Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 26
Wednesday, June 30, 2010
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The Princeton Festival’s Choral Workshop Ends With Concert in University Chapel

Nancy Plum

A hot night in a chapel with no air-conditioning, the site of Princeton Festival’s latest offering, was certainly a long way from the cool comfort of McCarter Theatre, the venue for the Festival’s opening operas. However, even the heat could not diminish the work done by the participants in Princeton Festival’s choral workshop, a week-long musical experience culminating in Saturday night’s performance in the Princeton University Chapel. The thirty-six members of the Princeton Festival Chorus spent the week honing their choral skills on the music of Johannes Brahms and Felix Mendelssohn with master conductor Robert Porco, Director of Choruses for the Cleveland Orchestra. For this Festival Workshop performance, Mr. Porco selected some of the “greatest hits” of Brahms and Mendelssohn, interspersed with organ music to smooth over staging changes.

The Festival Chorus opened the concert with Brahms’ most memorable choral piece, “How Lovely is They Dwelling Place,” from the composer’s 1868 German Requiem. The full sound of the chorus carried well in the acoustics of the chapel, with a well-blended sonority that made the thirty-six-voice ensemble sound like more. It was evident that Mr. Porco had focused much of the workshop week’s attention on precision in the German diction.

The two Brahms works which followed built in dramatic intensity. Geistliches Lied is a difficult piece for chorus, with its shifts in mood and short dramatic phrases. The chorus executed the phrasing well, with an especially nice hairpin to close the piece. Schicksalslied is also one of Brahms’ most well-known choral pieces, usually performed with orchestra to display the lushness of Brahms’ orchestration. Princeton University Chapel organist Eric Plutz translated the orchestration well to the four-manual organ, opening up the swell boxes of the instrument to emphasize the “Song of Destiny” text. With the chorus, Mr. Porco emphasized uniformity of vowels, deriving a full rich sound from the ensemble.

A chamber chorus from the ensemble moved to the rear balcony of the chapel for three of Brahms’ Fünf Gesänge, Op. 104, conducted by Assistant Conductor Carolina Gamboa-Hoyos. The precise sound of the chamber chorus carried well from the back of the hall, with an especially smooth sound from the men. Ms. Gamboa-Hoyos was a decisive conductor, getting a clean sound from the chorus and enabling the dissonance of the three pieces to speak well. She moved the pieces along, pulling the long lines of the third “song” through very clean chromaticism, with a pure soprano line over the top of the phrase and solid tuning throughout.

While the chorus was shifting in the hall, Mr. Plutz played solo works on the organ, featuring Mendelssohn’s Sonata in F Minor, Opus 65. The Princeton University Chapel Organ was refurbished in 1991 to restore its 19th century capabilities, and Mr. Plutz was able to find all the Mendelssohn nuances in the registration and use the instrument to its fullest potential, especially from the pedal manual. The fourth movement allegro was particularly characteristic of Mendelssohn in its melodic energy and musical liveliness.

The principal Mendelssohn choral work on the program was rooted in the composer’s orchestral practice; Verleih’ uns Frieden dates from 1831 and is scored for chorus and orchestra. One of Mendelssohn’s great choral gems, the piece began Saturday night with a well-unified men’s sound. Mr. Porco brought out the opening theme in each vocal part, keeping the other parts in the background when necessary. Mr. Porco kept the four Mendelssohn pieces joined together, taking the first chorus directly into three selections from the composer’s oratorio Elijah. The women in particular sang with a rich 19th century color throughout these three selections. “He, Watching over Israel” is always difficult to keep with the triplets from the keyboard, but Mr. Porco maintained a nice flow to the piece. The Festival Chorus closed the concert with Elijah’s final chorus, the dynamic and spirited “And Then Shall the Light Break Forth.”

Throughout this week-long Princeton Festival educational initiative, the thirty-six participants had the opportunity to work with a well-established national choral director, as well as do some conducting themselves in a workshop setting. The pieces on Saturday night’s program may have been standard choral repertory to the participants, but they were the kind of pieces which could impart new choral ideas and nuances which the singers could then take back to their own musical communities.

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