Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 22
 
Wednesday, June 3, 2009
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Music/Theater

Princeton Girlchoir Celebrates 20 Years, Honors Founder in Gala at War Memorial

Nancy Plum

The Princeton Girlchoir closed a chapter in its history Saturday evening with a gala entitled “Celebrate the Journey,” commemorating both the 20th anniversary of the ensemble and the retirement of its founding director, Janet A. Westrick. For events such as these, the Girlchoir has outgrown Richardson Auditorium, and this year’s gala concert was held in the Patriot’s Theatre of the Trenton War Memorial. The celebratory performance featured all of the choirs of the Girlchoir organization, as well as a newly-commissioned piece in honor of Ms. Westrick.

When Ms. Westrick conceived of a community girls’ choir twenty years ago, she admittedly had no idea that it would turn into an organization which would musically train more than 600 girls and young women during that time period. The true sign of the Girlchoir’s strength is in the number of choristers in its two youngest choirs, the Grace Notes and the Semi-Tones, both conducted by Melissa Malvar-Keylock. The more than forty members of the Grace Notes are the youngest of the Girlchoir and are clearly learning the discipline of music and stage deportment. Ms. Malvar-Keylock selected three pieces which demonstrated how hard the young girls had been working on purity of vowels and line. “Bist du bei mir,” practically required singing for beginning children’s choirs, showed clean words and a good focus on the conductor from the young girls. This choir was able to break into two parts in a later piece, with both parts holding their own and a nice clean “Alleluia” to close the piece.

The slightly older Semi-Tones, numbering more than sixty, demonstrated very clean thirds in Handel’s two-part “Sound the Trumpet.” Ms. Malvar-Keylock erred on the side of precision with this ensemble, obviously drilling these girls well in cut-offs and rhythms. She selected C. Hubert Parry’s “Jerusalem” as her second piece with the Semi-Tones; even though this piece is more traditionally associated with boys’ voice, it is a great tune with a great poem, and the Semi-Tones were able to change their vocal style to one more decisive. The third piece from this intermediate choir, a choral setting of a Turkish “Chindia” dance, is the kind of rhythmic folk arrangement with rapid-fire text and musical passages which came about in the 1990s and which children’s choirs devour. In this case the arrangement was a bit ragged in the middle section, but the singers knew their rhythms well, aided by the very capable and sensitive piano accompaniment of Jo-Ann Sciarrotta.

The elite chorus of the Princeton Girlchoir organization is the PGC Ensemble, a group of eighteen singers selected from the Concert Choir and conducted by Ms. Westrick. With Ms. Westrick at the piano (aided by Paul Caldwell on the drum and flutist Katherine McClure), the PGC Ensemble presented two songs that demonstrated its ability to sing independently. In Karl Jenkins’ arrangement of “Adiemus,” the piano and drum could provide some percussive drive, but with no conductor in front the singers had to do most of the work themselves, holding together well a piece with complex writing and a great many solos. This formation may have left the singers a bit vocally exposed, but created a great focus on the girls themselves.

It seemed as though an electric shock went through the audience when Cantores, the alumnae chorus of the Girlchoir, took the stage. Conductor Raegen Ruiz chose the most traditionally classical repertoire of the evening, immediately demonstrating a solid and projecting sound which carried well in the hall and some voices with real color to their sound. Stephan Hatfield’s arrangement of the polyrhythmic “Las Amarillas” was another exacting piece showing the best tuning of the evening.

The second half of the concert was devoted mostly to the Concert Choir, the premiere ensemble of the Girlchoir, and to the music of Paul Caldwell, known in the Princeton area through his years as director of The American Boychoir’s summer Camp Albemarle program. Led by Ms. Westrick, the Concert Choir showed its ability to split into as many as three parts with a clean blend, and several girls sang some nice solos in the five pieces sung by the Choir. Mr. Caldwell led the combined choirs of the Girlchoir in two of his own arrangements, both of which are getting a great deal of attention on the children’s choir circuit. Mr. Caldwell is an unconventional conductor, and derives his performance results through his own inner energy and his interaction with the children in the choirs.

As an arranger, Mr. Caldwell is fond of “combination pieces,” works which combine two melodies. In the case of “Hope for Resolution,” he and his collaborator Sean Ivory combined the traditional Episcopal Christmas chant “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” with an indigenous anti-apartheid South African song to demonstrate diversity, both social and musical. With the chant tune assigned to the younger voices and the South African song to the older singers, Mr. Caldwell was able to combine these choirs well. His “Glory on the Journey,” commissioned for this occasion by the Girlchoir and conducted by Ms. Westrick, was conceived to “celebrate the nature of choral music and what happens when you make music in a community for as long as Ms. Westrick has made music in this community.” With this piece and the traditional closing 9th grade song to Ms. Westrick and joint singing of John Rutter’s choral benediction, The Girlchoir was able to close the “Westrick Years” of its history, looking forward to next season’s beginning of the “Jenkins Years” as Lynnel Joy Jenkins takes the helm. Judging by the reaction of the girls to Ms. Westrick and the evening as a whole, the Princeton Girlchoir had a great deal to celebrate indeed.

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