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Princeton Pro Musica Presents Mendelssohn’s Immortal “Elijah”

Reviewed by: Nancy Plum for Town Topics, November 5, 2015
Concert Sunday, November 1, 2015


Felix Mendelssohn did very little in the field of opera, however, his sacred oratorios are as theatrical as any 19th-century operatic work. In particular, the oratorio Elijah, premiered in 1846, musically depicts a dramatic Biblical story through arias, recitatives, and choruses, infused with the composer’s gift for melodic writing. The more than 100-voice Princeton Pro Musica, conducted by Ryan James Brandau, presented a well-informed performance of this work to a very appreciative audience on Sunday afternoon in Richardson Auditorium, showing off the capabilities of the chorus as well as four seasoned vocal soloists.

Dr. Brandau used the full forces of Pro Musica, combined with a smaller orchestra than symphonic choruses usually use in performances of this piece. Although Mendelssohn originally scored Elijah to include a full complement of instruments as well as an ophicleide (part of the family of keyed bugles) and organ, the orchestra in Sunday afternoon’s performance had chamber-sized stringed sections with pairs of winds and brass.

Keeping the orchestra on the small side kept the performance true to Mendelssohn’s ties to the Baroque era, and removed pressure from the singers to work to be heard over the players, serving both chorus and soloists well.

Elijah is nothing without a compelling title character, and bass-baritone Dashon Burton easily fit the bill. Imposing from the first aria and able to find operatic characters in the music, Mr. Burton made it clear that when Elijah spoke, people needed to listen. One could especially hear the supplication in Mr. Burton’s recitatives from the fourth scene of the oratorio. Mr. Burton’s best operatic counterpart in the performance was soprano Laquita Mitchell, also a seasoned performer of 19th-century opera. Ms. Mitchell changed vocal style easily among the different moods and emotions of the music. In her keynote aria “Hear Ye, Israel,” Ms. Mitchell’s plaintive interpretation was perfectly matched by pairs of clarinets, oboes, and flutes.

The vocal quartet was rounded out by mezzo-soprano Sarah Nelson Craft and tenor Rexford Tester. Ms. Craft provided a solid vocal base to her opening duet with Ms. Mitchell, and came into her own in Part II as an “Angel” guiding Elijah. Mr. Tester was lyrical in his approach to conveying the text, not as operatic as the other three singers, but nevertheless effective.

Much of Mendelssohn’s best melodic writing in this work belonged to the chorus, which Dr. Brandau had prepared to be precise and crisp in numerous a cappella sections. Pro Musica excelled in the homophonic and chordal choruses (such as the closing choruses to each half of the concert), and the men’s sections were especially well blended throughout the concert. Dr. Brandau had spaced out the chorus on the stage in slightly mixed formation, enabling sections to hear one another. The women’s sections were cleaner in the gentler choruses, but the ensemble as a whole maintained good control over the music throughout this long dramatic work.

Mendelssohn wrote a small solo part specifically for a child, often cast as a boy soprano. For this role, Dr. Brandau selected a member of the Princeton Girlchoir Cantores, the ensemble under the Girlchoir umbrella for high school girls. Accompanied by single flute in her solo lines, soprano Isabella Kopits was lovely, matching the flute perfectly, and showed an innocence which did not detract from her insistence that there was no response to Elijah’s calls to God. Dr. Brandau also assigned an “angel’s trio” to the Cantores — a perfect choice in vocal tone and weight. The Cantores sang with well-tuned chords and nicely tapered phrases.

Accompanying the chorus and soloists in this performance was a well-balanced orchestra which always maintained a subtle backdrop to the chorus and soloists. The trumpets and trombones were effective in introducing Elijah, and especially in the opening orchestral introduction, one could hear that something catastrophic was to come. Oboist Carl Oswald, clarinetist Pascal Archer, and flutist Mary Schmidt provided elegant solo lines, often echoes to a vocal soloist.

Elijah is a long oratorio, and Dr. Brandau evidently felt the necessity to cut a number of small numbers (including two of the most well-known choruses in the work), but it may not really have been necessary. Dr. Brandau kept a good flow to the performance, maintaining drama which held the audience’s attention. With Pro Musica providing its customary solid work and Mr. Burton clearly a star in the making, Sunday afternoon’s performance went by in a well-performed flash.



