The 2019-’20 Princeton University Concerts season opened at Richardson Auditorium last week with the program “New World Spirit,” featuring works with a distinct American flavor, and mostly penned by American composers. Czech Anton Dvorak was the exception, but he was an “honorary citizen,” as his String Quintet No. 3 in E-flat Major was written in Iowa while he was visiting and creating in the U.S.
The venerable concert series welcomed the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center to begin the season, 13 men and women who might be some of the best musicians in the nation.
“Southland Sketches” by Harry T. Burleigh was first on the program, with Gloria Chien on piano and solo violinist Chad Hoopes. African-American composer Burleigh (1866-1949) was Dvorak’s assistant for a time and shared his knowledge of folk and gospel melodies with his Czech colleague, which you can easily hear in Dvorak’s later work.
The musical sketches were perfect for an intimate chamber concert, little nuggets of sweet sound played brilliantly by Hoopes. I heard tinges of folk, gospel, and hymns, but also a blue note here and there, maybe ragtime jazz, even a passage from Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks at Home.”
Next up was the String Quintet, the first piece Dvorak wrote while in the U.S. Its first movement was lively like a hoedown, and if the two virtuoso violinists — Angelo Xiang Yu and Matthew Lipman — had been wearing jeans and flannel shirts instead of tuxedoes, I would have called their musicianship “fine fiddle playing.”
Later in the quintet the composer gave the cellist and first violin a chance to shine in back-and-forth passages. Inside the fourth movement is a refrain that Dvorak might have intended to be a second national anthem for the U.S.; he was that enthused about being in America.
Leonard Bernstein’s 1942 “Sonata for Clarinet and Piano” showcased the ensemble’s David Shifrin on clarinet. It is Bernstein’s first composition and explored the range of the instrument, spotlighting Shifrin’s warm, sweet tone, spot-on technique, and superb intonation, even in the clarinet’s most upper register.
It’s said that Bernstein visited Key West while he was writing this piece, and sounds of the town’s nightlife worked its way into the sonata. Indeed, the second movement shifts from contemplative and melodic, foreshadowing some of Bernstein’s great theatrical songs, to frenetic and playful, like his dances in “On the Town” or “West Side Story.”
Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring Suite” closed the program and began in the woodwinds with a kind of reverence and an air of positivity. The piano picked up the melody and ran with it while the rest of the ensemble joined in.
Copland’s rich layering of sound brought to mind a brisk, sunny day in the country, with the musicians evoking natural elements like birdsong and a sudden squall.
If the Dvorak piece shone a light on the gifted string players, then Copland’s Suite did so for the woodwinds. Their playing provided a special buoyancy throughout the changing dynamics, moods, and meters of the suite.
As the Copland composition drew to a close, the music became gentler, settling down as the famous melody “Simple Gifts” was introduced. The variations on the tune found their way through the upper and lower strings, as the flute shimmered above.
The suite revisited earlier passages, slowed to a dignified, graceful finale, then quietly ended, like lanterns being extinguished for the night’s rest.
The season continues Tuesday, October 22, with “Icons of Song,” featuring tenor Ian Bostridge and Brad Mehldau on piano. Earlier that day (12:30 p.m.), there will be live Music and Meditation with Mehldau at Richardson.
A set of spirituals by Burleigh will be performed by the Richardson Chamber Players, at the auditorium, on Sunday, November 24, at 3 p.m. 609-258-2800 or www.princetonuniversityconcerts.org