March 6, 2019

Princeton Singers Pairs with Art Museum in Concert of British Music

By Nancy Plum

The Princeton Singers continued its long-standing collaboration with the Princeton University Art Museum this past weekend with a performance tied to the Museum’s current “Family Album” exhibit of 18th-century British painter Thomas Gainsborough. Princeton Singers Artistic Director Steven Sametz led the professional chamber vocal ensemble in a program of British a capella choral music spanning more than six centuries. Performing in varied configurations in the Museum’s medieval gallery, The Singers made full use of the unusual space and complementary acoustics in bringing music of “This Sceptered Isle” to life.

The Princeton Singers’ late Saturday afternoon performance (the concert was repeated later Saturday night) was centered on a five-part work by 16th-century English composer William Byrd. Byrd bridged the Protestant and Catholic music traditions while composing several settings of the Catholic liturgical mass at a time when it was politically dangerous to do so. Sametz built Saturday’s concert around Byrd’s late 16th-century Mass for Four Voices, interspersing secular works of British choral music among the mass movements.

With interesting trivia-laden and informative introductions to each selection, Sametz illustrated his programming concept for this eight-work concert. The chorus opened with a “Pastyme with Good Company,” with music and text likely by King Henry VIII, who apparently had time for composing amidst his many wives. The Singers generated a very bright sound in the space of the gallery, with a joyous and chipper choral tone aided by uniform vowel production among all singers.

Throughout the concert, The Princeton Singers demonstrated a variety of compositional techniques from the Middle Ages through the 21st century, with the works intermingled among Byrd’s Mass, from 15th-century fauxbourdon to the sharp dissonances of Cecilia McDowell’s Regina Coeli. An “Alleluia” from the 15th-century carol La cantenance angloise was sung by six men in one part of the gallery and six women in another, showing a warm sound when both halves of the chorus sang together.

Two of the pieces performed were madrigals, a touchstone of the English choral tradition with musical roots in Italy. Madrigals served as evening entertainment in Renaissance England, with texts ranging from sweet and serene to risqué. John Wilbye’s I Always Beg, dating from the turn of the 17th century, showed a full sound from 12 singers, with effective dynamic contrasts. A contrasting and challenging work in a similar vein was Sir Edward Elgar’s partsong There is Sweet Music, representing England’s 19th century Cecilian revival of a cappella vocal music. Scored for two choruses singing in two different keys, this piece showed a well-blended men’s sections with the women’s sections coming in as if someone had turned on a transposer. The two different keys used by Elgar had individual musical colors, and the occasional clashes of harmony further demonstrated the independence of each singer.

The five movements of Byrd’s Mass, the core work of the program, were divided into three groups and presented in liturgical order. Most unusual was the treatment of the central “Credo,” which The Singers performed without the soprano voice — recreating an alto-tenor-bass sonority which would have been prevalent in Byrd’s time. This movement showed a smooth flow, with the bass section providing a solid foundation to the sound. The text to the “Credo” is extensive, and The Singers well conveyed the varying shifts in the liturgical text — calm and serene words of salvation and jubilant resurrection verses. In the closing “Agnus Dei,” Sametz placed an emphasis on the harmonic suspensions in the music, slowing the movement down to draw out the harmonic tension. As throughout the concert, the choral sound from the ensemble was lean and uncluttered, in a space which could be unforgiving in showing glitches and mistakes. Sametz showed his compositional ingenuity in an encore which was a “mash-up” of the opening passages of the Byrd “Agnus Dei” which slowly morphed into Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday,” featuring tenor soloist Steven Williamson, well complemented by the wordless accompaniment of the rest of The Princeton Singers.