April 26, 2017

The Princeton University Glee Club Closes Its Season in Powerful Style

For its annual concert commemorating founder and long-time conductor Walter L. Nollner, the Princeton University Glee Club reached high into the professional choral arena to lead the ensemble’s closing performance of the season. British conductor and composer James Burton, recently appointed choral director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and conductor of the orchestra’s resident Tanglewood Festival Chorus, led the Glee Club on Sunday afternoon in Richardson Auditorium in a concert featuring works of Francis Poulenc and Ralph Vaughan Williams, an opportunity made possible by the spring sabbatical of University Director of Choral Activities Gabriel Crouch. While Mr. Crouch has been on sabbatical, the Glee Club has been ably directed by Renata Berlin, assistant director of choirs at the University and conductor of the William Trego Singers. Sunday afternoon’s performance showed the strength of the Glee Club as an organization and its consistent quality under different conductors.

Mr. Burton has a background that crosses all genres of music (including as arranger for Arlo Guthrie) and opened Sunday’s performance with a little-known piece showcasing the Nassau Sinfonia, the accompanying orchestra for the Poulenc and Vaughan Williams works. The life of English composer George Butterworth was cut short by World War I, but in the early decades of the 20th century, Butterworth was considered one of the most promising composers of his generation. Like his contemporaries in Britain, Butterworth had an interest in folk music, and collected tunes, specifically from the Sussex region. Butterworth fused two of these tunes — “The Banks of Green Willow” and “Green Bushes” — into what he termed an orchestral “idyll” for chamber orchestra. Under Mr. Burton’s leadership, the Nassau Sinfonia began Butterworth’s 1913 one-movement The Banks of Green Willow with a chipper melody on solo clarinet (played by Pascal Archer) which evoked the English countryside. Mr. Burton led the Sinfonia with clear and broad conducting strokes, bringing out the breeziness of the music and allowing instrumental soloists to play freely. Orchestration of solo flute accompanied by harp was especially charming, given what was to come in the year following this piece’s composition in Europe.

Butterworth’s orchestral “idyll” was linked to the closing work on the program, Vaughan Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem, through the close friendship of the two composers. Although there was no direct connection between Butterworth and Francis Poulenc, the French composer’s Stabat Mater had much of the same poignancy and emotional power as The Banks of Green Willow. Poulenc composed Stabat Mater as a memorial to a friend, choosing the medieval text over the traditional Requiem mass. In 12 sections of contrasting instrumentations and styles, Poulenc’s work gave chorus, orchestra, and soloist opportunities to take the audience on a journey through impassioned musical performances.

Mr. Burton began Stabat Mater darkly and methodically, as the basses of the Glee Club sang the text ominously. The women’s choral sections were consistently clean, with the sopranos singing with an especially haunting non-vibrato sound. Throughout the work, Mr. Burton built the dynamics well, keeping a lid on the drama until the last possible moment.

Joining the Glee Club was soprano soloist Jennifer Zetlan, a musician whose background also crosses a number of genres. As Johannes Brahms did in his Deutsches Requiem a century before, Poulenc used the solo soprano sparingly in Stabat Mater, often to re-emphasize the text with dramatic effect. It was the sixth movement before the soprano soloist appears, and Ms. Zetlan immediately showed herself to be a strong and self-assured singer. She sang the plaintive text repeatedly against forceful upper winds and was answered by the chorus, handling well the wide range of the solo vocal line. The a cappella sections of this work were crisply sung by the chorus, and the members of the Glee Club had no trouble shifting to a more lyrical collective sound when necessary.

Mr. Burton saved the most intense work for last in Vaughan Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem, composed in 1936 as a reflection on World War I and in fear of the impending world war to come. Vaughan Williams drew the secular text for this work from American poet Walt Whitman, many of whose poems were descriptions of the Civil War. Ms. Zetlan opened the work with the chorus, singing with as impassioned a vocal tone as in the Poulenc. Ms. Zetlan was joined as soloist by baritone Anthony Clark Evans, an up-and-coming singer who until a few years ago spent his days convincing people to buy cars, rather than become lost in opera story lines. In the closing section particularly, Mr. Evans showed he can tell a story well, conveying the Bible verses Vaughan Williams set to convince his audiences to stave off the war he was convinced was coming. Mr. Evans possessed a solid operatic voice, at times elegantly accompanied by oboist Kemp Jernigan. Well-blended brass sections in the orchestra added to the militaristic impact of the work, as the Glee Club effectively brought the piece — and for the seniors in the chorus, their college years — to a joyful close.