Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 42
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
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(R)evolutions: Musical Change, Evolution in Opening Princeton Singers Concert

Nancy Plum

The Princeton Singers presented its first local concert of the 2009-2010 season on Friday night at Trinity Church in Princeton. Subtitled “(R)evolutions,” this program of eleven choral pieces sung by the 17-voice professional ensemble focused on works representing musical change and how music evolved to that point.

Artistic Director Steven Sametz clearly likes to educate as well as entertain his audiences, and preceded the first two Bach pieces on the program with extensive explanation of themes, motives, etc. The opening J.S. Bach chorale, “Wie sich ein Vat’r ebarmet” served as a good vocal warm-up to the concert (as well as a good introduction to the Bach motet which followed) and gave the ensemble a chance to adjust to the acoustics of the church. Trinity Church is a good hall for ensembles such as the Princeton Singers; the vocalists do not have to sing too hard to get a musical point across. The choral sound became more blended as the chorale progressed, and once the ensemble began Bach’s motet “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied,” the singers were ready to settle into the meat of the concert.

The first movement of this three-part motet was hampered a bit by Sametz’s overdoing of the phrasing, creating a slightly disjunct sound which smoothed out once the singers were able to sing more freely. The movement started cooking toward its end, and the first part of the motet cadenced well, aided by the sensitive singing of basses William Walker and Stephen Caldwell.

Princeton Singers next Princeton concert will take place Saturday, December 12, at Nassau Presbyterian Church. The program, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” continues the Singers’ annual holiday tradition. For information call (609) 896-0374.

The members of the Princeton Singers are extremely conscientious choral artists, as evidenced by the clean vocal melismas in the last part of the motet. Mr. Sametz wisely allowed the dynamic level to build before the sopranos took aim on the high B flat which helped bring the motet to a solid close.

As difficult as the Bach motet may have been, it was merely a warm-up to the most difficult work on the program: Arnold Schoenberg’s a cappella “Friede auf Erden.” Schoen-berg composed this work in 1907, just as he was beginning to revolutionize harmony with atonalism, using avant-garde compositional techniques to depict mankind’s struggle to overcome war throughout history. The Singers moved to the back of Trinity’s chancel for this work, as well as its introductory piece, Josef Rheinberger’s “Abendlied.” The Singers began the Schoenberg with the same full sound as the Rheinberger, but then the piece took off in a new harmonic direction. From the back of the chancel, the chorus was able to explore a wide dynamic range, and the ensemble handled the intricacies of this very difficult piece extremely well.

After such a difficult first half, Princeton Singers could easily have been forgiven for resting on its laurels in the second half of the concert, but the ensemble was not quite done with “revolution” yet. Two lush pieces, Vaughan Williams’ “God Be with You Till We Meet Again” (conducted by guest conductor economist Jerry Goodman) and C.V. Stanford’s “Beati quorum via” (always sung well by this ensemble) served to build up stamina for the work to come. Edward T. Cone’s “In the Last Days” was composed in 1957 but was heard for the first time on Friday night. Beginning with a rhythmic and jazzy effect from the piano (solidly played by Jeffrey Farrington), this piece showed good accessibility and interesting style. The Singers demonstrated precise diction and clean melismas when required, such as on the word “exalted.”

Mr. Sametz closed the concert with several of his own works, which the ensemble always performs well and a standard Princeton Singers “gumdrop” — Mr. Sametz’s own arrangement of “Shenandoah.”

With only seventeen singers in the chorus, singing in the Princeton Singers requires the greatest of concentration and musical focus. When the ensemble splits into two choruses, such as in the Bach motet, the sections could easily be down to two on a part. Mr. Sametz has compiled an ensemble of vocal artists who are both able to hold their own and be sensitive to their fellow choral artists as they journey through some very difficult repertoire.

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