March 7, 2018

University Glee Club Combines Modern Works With Handel Classic

By Nancy Plum

In its annual tribute to long-time conductor Walter L. Nollner this year, the Princeton University Glee Club showed how much the ensemble has grown under the leadership of current music director Gabriel Crouch, as well as how multi-national choral music has become since Nollner’s time. Not content to merely present a masterpiece of the repertory, the Glee Club stretched its performance wings well into the 21st century with a work by one of its own members.

Each of the three pieces performed on Sunday afternoon’s concert in Richardson Auditorium was challenging in its own right. University senior Shruthi Rajasekar has a solid history of studying composition, voice, and South Indian classical music, and this past year was honored by two contemporary music forums for her work. Her four-movement Gaanam seemed to combine a wide range of her interests and backgrounds. Gaanam (the noun form of “singing” in Sanskrit) juxtaposed three vocal soloists against the rest of the Glee Club, presenting melodies and rhythms derived from the South Indian classical music tradition. Soprano Sarah Baber, tenor Calvin Wentling, and bass Eli Berman sang the Indian literary texts in a chant-like style against dissonant streams of chords from the chorus. Conductor Gabriel Crouch led soloists and chorus through varied dynamics and musical effects, keeping the vocal palette very even with mostly straight singing from the members of the Glee Club. The punctuating chords from the men’s sections were tuned very high in this work which challenged both intellect and voice.

Crouch followed up this home-grown piece with a U.S. premiere of a dramatic work by 20th-century British composer John Taverner, whose music for Princess Diana’s funeral is still memorable today. As explained by Crouch, Taverner composed his four-movement Total Eclipse for the vast space of a cathedral such as St. Paul’s in London, but through attention to detail, the Glee Club successfully realized Taverner’s musical intentions with creative use of the Richardson space.

Total Eclipse has been described as a “Metánoia — or conversion — depicting St. Paul’s blinding conversion on the road to Damascus. As Taverner wrote, “everything in the piece is related metaphysically, whether it be voice, instrumental timbre, rhythm, or melody.” Vocal characters represented Christ and Saul, whose conversion leads him to become the Apostle Paul. Other vocal commentary was provided by a solo soprano singing from the balcony, and the soul of Saul/Paul was conveyed by a soprano saxophone played by Alex Laurenzi.

This work also had a somewhat Eastern flavor, accompanied by a small orchestra and three sets of timpani. The dramatic action of Total Eclipse begins following the crucifixion of Christ, who musically was represented by Sergei Tugarinov. Christ called to Saul, sung by Eli Berman, from the heavens, as Saul’s “soul” wandered through Richardson Auditorium in the expressive playing of saxophonist Laurenzi. The choral passages were very homophonic, with well-tuned chordal streams and clean sections of minimalistic repeating text. Following his conversion, the character of Paul was strongly sung by Calvin Wentling. Equally as impressive as these performers was soprano Madeline Kushan, who sang an almost unimaginably difficult vocal line containing at least ten high “Cs” with purity and incredible vocal patience. Glee Club Student Conductor Gloria Yin effectively directed the musical action in the upper level of Richardson while Crouch conducted the singers and ensembles onstage, as this very deserving piece received its U.S. premiere (and only third performance worldwide) by the Glee Club.

The Glee Club continued its musical refinement to close the concert with G.F. Handel’s Dixit Dominus, a piece characteristic of the high Baroque, but which does not get nearly as many performances as the composer’s immortal Messiah. Accompanied by a small chamber orchestra, the Glee Club sang out fully, yet retained Baroque crispness and precision. A number of Glee Club members stepped out of the chorus to perform solos, including mezzo-soprano Caroline Zhao and soprano Solène Le Van, who have distinguished themselves in performances throughout their Princeton careers. Le Van in particular handled well an aria with a tricky vocal range. Crouch found a great deal of dynamic contrast among the nine movements, leading the singers through choral coloratura and a lithe and quick closing fugue which ended the piece on a joyful note.