November 25, 2015

The Princeton Singers Pay Tribute to Sandy Hook Tragedy With a New Work

Music in response to great tragedy over the centuries has covered the spectrum of war songs, to orchestral works inspired by current events, to popular music. Perhaps as a sign of the time, musical works addressing man-made tragedies have become more common in the past two decades, such as John Adam’s On the Transmigration of Souls, commissioned shortly after 9/11. In 2014, composer and Princeton Singers Artistic Director Steven Sametz found himself compelled to compose a work in memory of those killed in the 2012 Sandy Hooks Elementary School shootings in Connecticut, believing that “as artists, we are hopeful that what we create may offer healing to those who mourn.” Perhaps also as a sign of the times, Sametz’s A Child’s Requiem is a multi-media work, incorporating artwork from elementary school-age children into a supertitled performance featuring two choirs, soloists, and orchestra. For Saturday night’s concert at Princeton Meadows Church and Event Center, The Princeton Singers were joined by the Ensemble and Cantores choirs of the Princeton Girlchoir, as well as three vocal soloists and a highly-polished orchestra.

The tributes to the victims of Sandy Hook began Saturday night in the entryway to Princeton Meadow Church with portraits of the children. In this work, Sametz also paid tribute to several musical traditions of the past, beginning with a musical anagram of letters from the words “Sandy Hook.” The four pitches derived formed a musical cell which Sametz wove into an orchestral “Prologue” marked by a poignant cello solo and visually accompanied by a child’s drawing of a broken heart. 

The ten movements of A Child’s Requiem traced the events of December 14, 2012, with the opening chorus juxtaposing the joyful cacophony of an elementary school music class with gunfire. Sametz intertwined “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and a child’s drawing of the school with the visual impact of Girlchoir members walking across the stage whispering three phrases characterizing the tragedy — “Stay in line,” “Hold hands,” and “Keep your eyes closed.” In leading the musicians in this complex movement, Sametz maintained a solidly clean conducting style, creating an atmosphere in which one could feel the tension in the school. The Princeton Singers ensemble sang from far back on the stage, making the singers hard to hear at times, but the chorus’s well-blended and crisp sound came through well in later movements. Woven throughout A Child’s Requiem were short narrations written by children and recited by members of the Girlchoir.

As A Child’s Requiem progressed, The Princeton Singers, Princeton Girlchoir, and orchestra continued to mesmerize the audience with their interpretation of texts from children and teachers, as well as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Emily Dickinson. Providing musical commentary was a “family” of soloists — soprano Tami Petty, offering a mother’s perspective; tenor David Vanderwal with a father’s words; and treble soloist Casey Durso bringing a child’s view to life. Ms. Petty sang with even vocal color and a particularly expressive top register, accompanied by The Princeton Singers providing comforting words adapted from the Ein Deutsches Requiem of Johannes Brahms. Mr. Vanderwal maneuvered wide-ranging melodic lines well, capturing a father’s attempt to make sense of it all. Treble soloist Ms. Durso was the voice of innocence, perfectly matching the text with a clear soprano voice.

The orchestra compiled for this performance cleanly played an orchestration which was lush when necessary and percussive when the tense atmosphere called for it. A moving violin solo was played by concertmaster Michael Jorgensen, and throughout the work, harpist Andrea Wittchen elevated the music to ethereal and angelic. In their varied singing combinations from different points of the stage, the Princeton Girlchoir, prepared by Lynnel Joy Jenkins and John Wilson, sang with strength of vocal tone, demonstrating well-tuned thirds when singing in two parts.

Sametz and The Princeton Singers preceded A Child’s Requiem with Ralph Vaughan Williams’ A Serenade to Music, which although composed for a joyous occasion, both provided the calm and serenity necessary to set up A Child’s Requiem and showed off the choral expertise of The Princeton Singers.