Princeton University Glee Club Opens “Glee Club Presents” Series
By Nancy Plum
Choral music performance has had a real struggle over the past two years. For the first six months of the pandemic, no one in choruses sang at all. Then, choristers sang into their computers for six months to create virtual performances, followed by a year of singing with masks. Now, as a foray into maskless and hopefully unobstructed live performance, the Princeton University Glee Club, conducted by Gabriel Crouch, presented a concert this past weekend with a vocal ensemble based in Zimbabwe, but with strong Princeton ties.
Saturday night’s concert in Richardson Auditorium featured the fruits of a week-long residency by the seven-member vocal ensemble Mushandirapamwe Singers, whose conductor Dr. Tanyaradzwa Tawengwa is a Princeton University graduate. While an undergraduate in Princeton’s music department, Tawengwa established a legacy of founding an a cappella chorus and a senior thesis musical theater work which later became an off-Broadway production. Since graduating, Tawengwa has built a career as a conductor, arranger, and virtuoso mbira musician, performing worldwide while paying tribute to Zimbabwe’s turbulent history and traditions.
Choral music from Zimbabwe other regions of the African continent is distinctive in its pure chordal harmonies and spirited approach to text. A number of the pieces in Saturday night’s concert, all of which were either composed or arranged by Tawengwa, conveyed a sense of infectious joy and hope, demonstrating why audiences cannot help but get caught up in the enthusiasm of the performers. Tawengwa divided the concert into five parts, with the first chikamu calling the concert to order and then taking the audience on a journey through Zimbabwe’s history, literature, and culture.
Mushandirapamwe Singers both welcomed the audience and introduced themselves individually with a spirited “Anchulele,” answered with well-blended singing from the University Glee Club. Tawengwa sang the lead vocal lines in many of the pieces, but the six accompanying singers of the Mushandirapamwe ensemble were all expertly trained performers in their own right, with backgrounds in opera, dance, classical performance, and Broadway. Tawengwa was equally as proficient on the piano, and accompanied herself and the choruses in several numbers.
The excerpts from Tawengwa’s Princeton senior thesis production, The Dawn of the Rooster, recounted the story of her family during the Zimbabwean Liberation Struggle of 1965-1980. “Muka Iwe,” with lyrics by Tawengwa, was a plaintive song with haunting harmonies, and like others of Tawengwa’s arrangements, built intensity through repetition and dynamics. In Tawengwa’s arrangement of “Zimbabwe Takaiwana NeHondo,” the singers conveyed the struggles of war as the rhythmic flow of the piece changed through the use of drums and gourds.
Tawengwa incorporated into the performance an instrument on which she has become an internationally-renowned performer. The mbira, used to communicate with the ancestors, consisted of a wooden board with attached metal prongs inside a wooden chamber with additional resonators. It was difficult to see Tawengwa plucking the staggered metal tines inside the chamber, but what was heard by the audience was complex and multi-meter counterpoint one might hear from a keyboard instrument. Tawengwa accompanied herself in the solo “Rarisa Musuro Wako,” singing a haunting melody with a pure and clear soprano tone against the raindrops of the mbira. Tawengwa expertly performed on two mbiras during the concert — each seemed to be tuned to a slightly different scale.
Call and response is a characteristic compositional tool of this region’s music, and the University Glee Club was clearly well in-tune and well-embedded in this concert, both musically and in spirit, while responding to a soloist’s “call.” The Mushandirapamwe Singers residency had immersed the Glee Club singers in the vocal techniques, performance attitudes, and languages of Zimbabwe, and the Glee Club singers were able to enthusiastically fit into the Mushandirapamwe performing style. In a piece calling for more raw singing than American choristers might be used to, the two choirs closed the concert with a rousing call for rain — there might not have been rain, but the ensemble clearly left the audience wanting more.
For this concert, rescheduled multiple times over the past two years, Glee Club conductor Crouch invited Tawengwa to return to campus as part of the “Glee Club Presents” series, which places the University chorus in “the company of great artists” and introduces both singers and audiences to musical repertory and styles they might not otherwise hear. Saturday night’s audience was celebratory for a variety of reasons — the new beginnings of the academic year, a return to live choral music, and appreciation for an ensemble which has the capability to turn any performing hall and its audience upside-down.