Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 2
 
Wednesday, January 13, 2010
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Music/Theater

Princeton University Presents Gala Handel Concert of Competition Winners

Nancy Plum

The Princeton University Music Department opened the new year in celebratory fashion this past weekend with a concert of Handel vocal and chamber music featuring winners of the 2009 University Vocal Competition. In a showcase of mostly Handel arias, the audience in Richardson Auditorium on Saturday night had the opportunity to hear six of the University’s finest singers, some of whom will surely go on to careers in music.

The six singers featured were mostly seniors, as might be expected, with the youngest a sophomore. All voice parts were included, but with a nod to authentic Handel performance practice, the mezzo-soprano range was represented by a counter-tenor. For this performance, Princeton University Orchestra conductor Michael Pratt compiled a chamber orchestra of strings, continuo harpsichord, and a pair of oboes. Not only were the singers and the music a pleasure to listen to, but members of the audience no doubt learned a few new arias with which they had not previously been acquainted.

Soprano Alexis Rodda opened the program with one of Handel’s most familiar arias — “Rejoice greatly O daughter of Zion” from his oratorio Messiah. The aria itself is full of sparkle and lightness, and Ms. Rodda added to this character with depth of voice and clarity in the coloratura passages. Accompanied by the strings, Ms. Rodda demonstrated very legato singing in the “B” section, as well as crisp double-dotted rhythms. Messiah was also represented by bass-baritone Robert Olson, who sang “But who may abide the day of His coming?” with well-handled runs and a nice rich baritone sound. This aria switches back and forth between dramatic and coloratura qualities and Mr. Olson showed that he was very comfortable onstage with both aspects of the music, providing an especially stylish cadenza to close the aria.

The youngest member of the sextet, sophomore Matthew Prast, chose one of Handel’s deeper arias in “total eclipse” from the dramatic Samson. It was a brave choice to sing an aria made famous by the world’s renowned tenors, but Mr. Prast gave a good a cappella opening to the text and a lyrical sound to the music. A member of a boychoir and a musical theater performer in his youth, Mr. Prast is clearly at ease on the stage and possesses solid vocal technique. Judging from the audience reaction to his aria, he is also a popular member of the Music Department.

Princeton University’s voice teachers clearly do not shy away from teaching the male alto voice; Edward Newton and Anthony Roth Costanzo (currently having a very successful career as a counter-tenor) are former Princeton students who have been able to explore the male alto repertoire while at the University. Singing “Va tacito e nascosto,” Eric Schlossberg demonstrated a very nice upper register which did not sound forced, as well as an ability to ornament well and add effective cadenzas at ends of the sections of music. Oboist Emily Kirkegard provided especially graceful solo playing with the accompanying chamber orchestra.

Seniors and sopranos Maya Srinivasan and Brenda Jin have been singing solos with the University choral ensembles throughout their collegiate career, and both now indicate plans to pursue graduate study in music. Ms. Srinivasan performed an aria from Alcina which showed that her voice could move quickly over long lines with ornaments. Especially impressive was the exactness with which she sang with the orchestra in vocal lines which skipped up and down through scales. Ms. Srinivasan joined Mr. Schlossberg for a duet from Giulio Cesare at the end of the concert, and further demonstrated that the music of Handel is perfectly suited for her voice, appealingly milking her upper register and singing with a great deal of elegance and lilt.

Brenda Jin is planning to “pursue either a master’s degree in vocal performance or a Ph.D. in musicology,” and one can only hope that someone does not lock this engaging performer away in a library with a bunch of dusty books. Ms. Jin brought vivacity and sauciness to “Myself I shall adore” (from Semele), an aria with text that could be interpreted as arrogant were not this singer so completely animated. She found significant irony in an aria reminding the audience of Narcissus and clearly enjoyed herself through the echo effects with the orchestra and a commanding cadenza to close the aria. Most of the aria’s music seems to rest on the word “gazing,” and Ms. Jin easily handled the runs on what can be a very difficult vowel to sing.

Mr. Pratt also included a refined and polished concerto grosso in the concert, but Saturday night’s program was about the singers. Providing University students with a vocal competition and subsequent performance prize has enabled the music department to continue building a depth of performance opportunities and yet another way students can raise their own levels of musicianship.

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