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Princeton Pro Musica Presents French Music in University Chapel

Ryan James Brandau’s concerts with Princeton Pro Musica up to this point have been a process of adjustment — masterworks with which the ensemble is comfortable and performs well to solidify a new relationship between chorus and conductor. Pro Musica’s performance Saturday night in the Princeton University Chapel was a sign of the new direction Dr. Brandau has chosen for the chorus — one which includes early music outside of the ensemble’s usual scope of repertory. Pro Musica’s concert was billed as Poulenc, Faure, “and more,” and it was the “more” which provided some of the most interesting music of the evening.

Dr. Brandau programmed several anniversary pieces on this program, including works of Poulenc (for the 50th anniversary of his death) and a piece by 20th-century composer Arvo Pärt in honor of the death of Benjamin Britten. Dr. Brandau has created a 24-voice chamber chorus out of Pro Musica’s roster of 100, and used this ensemble to perform the Pärt work with two other pieces linked by Gregorian chant.

Pärt’s Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten is built on a single scale, much like a phrase of chant. Dr. Brandau split the chorus on either side of the small orchestra, beginning the work with almost imperceptible upper strings. Pärt’s one-movement work builds in intensity in the same manner as Samuel Barber’s famed Adagio For Strings, effectively jarring the audience with a loud chime to move the piece to its high point. Dr. Brandau moved through the first three pieces on the program without pause, following Pärt’s Cantus with an extended 12th-century Gregorian chant sung from the back of the chapel by four women. Pro Musica has not ventured often into this period of music, and the singers surely appreciated the chance to sing in smaller combinations.

In Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s setting of the same “Salve Regina,” the two halves of the Chamber Chorus answered each other well (with three men providing chant from the back of the hall), effectively handling the chromaticism which marks music of the early Baroque. Through this piece, the University Chapel proved to be a good space for antiphonal singing.

Dr. Brandau pulled the whole chorus together for works by two composers crossing paths in the same century but writing in two very different styles. Francis Poulenc’s Motets pour Un Temps de Pènitence, appropriate for the season of Lent, contain great intensity in dissonance and dynamics, and Pro Musica took an edgy and decisive vocal approach to the text. With the whole chorus singing at full volume, the upper sound was a bit strident at times, with vibrato that seemed a bit out of control in the space. The second motet had more flow, with the reprise of the opening text showing the best choral blend. The soprano sound was more under control in the third motet, with the lower three voice parts particularly well blended.

The seven-movement Requiem of Gabriel Fauré showed Pro Musica at its vocal best. Dr. Brandau kept the opening Kyrie moving right along, with a light but clean sectional tenor sound and an overall choral effect that matched the violas well. It was clear from his previous performance with Pro Musica that bass-baritone Dashon Burton would have no trouble filling the hall with a rich resonant sound. In both the Offertorium and Libera Me movements, Mr. Burton showed great strength in vocal sound, calling especially well for the “dreadful day” of reckoning in the Libera Me.

Soprano Clara Rottsalk also filled the University Chapel’s vast space well with a voice that had a solid core of sound, displaying particular sensitivity to the text. Concertmaster Owen Dalby provided a sweet top to the sound in two movements, especially when joined by harpist Sarah Fuller. A fourth “soloist” was the viola section, which played a consistently rich sound through the entire Requiem.

As in many Pro Musica concerts, the performance included a strictly instrumental work, and Dr. Brandau took full advantage of Pro Musica’s time in the chapel by programming Poulenc’s Concerto for Organ, Timpani and Strings. University Organist Eric Plutz showed the full effects of the five-manual chapel organ with the help of a multi-media screen, apparently the wave of the future in organ performance. Mr. Plutz showed both a light touch in the later part of the concerto and precision in timing the organ with the strings. Dr. Brandau led the orchestra well in lush melodic passages, with elegant solos provided by violist William Frampton and cellist Elizabeth Thompson.

Ryan James Brandau seems to be settling well into his position as artistic director of Princeton Pro Musica, and the chorus is responding in similar fashion. With the final concert of his debut season coming up in May, Dr. Brandau has had no trouble proving that he can take the ensemble into a new era of performance.

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