May 25, 2016

Princeton Pro Musica Closes the Season With Uplifting Tribute to American Music

Princeton Pro Musica closed its 2015-16 season with a concert of Americana this past weekend. In this election year, Pro Musica Music Director Ryan James Brandau chose to program Sunday afternoon’s performance at Richardson Auditorium in the hope that the spirit of American classical music might effectively ground people amidst the political flurry. With a sampling of 20th and 21st-century choral works, the 100-voice Pro Musica ended their season in uplifting fashion.

Sunday afternoon’s concert moved from the musically unassuming to the complex. Arrangers Alice Parker and Robert Shaw set a number of early American tunes in styles which both brought out the best in four-part choral singing and have served as good performance warm-ups over the past half-century. The men of Pro Musica began Wondrous Love with a well-blended sound, albeit a bit light from the tenors. As with all the selections on the program, diction was clear throughout the chorus.

Pro Musica ventured into more complicated repertoire with Eric Whitacre’s Cloudburst and John Corigliano Fern Hill. Pro Musica’s 30-voice Chamber Chorus presented the Whitacre piece, with a blend that was at its best in the softer dynamics. The soloists from within the chorus were strong, but the overall choral sound lacked some of the bite suggested by the dissonances. Accompanied by percussion and piano, the fragmented rhythmics were well executed.

Corigliano’s Fern Hill was accompanied by a small instrumental ensemble, which despite its size, spoke well in the hall. This piece had a broad and peaceful feel, with a sextet of soloists from within the chorus creating a clean vocal ensemble among themselves. The featured mezzo-soprano soloist in this piece was Margaret Lias, who possessed a free and relaxed voice well-suited to Dylan Thomas’s text. Ms. Lias easily maneuvered the lower passages of Corigliano’s melodic passages, gently accompanied by the horn and winds of the orchestra.

Most refreshing on the afternoon’s program was the presentation by 13 members of the orchestra of Aaron Copland’s Suite from Appalachian Spring. Usually heard by full symphonic orchestra, this piece showed its sweet sonorities and delicate instrumentation performed by a chamber ensemble. Dr. Brandau allowed the suite to unfold, creating a broad musical palette. Transitions among tempi were well handled, and with so few players, the rhythmic syncopations were crisp and well-emphasized. Bassoonist Edward Burns had a prominent role, and there was gentle interplay between flutist Mary Schmidt and clarinetist Pascal Archer. A high point of the work was the familiar “Simple Gifts” theme, which Dr. Brandau kept light and airy.

Princeton Pro Musica closed the concert with a selection of Copland’s Old American Songs, which set great American tunes in Copland’s unique choral arrangements. Accompanied by the full ensemble of instrumentalists, Pro Musica’s selection of five pieces replicated well an early 19th-century revival meeting atmosphere and the pioneering spirit of America moving westward. The members of Pro Musica were able to really sing out in these pieces, while emphasizing the crisp rhythms of “Ching-a-ring Chaw” and the long lines of “Zion’s Walls.” Dr. Brandau brought out in particular a grand feeling to “At the River,” further celebrating the American Spirit.

Princeton Pro Musica will open its 38th concert season on Sunday, October 30, 2016 with a performance in Richardson Auditorium of Franz Joseph Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass with the Polydora Ensemble. Information about tickets for next season can be obtained by calling (609) 683-5122 or by visiting