Reviews

 

“The Princeton Singers Pay Tribute to Sandy Hook Tragedy With a New Work” – By Nancy Plum, Town Topics, November 25, 2015

Music in response to great tragedy over the centuries has covered the spectrum of war songs, to orchestral works inspired by current events, to popular music. Perhaps as a sign of the time, musical works addressing man-made tragedies have become more common in the past two decades, such as John Adam’s On the Transmigration of Souls, commissioned shortly after 9/11. In 2014, composer and Princeton Singers Artistic Director Steven Sametz found himself compelled to compose a work in memory of those killed in the 2012 Sandy Hooks Elementary School shootings in Connecticut, believing that “as artists, we are hopeful that what we create may offer healing to those who mourn.” Perhaps also as a sign of the times, Sametz’s A Child’s Requiem is a multi-media work, incorporating artwork from elementary school-age children into a supertitled performance featuring two choirs, soloists, and orchestra. For Saturday night’s concert at Princeton Meadows Church and Event Center, The Princeton Singers were joined by the Ensemble and Cantores choirs of the Princeton Girlchoir, as well as three vocal soloists and a highly-polished orchestra.

 

The tributes to the victims of Sandy Hook began Saturday night in the entryway to Princeton Meadow Church with portraits of the children. In this work, Sametz also paid tribute to several musical traditions of the past, beginning with a musical anagram of letters from the words “Sandy Hook.” The four pitches derived formed a musical cell which Sametz wove into an orchestral “Prologue” marked by a poignant cello solo and visually accompanied by a child’s drawing of a broken heart.

 

The ten movements of A Child’s Requiem traced the events of December 14, 2012, with the opening chorus juxtaposing the joyful cacophony of an elementary school music class with gunfire. Sametz intertwined “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and a child’s drawing of the school with the visual impact of Girlchoir members walking across the stage whispering three phrases characterizing the tragedy — “Stay in line,” “Hold hands,” and “Keep your eyes closed.” In leading the musicians in this complex movement, Sametz maintained a solidly clean conducting style, creating an atmosphere in which one could feel the tension in the school. The Princeton Singers ensemble sang from far back on the stage, making the singers hard to hear at times, but the chorus’s well-blended and crisp sound came through well in later movements. Woven throughout A Child’s Requiem were short narrations written by children and recited by members of the Girlchoir.

 

As A Child’s Requiem progressed, The Princeton Singers, Princeton Girlchoir, and orchestra continued to mesmerize the audience with their interpretation of texts from children and teachers, as well as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Emily Dickinson. Providing musical commentary was a “family” of soloists — soprano Tami Petty, offering a mother’s perspective; tenor David Vanderwal with a father’s words; and treble soloist Casey Durso bringing a child’s view to life. Ms. Petty sang with even vocal color and a particularly expressive top register, accompanied by The Princeton Singers providing comforting words adapted from the Ein Deutsches Requiem of Johannes Brahms. Mr. Vanderwal maneuvered wide-ranging melodic lines well, capturing a father’s attempt to make sense of it all. Treble soloist Ms. Durso was the voice of innocence, perfectly matching the text with a clear soprano voice.

 

The orchestra compiled for this performance cleanly played an orchestration which was lush when necessary and percussive when the tense atmosphere called for it. A moving violin solo was played by concertmaster Michael Jorgensen, and throughout the work, harpist Andrea Wittchen elevated the music to ethereal and angelic. In their varied singing combinations from different points of the stage, the Princeton Girlchoir, prepared by Lynnel Joy Jenkins and John Wilson, sang with strength of vocal tone, demonstrating well-tuned thirds when singing in two parts.

 

Sametz and The Princeton Singers preceded A Child’s Requiem with Ralph Vaughan Williams’ A Serenade to Music, which although composed for a joyous occasion, both provided the calm and serenity necessary to set up A Child’s Requiem and showed off the choral expertise of The Princeton Singers.

 

“The Princeton Singers Celebrate 30 Years With a “Dream Concert”” –  By Nancy Plum, Town Topics, October 1, 2014

A 30-year history is an accomplishment, whether in a job, residence, or membership in a club. In the case of The Princeton Singers, a 30-year history has meant growth from a British-focused volunteer chorus to a fully professional vocal ensemble well known in choral circles. With only two conductors in its esteemed history, The Princeton Singers had a lot to celebrate this past weekend.

 

“The Dream Concert,” the ensemble’s 30th anniversary celebration, musically summarized the programming dreams of the chorus, both past and present. Reaching back to the Edwardian British and Renaissance with which John Bertalot launched the Singers, and looking ahead to the 21st century through music composed by current conductor Steven Sametz, the concert Saturday night at Trinity Church showed that throughout these past 30 years, the emphasis on vocal tuning and precise musicianship has never wavered.