Princeton Pro Musica Presents Musical Christmas Gift of Bach

Reviewed by: Nancy Plum for Town Topics, December 24, 2014

Concert Sunday, December 21, 2014

For many years, Princeton Pro Musica maintained a musical tradition of presenting Handel’s Messiah at Christmastime in Princeton. Traditions shifted a bit this year; Princeton’s Messiah offering was presented by the New Jersey Symphony, and Pro Musica turned its attention to Bach. Artistic Director Ryan James Brandau and the more than 100-voice chorus performed two cantatas of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and the complete Magnificat in D in Richardson Auditorium this past Saturday night, and as the musical accolades to William Scheide keep rolling in, this concert was a fitting addition.

Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is a set of six cantatas composed for the celebratory season between Christmas and the Feast of the Epiphany in 18th-century Leipzig. Parts V and VI, the portions presented by Pro Musica on Saturday night, were composed for the Sunday after New Year and for Epiphany, respectively. As in the oratorios of the time, the narrative is sung in recitative style, and as with Bach’s Passions, much of the narrative is sung by an Evangelist. Musical commentary on the drama is found in the arias and choruses. In Pro Musica’s performance, tenor Stephen Caldicott Wilson sang the Evangelist role with tight German diction and rhythm, and a clean vocal sound which projected well into the hall, especially when accompanied by a single instrument and keyboard. The two cantatas included arias for seven soloists, with mezzo-sopranos Margaret Lias and Luthien Brackett providing the most dramatic performances of the evening. Ms. Brackett sang arias with a silky tone among all registers (which can get quite low in Bach) with an especially rich tone on the lower passages.

Soprano Justine Aronson sang with a youthful sparkle and soprano Melanie Russell sang expressively, but both sopranos seemed to be more cut out for lush Romantic lines than recitative and the light flexible lines required in Bach. In the Magnificat, Ms. Aronson was able to add expression to the soprano aria in the text,“For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden.” Baritone Christopher Herbert provided dramatic singing in both the cantatas and Magnificat, with his interpretation of Herod in Part VI of the Oratorio laden with a bit of sarcasm, and the “Quia Fecit” aria of the Magnificat sufficiently regal.

Dr. Brandau kept a light conducting touch throughout the concert, leading a stylishly small orchestra in the Oratorio and an ensemble of period instruments in the Magnificat. Adhering to the 18th-century Kantorei tradition, Dr. Brandau placed the soloists within the chorus, which helped strengthen the already well-trained chorus. A good balance was maintained between the orchestra and chorus, and most notable among the orchestra solos was Geoffrey Burgess, who played most of the oboe d’amore solos in all pieces. A trio of trumpet players, who played valveless instruments, was exceptional in adding a joyous touch to the musical color.

Dr. Brandau assigned much of the Christmas Oratorio to the chamber chorus of Pro Musica, which sang with clean diction and precise entrances following the solos. The full choruses joined on the chorales of the Christmas Oratorio, creating a full sound to close the works. Some of the trickier coloratura passages in the Magnificat were sung by the Chamber Chorus, and throughout the piece, the entire chorus demonstrated effective lilt and phrasing. Conducting effectively without a baton, Dr. Brandau built the terraced dynamics well between the orchestra and chorus.

The Bach works performed Saturday night represented the types of works Pro Musica does particularly well. The concert was a tribute to William Scheide, and showed the exact type of Baroque scholarship and thoughtfulness which he advocated.




A Bach Christmas by Princeton Pro Musica

Reviewed by Toby Grace for Out in Jersey December 22, 2014

Concert Sunday, December 21, 2014

Once again Princeton Pro Musica demonstrated its exceptional quality in this year’s Christmas offering, “A Bach Christmas.”  The sold out, December 20th performance in Richardson Auditorium gave us parts 5 and 6 of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and the Magnificat in D Major.

The oratorio was written for performance in sections on six feast days of Christmas during the winter of 1734 and 1735. The original score also contains details of when each part was performed. It was incorporated within services of the two most important churches in Leipzig, St. Thomas and St. Nicholas. The complete work runs to bit over three hours and is rarely performed in its entirety in one sitting.

