February 13, 2019

Richardson Chamber Players Honor The Past While Celebrating the Present

By Nancy Plum

Continuing Princeton University Concerts’ 125th Anniversary season, Richardson Chamber Players presented an afternoon of mixed chamber works composed during the inaugural season of the Concerts series. In a Sunday concert at Richardson Auditorium entitled Then and Now, six musicians of the Richardson Chamber Players juxtaposed works composed in 1894 and 1895 with music of today, demonstrating connections among pieces written more than 100 years ago. Most of the works on Sunday afternoon’s program paid tribute to the University Concerts’ inaugural year, with the Eric Nathan’s very contemporary Threads for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano making the compositional leap into the 21st century.

The Chamber Players began their journey into Then and Now with a work for solo piano as pianist Geoffrey Burleson performed a paraphrase for solo piano of 19th-century French composer Camille Saint-Saëns. Paraphrases were virtuosic solo instrumental works based on popular melodies of the time, in the case of Saint-Saëns’ La mort de Thaïs, music from Jules Massenet’s opera Thaïs. Saint-Saëns set the opera’s “Vision” tableau of Act III, as well as the more well-known “Meditation,” and Burleson began the work with clarity in opening octaves punctuated by rolling arpeggios. Burleson played percussively, creating tension which moved the music along. This paraphrase was more driven than dreamy, although Burleson was effective in stretching the lines in a more pensive second section. Burleson finished the Saint-Saëns piece in majestic style, with virtuosic flourishes from the keyboard.

German composer Richard Strauss composed a generation later than Saint-Saëns, which can be heard in his boundary-pushing harmonics and emotional setting of text. Strauss composed more than 200 songs, and soprano Rochelle Ellis, accompanied by Burleson, presented four of them in thoughtful and unhurried fashion. The four songs performed by Ellis set poetry of varied text and mood, and Ellis well demonstrated Strauss’ picturesque writing with solid control of the vocal lines and animated storytelling. The third song in particular, “Heimliche Aufforderung,” showed an especially free-flowing accompaniment from Burleson and a sensitive ending to the text from Ellis.

The 21st century was represented by Eric Nathan, a young composer with an extensive repertory and numerous premieres worldwide. Nathan introduced his one-movement Threads, performed by clarinetist Jo-Ann Sternberg, violinist Anna Lim, cellist Susannah Chapman, and pianist Margaret Kampmeier, as a work for which he selected the title before composing, but the piece lived up to its name as a cohesive amalgamation of musical threads from all four instruments. Nathan intended the players to both react to one another and work together, and the four musicians of the Chamber Players well-presented both delicate and complex musical threads which intertwined, strengthened in unison, and sent all players scurrying in different fast and furious directions.

The two major works on the program came from composers separated by only 30 years in birth, but who were a world apart in influence and musical culture. Johannes Brahms was a stalwart of the German Romantic tradition who by 1894 and the age of 60 had decided that his composing days were behind him. Fortunately for the chamber music world, Brahms heard a celebrated German clarinetist that year and was compelled to write two sonatas for the instrument. Sonata for Clarinet and Piano in F minor was played by Sternberg accompanied by Kampmeier, and the two musicians were in perfect tandem presenting the long melodic lines and chasing each other at times with melodic material.

Sternberg played consistently smoothly from top to bottom of the instrument, emphasizing the heights of phrases and the reflective quality for which this sonata has become known. The third movement was played with seamless and gentle lines from both musicians, as Kampmeier and Sternberg brought out well the internal phrasing of the closing vivace.

Anton Arensky was one of the lesser-known Russian composers of the 19th century, but with connections to several of the greats. Arensky’s works may have been overshadowed by those of his teacher Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, colleague Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and students, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Alexander Scriabin, but his four-movement Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor could well stand on its own with other Russian musical masterpieces. With all this Russian heritage, one would expect Arensky’s work to be in a lush orchestral vein, and even with only three players, the piece had great depth and emotion. Violinist Lim, cellist Chapman, and pianist Burleson brought out the elegiac atmosphere of this Trio, composed in honor of one of Russia’s great cellists.

The Trio began with dark piano and violin, picturesque of a cold Russian winter, but with an element of sweetness to Lim’s melodic lines. Melodic material moved well among the three instruments, with Burleson’s piano touch lighter than in the earlier Saint-Saëns work. For most of the piece, Lim played in the middle register of the violin, making the higher register passages in the third movement stand out more. From the keyboard, Burleson was always watching the two string players, keeping the rippling piano accompaniment in an exact partnership. As the Trio came to a close with graceful lines from both violin and cello, it was clear from the afternoon’s performance that although music has evolved over the past hundred years in harmony and texture, the works of today are well rooted in the traditions of centuries past.