on the program was a work by Haitian-American composer Daniel Bernard Roumain that combined the culture of a Haitian-American heritage with the pop idioms of funk, rock, and hip-hop in an “experiential sonic form.” Roumain’s Fast Black Dance Machine, scored for six musicians, drew from musical styles popular in the United States in the 20th century, as well as music from throughout the Caribbean. Kampmeier’s consistently precise piano passages seemed especially rooted in the minimalism of Philip Glass, and all players were required to draw on their technical skill in the piece. The instrumental lines were very classically rooted (especially from the piano), and the final section of the piece featured a unique intensity, as motives and colors piled on one another.

For familiarity, four musicians of the Chamber Players entertained the audience with three selections from the legendary Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington collaboration. One of the most impressive aspects of this trio of works (including the popular “Take the ‘A’ Train” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got that Swing)” was the keyboard skills of John Nydam, a sophomore at Princeton University and recipient of numerous awards in jazz performance and composition. The performance of the Ellington works was clearly a crowd-pleaser, as Sunday afternoon’s mix of student and faculty, jazz and classical, ended the Richardson Chamber Players season with a brilliant flourish.