June 27, 2018

Princeton Festival Continues With Concert of Baroque Chamber Music

By Nancy Plum

Princeton Festival is spending the fourth week of this year’s season focusing on the Baroque era of music history, beginning with a chamber orchestra concert last Saturday afternoon. Comprised of six members of The Princeton Festival Baroque Orchestra, the Festival Baroque Chamber Ensemble presented an hour-long performance at Princeton Abbey which felt like a refreshing cool drink on a summer afternoon. The five works performed were, as advertised, “rare gems of the Baroque chamber repertoire,” as four string players, a theorbo, and harpsichord showed that the Festival’s foray into 17th- and 18th-century music was a worthy artistic decision. Princeton Abbey is an unusual liturgical space in that the members of the congregation face one another, rather than the chancel, but perhaps thanks to the recent residency at the Abbey by the American Boychoir, the acoustics were perfect for chamber music.

Violinists Juan Carlos Zamudio, Maria Romero, and violist Reynaldo Patino (also a specialist on Baroque violin) were joined by cellist Anna Steinhoff, theorbo player Arash Noori, and harpsichordist Gregory Geehern in various combinations to perform the five works on Saturday’s program. Violinist Zamudio led Steinhoff, Noori, and Geehern to open the concert with a chamber sonata of Bohemian composer Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber. One of the greatest violinists of the Baroque era, Biber composed a set of chamber sonatas considered among the most extraordinary collections in the violin repertory. The 1670s Rosary Sonatas paired 15 works each depicting one of the mysteries of the rosary with appropriate illustrations. “The Annunciation,” beginning with an improvisatory violin part, was as challenging as any unaccompanied violin work of Bach two generations later, but Zamudio had no trouble handling the technically difficult passages. Playing in front of the Abbey’s ornate rood screen separating the congregation from the chancel, the four musicians of the Chamber Ensemble conveyed the late 17th-century music cleanly, with consistently steady continuo playing from cello, theorbo, and harpsichord.

Zamudio was joined by violinist Romero for a Trio Sonata in A minor of mid-18th century Austro-Moravian composer, violinist and theorist Franz Xaver Richter. Richter was an early composer of the Mannheim School, which pioneered a number of orchestral techniques leading to the Classical symphony form. More elaborate violin parts were immediately apparent, as well as a pulsating cello and harpsichord accompaniment, and the four players moved easily among the harmonically shaded sections. The two violins sounded particularly high-spirited, and well-executed sequential passages showed this work’s place in the High Baroque. A fast and furious rondo finale among the musicians featured an elaborate closing cadenza from Zamudio.

The musical centerpiece of the afternoon’s concert was a work by Bach — but not the Bach the audience might have been expecting. The German composer and organist Johann Bernhard Bach was a slightly older second cousin of the more renowned J.S., but wrote in the same popular Baroque genres. This Bach’s orchestral suites contained elements of French dance music, and his Suite in E minor included numerous short dance movements in a courtly French style. Zamudio and Romero were joined by Reynaldo Patino to create a two-violin and viola trio, with a continuo section of cello, theorbo, and harpsichord. A well-unified string sound marked the opening French overture, with clean dotted rhythmic figures and a quick fugue which likely reminded the audience of the overture to Handel’s Messiah. Geehern’s consistently strong harpsichord accompaniment spoke well in the Abbey space, and melodies and sequences were well emphasized by the strings. All players seemed to feel the motion of the music in the courtly triple meter dances, and the aria-like violin lines in the “airs” were reminiscent of an 18th-century strolling instrumental ensemble.

The closing Folias of early 17th-century Italian lutenist and composer Andrea Falconieri traded fast-moving passages among the upper string players, with uniform changes in tempo from the players. The lute influence on this work was apparent from theorbo player Noori, who at times strummed the theorbo like a guitar. Zamudio, Romero, and Patino alternated taking the musical lead on both violin and viola, and all six players came together to bring the concert to a fast and furious, but nevertheless elegant, close.

Princeton Festival continues with performances by the Princeton Festival Baroque Orchestra and repeat performances of “Madama Butterfly” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”

Information can be obtained by visiting www.princetonfestival.org.