Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 9
Wednesday, March 3, 2010
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Princeton Singers Choral Group Creates A Medieval Aura in Art Museum Concert

Nancy Plum

The Princeton Singers took a serious trip back through time this past weekend with a concert of “Mostly Medieval” music in a gallery at the Princeton University Art Museum. Nestled between a 14th century Spanish gisant stone nobleman and intricate French ivory reliefs, the 16-voice vocal ensemble performed Franco-Flemish selections to match the Museum’s art of the northern Franco-Flemish school. Despite limited sightlines created by the abundance of art in the space and ceilings which had been modified for contemporary lighting, The Princeton Singers succeeded in its goal of creating a “feast for the sight and the senses” in Saturday night’s concert.

The Guillaume Machaut work which opened the concert was presented in a way that introduced both the music and the singers. Conductor Steven Sametz brought the performers onstage in trios, building the sound of the canonic “Le lay de la fonteine.” One did not have to sing loud in the gallery to find a core of the sound, and the singers maintained a nice flow to a piece filled with offbeat syncopation and a bit of 14th century hocket. Soprano Martha Ainsworth also found a core to her sound in the solo song by Guillaume Dufay, “Vergene bella.” Ms. Ainsworth was selective about the use of vibrato in the 15th century piece in Tuscan dialect, elegantly accompanied by harpist Andre Tarantiles. Ms. Ainsworth seemed to find it easy to let the high notes soar, with a great deal of room for expressiveness and drama in the text.

Dr. Sametz made a particular connection with the concert surroundings with Peter Abelard’s “Planctus” for men’s voices; Abelard may actually have seen some of the 12th century art in France which has subsequently found its way to the Princeton Art Museum.

The intricate harp accompaniment (realized by a later composer) was enchanting to listen to in itself, and the six men of the Princeton Singers found a solid unison sound on the early medieval line. Several of the men performed brief and effective solos, including tenors Scott Clausen and Peter de Mets, and baritone Les Anders. Dr. Sametz took particular dynamic care with the last verse of the poem, allowing the sound to fade away as the “spirit fails.” Dr. Sametz then placed the women of the singers on a side staircase, creating a different vocal effect in an elaborate and well-sung multi-part “Ave Maria” of the little known 16th century composer Francesco de Layolle.

The most complex work on the program was Clement Janequin’s “La Guerre.” Known as a composer of “novelty” pieces, Janequin painted scenes within his pieces through musical sound effects which add to the poetry and require great concentration from the singers. Several verses of the 10-minute “La Guerre” were especially technically difficult, but the Princeton Singers had clearly been expertly trained in the details of the musical sound bites. This piece was a hard act to follow, but Dr. Sametz chose to pair the work with one of his own, a piece for men’s voices commissioned by the all-male ensemble Chanticleer, who will be appearing in the area later this spring. Although the men’s sections of the Princeton Singers are half the size of Chanticleer, they were sufficient to give a flavor of Sametz’s “Not an end of Loving,” accompanied by flowing harp. The tuning and harmonics were a bit difficult to keep together after the Janequin, but as the melody unfolded around the 8th century text, the sound settled.

The ensemble closed the concert with Claude Debussy’s tripartite Trois Chansons de Charles d’Orleans, a refreshing postscript to the 14th and 15th century works. The soprano sound in these three pieces was well unified, and mezzo soprano soloist Elaine Harned was especially solid in the middle chanson, “Quant j’ai ouy le tabourin.” Ms. Harned seemed to be singing this piece from memory, with a rich vocal color that brought out the impressionistic quality of the music.

Saturday night’s performance (which was repeated on Sunday afternoon) was well-paced, even without an intermission. As with many Princeton Singers concerts, Dr. Sametz provided a great deal of commentary, and one can always come away having learned something new. Collaborating with the Art Museum also provided an opportunity to bring that much more art to more people.

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