November 6, 2019

Princeton Pro Musica Opens Season with All-Mozart Concert

By Nancy Plum

Despite the vast amount and popularity of liturgical music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, sacred music was not the composer’s principal interest. One would have a hard time convincing the choral field of this — two works in almost every symphonic chorus’ repertory are Mozart’s deathbed Requiem and his monumental, yet incomplete, Great Mass in C minor. The 100-voice Princeton Pro Musica opened its 2019-2020 season with the Mass this past Sunday night at Richardson Auditorium, filling the stage with singers, vocal soloists, and orchestral instrumentalists, all ably led by Pro Musica Artistic Director Ryan James Brandau. Paired with Mozart’s lively Concerto for Clarinet in A Major, the Great Mass in C minor created a program unique in the fact that these were two works Mozart composed because he wanted to, not because he had to for financial reasons.

Mozart’s music for wind instruments is universally charming and captivating. The clarinet appears to have been a particular favorite, likely due to his close friendship with fellow Masonic lodge member Anton Stadler, for whom he composed the 1789 Concerto for Clarinet. The instrument for which this work was composed was likely a basset clarinet — a standard clarinet to which was affixed an extension adding notes in the lower register. Nineteenth-century published versions of this piece adjusted the lower “extension” passages to higher octaves, in some ways making the Concerto more difficult to play. To open Sunday afternoon’s Pro Musica concert, Brandau led a chamber-sized orchestra and guest clarinet soloist Pascal Archer in a spirited performance of Mozart’s three-movement Concerto. Archer, currently acting principal clarinetist for the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, demonstrated not only his command of the instrument and the works technical demands, but also how demonic Mozart’s solo writing could be.

Following a delicate orchestral introduction, Archer’s playing topped off the string sound like rich icing. The solo clarinet’s quickly-moving lines emerged clearly from the orchestral texture, as Archer achieved the same dynamic contrasts as the orchestra. He maneuvered the octave melodic leaps cleanly and showed shifts in musical character that gave the impression at times that he was carrying on a humorous musical conversation with himself, accompanied by the orchestra. Brandau’s conducting was precise and stylistically informed, as Archer took his time on long phrases, showing strength of air. 

The foundation of Pro Musica concerts is the chorus — featured Sunday afternoon in Mozart’s Great Mass in C minor. Rooted in the compositional techniques of Bach and Handel, the Mass was a peace offering from Mozart to his father, who had expressed displeasure at Wolfgang’s choice of a bride. Completed in the early 1780s, a period of Mozart’s greatest operatic composition, the Mass is hardly a church piece — it is opera masquerading as a liturgical work. The vocal demands are extensive, especially for the two soprano soloists but also for the chorus.

Mozart clearly had a penchant for sopranos — and for putting them through their vocal paces. The writing for the two soprano soloists in the Mass is equivalent to the technical requirements of the Clarinet Concerto heard in the first half of the concert, with multi-octave skips and fierce running passages. Pro Musica’s performance of the Mass featured soprano soloists Clara Rottsolk (a frequent performer in Princeton) and Molly Netter. Both singers have extensive experience in music of the 18th century, but Rottsolk was the performer able to best convey the drama of the Mass. She sang the penitent text “Christe eleison” with suitable plaintiveness, and provided a dramatic edge to the “Domine Deus” duet with Netter. She also presented the signature aria of the Mass, the “Et incarnatus est” of the “Credo” with tenderness and devotion, gracefully accompanied by flutist John Romeri, oboist Lillian Copeland, and bassoonist William Hestand.

In the third movement of the Mass, a soprano solo on the text “Laudamus te” is an operatic tour de force, stretching across two octaves and replete with extended trills and long passages of 16th notes. Netter sang this aria with a light flexible voice, but one which was lost on the lower notes and the trills. Tenor Brian Giebler and bass-baritone Andrew Padgett joined the two sopranos in one trio and a quartet, but their voices, although clean and accurate, failed to carry through the hall.

Mozart’s Great Mass in C minor is a work which the Pro Musica chorus would have well in hand, and the ensemble’s singing of the homophonic choruses was strong and well-blended. Although the sectional soprano sound became a bit diffuse in high loud passages, Brandau has built the tenor and bass sections well, and wisely kept the choral fugues on the light side to allow all parts to be heard. An incomplete piece, the Mass ended with an unusually dramatic “Benedictus” and “Osanna,” which the double-chorus Pro Musica presented solidly to close Mozart’s very personal and reflective work.