Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 42
Wednesday, October 20, 2010
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At University Art Museum, Princeton Singers Provide Medieval Musical Experience

Nancy Plum

Princeton Singers seems right at home in the Princeton University Art Museum. Even though the intimate space in which the chamber ensemble performs is only big enough for 25-30 people (amidst the medieval marble statues, glass cases, and icons), the 20 or so singers have become accustomed to the space to make the most of the repertoire which is so inherent to the Singers’ mission. This past weekend gave the Singers the opportunity to return to the Art Museum to perform “A Medieval Garden,” a concise but in no way easy concert of music ranging from the 15th to the 20th centuries. And although the music seemed like a great deal of work for 75 to 100 people (Saturday late afternoon’s performance was repeated Saturday night and Sunday), it was rewarding nonetheless to the audience who attended to hear well-tuned singing in a difficult repertoire.

Advent is not far away, and conductor Steven Sametz began the late Saturday afternoon program with an anthem based on a Marian antiphon by a very early contrapuntal composer. The music of 15th century composer Johannes Ockeghem was just beginning to move into the complex four-part choral writing we know today, and he certainly influenced, if not taught directly, some of the more significant composers of the 16th century.

Ockeghem’s Alma Redemptoris Mater begins with canonic entries among the four voices, with the Princeton Singers’ soprano section starting the piece with a very straight and pure sound. A surprisingly full bass sound provided an underpinning to the anthem. The sopranos and altos (aided by counter-tenor Brian Ramsey) produced an especially nice blend on the word “Virgo,” and the ensemble sound gelled quickly as the piece progressed.

Princeton Singers will present their next concert on Saturday, December 4 at 6 p.m. “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” is an annual holiday concert. For information call 866-846-SING or visit

The Princeton Singers moved through the performance chronologically, presenting next the homage to Ockeghem composed by his student Josquin des Prez. Written around a single line of chant, Deploration sur la mort d’Ockeghem was in a dark minor key that sat well with the ensemble. The members of the chorus did not have to work hard to sing in this space, and the ensemble kept the energy moving well through the piece. The tenors in particular settled on a clean homophonic sound.

The full Josquin mass Missa Pange Lingua was one of the centerpieces of this intermission free concert. Princeton Singers began this piece with the chant on which it is based cleanly sung by the women (who likely did not sing chant at the time this mass was composed). A three-part alto/tenor/bass verse was particularly well sung with Mr. Ramsey and Marcio de Oliveira moving up to the alto part. The characteristic Josquin voice parings were well presented by the chorus, with the sopranos especially graceful in the “Gloria.” The individual members of the Princeton Singers are all very independent performers, and were able to hold their own while keeping their ears out for their fellow singers in a mixed formation. Two vocal quartets effectively varied the texture of the mass. Soprano Kathleen Young, alto Brian Ramsey, tenor Christopher Hodson and bass Stephen Caldwell, presented the “Qui tollis peccata mundi” text with a well-contained ensemble sound, and Mr. Ramsey and Mr. Hodson were joined by soprano Michelle Zuckerman and bass Les Anders for a portion of the “Sanctus.” Mr. Anders and Mr. Hodson sang the Benedictus duet with sensitivity and warmth. One additional singer who stood out in both ensemble and individual singing was Mr. de Oliveira, equally at home in both the tenor and alto registers.

Dr. Sametz quickly jumped across centuries in the last two works of the program to present one of his own compositions and a piece by 20th century French composer Olivier Messiaen. The performance of Sametz’s Mein to tere paas me was a sneak peak at a work which will be premiered next March at a national choral convention by the renowned San Francisco Chanticleer (the writing of the piece was a result of a very prestigious commission). This one-movement piece fit in well with the concert’s focus on Renaissance and Medieval themes, as well as the Islamic art in the museum space.

Sametz’s piece allowed the performers to sing much more freely than the early Renaissance pieces already presented, and intricate vocal effects and percussive consonants added to the complexity of the work. Dr. Sametz built dynamic crescendi well, adding overtones to the harmonic texture and a good flow to the performance. This type of piece, with complex vocal writing, unusual text and composite rhythms, is very popular at choral conventions, and following its formal premiere in March, will add one more jewel to the Princeton Singers crown.

Dr. Sametz closed the concert with two selections from the equally as difficult Cinq Rechants of Olivier Messiaen, which also mixed languages and cultural textures. Dr. Sametz certainly did not allow his singers to slack off by programming these pieces at the end of the concert, but the members of the Princeton Singers proved that they could give it their all up to the last note. Equally as amazing, following a brief reception, the ensemble did the whole concert again to a different (but likely equally as appreciative) audience.

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