There has been a great deal of Handel scholarship going on in Princeton recently. The University’s department of music hosted events of the biennial American Handel Society Conference and Festival, which included presenting concerts of Baroque music and lectures on 18th-century performance practice. As part of the conference, University Director of Choirs Gabriel Crouch pooled the resources of the University Chamber Choir with the Westminster Kantorei to present a concert centered on the music of G.F. Handel. The full house in Taplin Auditorium included not only conference attendees, but also members of the community who were just in the mood to hear great music.
The Princeton University Chamber Choir is comprised of 30 students, and Mr. Crouch pulled ten of them in a select choir to perform a motet of Domenico Scarlatti, a composer more known for his keyboard works. Mr. Crouch drew a connection between Scarlatti and Handel in their same birth years and towering reputations, and linked Scarlatti’s Stabat Mater Dolorosa with the Handel works performed through its continuo orchestration.
Scarlatti’s Stabat Mater was performed essentially one singer on a part, and these ten members of the Chamber Choir demonstrated great poise and command of the music. Abigail Kelly and Stephanie Leotsakos blended well together on the top soprano parts, and Megan Conlon and Emily Sung handled well alto parts that were likely composed for men. The ten voices worked well together in the Taplin space, and Mr. Crouch brought out well an expressiveness recalling early Baroque opera. The piece included interesting shifts from minor to major keys. Continuo accompaniment was provided by Daniel Swenberg playing the stringed theorbo, and Kerry Heimann expertly provided organ keyboard support to the bass line.
Westminster Kantorei is Westminster Choir College’s choral ensemble specializing in early and contemporary music. Conductor Amanda Quist led the 22-voice chorus in four excerpts from Handel’s Chandos anthem Let God Arise, a piece full of quick-moving lines and musical drama one finds in Handel oratorios and operas. Let God Arise dates from 1718, near the height of Handel’s career, and the Westminster Kantorei and accompanying chamber orchestra filled the hall with deliberate choral articulation and a smooth and even ensemble tone. The small orchestra of strings, oboe, and continuo played with clean phrasing, with Jane McKinley’s oboe line speaking well through the string texture. Dr. Quist kept the choral parts precise, closing the anthem with crisp Alleluias.
The attendees of the Handel Society Conference no doubt came to hear Handel at his choral best, and the University Chamber Choir complied, with a full choral sound in a dramatic work. Handel may have composed the nine-movement Dixit Dominus at a young age, but it is no easy work of a youthful composer. Mr. Crouch took the preparation of this piece as a study in Baroque performance practice, aided by members of the Baroque specialty orchestra The English Concert, which had performed earlier in the week. The Chamber Choir used the hall’s acoustic to maintain the vocal lines, which were both difficult and fun to sing. The soprano section in particular sustained the high lines well, and the men maintained a well-blended sound.
A number of singers sang impressive solos, including soprano Anna Zayaruznaya, alto Megan Conlon, and tenor James Walsh. Mezzo-soprano Tessa Romano sang a very smooth rendition of the second movement alto aria, showing exceptional breath control in lines that crossed among registers. With similar poise, soprano Sophie Mocker perfectly matched triplets from the strings in another aria with long lines and little room to breathe. Sopranos Tara Ohrtman, Varshini Narayanan, Diana Barnes and Katie Buzard displayed solid vocal technique in solo ensemble sections, joined by tenors James Walsh and J.J. Warshaw, and bass Elliot Cole.
The overall performance of Dixit Dominus featured very interesting and engaging dynamic shifts, especially the closing “et in saecula saeculorum,” when one was not expecting a piano effect. Mr. Crouch kept the endings to the movements on the dry side, with the orchestral ensemble playing crisply. The tension of the text was well brought out, especially in the “conquassabit” verse in which “He will crush the heads of many on earth.”
A conference of the magnitude of a national American Handel Society meeting demands the highest level of scholarly performance, and the Princeton University and Westminster Choir College ensembles were well up to the task. For those interested in this period of music, the conference sessions open to the public were well-hidden gems of musicology on the University campus.
Gabriel Crouch will conduct the Princeton University Glee Club on Sunday, March 3 at 3 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium on the campus of Princeton University. Featured in this performance will be Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt. Ticket information can be obtained by visiting the “Music at Princeton” calendar website at www.princeton.edu/music/events.