 

As Mr. Sametz expressed in his opening remarks, conductor John Bertalot dreamed The Princeton Singers into reality, largely through exploring the multi-century English choral tradition. The Singers paid tribute to these origins in their opening selections, C.V. Stanford’s double chorus Coelos Ascendit Hodie, followed by a two 16th and 17th-century works. The augmented chorus of The Princeton Singers, including all alumni who were in attendance, demonstrated a full and rich choral sound in what was a joyful way to start a concert. Monteverdi’s Si ch’io vorrei morire, sung by the Singers alone, presented a sharp and crisp sound as the chorus stood at the foot of Trinity’s chancel. The typically Monteverdian tuning quirks and suspensions came through well, and the women’s sections were especially well tuned, as Mr. Sametz built the tension well toward the end of the jubilant text. The poignant text of Philippe Verdelot’s patriotic Italia mia was performed with smooth homophony, as this mid-16th century piece proved as passionately nationalistic as the more well-known 19th-century works of Verdi.

 

Mr. Sametz selected several contemporary works for this performance, including one of the classic “dream” choral works — Eric Whitacre’s Leonardo Dreams of his Flying Machine. Musically depicting the little known legend that Da Vinci envisioned flying machines even in the late 15th century, Whitacre wrote a piece in which the singers tell the story through complex harmonies and a clever text well set for voices. Sound effects become part of the fabric, and The Princeton Singers had no trouble shifting gears from Renaissance polyphony to the sharp and decisive tone required by this piece.

 

The versatility of The Singers was demonstrated multiple times throughout the concert, including in Mr. Sametz’s two compositions programmed for the evening. Three Mystical Choruses set three different texts in three different languages, and The Singers presented each well from three different locations within the chancel. As a composer, Mr. Sametz clearly knows the chorus well, finding especially silky harmonies in the setting of the Shabbat blessing “En kelohenu.” The setting of Kabir’s “Mein to tere paas me” showed a much more sparse vocal color, and the chorus had no trouble with the off-rhythms in the piece. The other work of Mr. Sametz performed, Dante’s Dream, set an extensive passage of Dante Alighieri’s text in a chant-like manner and a vocal effect which was pointillist and full of light. Especially impressive was mezzo-soprano Sage Lutton, who sang a lyrical solo in “Niño de Rosas,” the first of Sametz’s Three Mystical Choruses.

 

The Princeton Singers has made a reputation presenting multicultural contemporary works, and one of its trademark pieces is Stephen Leek’s Knowee, the story of an Aboriginal figure. In Aboriginal folklore, Knowee wanders the skies looking for her son, and the women of the Singers proved they were all independently strong singers as they wandered through the aisles of Trinity Church, each musically looking for her mythical son. In the same multicultural and complex vein, the arrangement of the Iroquois Peyote Song featured soprano Victoria Jueds in an appealing piece reminiscent of the Eastern European choral style of the 1990s.

 

It may have been fairly easy to start a choral ensemble in the 1980s, but as the myriad of folded arts organizations in this country will tell, it certainly has not been easy to maintain a performing organization, particularly in these economic times. Thanks to consistently high performance standards and seemingly avoiding the temptation to over-expand, The Princeton Singers has a solid hold on its position in the choral arena as the ensemble enjoys its next decades.

 

“Princeton Singers Choral Group Creates A Medieval Aura in Art Museum Concert.”  By Nancy Plum, Town Topics, March 3, 2010.

The Princeton Singers took a serious trip back through time this past weekend with a concert of “Mostly Medieval” music in a gallery at the Princeton University Art Museum. Nestled between a 14th century Spanish gisant stone nobleman and intricate French ivory reliefs, the 16-voice vocal ensemble performed Franco-Flemish selections to match the Museum’s art of the northern Franco-Flemish school. Despite limited sightlines created by the abundance of art in the space and ceilings which had been modified for contemporary lighting, The Princeton Singers succeeded in its goal of creating a “feast for the sight and the senses” in Saturday night’s concert.

 

The Guillaume Machaut work which opened the concert was presented in a way that introduced both the music and the singers. Conductor Steven Sametz brought the performers onstage in trios, building the sound of the canonic “Le lay de la fonteine.” One did not have to sing loud in the gallery to find a core of the sound, and the singers maintained a nice flow to a piece filled with offbeat syncopation and a bit of 14th century hocket. Soprano Martha Ainsworth also found a core to her sound in the solo song by Guillaume Dufay, “Vergene bella.” Ms. Ainsworth was selective about the use of vibrato in the 15th century piece in Tuscan dialect, elegantly accompanied by harpist Andre Tarantiles. Ms. Ainsworth seemed to find it easy to let the high notes soar, with a great deal of room for expressiveness and drama in the text.