Written in 1723 and revised in 1733, the Magnificat remains one of Bach’s most popular works. A performance of the Magnificat with Christmas hymns takes about 40 t0 45 minutes. The Magnificat contains about twice as many movements as an average cantata, keeping it short by avoiding da capos in the arias, and altogether no recitatives. Also the text is in Latin (not the usual language for a Bach cantata), the architecture of the movements is fairly complex, as opposed to the fairly simple structure of an average cantata, and the choral writing is in five parts.

Pro Musica performed these complex works with an orchestra of period instruments, including the difficult to master, valveless trumpets of the 18th Century. Conducted by Ryan James Brandau, the performance was elegant and flawless. Soloists Justine Aronson, Luthien Brackett, Steven Brennfleck, Christopher Herbert, Mararet Lias, Melanie Russell and Steven Wilson each performed with the kind of clarity and precision we have come to expect of Pro Musica.

Pro Musica added real substance to the enjoyment of the Christmas Season with this magnificent production – an enjoyment obviously reflected in the audience’s  enthusiastic appreciation.

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Princeton Pro Musica Journeys Through 19th-century German Music

Reviewed by Nancy Plum for Town Topics, October 29, 2014

Concert Sunday, October 26, 2014 

As Princeton Pro Musica Artistic Director Ryan James Brandau wrote in his program notes to Sunday afternoon’s concert, his first two years with the ensemble deliberately excluded the lush choral music of German Romantic music. Dr. Brandau and the 100-voice Pro Musica Chamber Chorus took a trip through this repertory on Sunday afternoon at Richardson Auditorium, showing the range of compositional style and musical emotion from the turn of the 19th century to the turn of the 20th.

Dr. Brandau warmed up the audience with a solo violinist and orchestra, as Owen Dalby played the Romance in G by Ludwig van Beethoven. Beginning with clean double-stops, Mr. Dalby made the intricate but lyrical melody sound easy, maintaining a graceful dialog with the orchestra. Dr. Brandau kept things within a Classical framework, conducting a well-balanced orchestral ensemble. With Mr. Dalby providing a rich lower register of his instrument and broad musical strokes from the orchestra, this Romance closed in a stately manner.

This season’s Pro Musica Chamber Chorus made their first appearance to sing excerpts from Johannes Brahms’ light and spirited Liebeslieder Walzer. The sound suffered a bit from the space differential; the chorus was at the back of the hall with Eric Plutz and James Sparks playing piano four-hands as Dr. Brandau conducted from the front of the hall. Dr. Brandau maintained the same Classical lilt begun in the Beethoven work, with nicely blended men beginning the first excerpt. The seven of the 18 Walzers performed were not sung too fast, and the men in particular showed precise singing in “Am Donaustrande.” Soprano Blythe Quelin was featured in one of the Walzer, singing with a self-assured rich sound, especially in the lower register. Conducting without a baton, Dr. Brandau elicited clean diction and precise cadences from the chorus.

Dr. Brandau has continued the Pro Musica tradition of presenting orchestral works on a choral program, but rather than a large orchestral piece contrasting with a choral/orchestral work, Dr. Brandau interspersed smaller works within the program. Beethoven and Felix Mendelssohn both composed programmatic pieces based on Goethe’s poem “Meeresstille und Glückliche Fahrt” (“Calm Sea and Successful Voyage”) — Beethoven for chorus and orchestra and Mendelssohn for orchestra alone. The accompanying orchestra to Pro Musica presented Mendelssohn’s Meeresstille und Glückliche Fahrt with the calm of the sea evident from the start in the strings. Mendelssohn added winds sparingly, with four-note solos speaking well from the wind players. Dr. Brandau maintained an effective flow to the music, as the sea rose and fell with a finality of a clean trio of trumpets.

In contrast, the calm of the sea in Beethoven’s setting came from the full chorus of Pro Musica, immediately setting the mood as more reverent. The singers of Pro Musica brought out the imaginative setting of the text about the lack of wind on the sea, and came to life as the “waves part and the distance draws nearer.” This piece contained a great deal of drama and tension which was difficult to maintain, especially with the sopranos on a high “A” for an extended period of time.

