June 16, 2021

Princeton Festival Continues Season With Double-Header of Baroque Music

By Nancy Plum

Princeton Festival moved its season outdoors and in-person this past week with two concerts by the Princeton Festival Baroque Orchestra. The first concert, last Tuesday night, was not as live as the audience might have liked — with thunderstorms throughout the area, the five members of the Festival Baroque Orchestra relocated themselves to the Stockton Education Center at the Morven Museum and Garden, while the audience listened via livestream. The second concert on Thursday night was held outdoors (with a livestream option), with the players inside the Education Center and an audience in pods on the lawn. The two concerts, subtitled “Sacred and Profane,” created a comprehensive survey of European music and forms of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Tuesday night’s performance featured eight pieces divided into two groups — “sacred music in content” and “sacred music in context.” Violinists Chiara Fasani Stauffer and Manami Mizumoto (who also doubled on viola), cellist Morgan Little, and harpsichordist Caitlyn Koester were joined by Joshua Stauffer playing “plucked instruments,” which both nights featured the 17th-century theorbo. The four “sacred music in content” pieces were mostly from early 17th-century Italy. Three chamber works were played with quick and energetic spirit by the Festival Orchestra, with both violinists effectively conveying melodic material. A rarely-heard Trio Sonata in F Major by the under-rated but nonetheless influential German composer Johann Casper Kerll flowed well, as Stauffer and Mizumoto maintained a graceful violin conversation against steady continuo playing of the other three instruments.

The four “sacred by context” pieces included excerpts from larger sacred works or pieces which referenced sacred themes. The most recognizable of these was the “Pifa” from George Frederic Handel’s Messiah. The Festival Orchestra played this music in a quick tempo, and in a more detached style than often heard in full performances of Messiah. Girolamo Frescobaldi’s Toccata nona in F, a work for solo harpsichord, featured Caitlyn Koester effectively executing lively sequences and ornaments playing on a two-manual instrument.

The Festival Orchestra saved one of the most interesting pieces for last in Tuesday night’s concert. It was unusual enough to find women composers in the 17th century, but Italian Isabella Leonarda was the first woman up to that time to publish instrumental sonatas. The Festival Orchestra’s performance of Leonarda’s Trio Sonata, Op. 16, No. 1 in E minor well demonstrated the composer’s enlightened education in counterpoint. The two violins frequently traded parts, with Stauffer showing particularly delicate playing when necessary. Cellist Little provided a solid underpinning to the sound, playing an extensive cello solo in the final movement.

Thursday night’s performance featured more familiar composers, including 18th-century powerhouses Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi. With the players behind open glass doors of the Stockton Education Center, the Festival Orchestra played the six works on the program with consistent attention to dynamic detail, maneuvering technical difficulties well. Morgan Little provided an elegant rendering of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cello Suite No. 2 in D minor, and violinists Stauffer and Mizumoto tapered phrases especially gracefully in the unusual Sonata of Scots Tunes in D Major of Scottish composer James Oswald. The Festival Orchestra emphasized the dance qualities in the six movements of the Oswald work, in which traditional Scottish folk tunes were fused with Baroque musical forms and compositional effects.

The four movements of Handel’s Trio Sonata in B-flat Major were played with the composer’s characteristic joyful spirit, with especially clean duets between violins and the lower instruments. Theorbo player Joshua Stauffer was featured in a Toccata in G minor by early 17th-century composer Alessandro Piccinini, demonstrating the instrument’s kinship to the lute and guitar. Stauffer took his time on slow arpeggios and played virtuosic passages cleanly, giving the audience a chance to really hear an instrument usually relegated to continuo accompaniment.

The Princeton Festival Baroque Orchestra has been appearing on the Festival season for a number of years. Although the “pod capacity” on the lawn of Morven Garden was not as great as it would have been in an indoor venue, the audience Thursday night was nearly a full house, with more no doubt virtually enjoying the concerts of music with which you certainly can’t go wrong.

The Princeton Festival continues this week with the Kosmology Interdisciplinary Ensemble performing the premiere of Dreaming/Undreaming, a work commissioned by The Princeton Festival and inspired by two short stories of Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges; and an outdoor performance of Opera by Twilight at Morven Museum and Garden. Information about these concerts can be found on the Princeton Festival website at princetonfestival.org.