 

Dr. Sametz made a particular connection with the concert surroundings with Peter Abelard’s “Planctus” for men’s voices; Abelard may actually have seen some of the 12th century art in France which has subsequently found its way to the Princeton Art Museum.  The intricate harp accompaniment (realized by a later composer) was enchanting to listen to in itself, and the six men of the Princeton Singers found a solid unison sound on the early medieval line. Several of the men performed brief and effective solos, including tenors Scott Clausen and Peter de Mets, and baritone Les Anders. Dr. Sametz took particular dynamic care with the last verse of the poem, allowing the sound to fade away as the “spirit fails.” Dr. Sametz then placed the women of the singers on a side staircase, creating a different vocal effect in an elaborate and well-sung multi-part “Ave Maria” of the little known 16th century composer Francesco de Layolle.

 

The most complex work on the program was Clement Janequin’s “La Guerre.” Known as a composer of “novelty” pieces, Janequin painted scenes within his pieces through musical sound effects which add to the poetry and require great concentration from the singers. Several verses of the 10-minute “La Guerre” were especially technically difficult, but the Princeton Singers had clearly been expertly trained in the details of the musical sound bites. This piece was a hard act to follow, but Dr. Sametz chose to pair the work with one of his own, a piece for men’s voices commissioned by the all-male ensemble Chanticleer, who will be appearing in the area later this spring. Although the men’s sections of the Princeton Singers are half the size of Chanticleer, they were sufficient to give a flavor of Sametz’s “Not an end of Loving,” accompanied by flowing harp. The tuning and harmonics were a bit difficult to keep together after the Janequin, but as the melody unfolded around the 8th century text, the sound settled.

 

The ensemble closed the concert with Claude Debussy’s tripartite Trois Chansons de Charles d’Orleans, a refreshing postscript to the 14th and 15th century works. The soprano sound in these three pieces was well unified, and mezzo soprano soloist Elaine Harned was especially solid in the middle chanson, “Quant j’ai ouy le tabourin.” Ms. Harned seemed to be singing this piece from memory, with a rich vocal color that brought out the impressionistic quality of the music.

 

Saturday night’s performance (which was repeated on Sunday afternoon) was well-paced, even without an intermission. As with many Princeton Singers concerts, Dr. Sametz provided a great deal of commentary, and one can always come away having learned something new. Collaborating with the Art Museum also provided an opportunity to bring that much more art to more people.

“(R)evolutions: Musical Change, Evolution in Opening Princeton Singers Concert.”  By Nancy Plum, Town Topics, October 21, 2009

Once the ensemble began Bach’s motet “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied,” the singers were ready to settle into the meat of the concert. The members of the Princeton Singers are extremely conscientious choral artists, as evidenced by the clean vocal melismas in the last part of the motet. Mr. Sametz wisely allowed the dynamic level to build before the sopranos took aim on the high B flat which helped bring the motet to a solid close.

 

As difficult as the Bach motet may have been, it was merely a warm-up to the most difficult work on the program: Arnold Schoenberg’s a cappella “Friede auf Erden.” Schoen-berg composed this work in 1907, just as he was beginning to revolutionize harmony with atonalism, using avant-garde compositional techniques to depict mankind’s struggle to overcome war throughout history. The Singers moved to the back of Trinity’s chancel for this work, as well as its introductory piece, Josef Rheinberger’s “Abendlied.” The Singers began the Schoenberg with the same full sound as the Rheinberger, but then the piece took off in a new harmonic direction. From the back of the chancel, the chorus was able to explore a wide dynamic range, and the ensemble handled the intricacies of this very difficult piece extremely well.

 

After such a difficult first half, Princeton Singers could easily have been forgiven for resting on its laurels in the second half of the concert, but the ensemble was not quite done with “revolution” yet. Two lush pieces, Vaughan Williams’ “God Be with You Till We Meet Again” (conducted by guest conductor economist Jerry Goodman) and C.V. Stanford’s “Beati quorum via” (always sung well by this ensemble) served to build up stamina for the work to come. Edward T. Cone’s “In the Last Days” was composed in 1957 but was heard for the first time on Friday night. Beginning with a rhythmic and jazzy effect from the piano (solidly played by Jeffrey Farrington), this piece showed good accessibility and interesting style. The Singers demonstrated precise diction and clean melismas when required, such as on the word “exalted.”

 

Mr. Sametz closed the concert with several of his own works, which the ensemble always performs well and a standard Princeton Singers “gumdrop” — Mr. Sametz’s own arrangement of “Shenandoah.”

