Princeton Pro Musica Celebrates 25th Anniversary Season With Bernstein's 'Chichester Psalms,' Orff's 'Carmina Burana'
Princeton Pro Musica's 25th Anniversary season was built around familiarity: a number of standard masterpieces have been performed this year to celebrate this significant milestone for the 70-voice chorus. Sunday afternoon's season-closing concert in Richardson Auditorium was no exception. Conductor Frances Fowler Slade chose two classics from the choral repertoire, performing with two collaborating ensembles, to end the year with a little flash and color.
Leonard Bernstein's Chichester Psalms contrasts text and musical styles, such as juxtaposing the pastoral words of the 23rd Psalm with "Why do the nations so furiously rage together," text of Psalm 2. In this performance, the block sound of the choral ensemble was relatively solid, although the men (and certainly the tenors) were at times drowned out by the percussion on their side. The women presented a well-blended and clean sound, but the usual Pro Musica precision was missing from the men's sections in this concert. Individual voices could be heard, and the tenor and bass sections as a whole were not as musically cohesive as they could have been.
Bernstein scored the declamation of the 23rd Psalm for boy soprano, which Ms. Slade assigned to the Covenant Singers of the Trenton Children's Chorus, prepared by Sue Ellen Page. These choristers provided a unified sound with good phrasing of the text, as Ms. Slade drew out the ebb and flow of the tune as if savoring the familiarity of Bernstein's melodies.
Four soloists drawn from the chorus, sopranos Carol Ann Blank and Lynn Keefer, tenor Gary Gregg, and bass Michael Beetham, effectively conveyed the tranquil text closing the first movement. Solid instrumental accompaniment was provided by organist Stephen Karr and harpist André Tarantiles, who was especially able to time the percussive effects of the harp exactly with the organ.
Carl Orff's Carmina Burana is very familiar to Pro Musica audiences. The ensemble has programmed the work every five years or so, sometimes with dance, as it was performed on Sunday. Orff set much of the somewhat randy verses of the 13th century anonymous Latin text in three musical strophes, and the trick is to find variety within these repetitions. Ms. Slade chose to find variety with tempi, an effect that was well suited to the dancers of the Reverence Dance Company and Creation Compagnie D.
Although the men's sections were plagued with the same imprecise entrances as in the Bernstein, the women's sections were solid in their choral duets. Not all of the numbers were choreographed, but those that were added a colorful visual element to the performance. The chorus was accompanied by two pianos, expertly played by Stephen Karr and Robert Ridgell, as well as percussionists James Neglia, Phyllis Bitow, Adrienne Ostrander, Wayne Church and William Trigg.
The baritone role in this piece seems at times as if it should be performed by two singers-one with a high falsetto register and another with the low bass sounds required. In the case of the poem Dies, Nox et Omnia, these effects are required in the same vocal number. Baritone Weston Hurt was impressively solid in all of the solos, displaying the operatic fire necessary as well as a very light falsetto when required. His finessed ending to the vicious Estuans interius was a particularly effective rendering of a challenging musical passage.
The tenor role is also considered a demanding, although small, role in the repertory, with quirky vocal effects required to portray a hapless goose being roasted for dinner. Gregory Mercer's command of the difficult register was rock-solid, and he easily manipulated the intricate line. The accompanying dance for this number was comedic (although not necessarily matched with this text), and set up well the tavern numbers that followed.
Of the three soloists, the soprano may have the hardest role of all, drawing the piece together for a two-line pinnacle on a vocal line stretching up to and above high C. Danielle Munsell Howard performed her short solos with sparkle and lightness, and was well on her way to the high D in the most sublime part of the work when a cell phone went off in the balcony (Richardson staff have my permission to confiscate cell phones upon entry to the hall). Needless to say, it was difficult to hear this key part of the work, and Ms. Howard looked justifiably not amused when she sat down.
Ms. Slade brought the two choruses, soloists (who were refreshing newcomers to the Richardson stage), and dance companies together for this final concert as a celebration of Princeton Pro Musica and the community. Although the ensemble sound may not have been perfect, it is clear that the chorus has a solid place in bringing choral masterpieces to Princeton audiences.