March 4, 2020

University Glee Club and Antioch Chamber Ensemble Present Collaboration of “Conversations”

By Nancy Plum

Before coming to Princeton University as director of choral activities, conductor Gabriel Crouch enjoyed an international career as a professional choral artist. Since assuming leadership of the Princeton University Glee Club, Crouch has used his worldwide reach to bring visiting choral ensembles to Princeton to collaborate with the University music department in an annual “Glee Club Presents” series. These collaborations include mini-residencies in which the guest chorus works together with University Glee Club singers and the two ensembles present a joint concert.

This year’s “Glee Club Presents” choral experience featured the New York-based Antioch Chamber Ensemble, a professional chorus which has been performing worldwide and recording for more than 20 years. The joint collaboration between the Antioch Ensemble and University Glee Club had a special focus on undergraduate composers within the Glee Club, and the culminating performance featured several newly-composed works by current and past Glee Club members.

Saturday night’s concert at Richardson Auditorium also paid homage to one of choral music’s most challenging pieces — Thomas Tallis’ 40-voice motet Spem in alium. Glee Club conductor Gabriel Crouch bracketed the performance with Tallis’ work to close and another 40-voice 16th-century motet to open, one which may have served as an inspiration for Tallis. Italian instrumentalist Alessandro Striggio served as composer to the renowned Medici family, and his five-choir, 40-voice Ecce beatam lucem was acoustically well suited for Italy’s expansive multi-dome cathedrals. Placing the five choirs both onstage and throughout the Richardson balcony, Crouch led the Glee Club (with the Antioch singers intermingled) from the stage, allowing the sound to travel around and through the hall. Crouch elicited effective dynamic contrasts from the more than 100 singers, finding variety in the homophonic choral writing. At the close of the piece, the last chord echoed well in the hall.

In this concert, subtitled “Conversations,” the two choral ensembles presented a number of contemporary pieces with strong Princeton connections. The Antioch Ensemble, combined with the Glee Club’s select Princeton Vocal Consort of five singers, performed a pair of works which were “conversations” between contrasting 16th-century schools of thought, as well as among “strangers” encountered in modern-day settings. Joanna Marsh’s Dialogo and Quodlibet placed the women of the Antioch and Vocal Consort ensembles in one circle, with the men in another, singing texts from 16th-century letters. Led by Antioch Ensemble conductor Joshua Copeland, the combined soprano and alto sound was light and sparkly, while the tenors and basses provided a solid musical argument in return. In the following work, Princeton University graduate student Natalie Dietterich focused Conversations with strangers on random encounters with individuals in diners and coffee shops in a search for commentary on the current opioid crisis. The two ensembles came together for this work, as Copeland led the singers in a performance demonstrating impeccable tuning and control of vibrato in a piece containing a great deal of dissonance.

Gabriel looked to two former members of the Glee Club to recreate a piece composed to memorialize a 1919 racial incident in Chicago. Kuzorodzwa kwaEugene (Epitaph for Eugene Williams) was originally a 12-part five-movement work with instruments, and Gabriel asked co-composers Tanyaradzwa Tawengwa and Flannery Cunningham, both recent graduates of the University, to rewrite the last movement for two choirs and narrator. The Antioch Ensemble and Glee Club presented a smooth and homophonic accompaniment to the powerful text narration written and performed by Angel C. Dye. The ensembles sang the music by these two innovative composers with effective musical flow to recapture the Illinois beach where the original incident took place.

Gabriel also turned to the current Glee Club roster for two more world premieres. University junior Natalie Stein’s In a world that misperceives you was sung by the Antioch Ensemble featuring a vocally clean trio of women and soft harmonic changes in a piece with very gentle musical effects. For his Missa Brevissima, Theo Trevisan, also a University junior, recalled his student days at the American Boychoir School, which was in residence in Princeton for a number of decades.  Students who attended the Boychoir School often comment on the encapsulation of an extensive and high-level musical mini-career compressed into three or four years of middle school. Trevisan captured this musical intensity in a one-movement condensation of the five movements of the Latin mass. In this piece, also sung by the Antioch Ensemble conducted by Joshua Copeland, the chorus reached elegant heights to phrases and a well-contained choral blend in a melodic work showing great independence among the vocal lines.

The Glee Club and Antioch Ensemble returned to their places in eight choirs around the hall to close the concert in Thomas Tallis’ Spem in alium, and the choral sound traveled slowly clockwise among the choirs around the hall, as led by Copeland. The sopranos and altos from all choruses demonstrated a pure vocal sound, with major chords tuned very high and harmonic shifts that worked well throughout all sections. Tallis’ piece had a celebratory feel to it, fitting well with the concert that seemed a triumphant finale to the Antioch Chamber Ensemble residency in Princeton.