Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXV, No. 11
Wednesday, March 16, 2011
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Pro Musica and Raven Chorus Collaborate To Present Two Settings of the Requiem

Nancy Plum

In a night of lush and Romantic choral music, Princeton Pro Musica presented their late winter concert this past weekend in the Princeton University Chapel. The performance Saturday night by the more than 100-voice chorus featured two diverse settings of the Requiem text by composers whose music was infused by their homelands and the tumultuous decades in which they lived.

As with many Pro Musica concerts, this performance was an educational collaboration. The Robbinsville High School Raven Chorus, led by David Westawski, opened the concert with a short Latin sacred choral piece and joined Pro Musica in a work of Gabriel Faure which set the evening’s mood of French impressionism.

Blake Henson’s arrangement of “O Vos Omnes” sets the text of the Holy Week responsory in a dark, minor key, which worked well in the vast chapel acoustics. The Raven Chorus demonstrated nicely tapered phrases and a well-blended sound. The chorus had an impressive bass section, and the soprano sound was like a thin layer of ice over the rest of the ensemble.

Princeton Pro Musica will present its closing concert of the 2010-11 season on Sunday, May 22 at 3 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium. Featured in this concert will be Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “A Sea Symphony.” For information call the Richardson box office at (609) 258-5000 or visit Pro Musica online at

The Raven Chorus was joined by the 18-member Pro Musica Chamber Chorus for one of the great choral gems of the mid-19th century. Gabriel Faure composed his one movement Cantique de Jean Racine when he was just 19, which immediately bonded the piece to the Raven Chorus. Conducted by Mr. Westawski, this performance of Cantique was accompanied by organ and harp, one of the numerous scorings for this piece. Organist Eric Plutz (University Organist at Princeton) maintained a warm registration to match the lyrical flow of the harp, played by Barbara Biggers. The combined choruses produced a rich tone, with the basses of Pro Musica reinforcing the younger voices of the Raven Chorus. The tenor sound was surprisingly light and clear, and the high school singers showed notable uniformity of vowels. Besides creating a consistent performance, the collaboration between Pro Musica and the Raven Chorus was no doubt an educational experience for both sides.

The full-strength Pro Musica turned its attention next to two settings of the Requiem text, each displaying tranquility and calm in a different way. The texts of the Mass for the Dead have been set by composers for centuries, with varied combinations and sequences of the verses. Not all composers use all portions of the text, and Maurice Durufle and Alfred Schnittke each set different sections of the mass, with some passages of overlap.

Durufle composed his setting of the Requiem text in 1947, instilling into the music his love of Gregorian chant and the expansive capabilities of the organ, as well as the receding shadows of World War II. Although the University Chapel is a tough space for large choruses, Pro Musica huddled in the Chancel area as conductor Frances Fowler Slade, fresh from a broken ankle incident, gamely settled in on the podium. Whatever logistical difficulties there may have been did not affect the unfolding of the mass. Block chordal sounds work best in the sonorous acoustics of the chapel, and Pro Musica had no trouble producing a wall of sound when necessary. The chorus came to its fullest in the “Domine Jesu Christe” section, with effective swells in the melodic line. Duets between the sopranos and altos, and sopranos and tenors were pure, and the chant which wove through the work was sung with direction and sensitivity. The two soloists for the piece, baritone Marcus Jordan and mezzo-soprano Emily Adams sang with feeling and voices which carried well in the hall.

Alfred Schnittke’s setting of the Requiem was composed in 1975, in the dark undercover atmosphere of classical music in mid-20th century Russia. Opening chimes marked the work as distinctly Russian, and the work proved to be a piece of effects, with a number of different choral styles and instrumentation. The movements were short, and Pro Musica handled well the stylistic changes. A number of soloists stepped forward and sang well, including sopranos Mary Trigg, Jenni Collins, and Lisa Wildman; and tenor Jeff Manns. A real star for the evening was mezzo-soprano Jocelyn McGillian, who sang in two movements with an incredibly rich lower register which resonated through the chapel.

Although large chorus sound can be difficult to control in the University Chapel (the most integrated sound tended to be in the back half of the chapel), these two works belonged in a setting like the University Chapel and were made-to-order for an ensemble such as Pro Musica.

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