June 9, 2021

Princeton Festival Opens 2021 Performance Season with Concordia Chamber Players

By Nancy Plum

The Princeton Festival opened its 2021 season this past week with a series of events including a virtual performance by the Concordia Chamber Players — an ensemble which has traditionally kicked off the Festival each year with a live performance. This season, the Concordia musicians presented a video stream last Friday night of performances recorded in early May in various locations around Sand City, California. The four members of Concordia Chamber Players — violinists Tien-Hsin Cindy Wu and Alexi Kenney, violist Jonathan Moerschel, and cellist (and artistic director) Michelle Djokic — performed works from the late 19th through the 21st centuries, introducing the concert with quotes from singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone on the artist’s role in social responsibility.

Jessie Montgomery, currently a graduate fellow in music composition at Princeton University, is rapidly becoming one of this country’s most performed composers. Montgomery’s 2013 Source Code for string quartet fuses transcriptions of various sources from African American artists prominent during the civil rights era, with Montgomery re-interpreting the musical material in a contemporary way. Montgomery is known for capturing the sounds of our times in her music, and Source Code was no exception as played by the Concordia Chamber Players. Beginning with a concentrated unison from the four musicians, the one-movement work showed shades of 20th-century jazz, with particularly effective melodic playing from Kenney and Djokic. Montgomery’s piece was intensely continuous, with drone-like lines often heard from the lower strings and Djokic providing a percussive rhythm from the cello.

Although born in Switzerland, Arthur Honegger was considered one of the legendary “Les Six” French composers of the early 20thcentury. His 1932 Sonatine for Violin and Cello, possibly inspired by the birth of the composer’s child, was rooted in the 18th-century musical style of J.S. Bach. The three-movement work was premiered by Honegger himself on the violin and fellow “Les Six” composer Darius Milhaud playing cello.

In Friday night’s performance, violinist Wu and cellist Djokic followed each other exactly in the rhythms and phrasing of the piece, accompanied by visuals of a sculptor at work. The two instruments were particularly effective in a joyful section of the first movement, with a graceful violin melody contrasting with quick percussive cello effects. Throughout the Sonatine, violin and cello often chased each other, especially in a third movement dialog.

Another side of 20th-century French music was heard in Concordia’s performance of Jean Françaix’s String Trio. Composed in 1933, this short four-movement work reflected a neoclassical style with a nod to the 18th-century French Baroque era. The Concordia musicians played the first movement — a conversation among violin, viola, and cello — with clarity in the continuous motion. Violinist Kenney, violist Moerschel, and cellist Djokic played the second movement waltz with crispness, emphasizing the Baroque contrapuntal style. Both Kenney and Djokic provided rich melodies in the third movement, and the three instruments together found variety in the dynamics in the refrains of the fourth movement “Rondo,” with each refrain increasingly faster to bring the work to a spirited close.

Giacomo Puccini’s 1890 Crisantemi has been a popular work in this year of chamber performance by necessity. Concordia Chamber Players presented this single-movement elegy as a dedication to the “losses suffered throughout the world in the past year,” and expressed well in their performance the plaintive and somber character of the piece. First violinist Wu played a principal mournful theme gracefully, and the quartet took its time drawing out the melodic lines. Puccini was a composer who knew how to play with emotions, and the Concordia musicians had no trouble finding the elegiac qualities in the music.

Austrian composer Hugo Wolf was most known for art songs, but as a composer, explored a number of musical genres. Wolf composed Italian Serenade for string quartet in three days at the age of 27, as he was coming into his own as a composer. Sensitivity to text permeates all of Wolf’s music, even when there is no actual text, and the Concordia players easily conveyed the piece’s animated Italianate spirit, combined with 19th-century harmonic twists. The Concordia quartet played effectively as an ensemble, with uniform crescendos and delicate bowings when required in this rarely-heard and refined orchestral miniature.

Friday night’s Princeton Festival broadcast battled weather-related technical difficulties and delays, demonstrating the fragility of virtual performances. Everything eventually came back on track, but the evening showed that as enjoyable and convenient as virtual concerts may be, one cannot underestimate the complexity and economic impact of launching a musical series online, and why this format will hopefully not completely replace live music.

The Princeton Festival continues this week with lectures and concerts, including a life performance from the Baroque Chamber Orchestra at Morven Museum and Garden Thursday night, June 10. Information about all Princeton Festival events can be found on the Festival website at princetonfestival.org.