Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 27
Wednesday, July 8, 2009
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Choir of Royal Holloway and Organ Soloists Showcase England’s Rich Choral Tradition

Nancy Plum

Visiting musical ensembles, especially from overseas, can be a real inspiration to the local organizations. Musicians can learn new repertoire and hear the performance nuances of different musical traditions. From time to time, these gems drop into the laps of a community, and such was the case last Tuesday night when the Choir of Royal Holloway performed at the Princeton University Chapel. Part of the University of London, Royal Holloway has maintained a Chapel Choir since its founding in 1886. The twenty-two Choral Scholars of the school, along with three organ scholars, were at the start of a tour of the United States (with some prestigious stops, including a residency at Washington’s National Cathedral) when they presented a short but sweet program at the University Chapel. Conductor Rupert Gough took the audience on a brief retrospective of English choral music with the concert, beginning with the master of English Renaissance choral music, William Byrd. The Royal Holloway Choir was clearly used to the acoustics of a cavernous hall, especially the decay which confounds many choral ensembles singing in the University Chapel. The Choir sang with a full sound which could really ring in the Chapel. Individual voices occasionally came out of the texture; these were voices which later proved to have good soloistic capabilities. Byrd’s “Cibavit Eos” showed some especially good tuning in sections with paired voices, and Mr. Gough imaginatively changed the vocal texture with the use of solo voices in the middle section. Choral discipline is a hallmark of the English musical tradition, and this was quite evident in the ensemble’s performance of Henry Purcell’s “Hear my Prayer”. Although the alto sectional sound got a bit lost at times in the choral fabric, the singers took great care with diction and cadences. Purcell’s music contains many tuning shifts marking a period of history lurching toward the Baroque era, and Royal Holloway handled these shifts well.

Two of the organ scholars were able to give the choir a break from time to time with performances on the Chapel organ of two refreshing organ works. Alexander Norman achieved some good 17th century effects on the organ with clear registration and articulation in J.S. Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in G major, as well as clean and rhythmic pedal playing. William Baldry took the organ into the 19th century with a movement from Felix Mendelssohn’s Sonata in B flat, bringing out the lower register capabilities of the instrument.

Mendelssohn was also well represented by the chorus with an effective performance of “Hear my Prayer featuring a very light and clean soprano sound from Nadia Lipski. The Choir of Royal Holloway has allied itself with a contemporary American composer, always profitable from both sides. New York composer Carson Cooman has an extensive catalogue of varied works and has had a number of works recorded, including by Royal Holloway. His choral music seems to move in block chords with palettes of sound. Royal Holloway performed two of his works on Tuesday night, maintaining dissonances well in “The way, the truth, the life and excerpting one of Cooman’s oratorios to perform the chordal “Eternitie”.

Royal Holloway also has a strong connection with contemporary composers from Latvia, performing music of Rihards Dubra and Eriks Esenvalds. Dubra’s “Ave Maria” was more chordal and tonal than music of other contemporary Baltic composers, and the chorus conveyed the relatively simple harmonies and soaring lines well. One of the most interesting works on the program was the encore, Esenvalds’ arrangement of “Amazing Grace”. This arrangement was laden with Celtic and spatial vocal effects one would not expect from a Latvian composer on a very American tune, and mezzo-soprano Aimee Iggulden brought a refreshing quality to the solo with a voice with just the right amount of folk quality.

Britain has a tremendous and long tradition in choral music, often with multiple choirs in each community and each chorus more precise than the one next door. The Choir of Royal Holloway is certainly, to the American audiences at least, yet another of the unknown performance treasures from overseas.

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