October 16, 2019

Princeton University Concerts Opens Season with Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center

By Nancy Plum

Last year’s 125th anniversary season of Princeton University Concerts — with star conductor Gustavo Dudamel leading the lineup — is a hard act to follow. Princeton University Concerts began its 126th season last week with a well-respected ensemble also celebrating a milestone. New York’s Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, marking its 50th anniversary, brought to Princeton a program paying homage to both Americana and the longevity of Princeton University Concerts. Last Thursday night’s “New World Spirit” performance at Richardson Auditorium featured music of four composers who embodied American music in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with one work having close ties to the University Concerts series.

Pennsylvania composer Harry T. Burleigh has been well-known in the choral world for his arrangements of spirituals and for bringing African American music to the forefront in this country, also composing a handful of instrumental pieces. A student of Czech composer Antonin Dvorák, Burleigh similarly infused his musical works with American folk tunes and atmosphere. Burleigh’s Southland Sketches for solo violin and piano was comprised of four salon pieces capturing the fresh and open outdoors through broad melodies and bits of familiar tunes. Violinist Chad Hoopes and pianist Gloria Chien showed solid communication and precise timing in performing the four Sketches, with effective double stops from Hoopes adding harmony to the solo violin part and Chien’s accompaniment well reflecting the diverse styles within the music.

Antonin Dvorák wrote String Quartet No. 3 in E-flat Major, for Two Violins, Two Violas, and Cello while in residence in the American heartland; the composer spent the summer of 1893 in the quiet and simplicity of Iowa. The String Quartet, known as the “American” quartet, received one of its early performances on the inaugural season of Princeton University Concerts in 1894. Performed last week by violinists Arnaud Sussmann and Angelo Xiang Yu, violists Paul Neubauer and Matthew Lipman, and cellist Nicholas Canellakis, this work of four extended movements showed a quintet of musicians so well blended in performance it was hard at times to tell which player had the principal melodic material. With orchestration of two violas and cello, one would expect a rich inner string sound, and Neubauer and Lipman led the ensemble well in showing the range of colors in the music, as well as a poignant sense of longing Dvorák may have felt for his homeland. All players demonstrated a light touch on the strings in a delicate triplet rhythm in the second movement, with Neubauer providing a dramatic melody against pizzicato playing from the others. The power of the lower strings could be heard in the stately third movement, led by the two violas and cello.

The Chamber Music Society paid tribute to its hometown with the inclusion of a Sonata for Clarinet and Piano by Leonard Bernstein, former conductor of the New York Philharmonic and longtime visionary of the New York musical scene. Bernstein composed this Sonata, his first published work, between 1941 and 1942 in Florida, while trying to escape hay fever season in the North. The two movements of this Sonata vary in character, both showing the influence of the composers and musical cultures surrounding Bernstein. The first movement was melodic, with a quick dialog between clarinetist David Shifrin and pianist Gloria Chien. Chien’s keyboard accompaniment could almost have stood on its own as a piano solo, and Shifrin provided a crisply articulate solo line rooted in both jazz and a sweet simple melodic style. The second movement showed Bernstein’s more pensive side, with a touch of Latin nightclub and big city atmosphere.

The Chamber Music Society brought thirteen players together for the closing work on the program — Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring Suite, arranged by the composer for chamber orchestra. No composer epitomized American music in the 20th century more than Copland, and the ballet Appalachian Spring is among his most familiar pieces, even to individuals who do not follow classical music. From David Shifrin’s opening clarinet solo, one could hear an immediate sense of space in Copland’s triadic melodic line. Wind solos, including Shifrin and bassoonist Marc Goldberg, brought out the buoyancy of this work, especially Shifrin’s playing of the familiar Shaker tune for which this pieced is most well-known. Flutist Ransom Wilson closed the work elegantly with the Shaker tune as the sun set on this American musical classic.