May 23, 2018

Princeton Singers Celebrates 35th Anniversary Commemorating Past and Looking Forward

By Nancy Plum

Like a successful garden, it takes a long time to develop and nourish a performing ensemble. Princeton Singers began 35 years ago as a volunteer chorus singing English cathedral music, madrigals, and folksongs, and has grown like a weed under the direction of only two conductors: Founding Director John Bertalot and current Artistic Director Steven Sametz. The ensemble is celebrating its 35th anniversary this season, paying credit to its past and present, while looking ahead to the future. The Singers is especially proud of its emergence as a leading professional vocal ensemble performing a wide range of repertoire with a commitment to contemporary music, and its closing concert of this season demonstrated why the chorus is justifiably proud of its musical heritage.

The program for Princeton Singers’ Saturday night concert at Princeton’s Trinity Church demonstrated both the ensemble’s history and musical versatility. Conductor Sametz began the performance with a set of pieces paying tribute to the chorus’ British roots and Bertalot. Singing in mixed formation from the altar area, the 17-voice Princeton Singers easily blended into the acoustics of the church, dramatically increasing volume when necessary and always precise. The choral sound of Eric Thiman’s “Go Lovely Rose” was as warm as the text, with continuous streams of sound at the height of the piece. C.V. Stanford’s sacred choral music was composed for the high arches of English cathedrals, and within Trinity Church the sound of the Singers was chipper and lean, especially from the sopranos in their higher register.

Sametz and the ensemble also explored other British and American composers of the 20th century in this concert; Elliott Carter’s “Musicians Wrestle Everywhere” was sung with clean lines to accommodate the piece’s dissonances, showing that the Singers could provide an edgy vocal sound when needed. American composer Morten Lauridsen is renowned for music with warm chords and deep, rich harmonies, and the Singers brought out these effects well in the composer’s “Soneto de la Noche.”  Abrupt key changes were smoothly handled, and small solos from within the chorus provided an effective contrast to the choral palette.

The Singers turned their attention to multicultural and lighter music in the concert’s second half, beginning with a tease for next year. The 2018-19 season will feature music of women composers, and the ensemble could not have selected a better and more underperformed representative in Sunday’s concert than 19th-century Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel, whose brother Felix well overshadowed her own respectable compositional output.  Mendelssohn-Hensel’s “Schöne Fremde” was performed with a graceful flow to the music, and the chorus told the piece’s idyllic story well. Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Saltarelle” was unusual in its brisk and playful style, from a composer whose choral music is not well known, and the Singers captured the piece’s high-spirited nature and crisp counterpoint.

Several soloists from within the chorus shone during this concert, including soprano Kara Mulder and tenor Tyler Tejada. A new addition to the ensemble this year, Mulder adds vocal ring to the soprano sectional sound, and her opening solo in Ronald Staheli’s arrangement of “How Can I Keep from Singing” added a fresh Americana flavor to the piece. Tejada sang with a light clear tenor in Sametz’s arrangement of Stephen Sondheim’s “Being Alive,” selling the text and its appealing jazzy arrangement well. The Singers closed the concert with a song certainly capturing the “garden” metaphor — Leonard Bernstein’s “Make our Garden Grow” from his opera Candide.  In this piece, which seemed to capture the Princeton Singers’ appreciation of the past and hope for the future, the chorus reached its fullest dramatic volume, closing the concert in festive grandeur and clearly looking forward to many seasons of music to come.