January 18, 2012

PU Orchestra Vocal Competition Winners Perform Well in Concert of Handel’s Music

The Princeton University Orchestra treated its audience to a warm winter musical treat this past weekend with a concert dedicated entirely to the music of George Frideric Handel. Sometime during this academic year, the orchestra conducted a student vocal competition, and seven winners were presented in Richardson Auditorium on Saturday night, accompanied by chamber ensemble and harpsichord. The seven winners, representing all four undergraduate classes, showed themselves to be poised and self-assured singers, and proud to share their vocal skills.

Handel composed forty operas in his career, in an age when the vocal soloist was the star of the show. Arias ruled the day, and often the opera’s plot was merely a vehicle to show off a singer’s ability to race up and down scales, with extensive ornamentation. Contrasting the vocal fireworks were extended arias of sensitivity or pensiveness, giving singers the chance to pour their hearts out to the audience. The University Orchestra Handel Competition winners were capable of both styles, beginning with soprano Tanyaradzwa Tawengwa, who opened the concert with the very popular “O had I Jubal’s lyre” from Handel’s 1747 opera Joshua.

Ms. Tawengwa sang the sprightly aria with lightness and little vibrato, showing no trouble with the rungs and articulating the 16th notes well. University Orchestra guest conductor Ruth Ochs kept the chamber ensemble crisp and agile, with a very steady continuo of cello, double bass, and harpsichord. With violins placed on both sides of the podium, the instrumental themes easily passed back and forth across the stage and the instrumentalists were able to musically talk to one another.

Ms. Ochs excels at putting performers at ease, a helpful skill when presenting emerging competition winners. The second singer on the stage, however, seemed to need no assistance in showing himself to be a vocalist capable of a real career down the road. Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen grew up singing with an excellent and high-profile youth chorus, and was lucky enough to be identified as a counter-tenor in high school, when he could develop his vocal technique from the start. He has been performing solos and singing in competitions since high school, and has clearly incorporated understanding counter-tenor history and legacy into his training. “Ombra mai fu” is Handel’s most well-known aria from the 1738 opera Serse (this aria was later arranged for orchestra) and was composed for the renowned castrato Caffarelli. These arias often do not sit well in women’s registers, but a counter-tenor, with notes at the height of his register, can bring a new level of emotion to the text. Mr. Cohen started right in with the recitative to the aria, and his voice took off into the upper register with the plaintive text of the aria. With Ms. Ochs sustaining the largo tempo in the accompaniment, Mr. Cohen showed exceptional control over expressiveness and vibrato as the upper notes blossomed. It is unusual enough to come across a counter-tenor at this age, but to find one with this solid a technique shows great promise for Mr. Cohen’s musical future.

Handel left the vocal pyrotechnics to the upper voices, composing lyrical arias for the tenor voice. The two tenor competition winners controlled the lyricism of their arias well — Saumitra Sahi singing “Total eclipse” from Samson and Christopher Beard performing “Where’er you walk” from Semele. Mr. Sahi sang with thoughtfulness, and Mr. Beard performed a clean version of the popular aria with careful ornamentation and attention to detail. It was particularly interesting to note that Mr. Beard’s vocal performance background covers a wide range, from Sondheim to Carousel’s nefarious Billy Bigelow to Benjamin Britten.

Sopranos Katherine Buzard and Lieve Hendren both showed great commitment to future musical careers and operatic training, and both selected challenging pieces with dramatic requirements in high registers. Ms. Buzard sang “Ombra pallide” from Alcina with good control over very difficult runs and a solid upper register. Ms. Hendren presented the Ariodante aria “Neghittosi, or voi che fate?” with an ability to toss off the top notes and convey the dramatic mood of the text. The lone bass on the program, Torin Rudeen, sang two selections from the oratorio Messiah with a relaxed sound and good diction in arias which are tough for any bass, much less one of college age.

Ms. Ochs rounded out the vocal program with a concerto for two violins, cello, and orchestra, showing herself to be an accomplished harpsichordist as well as conductor. Violinists Dean Wang and Sophia Mockler, joined by cellist Nathan Pell, communicated well among one another in a performance which was refined from all players, especially in the well-matched instrumental ornaments.

The Princeton University Music Department focuses its attention on “composition, performance, and scholarship,” offering a seemingly never-ending array of opportunities for students to strut their skills and try new things. The seven winners of this year’s Handel Vocal Competition certainly had plenty to be proud of, and the very appreciative audience in Richardson on Saturday night could not argue with an evening of Handel.