Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 14
Wednesday, April 8, 2009
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Princeton Singers Celebrate 25th Anniversary With Concert of Old and New Works

Nancy Plum

Amidst all the economic bleakness, some local arts organizations have found cause to celebrate. The Princeton Singers, founded twenty-five years ago by British import John Bertalot, has been a mainstay of the Princeton choral scene. The ensemble has only had two conductors in that time; composer/conductor Steven Sametz took the helm from Mr. Bertalot in 1998, and the chorus has stayed true to its mission of sharing the joy of music and advancing the choral art, while adding Dr. Sametz’s own personal commitment to contemporary choral music.

The Princeton Singers celebrated its 25th anniversary this past weekend with a concert at Trinity Church in Princeton, a fitting venue as John Bertalot also served as the church’s choir trainer for a number of years. The program presented by the eighteen members of The Singers showed some unusual divergences from the ensemble’s early concerts, including venturing into the music of more avant-garde contemporary composers as well as a commissioned piece from Dr. Sametz.

For the unifying theme of this celebratory concert, The Princeton Singers chose “I Have Had Singing,” a twentieth-century text from Ronald Blythe’s Akenfield, Portrait of an English Village. This text has several meanings to The Princeton Singers; it is the title of their latest CD as well as the title of one of the works Sametz composed for the ensemble. The chorus closed the concert with Sametz’s flowing and well-balanced setting of this text, but to get to this point, The Singers took a trip both through their own history and that of music in general.

The Princeton Singers opened the concert with one of the styles they do best — two pieces by Monteverdi. The first piece found the chorus at the front of the chancel, immediately giving a nice ring to the choral sound in the church. Dr. Sametz made clear his attention to phrasing detail, especially the ends of phrases, and the ensemble’s diction spoke well in the hall. The more well-known Salve Regina placed the women at the back of the chancel, with light organ accompaniment provided by Peter de Mets. Although the choir seemed far away visually, the sound was very clear across the long and narrow nave. Musical effects, such as on the word “sospiro” (“sigh”) were especially clean.

The concert moved its way through music history, focusing on pieces which made The Princeton Singers the ensemble it is. William Hawley’s Io son la primavera was a modern day twist on Monteverdi (as if Monteverdi weren’t enough of a twist of harmony in his own time). This piece in particular showed a very pleasant low bass choral sound. Stephen Leek’s very unusual setting of aboriginal text placed the singers in various spaces throughout the church, enabling the audience to hear some of the voices up close. Dr. Sametz has done an amazing job amalgamating vastly different voices into the ensemble, for instance in the mezzo section, in which one would not expect to hear the operatic Elaine Harned singing alongside Countertenor Brian Ramsey. Beginning with overtone singing (which some of the Singers did quite well), Leek’s Knowee also required a number of rhythmic effects from the ensemble.

Few chamber choruses have any kind of history at all without including Franz Biebl’s Ave Maria, a piece built on sonorities and chant which has become a cult classic in the choral field. For this piece, Dr. Sametz moved the chorus to the back of the chancel, taking advantage of the high ceilings. Although this performance lacked a real soaring height on the text Sancta Maria, a quick tempo and the precision of the singers enabled the audience to hear the inner parts, which one does not always hear in other performances.

The Princeton Singers considers itself a “singing family,” and throughout its twenty-five year history, the chorus has retained its alumnae in the “family.” Some of them joined The Singers for three C.V. Stanford Victorian chestnuts, chosen as a tribute to John Bertalot’s expertise in this musical period. In these three short pieces, Dr. Sametz created a nice give and take with the phrases, and with the additional alums, the singers were able to sing out. Beati quorum via in particular showed a light soprano sound and a nice flow to the piece.

Dr. Sametz closed the concert with three of his own pieces, one of which was commissioned by the chorus. His arrangement of Shenandoah, as well as his settings of The Wind-hover and I Have Had Singing demonstrated that he writes well for his own ensemble, depicting words well, such as the “rolling” of the Shenandoah and the falcon’s soaring flight in The Windhover.

The Princeton Singers began twenty-five years ago almost as a thought over a dinner table. Since that time, the ensemble became a model for choruses nationwide and has represented the community well in its national and international tours. It was clear that the chorus also enjoyed celebrating its own history and accomplishments and looks forward to more years of the same.

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