Thirty-three years is a long time for a chorus to be under the leadership of one person, and when the reins change hands, there are surely adjustments all the way around. Ryan James Brandau, the new artistic director of Princeton Pro Musica, wisely chose for his first concert with the ensemble pieces which were right in the chorus’s wheelhouse. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Requiem is a work well in the comfort zone of Pro Musica, as is the music of J.S. Bach, and both composers are a good vehicle for the chorus and conductor to become acquainted. Dr. Brandau and the 100-voice Pro Musica presented the first fruits of this collaboration on Sunday afternoon at Richardson Auditorium with a concert of Mozart and Bach which showed that this new relationship is clearly working out.
A work originally composed for a funeral might not seem a good piece to celebrate Brandau’s beginning tenure with Pro Musica, but the one-movement O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht is vintage Bach, especially in the composer’s own second “arrangement” including trumpets. Conducting without a baton, Brandau presented a smooth and peaceful interpretation of this piece, blending strings and trumpets well. He kept the sopranos of Pro Musica restrained with the chorale tune, with the tenor section sounding particularly unstressed. Brandau brought out the lower voices of the chorus, effectively eliciting relaxed phrase cadences from the ensemble, aided by the small and precise orchestral ensemble. Especially subtle trumpet parts were provided by Rodney Mack and Thomas Cook.
As a nod to his predecessor, Brandau programmed an instrumental work to give the chorus a rest and show the more virtuostic side of Bach. Solo violinist Elizabeth Field, well-versed in 18th-century performance practice, joined the orchestra for Bach’s three-movement Violin Concerto in E Major, which could easily have been a seventh “Brandenburg” concerto, containing the same chipper spirit in a bright key. As with concerti of the time, soloist Ms. Field played with the ensemble for much of the time, coming out of the instrumental fabric with clean sequences, rhythms, and melodies. Phrases had elegant direction from all players, and Ms. Field added color to the solo line on cadenzas. In the second movement, Ms. Field played the countermelody with more richness and a bit of Romanticism, showing that Bach was not all about virtuoso playing. Ensemble and soloist maintained a graceful lilt to the third movement rondo, showing especially delicate endings to the instrumental refrains.
Pro Musica had its chance to shine in Mozart’s Requiem, performed from an edition which may not have been familiar to all chorus members and which added new fugal passages to the score. As Mozart aficionados know, the composer died in mid-composition of the piece, and “how would Mozart have finished this” has been one of the great musicological mysteries for the past two hundred years. In the 1990s, scholar Robert Levin presented his version, which gave the chorus additional challenging music, but which may have taken some drama out of the orchestral writing, particularly in the “Benedictus.” This was the version performed by Pro Musica on Sunday afternoon, challenging the audience to pay a bit more attention to a piece they may have thought they knew backwards and forwards.
Throughout the piece, Brandau maintained a well-balanced sound from the chorus, with cleanly articulated fugal lines in the “Kyrie,” “Amen,” the “Lacrymosa,” and “Cum Sanctis Tuis” which closed the work. He is clearly a stickler for detail, and there were very few false entrances or final consonants spilling over. His approach to the piece, with attention to word accents and gradual dynamic builds within the movements would make the work easy to sing for the chorus, with a great deal of musical variety within a well-contained scope of sound. The orchestra continued its precise approach to the music, with especially clean playing from cellists Jodi Beder and Elizabeth Thompson and clarinetists Daniel Spitzer and Rie Suzuki in the Recordare quartet. A trio of trombones, played by Brian Mahany, Richard Harris, and Pat Herb, subtly balanced the lower registers of the orchestra and reminded the audience that Mozart was on his way to the 19th century when he wrote this piece.
The chorus was joined by a quartet of vocal soloists, several of whom have local connections. Soprano Justine Aronson possessed a youthful and clear voice which matched the clarinet color perfectly in some of the quartet passages. Ms. Aronson also showed particular sensitivity to the text, especially on the words “supplicanti parce” (“spare the supplicant”). Mezzo-soprano Amanda Quist blended well with Ms. Aronson, showing the strength of her sound in the “Benedictus” quartet, as did tenor Christopher Hodson. The most unique singer to appear on the Richardson stage recently by far was bass-baritone Dashon Burton, who easily is headed for a great career. With a terrific set of waist-length dreadlocks which breaks the traditional “classical singer” visual mode, Mr. Burton combined self-assuredness, a commanding voice, and precision gained from singing in top-notch choral ensembles to provide a solid foundation to the vocal quartet. One definitely wants to hear more from this singer.
Ryan James Brandau and Princeton Pro Musica performed this concert on the eve of the “frankenstorm” threatening New Jersey. Brandau did not announce his arrival like a hurricane, but rather with a solid performance which foretells great things to come with the chorus.