February 29, 2012

Princeton Singers Returns to Victorian Era With Choral Performance in University Chapel

On a night when Hollywood was honoring its own with the Oscars telecast, The Princeton Singers paid homage to its own past, as well as Princeton history, with a concert of late 19th and early 20th-century British and American choral music. As part of its continuing collaboration with the Princeton University Art Museum, The Princeton Singers invited its audience to sit in the chancel of the Princeton University Chapel for a concert of some of the greatest hits of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, complementing the Art Museum’s exhibit of Princeton and the Gothic Revival, 1870-1930.

Princeton Singers conductor Steven Sametz placed the 18-member vocal ensemble under the foot of the chancel, facing the high altar. With conductor and singers so close together, it was easy to keep control over the sound, and an intimate concert environment was created for the audience. Throughout the evening, the homophonic music of late 19th century England was well-blended and diction came through well.

Sunday night’s concert was subtitled “Vivat Regina!” and the singers cut right to the chase, opening with C. Hubert H. Parry’s I Was Glad, sung at every royal coronation since 1902 and heard most recently in royal context as the bride’s processional at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. This piece was designed to shake the rafters, with its top-volume organ registration and harmonic shifts, and the space of the University Chapel was a perfect venue for this lush music. The four-manual Aeolian Skinner Chapel organ also provided ample choices in registration and dynamics for this program. Parry created his setting for the traditional British choir of men and boys, whose laser sound would cut through Gothic walls and organ registration, but the Princeton Singers sopranos had an equally pure sound in the cozy setting.

All the works chosen for Sunday evening’s program showed a full clean sound with explicit diction. Samuel Sebastian Wesley’s Wash Me Thoroughly in particular was sung with a flowing choral tone. Penitent in its simplicity, the Wesley anthem demonstrated especially well-blended men’s sections while the sopranos topped off the sound like icing.

Dr. Sametz contrasted these chordal anthems with the more jarring style of Charles Ives to show how the British Anglican revival was assimilated into American music. Both “General Booth Enters into Heaven” and the closing Psalm 90 of Charles Ives were percussive in vocal style. For the General Booth anthem, Dr. Sametz moved the chorus outside of the chancel, leaving bass soloist William Walker close to the audience. It would have been easy to hear Mr. Walker from anywhere in the hall, and both choir and soloist conveyed the musical drama well, accompanied in the tricky piano part by Akiko Hosaki. Ives’s setting of Psalm 90 was smooth and sustained, punctuated by bells played by members of the Nassau Presbyterian Church’s Ringers. The Singers well maintained the long choral stream of this piece, while soloists tenor Peter De Mets and soprano Martha Ainsworth carried well in the space. Ms. Ainsworth was appropriately restrained in a complex vocal line which left little room for overly-Romantic singing. Dr. Sametz intermingled the choral pieces on the program with organ works played by Timothy Harrell. In both the Edward Elgar and Horatio Parker works, Mr. Harrell was able to take full advantage of the wide range of dynamics and registration available from the instrument.

Princeton Singers concerts are often mini-courses in music history, and Sunday night’s performance was no exception. The actual museum exhibit may have been nearby, but the gothic structure of the University Chapel provided plenty of atmosphere to transport the audience to an earlier era and give them some new musical insight to take home.