April 24, 2024

Princeton University Orchestra and Glee Club Present Rarely-heard Elgar Work

By Nancy Plum

The period in England between 17th-century composer Henry Purcell and the early 20th century was bleak for native composers. Ralph Vaughan Williams began putting British composition back on the map in the late 19th century, soon joined by Sir Edward Elgar, who had been knocking at the door of recognition for quite a while before the premiere of his epic choral/orchestral The Dream of Gerontius. Taking the practice of incorporating chorus into symphonic works to a new level, Elgar’s Gerontius traces the journey of the title character from deathbed to judgement before God. The Princeton University Orchestra and Glee Club joined forces this past weekend to present this monumental work at Richardson Auditorium. A combined Walter L. Nollner and Stuart B. Mindlin memorial concert, this performance also acknowledged graduating seniors of both ensembles, sending them off into the world celebrating a musical achievement and contemplating the cycle of life questions Elgar raised.

A setting of verses from English theologian John Henry Newman’s epic poem of the same title, Elgar’s work is divided into two sections, with Part I addressing Gerontius’ time on earth and Part II taking the audience through his soul’s journey through judgement to purgatory. Elgar set Cardinal Newman’s text for three vocal soloists representing Gerontius and several accompanying individuals, with a large chorus serving a variety of dramatic roles throughout the piece.  Led by Princeton University Glee Club director Gabriel Crouch, Friday night’s performance (the concert was repeated Saturday night) successfully conveyed Newman’s heroic story with operatic power and artistic finesse. With chorus and orchestra on elevated platforms to accommodate the large numbers and soloists placed throughout and above the stage, the audience heard a lush yet lean instrumental sound accompanying dramatic vocal solos and precise choral singing.

As Gerontius, tenor Anthony Dean Griffey brought a wide range of opera, concert and recital experience to the Richardson stage. Gerontius’ life was the focus of the first part of Elgar’s massive work, preparing for death aided by a chorus of “Assistants.” Griffey took his time in conveying the opening plaintive text, deftly moving from fear to torment, while the Assistants plead for mercy with a well-blended and ethereal choral sound. Griffey’s Soul of Gerontius opened Part II with restraint tinged with wonder, accompanied by a fresh and open string sound characteristic of Elgar’s time. The journey to his final destination was sung with clarity by Griffey, with crisp brass and subtle winds affirming a peaceful finality.

Gerontius is guided on his journey to the afterlife by several celestial beings. The role of the Angel, providing consolation and reassurance, was sung by one of Princeton University’s recent success stories. Countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, a member of the Princeton class of 2015, has sung with opera companies worldwide, with an extensive discography and résumé of competition wins. Elgar scored the Angel as a mezzo-soprano, but the casting of a countertenor in this performance enabled the audience to hear a more ethereal vocal sound unencumbered by vibrato. Cohen’s voice exhibited instinctive drama with an edge of urgency as he fulfilled his task of escorting Gerontius from this world to the next and showed particular strength in the upper register as Gerontius crossed over to the afterlife. Cohen and Griffey were frequently in dialog, often accompanied by delicate orchestration. Cohen’s closing aria was complemented with sensitivity by an a cappella quartet of winds, as the Angel set the stage for his charge’s final rest.

Bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams sang two roles of differing nature. As a Priest sending Gerontius on his journey, he sang from an alcove above the stage with a compelling vocal color against lush instrumental playing and the full choral sound of the Glee Club. Foster-Williams reappeared toward the end of the work as an Angel of the Agony, pleading with Jesus to save the souls of the faithful. He moved down to Gerontius’ level on the stage for this aria, adding a vocally powerful and impassioned intercession to the trio of Cohen’s Angel, the Soul of Gerontius and the Glee Club doubling as Voices on Earth and Souls on Purgatory. The chorus nimbly switched between these two functions, within a musical palette perhaps borrowed from Mahler. A Chamber Choir from within the Glee Club effectively implored a final and prayerful “Praise to the Holiest in the height.”

Throughout the performance, conductor Crouch found great shadings in dynamics and music, leading both ensembles to dramatic cadences. An understated conductor with clear-cut gestures, Crouch consistently built intensity in both ensembles, with good control over the score and style. The more than 100-voice Glee Club was meticulously trained and well-blended, especially in the Handelian praise choruses. The young voices may have needed more bite in dramatic fugal sections, but excelled in the angelic and comforting verses.

The University Orchestra, prepared by Michael Pratt, played with a rich and lean sound, executing graceful dynamic swells and Romantic effects. Elgar’s score made particular use of the solid trios of trombones and bassoons in the Orchestra, as well as the elegant upper winds. Harpists Leila Hudson and Chloe Lau nimbly led Gerontius up to heaven at the conclusion of the piece. The principal players alternated between Parts I and II, providing more students the opportunity to excel in Elgar’s opulent and difficult score.

The Dream of Gerontius is not only very rarely heard in this region but is also one of the most challenging and substantial works the Glee Club and Orchestra have performed in this annual collaboration. Friday night’s performance served as both a hardy conclusion to the season and a secure musical presentation of what Elgar himself called “good, healthy, full-blooded Romantic, remembered worldliness.”