November 15, 2023

Princeton Symphony Orchestra Presents Choral/Orchestral Classic

By Nancy Plum

Princeton Symphony Orchestra returned choral music to its repertory this past weekend with a performance of a newly-reimagined edition of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s popular Requiem. Since Mozart’s untimely death in 1791 left the work incomplete, scholars have attempted to second-guess the composer and provide an alternative completion adhering to Mozart’s intent and historical character. Conductor Rossen Milanov and Princeton Symphony Orchestra brought this rendition of Mozart’s immortal masterpiece to Richardson Auditorium this past weekend, with composer Gregory Spears’ addition of three new movements to the mass for the dead. Joining the Orchestra for Saturday night’s performance (the concert was repeated Sunday afternoon) were four vocal soloists and Westminster Symphonic Choir.

Princeton Symphony Orchestra paired the Requiem with a 21st-century work inspired by a string quartet of Mozart contemporary Franz Joseph Haydn. Caroline Shaw’s 2011 Entr’acte for string orchestra incorporated contemporary musical effects into a classically-structured piece, including passages reminiscent of J.S. Bach. Milanov led the Orchestra in a feathery opening to Shaw’s one-movement work, allowing the music to quickly become powerful while maintaining a lean quality. Concertmaster Basia Danilow and principal cellist Alistair MacRae played an intense duet against relentless pizzicati of the other players, and MacRae’s graceful lute-like playing delicately brought Shaw’s unique and appealing work to a close.

As listeners know from movies and urban legend, Mozart only composed small portions of Requiem before he died in December 1791. The Requiem usually heard today was a version finished by fellow Austrian composer and conductor Franz Xaver Süssmayr, completed as he thought Mozart would have if he had lived. Composer Gregory Spears aimed to return the work to its original intention as a Requiem, and in the same way that Mozart looked to the past for his inspiration, Spears drew from the more than 200 years of artistic evolution since Mozart’s death to create music informed by different sources and time periods.

Mozart scored his work for chorus, orchestra, and four vocal soloists. Joining Princeton Symphony Orchestra and Westminster Symphonic Choir were soprano Abigail Rethwisch, mezzo-soprano Chelsea Laggan, tenor Carlos Enrique Santelli, and baritone Eric McKeever. All soloists brought operatic experience with them to the performance, with Rethwisch and Laggan commanding the stage compellingly. Rethwisch sang with a more dramatic tone than the score called for at times, but she and Laggan blended together particularly well in the quartet. McKeever excelled at lyrical upper-register passages, especially in the “Recordare” quartet. Spears honored the 18th-century Viennese church tradition of setting the “Benediction” at least partly for solo quartet, and the quartet contrasted well with the Choir.

The Westminster Choir College history has been tumultuous over recent years, especially with the school’s relocation to the Rider University campus. With a highly-selective student body of more than 400 at its peak, Westminster was known for graduating highly-skilled vocal performers who became career singers. Part of the students’ education was participation in Westminster’s choral ensembles, including the flagship 150-voice Symphonic Choir. The instability of the past five years has possibly affected the school’s ensembles most of all, with the roster of Symphonic Choir falling to half of what it had been. 

The Symphonic Choir which joined Princeton Symphony this past weekend was 70 singers, but under Dr. James Jordan’s preparation was no less well-trained than Westminster choruses of the past. The fewer numbers, especially among tenors and basses, led to the lower voices being lost in thick orchestration, and vocal fatigue no doubt contributed to tuning issues in the soprano section toward the work’s close, but the chorus had its share of high points. The ensemble performed its best in the ethereal passages of the “Lacrimosa” and “Benedictus” movements, singing with the clear and well-tuned choral tone for which the school’s ensembles have always been known. The choral runs throughout the Requiem, such the quick-moving opening “Kyrie,” had clearly been well-drilled into the ensemble.

Conductor Milanov led an Orchestra which was true to Mozart’s style, as well as Spears’ contemporary objectives. Clarinetists Pascal Archer and Gi Lee intriguingly played basset horns, 18th-century members of the clarinet family, adding a rich color to the texture. Vladislav Petrachev provided a regal tenor trombone solo to accompany baritone McKeever’s rendition of “Tuba Mirum,” while the full Orchestra demonstrated crisp and historically accurate playing throughout.

Spears acknowledges that his updated movements may not sound like Mozart, but rather pay homage to the juxtaposition of old and new musical styles which Mozart also used. The “Sanctus” was dark and dramatic, with rolling choral triplets at times hard to hear over the orchestration. Plaintive triplets returned in a dissonant “Agnus Dei,” with the music returning to Mozart’s original passages to close the work. With this edition, Spears joins an illustrious lineage of composers who have sought to transform Mozart’s genius from scraps of unfinished phrases to performable form, and with this past weekend’s performances, Milanov and Princeton Symphony Orchestra brought together well the past and the present. 

Princeton Symphony Orchestra will present two Holiday Pops! concerts on Saturday, December 16 at 3 and 6 p.m. at Richardson Auditorium. Conducted by John Devlin, these performances will feature vocalist Morgan James, as well as the Princeton High School Choir. Ticket information can be found at