February 24, 2016

Princeton University Glee Club Performs With Renowned Ladysmith Black Mambazo

Choral music can be a tough sell, and sometimes it takes a star to bring new audiences into the fold. The Princeton University Glee Club has been a “star” in its own right, and the “Glee Club Presents” series, begun in 2013, has packed venues on and around campus with audiences eager to hear the chorus collaborate with international performers. The University Glee Club presented the fifth concert in this series this past weekend, filling Richardson Auditorium for a joint performance with the renowned vocal ensemble Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Fresh on the heels of the Glee Club’s tour to South Africa, Saturday night’s concert showed the chorus reaching well into its own diversity, as well as the international performing arena. 

Under Director Gabriel Crouch’s leadership, the Glee Club has been lean and precise, performing music of all periods and genres with solid vocal tone and nuance. To open Saturday night’s concert, Mr. Crouch placed the 70+-voice Glee Club in a circle on the Richardson stage for Knut Nystedt’s Immortal Bach, a choral fragmentation of Bach’s chorale “Komm, süsser Tod.” This contemporary arrangement first presented the chorale in straightforward fashion, and then ventured into tuning areas of which Bach never would have dreamed. The Glee Club easily maneuvered through streams of close chords requiring seemingly endless air to maintain the sound and intensity. The sound of the sopranos was straight and pure without being strident, and final chords arrived well. Mr. Crouch conducted the subtle changes within the streams of sound, and with absolute concentration, the singers of the Glee Club sent their voices through the hall like lasers.

Mr. Crouch often likes to take a survey approach to choral music in his performances, and this concert of selections from the Glee Club’s South Africa tour was no exception. The eight pieces sung by the Glee Club included Russian sacred music and Americana, as well as a choral bridge to the evening’s guest artists. A true educator, Mr. Crouch had no problem sharing the podium Saturday night with talented student and early-career conductors. Stephanie Leotsakos, usually heard in the alto section, conducted the first of three pieces from the Moscow Synodal School. Ms. Leotsakos led the Glee Club with supreme confidence and a gentle flow to her conducting gestures, eliciting a very bright sound for Rachmaninoff’s Hvalite Ghospoda. The Russian words were consistently very crisp, and the closing “Alliluyia” especially resonant. The other two Russian pieces on the program, from composers Rachmaninoff and Pavel Chesnokov, featured the talented student soloists tenor Sergei Tugarinov and alto Saunghee Ko. Mr. Tugarinov sang lyrically with clean Russian text, as the chorus provided subtle chordal background. Ms. Ko showed herself to be a fearless mezzo-soprano, with a powerful sound that carried straight to the back of the hall and good expression in the lower registers of the music. A junior at the University, Ms. Ko is a singer who could easily have a bright future in opera.

Renata Dworak, assistant director of the Glee Club, led the ensemble in a spirited rendition of Stephen Foster’s Nelly Bly, arranged by Jack Halloran. Mr. Halloran’s arrangement was brisk, with Ms. Dworak maintaining good communication with the singers, and they responded well in return. What was clear from Mr. Crouch’s showcasing of these two young conductors was that, especially in the case of Ms. Leotsakos, the University music department has produced career-level instrumentalists, singers and orchestral conductors, and now also choral directors.

Linking the Glee Club’s portion of the concert to that of Ladysmith Black Mambazo was Sbongiseni Duma’s Imfundo, led by Mr. Duma and featuring soprano Tanyaradzwa Tawengwa singing and playing the mbira, an instrument of plucked “tines” within a cylindrical resonator. This piece, performed in its U.S. premiere by the Glee Club, was governed by rhythm, language, and movement. Like many South African choral pieces, the vocal background was very chordal, with variety derived from voicings, movement, and the addition of solos or instruments.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo has served as “South Africa’s Cultural Ambassadors to the world” for more than 50 years, with four sons of the founder now singing in the ensemble. Throughout the turbulent second half of the 20th century in South Africa, this group of up to nine singers toured the world with their version of “peaceful musical protest.” Their appearance in Princeton on Saturday night was part of their most recent tour, as they “sing for peace around the world.”

Ladysmith’s performance at Richardson showed the solid South African choral tradition, and paid tribute to its own past with selections from the ensemble’s first album in 1973 and founder Joseph Shabalala’s 1986 collaboration with Paul Simon. Their songs told stories through music, singing of the past, present, and future. The four Shabalala sons currently singing in the ensemble were of diverse voice and consistent energy and enthusiasm, with all singing lyrically with Thulani Shabalala showing the most indigenous African vocal effects.

Choral music at Princeton University has taken off in recent years, with the Glee Club in top form and the addition of the “William Trego Singers” providing students with additional vocal training. Some in the audience on Saturday night no doubt came to hear Ladysmith Black Mambazo, but no one could have left the concert without appreciation for the achievements of the University Glee Club as well.