March 1, 2023

Princeton University Glee Club Presents Annual Nollner Memorial Concert

By Nancy Plum

Princeton University Glee Club paid tribute to former longtime Glee Club conductor Walter L. Nollner this past weekend with a concert linking the high Baroque to the 21st century. Saturday night’s performance at Richardson Auditorium featured a piece by composer and former Princeton student Caroline Shaw as well as three choral/orchestral works by Johann Sebastian Bach. Led by Glee Club conductor Gabriel Crouch, the concert was in partnership with “02.24.2022,” the Princeton student organization supporting victims of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

Shaw’s The Listeners was commissioned in 2018 by the San Francisco-based Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and was inspired by NASA’s “Golden Record” of 1977, a pair of phonograph recordings launched into space aboard the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft conveying the diversity of life and culture on Earth. Shaw’s piece was a suite of 10 short settings of poetry, as well as spoken excerpts from the Golden Record. Shaw scored the work for chorus and orchestra with baritone and contralto soloists; the Glee Club nimbly adjusted performing forces when the baritone soloist withdrew at the last minute, and contralto Robin Biers and conductor Crouch took up the solos. 

The texts were mostly presented by the soloists, as well as recordings of Carl Sagan and other scientists, complemented by Camilla Tassi’s digital projections. From the outset, Biers demonstrated a rich and unhurried vocal sound, declaiming the verses cleanly. Throughout the piece, the Glee Club was a well-balanced ensemble with clean accompaniment from a chamber orchestra of Baroque period instruments. Shaw’s choral writing was dissonant but appealing, with the piece proving to be immediately accessible.

Little is known about the origins or intent of Bach’s cantata Nun ist das Heil und die Kraft, BWV 50. A single-movement work for chorus and orchestra setting texts from the Book of Revelation, this work does not fit the usual format of Bach’s cantatas, and it is unclear if the piece is part of something larger or a stand-alone choral/orchestral work. The most prevalent version performed is for double chorus and orchestra, but Dutch organist and musicologist Jan Kleinbussink reconstructed an edition for single chorus. In Saturday night’s performance, the Glee Club presented both versions, each conducted by one of the ensemble’s student conductors. 

University senior Shruti Venkat took the podium first, leading the Glee Club in the “single choir version” of the cantata. Venkat and the ensemble opened the work with clarity, emphasizing the percussive nature of the music. Sixteenth-note figures were clean, punctuated by brass and with the orchestra acting as a second chorus. The double-chorus version was conducted by Katie Chou, also a University senior. Chou led the chorus in a stately performance, with the second choir comprised of a chamber ensemble of eleven singers. Both of these young conductors showed clean technique and attention to musical detail. 

The two versions of Bach’s cantata bracketed a performance of one of the Baroque master’s most popular works. Composed in 1723, Bach’s Magnificat for chorus, orchestra and soloists sets the prayer of Mary proclaiming the greatness of the Lord in a joyful combination of intricate counterpoint and traditional Baroque compositional devices. Soloists soprano Sonya Headlam, contralto Robin Biers and tenor David Kellett joined the Glee Club and orchestra for a performance of clean singing and precise orchestral accompaniment.

Conductor Crouch kept the overall sound crisp and refined from both chorus and orchestra, freeing the chorus to rise to full solid strength on texts of power and affirmation. Headlam sang two arias, with the setting of “Quia respexit humilitatem” suiting her voice particularly well, as instrumentalist David Dickey provided a rich oboe d’amore accompaniment. Biers provided an elegant rendition of the text “Esurientes implevit bonis,” accompanied by flutists Mei Stone and Bethanne Walker, covering the wide range of Bach’s writing well, and demonstrating an appealing and easy-going way of maneuvering difficult lines. Tenor Kellett sang the declamatory “Deposuit potentes” with fire in the upper register and clean vocal runs. The Glee Club was on point throughout the work, with an impressive solo trio of Alyssa Noone, Katelyn Rodrigues, and Corinna Brueckner conveying the comforting text of “Suscepit Israel.” 

During the concert Crouch recognized the graduating Glee Club seniors, who may have lost as much as half their college experience to the pandemic. Despite the obstacles of the past three years, the Glee Club is ending this season on a high note, and Crouch fittingly praised this year’s graduating choral class for achieving the “responsibilities and rewards of being in a choir.”