Dr. Brandau journeyed to the end of the 19th century with Gustav Mahler’s solo song, “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,” sung by guest mezzo-soprano Sarah Nelson Croft. Mahler wrote luxuriantly for mezzo-sopranos, and scored this song particularly sensitively with accompanying English horn, played by Nathan Mills. Mahler’s music often falls into the depths, and Ms. Croft rose well vocally out of the deep, singing reflectively yet without despair. The instrumental combination of Mr. Mills, harpist Andre Tarantiles, and bassoonist Seth Baer brought elegant sonorities to accompany the solo voice. Mahler was a master of orchestration, and the English horn was the perfect sonority to combine with Ms. Croft’s rich voice.

The full chorus of Pro Musica joined forces again to close the concert with Brahms’s orchestrally accompanied choral song Schicksalslied. The lushness of this piece was well suited for Pro Musica’s forces, and the choral sound unfolded well. Although the sopranos sounded a bit stretched in the upper registers, an a cappella cadence was well handled by the entire chorus toward the end of the piece.

This concert was somewhat unusual in that it was not totally about the whole of Pro Musica — the full chorus only sang two small pieces, with a third of the program given over to orchestral works. As this new season embarks, audiences can hopefully look forward to hearing Princeton Pro Musica at its fullest.



Israel in Egypt a Triumph for Princeton Pro Musica

Review by Nancy Plum for Town Topics, May 14, 2014

Concert Sunday, May 11, 2014

For those curious about how Dr. Brandau has developed Pro Musica’s trademark choral sound, the “horse and his rider” choruses were worth the price of admission. Dr. Brandau took these two choruses like the wind, and the singers of Pro Musica did not miss a note in the choral coloratura, bringing the work to a typically Baroque glorious close. This oratorio may have been a handful for a choral singer, but the members of Pro Musica never let on that they were anything less than ready for more.



Treasures of the English Cathedral, performed by Princeton Pro Musica

Reviewed by Toby Grace for Out In Jersey magazine

Concert Saturday, March 8, 2014

Princeton Pro Musica’a March 15th performance in the gothic majesty of Princeton University Chapel, inspired awe and standing ovation enthusiasm in the packed audience. Performed with the crystal clarity and precision Pro Musica fans know to be the standard of this world-class organization, “Treasures of the English Cathedral” was an evening of choral splendor of a type not often heard in the United States. For one thing, English cathedral choral music is an expensive art form.  The cost of maintaining a full, traditional cathedral choral program, with its organists, directors, choir school and so on can easily run to a half million dollars a year – more at the “great” churches such as St. Paul’s and Westminster, whose choirs often feature in royal occasions.

In his introduction, Artistic Director Ryan James Brandau mentioned his year of graduate work at Kings College, Cambridge and his participation in its legendary chapel choir. The inspiration he received there was clearly evident in his creation of a program that echoed the glories of that famous choir and did so in a setting that fully completed the effect. Princeton Chapel is only very slightly smaller than that of King’s College and, a Jersey boy can claim, is its equal as an architectural and aural masterpiece. Any musician will tell you there is nothing like stone for creating perfect acoustics. Indeed this effect was  evident as the choir’s beautiful sound seemed to linger in the air for moments like a mist.

The evening’s program featured works by English composers Herbert Howells,  John Rutter, Gerald Finzi and Sir John Tavener. Tavener is the best known of these composers. During his career he became one of the most popular composers of his generation, most particularly for The Protecting Veil, which as recorded by cellist Steven Isserlis became a bestselling album, and Song for Athene which was sung at the funeral of Princess Diana. Howell’s work is perhaps lesser known but  conveys a deeply personal and intimate experience that, once the listener becomes in tune with, is riveting and quite unlike any other  composer’s effect.

The chapel’s famous 1928 Æolian-Skinner organ, restored by the N.P. Mander company in 1991, is among the very finest instruments of its kind in the U.S. Masterfully played by university organist Eric Plutz, the effect can range from an overwhelming tidal wave of sound, crashing through the vast, vaulted spaces of the chapel to the most delicate and mysterious of music.

“Mysterious” is in fact a good adjective to apply to this concert as the ethereal beauty of the chorus’s work , embellished by its soloists and special soprano soloist Melanie Russell, created a mystical atmosphere that was haunting as well as deeply moving. Artistic Director Brandau gave us an evening of rare excellence.

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