 

With only seventeen singers in the chorus, singing in the Princeton Singers requires the greatest of concentration and musical focus. When the ensemble splits into two choruses, such as in the Bach motet, the sections could easily be down to two on a part. Mr. Sametz has compiled an ensemble of vocal artists who are both able to hold their own and be sensitive to their fellow choral artists as they journey through some very difficult repertoire.

“Princeton Singers Celebrate 25th Anniversary With Concert of Old and New Works.”  By Nancy Plum, Town Topics, April 8, 2009

Amidst all the economic bleakness, some local arts organizations have found cause to celebrate. The Princeton Singers, founded twenty-five years ago by British import John Bertalot, has been a mainstay of the Princeton choral scene. The ensemble has only had two conductors in that time; composer/conductor Steven Sametz took the helm from Mr. Bertalot in 1998, and the chorus has stayed true to its mission of sharing the joy of music and advancing the choral art, while adding Dr. Sametz’s own personal commitment to contemporary choral music.  The Princeton Singers celebrated its 25th anniversary this past weekend with a concert at Trinity Church in Princeton, a fitting venue as John Bertalot also served as the church’s choir trainer for a number of years. The program presented by the eighteen members of The Singers showed some unusual divergences from the ensemble’s early concerts, including venturing into the music of more avant-garde contemporary composers as well as a commissioned piece from Dr. Sametz.

 

For the unifying theme of this celebratory concert, The Princeton Singers chose “I Have Had Singing,” a twentieth-century text from Ronald Blythe’s Akenfield, Portrait of an English Village. This text has several meanings to The Princeton Singers; it is the title of their latest CD as well as the title of one of the works Sametz composed for the ensemble. The chorus closed the concert with Sametz’s flowing and well-balanced setting of this text, but to get to this point, The Singers took a trip both through their own history and that of music in general.

 

The Princeton Singers opened the concert with one of the styles they do best — two pieces by Monteverdi. The first piece found the chorus at the front of the chancel, immediately giving a nice ring to the choral sound in the church. Dr. Sametz made clear his attention to phrasing detail, especially the ends of phrases, and the ensemble’s diction spoke well in the hall. The more well-known Salve Regina placed the women at the back of the chancel, with light organ accompaniment provided by Peter de Mets. Although the choir seemed far away visually, the sound was very clear across the long and narrow nave. Musical effects, such as on the word “sospiro” (“sigh”) were especially clean.

 

The concert moved its way through music history, focusing on pieces which made The Princeton Singers the ensemble it is. William Hawley’s Io son la primavera was a modern day twist on Monteverdi (as if Monteverdi weren’t enough of a twist of harmony in his own time). This piece in particular showed a very pleasant low bass choral sound. Stephen Leek’s very unusual setting of aboriginal text placed the singers in various spaces throughout the church, enabling the audience to hear some of the voices up close. Dr. Sametz has done an amazing job amalgamating vastly different voices into the ensemble, for instance in the mezzo section, in which one would not expect to hear the operatic Elaine Harned singing alongside Countertenor Brian Ramsey. Beginning with overtone singing (which some of the Singers did quite well), Leek’s Knowee also required a number of rhythmic effects from the ensemble.

 

Few chamber choruses have any kind of history at all without including Franz Biebl’s Ave Maria, a piece built on sonorities and chant which has become a cult classic in the choral field. For this piece, Dr. Sametz moved the chorus to the back of the chancel, taking advantage of the high ceilings. Although this performance lacked a real soaring height on the text Sancta Maria, a quick tempo and the precision of the singers enabled the audience to hear the inner parts, which one does not always hear in other performances.

 

The Princeton Singers considers itself a “singing family,” and throughout its twenty-five year history, the chorus has retained its alumnae in the “family.” Some of them joined The Singers for three C.V. Stanford Victorian chestnuts, chosen as a tribute to John Bertalot’s expertise in this musical period. In these three short pieces, Dr. Sametz created a nice give and take with the phrases, and with the additional alums, the singers were able to sing out. Beati quorum via in particular showed a light soprano sound and a nice flow to the piece.

 

Dr. Sametz closed the concert with three of his own pieces, one of which was commissioned by the chorus. His arrangement of Shenandoah, as well as his settings of The Wind-hover and I Have Had Singing demonstrated that he writes well for his own ensemble, depicting words well, such as the “rolling” of the Shenandoah and the falcon’s soaring flight in The Windhover.

 

The Princeton Singers began twenty-five years ago almost as a thought over a dinner table. Since that time, the ensemble became a model for choruses nationwide and has represented the community well in its national and international tours. It was clear that the chorus also enjoyed celebrating its own history and accomplishments and looks forward to more years of the same.

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