May 22, 2024

Princeton Singers Celebrates Double Anniversary with Concert of Diverse Music

By Nancy Plum

For 40 years, Princeton Singers has presented chamber choral concerts of unique repertoire in some of the more unusual spaces in the area. Comprised of 16 professional choristers, the Singers has maintained a strong commitment to high-level presentation of music of all periods, especially advocating for the creation of new choral works. Led by conductor Steven Sametz (celebrating his 25th year as artistic director), the ensemble observed both its commendable history and Sametz’s significant anniversary this past Saturday night with a concert of “The Best of The Princeton Singers” at Trinity Church in Princeton.

The polished chamber chorus presented a program of pieces from past seasons which represents the essence of Princeton Singers, ranging from sacred classical to romantic to jazz. The 15 selections sung paid tribute to the British choral tradition (in honor of founder John Bertalot), the children in our lives, love, and Shakespeare, as well as honoring a former board chair. True to its allegiance to contemporary composition, the ensemble included a number of 20th- and 21st-century works, including several by Sametz.

The Singers began the concert with two standards of English choral repertoire. Thomas Weelkes’ “Hosanna to the Son of David” drew from traditional Biblical texts, and demonstrated how much British sacred music has been shaped by church architecture. Singing from the transept of Trinity Church, the performers were able to send a well-blended sound throughout the space, emphasizing pure harmonies and matching vowels. C.V. Stanford’s “Beati quorum via” unfolded from the women’s voices, joined by a solid foundation of tenors and basses. Sametz effectively toyed with cadence rallentandos and dynamics, and the sopranos showed a particularly clean and resonant sectional sound.

The Singers used the space of Trinity Church imaginatively, with the tenors and basses singing from the back of the chancel in an especially moving performance of Kurt Bestor’s “Prayer of the Children,” with text as relevant today as when it was composed 30 years ago. An arrangement of the Alpen folksong “Der Ålpera” featured soloists Alize Rozsnyai, Hannah Orr, Clara Swartzentruber, and Eva Kastner-Puschl placed in different corners of the church, singing as though calling to one another across the mountains, with the chorus responding.

No Princeton Singers concert would be complete without music by the ensemble’s conductor, and the Steven Sametz pieces on the program showed how well the conductor/composer knows his chorus. A high point of Saturday night was Sametz’s arrangement of the American folksong “Shenandoah,” a tune so inherently great, it is hard not to imagine an appealing setting, and one which Sametz infused with 21st-century harmonies. The tenors led off with the melody, as clouds of harmonics floated over the Shenandoah Valley depicted. Key changes were well handled, and the number of solos which came from the chorus showed the musicians’ depth of talent. The Singers also performed Sametz’s hymn-like “In Memoriam: Musician’s Prayer,” in memory of longtime supporter Ann McGoldrick. In this piece, Sametz was able to impressively swell the dynamic range to show the full power of the ensemble.

The performance took a turn toward the humorous and somewhat virtuosic with Ward Swingle’s arrangement of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee,” with dynamic shifts and non-stop vocal parts well handled. A rhythmic rendition of “Double, Double, Toil and Trouble” by contemporary Finnish composer Jaakko Mäntejärvi drew a realistically witchy sound from the women and a choral sound which bubbled as if in a cauldron. The Princeton Singers closed their celebratory evening with Sametz’s inventive arrangement of a German “yodeling canon” in which voices chased one another, led by soloists soprano Clara Swartzentruber and alto Eva Kastner-Puschl.

Princeton Singers has come a long way since its founding at Trinity Church. Always a finely-tuned and precise vocal ensemble and now a fully professional and nationally well-respected chorus, the Singers has, in the past four decades, added significantly to the American choral tradition, with no plans to end its triumphant musical journey.