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Princeton Pro Musica Opens Its Season With Uneven, Well-Intentioned Concert

Nancy Plum

Princeton Pro Musica opened its 2004-2005 season this past weekend in Richardson Auditorium with some great ideas and some bad choices. Music Director Frances Fowler Slade cleverly invited two youth choirs, the West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North Concert Choir and the Trenton Children's Chorus High School Division, to join her opening concert (a good audience-builder) for a piece with broad appeal, but some unfortunate choices were made in the cornerstone work of the concert: Mozart's Mass in C minor.

This mass is the kind of piece Pro Musica should do best. Full of rich choral writing, this incomplete work shows off the chorus' well blended sound and offers the ensemble the opportunity to demonstrate crisp precision in fugues and entrances. When composed in 1783, this mass went against the traditional Austrian sacred vein because of its virtuoso solos and elaborate fugues. The solos, especially those for the two sopranos, are part of what makes this piece a link between the structure-oriented Baroque and the drama-driven Beethoven of the early 19th century, and it was these same solos that were Pro Musica's downfall in their presentation of this work.

Mozart must have had a love-hate relationship with sopranos. He married one, and in his operas, no one has music of such great beauty and such devilish technical requirements as the soprano. The soprano solos in Mozart's Mass in C minor show signs of his Queen of the Night period, when he either had unbelievable sopranos as his disposal or was exacting his vengeance on every soprano who had done him wrong by writing solos covering two octaves in range.

For this performance, Ms. Slade chose two early music specialists: Danielle Munsell Howard and Julianne Baird. Ms. Howard was clearly hired for the Et Incarnatus Est solo of the "Credo" portion of the mass, with her ability to glide over the phrases and coast in the upper register (accompanied by the divine trio of oboist James Button, flutist Mary Schmidt, and bassoonist Seth Baer). But the two sopranos got off to a questionable start in the "Christe" part of the opening Kyrie, in which notes too low for Ms. Howard were reassigned to Ms. Baird, turning an operatic and virtuoso solo into a quasi-duet. Not only was this type of score tampering a bad reflection on Pro Musica's musical integrity, but it was hard to imagine a singer of Ms. Baird's stature agreeing to such a thing.

Ms. Howard and Ms. Baird are both the same kind of singer – light, early music experts, performing this work which borrowed heavily from opera. Both sopranos sparkled in their upper registers, but Ms. Baird's sound often virtually disappeared in mid-line, and runs were often indiscernible in the messa di voce style she employed. The two sopranos were joined in the vocal quartet by tenor Brad Diamond and bass Elem Eley, and although there was little music for these two singers, they were both capable.

Pro Musica's choral sound displayed its trademark solidity, but could have used more vocal bite to convey the late 18th century drama of the music. Especially with the soprano section, Ms. Slade traded the emotion of a larger sound for a clear and more precise line. The chorus was at its best in the Gloria, even with a small group of tenors. Mozart was in a rage of family fury when he composed this Mass (in the midst of reconciliation with his father and sister over his marriage to Constanze) and at the point the Mass ends he was headed back onto his musical soapbox, but died before he could finish his thought. A few "stealth" entrances in which sections entered timidly detracted from the drama of these later movements, but the closing Hosanna was crisp and clean.

Ms. Slade combined her Chamber Chorus with the West Windsor Concert Choir, conducted by Mary Jacobsen; and the High School Division of the Trenton Children's Chorus, conducted by Victor Shen for a rousing Gloria by Randol Alan Bass, a composer based in Texas. Composed for the New York Pops, this one-movement work has all the elements one might expect from movie music, and Ms. Slade got all the effects she asked for from the combined choirs. The students all had their music well in hand, and a cappella sections of the work were quite pleasing to listen to, even if the more interesting writing was in the orchestra.

Throughout the evening, which included Haydn's Symphony No. 94, exceptional solos abounded from orchestra players, especially Ms. Schmidt, Mr. Button, fellow oboist Scott Bartucca, and Mr. Baer. The orchestra was consistently well balanced, with impressive winds and a credible reading of the Haydn. However, with both the Haydn and the Mozart, drama was lacking from the concept, and whip-cracking precision from the choral tone, to punctuate the music. This concert had broad audience appeal, and hopefully the incorporation of student singers will continue as a staple of Pro Musica's activities.

On Saturday and Sunday, December 11-12, Princeton Pro Musica will present Handel's Messiah in Richardson Auditorium. Ticket information can be obtained by calling (609) 258-5000.


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