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Princeton Pro Musica Honors King With Program of Americana Music

Nancy Plum

Every year about this time, Princeton Pro Musica presents a concert honoring the life and goals of Martin Luther King, Jr., often in collaboration with another ensemble. This year, the “Concert of Peace and Reconciliation” featured both Pro Musica (in slightly reduced forces) and the New Jersey Gay Men’s Chorus, performing in the relatively new Trego-Biancosino Auditorium in the Princeton Regional Schools Performing Arts Center. This was the first concert Pro Musica has performed in the hall, and although it was unclear if the chorus is looking for a new concert home for some of their concerts, it was apparent that some things about the Auditorium worked in the ensemble’s favor and others not.

Performing organizations with long-standing concert homes often evolve around the acoustics and nuances of that home. Pro Musica Music Director Frances Fowler Slade has built the chorus around the acoustics of Richardson Auditorium, a hall kind to the imperfections of a volunteer ensemble. Pro Musica’s soprano section has always been lean, without excess vibrato in Richardson, and any shortage of male voices was alleviated by the ease of singing in the hall.

Princeton Pro Musica’s next performance is on May 4 in Trenton’s War Memorial. The concert, in collaboration with The Westfield Symphony Orchestra and Nassau Presbyterian Church Children’s Choirs, will present Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem.” For information call (609) 683-5122.

It was clear throughout Pro Musica’s Sunday afternoon concert that Trego Auditorium shows every performer’s flaw. Ms. Slade chose to open the program with the concept of “hope” through a piece for women’s voices based on the visitations of the Virgin Mary to the town of Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The women of Pro Musica were precise in their presentation of the text and the top soprano sound had just the right amount of sparkle. Ms. Slade focused on the intensity and anticipatory nature of the piece, which is clearly a good addition to the repertory of music for women’s voices.

The second piece on the program was also rooted in hope; Randall Thompson’s Alleluia was composed as World War II was getting underway, and Pro Musica saw the piece’s serenity and musical stillness as fitting for our times. Although Pro Musica captured the dynamic intensity of the work well, the sopranos were uncharacteristically fluttery, and there were some glitches in tuning, with chords not always settling properly.

The best sound from Pro Musica in this hall was a full choral sound, which the ensemble achieved in Kirke Mechem’s Island in Space. Preceded by a brief and interesting film on the wonders of space travel, the performance of the Mechem piece ended with nicely blended harmonies in a block chordal style.

To close out Pro Musica’s portion of the program, Ms. Slade chose Moses Hogan’s His Light Still Shines, for chorus, three soloists and narrator. Cecelia Hodges, with a strong background in both literature and spoken word, provided an elegant and graceful narration, and three Pro Musica members, tenor Lynn Atkins and sopranos Audrey Bram and Mary Trigg, sang with rich vocal color and appealing quality.

The New Jersey Gay Men’s Chorus, conducted by Steven A. Russell, sang a set of six songs by varied contemporary composers celebrating diversity and tolerance. Although small in numbers, the Gay Men’s Chorus had a nice blend to its sound. The two best arrangements were Robert De Cormier’s Rainbow ’Round My Shoulder and Dennis Coleman’s arrangement of There’s a Man Going ’Round. The Gay men’s Chorus sang these two selections with clean chords and key changes, and baritone Michael Gary sang the solo in the Coleman piece expressively.

The two ensembles came together for Samuel Barber’s A Stopwatch and an Ordnance Map (for male chorus) and Lee Hobby’s Hymn to the New Age. In these pieces, the Gay Men’s Chorus served to beef up the Pro Musica men’s sections, and in the case of the Barber piece, enabled Pro Musica to perform a piece they might have a hard time doing on their own without the extra men.

Princeton Pro Musica has been performing in several different places this season, with their last concert of the year scheduled for Trenton’s War Memorial. Although Sunday’s concert might have had some technical glitches, the February concert of this ensemble is always popular with audiences.

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