Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 47
Wednesday, November 24, 2010
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Princeton University Choral Director Unveils New Chamber Choir Sound

Nancy Plum

Somehow in the grand celebrations of new conductors for the New Jersey Symphony and the Princeton Symphony Orchestras, another new musical face slipped onto Princeton University’s campus. After a year-long search, English choir trainer Gabriel Crouch became Director of Choral Activities at the University in September, responsible for the Glee Club and the Chamber Choir, as well as teaching conducting. On Sunday afternoon, Mr. Crouch led the University Chamber Choir in its first performance of the year in Richardson Auditorium. Although there were only eight works on the program (one of which was a set of six smaller pieces), these works on a French theme demonstrated Mr. Crouch’s commitment to choral precision, uniformity of vowels, and conveyance of the text.

In these days when the English world is aflutter about Prince William’s engagement, it was ironic to note that Gabriel Crouch achieved the worldwide stage as a treble boy soloist for the wedding of William’s uncle, Prince Andrew. More than a connection with royalty, Mr. Crouch’s membership in the choir of Westminster Abbey ensured his solid vocal background and exposure to high quality choral music from an early age. Also key to Mr. Crouch’s credentials as a choral director were his eight years as a member of the King’s Singers, an ensemble whose success relied heavily on precision, vocal agility, and the ability to perform independently. Sunday afternoon’s program made it clear that Mr. Crouch expects nothing less than the same from the members of his choral ensembles.

The Chamber Choir concert was subtitled “Chanson Françaises” and included music by French composers or on French texts. The concert moved chronologically (although skipping much of the 17th and 18th centuries) and the nineteen members of the Chamber Choir changed formation as necessary to effectively convey the French harmonies and textures.

Mr. Crouch has structured the Chamber Choir with a heavy emphasis on the inner alto and tenor voices, with four sopranos topping off the sound with just a shade of vibrato and four basses providing a solid foundation to the tone

Fifteenth century composer Jean Mouton’s Nesciens Mater, with choral writing that almost never stopped, was a brave piece to start with, but the Choir maintained an imaginative ebb and flow in dynamics. The tuning abilities of this year’s Chamber Choir were evident on the last chord, for which Mr. Crouch allowed plenty of time to settle.

Claude le Jeune’s virtuoso madrigal Revecy venir du Printans is one of the more intricate pieces in 16th century choral repertoire, with alternating verses and refrains. Mr. Crouch assigned the verses to varying combinations of singers, showing off some very solid solo voices within the chorus. Soprano Katherine Buzard sang in the first verse and showed a strong voice with a great deal of color. The strongest combination of singers was in the third verse, with Katherine Harwood within a quartet of equally solid singers.

The Chamber Choir presented three pieces by 16th century composer Orlandus Lassus, who wrote works in three spoken languages as well as Latin. Bonjour mon coeur showed exceptional tuning and perfect vocal balance from the beginning, with well-unified vowels. This short piece was a study in well-blended sound, and the smooth texture continued into Lassus’ Magnificat Praeter rerum seriem, the one piece on the program that was not in French.

The Magnificat was structured in alternating chant and polyphonic verses, and Mr. Crouch sent altos Ms. Harwood and Dina Murokh to a balcony to provide ethereal chant singing. The remaining chorus onstage sang cleanly, as word accents were passed among sections. Lassus and Mr. Crouch together took a unique approach to the text “Esurientes implevit bonis, et divites dimisit inanes” (“He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he hath sent empty away”), singing unusually softly for such a dramatic text. The Chamber Choir also made a quick and effective shift to the change in texture on the text “saecula saeculorum, Amen” (“world without end”).

Mr. Crouch devoted the second half of the program to music of the 20th century, in particular the French choral masters Maurice Durufle, Olivier Messiaen, and Francis Poulenc. These three composers stretched harmonies and introduced new vocal colors into their works. Messiaen’s O sacrum convivium was the most far-reaching of the three pieces, with a homophonic declamation of text in intense harmonies and shifts in colors. The second repetition of the text was especially well blended.

The six selections of Poulenc’s Huit Chanson Françaises presented the Chamber Choir in both male and female ensembles, continuing to show a well unified choral sound. Soprano Tara Ohrtman sang a particularly elegant solo in the fifth selection, “Ah! Mon beau laboureur.”

The Princeton University choral ensembles have been strong for a number of years, but Mr. Crouch’s leadership gives them a somewhat new vocal tone, with lightness in the outer voices and meat in the middle. This first concert was certainly a challenging start to the year, with signs of good things to come.

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