April 6, 2022

PU Chamber Choir Presents Program of Challenging Music for Today’s World

By Nancy Plum

Princeton University Chamber Choir returned to live performance last Saturday night making a statement. Led by conductor Gabriel Crouch, the 48-voice chorus presented a program originally scheduled for April 2020, but which was just as profound today, both in perseverance of the singers and the creativity the canceled concert generated during the University’s shutdowns. Past and present came together in the Chamber Choir’s concert at Richardson Auditorium as the choristers emerged from the pandemic to find even more meaning in the works of Francis Poulenc and Mary Lou Williams. As a further acknowledgement of current times, the Chamber Choir presented this performance in collaboration with “02.24.2022,” a student-driven initiative supporting students on campus affected by the war in Ukraine and raising funds to provide local currency to refugees. 

Princeton University graduate Allison Spann is no stranger to University musical ensembles; her compositions have been played on campus before. Having lost a chunk of her senior year to the spring 2020 shutdown, Spann took the opportunity to create a work for the Chamber Choir which explored the connections between Poulenc’s Figure Humaine and Williams’ St. Martin de Porres, honoring both composers and their pursuit of divine liberation through music.

Spann commanded the stage herself for the Chamber Choir’s performance of her piece Before the light is gone. The Choir’s presentation of Spann’s work had the atmosphere of a jazz club, with Spann singing the soprano solo accompanied by the expert jazz piano accompaniment of Cherry Ge and Phillip Taylor. Spann’s work is mostly for solo voice (representing liberty, freedom or earth), with reaffirmation of text by the chorus (as mankind). Following a recited opening verse, Spann reached effectively into her upper register with a scatt singing effect, soaring above smooth homophonic chords sung by the Chamber Choir. An octet singing from the front of the stage showed Spann’s skill at writing music for close harmonies, with tricky dissonances well-handled and all singers conveying Spann’s wish to “pave the way for hope through rest, generosity, and compassion.” 

As a child prodigy, American composer and pianist Mary Lou Williams was known as the “Little Piano Girl,” a moniker which changed to the “First Lady of Jazz Keyboard” as her career skyrocketed in the mid-20th century. Like Poulenc, Williams experienced a midlife conversion to Catholicism, which greatly influenced her 1962 St. Martin de Porres. Scored for a chorus divided into up to 10 parts and accompanied by piano, this work sought to capture the unique spirit of the Peruvian patron saint of the poor and all those seeking racial harmony. 

As with the Spann piece, Williams’ St. Martin de Porres was full of close harmonies, at which Princeton University singers excel. The Chamber Choir demonstrated impeccable tuning, a result which Gabriel Crouch is also expert at deriving from vocal ensembles as a choir trainer. The voices were on the light side, which aided in blending the sound. The men’s sections seemed to carry much of the text, with women adding well-tuned responses. The Chamber Choir was accompanied by pianist Cyrus Chestnut, a legend in his own right in jazz performance. A solo piano interlude within Williams’ piece had a tango feel, and Chestnut proved himself to be a solid improvisor on the keyboard. Following this piece, Chestnut continued to show his prowess and musical creativity with an encore piano improvisation on a Gregorian chant. 

French composer Francis Poulenc was one of the most important composers of 20th-century choral music. Following a conversion to Catholicism, Poulenc embarked on a decade-long period of composing choral works with profound texts and complex unaccompanied textures, particularly as World War II tore France apart. The eight-movement Figure Humaine was inspired by both the poetry of Paul Éluard and Poulenc’s visit to the pilgrimage site of Rocamadour in the Pyrenees. Éluard’s poetry was especially significant during the war; the poem which became the closing verse of Figure Humaine was dropped in leaflet form by parachute over France during the war to boost morale and encourage the French Resistance. 

Princeton University Chamber Choir’s performance of Poulenc’s powerful work for double chorus opened with a strong male choral sound, with the sopranos providing a focused and straight vocal tone over the texture. Chords were pure, moving the text forward. Poulenc juxtaposed lively music against serene passages; the second movement was Gypsy-like, requiring quick diction which was well delivered by the chorus. Crouch led the ensemble with decisive conducting strokes yet was able to bring the movement to a delicate close. Long streams of sound marked all three works on Saturday night’s program, but especially in Poulenc’s work. Throughout the cantata, the Chamber Choir sang with precise diction, keeping the thirds of chords high, and providing a rich sound when required. 

The performance of the sixth movement of Poulenc’s Figure Humaine was preceded by an arrangement of this movement for cello by David Kim, also a member of the class of 2020. During the choral hiatus at the University, Kim composed an arrangement of this music for seven cellos, which he subsequently recorded himself. Kim’s playing was extraordinary, creating a particularly mournful sound on the melody against the wide intervals of his arrangement. 

The final movement, “Liberté,” followed two choristers reading the French text, giving emphasis to set up the well sung flowing chords and dynamic variety. Crouch noted before the concert that it is “impossible to make any art without reflecting on the world in which it is being made,” and the Chamber Choir’s performance Saturday night brought to the forefront both current events and the past two years of these students’ lives.