February 28, 2024

Richardson Chamber Players Presents Winter Concert of French Chamber Music

By Nancy Plum

The fall performance of the Richardson Chamber Players, postponed from its original November date at Richardson Auditorium, took place last Thursday night at Taplin Auditorium in Fine Hall on the University campus. The concert was devoted to the music of “Les Six,” a group of composers working in Paris during the early 20th century and credited with developing a purely French repertory of music. The nine musicians who performed Thursday night as the Chamber Players presented a program of works for a variety of instrumental and vocal combinations, allowing the audience to experience collective artistry close up.

Clarinetist Jo-Ann Sternberg, violinist Brennan Sweet, and pianist Allison Brewster Franzetti opened the concert with the 1936 Suite for Clarinet, Violin, and Piano of Darius Milhaud, immediately showing a bright ensemble sound. Sternberg’s clarinet lines richly resonated through the intimate space of Taplin Auditorium and Brennan’s lyrical violin passages brought out well Milhaud’s graceful melodies. The three players highlighted the saucy feel of the closing movement, bringing the work to a graceful close.

This concert explored the members of the esteemed French group, each with a unique compositional personality. Georges Auric, a lesser known of the “Six,” wrote chamber pieces for particularly unusual orchestral combinations. The 1938 Trio for Oboe, Clarinet and Bassoon brought together three instruments often hidden within the full symphonic texture. Auric’s three-movement work displayed communicative and spirited music which no doubt was also fun to play.

Oboist Alexandra Knoll, clarinetist Sternberg, and bassoonist Robert Wagner played the teasing music of the first movement crisply, with uniform crescendo between clarinet and oboe. The second movement “Romance” featured an elegant melody traveling among the three instruments, with Knoll’s playing particularly expressive. Sternberg’s quick clarinet runs kept the closing “Final” moving along, while all musicians seemed to be telling a humorous story through their independent melodies.

Mezzo-soprano Barbara Rearick conveyed two extended stories through descriptive works. Arthur Honegger’s Three Poems of Paul Fort reflected the French impressionistic school prevalent at the time and depicted three scenes: one deep in the woods, another capturing a peaceful evening, and a third set in a fanciful world of fairies and sorcerers. Accompanied by pianist Francine Kay and always communicating well with the audience, Rearick sang with rich vocal tone and drama. Kay provided a dreamy accompaniment to “Cloche du soir,” which Rearick expressed vividly. The continual arpeggios of the final “Chanson de fol” created a “madman” effect in the piano accompaniment while Rearick well depicted the whimsical text.

Rearick’s most complex presentation was a set of excerpts from Louis Durey’s Le bestiare, a collection of vignettes for piano and voice setting the poetry of Guillaume Apollinaire, in turn inspired by a series of paintings. Each of the 12 miniatures Rearick sang depicted characteristics of a different animal, with much of the creature’s personality written into the piano accompaniment. Rearick’s reading of translations between each song broke up the flow a bit, but the audience at Taplin was well able to appreciate Durey’s musical commentary on life through the voices of animals. Accompanied by Francine Kay, Rearick communicated the sensitivity of “Le chat” (cat) and the quirkiness of “Le puce” (flea) especially cleanly.

Flutist Bart Feller and hornist Chris Komer joined Sternberg, Knoll, Wagner, and pianist Franzetti for a Sextet by the most well-known of “Les Six” — Francis Poulenc. Beginning with a jazzy and cohesive first movement “Allegro vivace,” the players built the very busy orchestral texture well, with effective solos from Wagner, Knoll, Feller, and Komer. The ensemble sound became quite intense at times, with each instrument maintaining an independent line within a collective palette. The second movement featured an elegant oboe solo by Knoll, subtly accompanied by bassoon, showing Poulenc’s rich impressionistic writing. Feller seemed to lead the way through the majestic closing movement, aided by clean bassoon passages from Wagner.

For close to 30 years, the Richardson Chamber Players have brought to the stage music which might have otherwise remained neglected, presented under the guidance of University faculty musicians and often featuring some of the music department’s most talented students. Last week’s concert provided a glimpse into a luxuriant period of French music history and the individuals who were composing imaginative music as Europe recovered from the First World War.

The next concert of the Richardson Chamber Players will be Sunday, March 24 at 3 p.m. at Richardson Auditorium. “A French Afternoon” will feature music of Saint-Saëns, Fauré, Ravel, and Stravinsky, re-creating a historic 1914 French concert. Ticket information can be obtained by visiting tickets.princeton.edu.