November 8, 2017

Princeton Pro Musica Opens Its New Season With Concert of Remembrance

By Nancy Plum

Princeton Pro Musica began its Princeton area concert series on the later side this year, with the first performance of the ensemble’s 39th season on Sunday afternoon in Richardson Auditorium. However, the concert date and piece performed went together perfectly. The 100-voice chorus presented Johannes Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem on All Saints’ Day, combining liturgical remembrance with Brahms’s German texts of comfort and ultimate joy. As further acknowledgment of the day, Pro Musica included an “In Remembrance” page from members of the chorus in the written program to Sunday afternoon’s concert, commemorating friends and family.

Premiered in 1868 (with a fifth movement subsequently added), Brahms’s German Requiem was rooted in the composer’s own grief over the deaths of both his mother and close friend and fellow composer Robert Schumann. Brahms drew the texts, however, not from standard Latin “Requiem” prayers but from varied passages in the Bible, including the Books of Psalms, Matthew, Peter, Isaiah, and Revelation. As Brahms himself wrote of selecting the passages, “I have chosen my texts because I am a musician, and I needed them.” In familiar German rather than church Latin, this seven-movement choral/orchestral work has served as a universal musical memorial worldwide for the past 150 years.

Brahms’s Requiem is tailor-made for an ensemble such as Princeton Pro Musica, whose performance practice is centered on crisp diction, solid preparation, and a well-blended choral sound. Pro Musica Artistic Director Ryan James Brandau found a wide range of dynamics and choral styles within the Requiem’s block chordal sections, interlaced with fugues borrowed from the Baroque era 100 years before Brahms’s time. Brandau impressively began the first movement as quietly as possible, leaving room for the sound to grow to coincide with the text. Lean sectional viola and cello lines aided in opening the Requiem in a consoling and inspiring manner. Principal oboist Stuart Breczinski provided elegant solo lines, both in this movement and throughout the piece.

The technical choral demands of Brahms’s Requiem are immense, from the long expressive lines of the fourth movement to the complex and dramatic fugal passages, which should raise the roof of the performance hall. Princeton Pro Musica held up to the choral requirements well, only occasionally sounding buried in the thick texture of full orchestra and fugues which demanded a full-bodied choral sound.

Passages that worked especially well included verses in the second movement on the text “Be patient, therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord,” in which the choral sound was light and supple and the closing of the third movement, in which the chorus reassures a doubt-ridden bass soloist. Pro Musica also began the sixth movement particularly well, as Brandau kept rhythms precise to allow the chorus to regain vocal stamina.

Joining Pro Musica for this performance were soprano Rochelle Ellis and bass-baritone Paul Max Tipton. Each soloist had a specific role in the work; Ellis sang of maternal consolation in the fifth movement, while Tipton conveyed grief and doubt in two other movements. In the fifth movement, often described as Brahms’s tribute to his mother, Brandau kept the orchestra’s playing style detached to contrast with Ellis’s lyrical melodic lines. Delicately and subtly accompanying the vocal line was a solo oboe line played by principal oboist Breczinski. Ellis was comforting as a performer, singing the top registers confidently and communicating well to the audience.

Tipton was dignified in demeanor, singing with a very clean sound, and always plaintive as the violins built intensity well. The sixth movement included the familiar “trumpet shall sound” text also set by Handel in Messiah; whereas Handel’s setting of the text was mysterious and declamatory, Tipton’s singing of Brahms’s setting was exciting and anticipatory, building the sound well. Brandau kept the fugal close of this movement crisp, with a smooth musical flow which no doubt made the passages easier for the chorus to sing. Both chorus and orchestra ended the Requiem well, with decisive singing of a reassuring text and a peaceful conclusion.

Pro Musica’s introductory remarks to the performance indicated the ensemble had a number of new subscribers this season. All members of the audience were well appreciative of Sunday afternoon’s concert, providing some reassurance of its own for the chorus’ successful season this year.

Princeton Pro Musica’s next performance will be on December 10 at the War Memorial’s Patriots Theater in Trenton. Featured will be Ryan James Brandau’s setting of “Joy to the Word: A Christmas Suite,” with The Trenton Children’s Chorus. For information call (609) 683-5122 or visit