May 8, 2019

Princeton Pro Musica Celebrates 40-Year History of Choral/Orchestral Performance

By Nancy Plum

A 40-year history is commendable for any performing organization, and Princeton Pro Musica, which presented its first concert in the spring of 1980 and has only had two music directors in four decades, celebrated this milestone this past weekend with a festive concert at the Princeton University Chapel. Pro Musica’s decades-long musical roots provided bookends to Saturday afternoon’s performance of the music of George Frideric Handel as founder Frances Fowler Slade led the 100-voice chorus in the opening and closing works on the program. Current Artistic Director Ryan James Brandau conducted the chorus and an accompanying chamber orchestra in several of Handel’s lesser-known but equally as appealing pieces, recreating a concert atmosphere which could have taken place in Handel’s time in a space which well suited the performers and repertoire.

Slade retired from Pro Musica in 2012, but many of the current singers performed under her direction for a number of years. Slade took the podium to lead the chorus and orchestra in two “Coronation” anthems of Handel, a composer whose music Pro Musica performed every year since its founding. Slade maintained a lively tempo in both pieces, keeping a crisp conducting style and encouraging the blocks of sound for which the chorus has been known. The University Chapel can be a cavernous space for a large chorus, and the choral sound that seemed to work best for Pro Musica included the ensemble’s trademark expansive homophonic passages. In both “Zadok the Priest” and “The King Shall Rejoice,” Slade guided the chorus well through the Baroque lilt in the music, demonstrating that even in retirement, she is still looking for precise endings and phrasing.

Brandau took the audience back to the early 18th century by juxtaposing excerpts from Handel’s oratorio Alexander’s Feast with an organ concerto which Handel might have played on the same program as the oratorio. Longtime Princeton University Chapel organist Eric Plutz, who also has a strong connection to Pro Musica, played Handel’s Concerto for Organ in G minor using effectively light registrations so that the ornaments and extended running lines were clearly heard in the Chapel. Accompanied by lean strings, Plutz showed solid command of Baroque style and musical effects.

The excerpts from Alexander’s Feast included four choruses and one aria, which was sung by guest soprano Sherezade Panthaki. Well-known throughout Baroque performance circles, Panthaki showed no fear of the space in the University Chapel, displaying a voice which soared into the Gothic architecture. It takes an unusual singer to fill the Chapel acoustic as a soloist, and especially in the upper registers, Panthaki’s voice was clear all the way to the last pew. The sopranos of Pro Musica were extremely vocally bright in the choruses from this oratorio and handled the vocal runs well, as Brandau ended each chorus with orchestral cadences that tapered away. The fifth chorus in particular, “Your Voices Tune,” shifted styles effectively, with a solid and driving underpinning from the celli and double basses.

Panthaki had her superstar moment singing Handel’s “Eternal Source of Light Divine,” an aria from the composer’s Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne, originally composed for solo alto and trumpet which has been recently heard more in the soprano world. This aria is loaded with long melodic lines, sustained ornaments, and a demand for almost superhuman vocal stamina. Singing from memory, Panthaki had no trouble drawing out the lines with perfect control over the aria and space. Joined by sustained strings and trumpeter Shelby Lewis playing a valveless instrument from the pulpit, Panthaki once again sent vocal sound soaring into the rafters of the Chapel, and the two soloists mesmerized the audience throughout the aria.

Brandau closed the concert with a graceful and elegant performance of Handel’s Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day in which Pro Musica showed that the ensemble was well at home in this period of music. Slade returned to the podium to lead the chorus in a closing crowd-pleaser from Handel’s Messiah, a staple of Pro Musica’s repertory. In a very quick tempo and subtly accompanied by the orchestra, Pro Musica closed its anniversary concert with the final chorus from Messiah, leaving a celebratory atmosphere in the Chapel to start off the next four decades of the ensemble’s history.