Glee Club Sings for Aspire Donors
By Tara Ohrtman
When Princeton Glee Club director Gabriel Crouch asked me to write some short paragraphs describing our participation in the Aspire campaign, I was not sure where exactly to begin. Having sung with the Princeton Glee Club every semester I have been at Princeton, I consider my participation in the group to be one of the most defining experiences I have had in college. It has been a pleasure and a privilege to have watched the choir develop and blossom over the past four years, and I'm not sure I can adequately capture the pride I feel for our intrepid group of singers in a few paltry paragraphs. Nonetheless, I think that the Aspire campaign performances we have sung over the past two years capture and frame microcosmically (and therefore perhaps more accessibly) exactly why I think the Glee Club is such a unique and special organization on campus.
Our first performance for the Aspire campaign in fall 2010 was held not in a conventional theater, but in the cavernous lobby of the New Frick chemistry laboratory. Stationed on two parallel walkways that stretched across the lobby, half the length of the lobby apart from each other, with paper lanterns in the shapes of molecular orbitals floating between us and our intended audience dining at a sea of tables below us, we had to fixate our attention instead on our brave director, who managed to conduct us at our level by leaning out from the landing of a spiral staircase midway between our two semi-choirs. Our selections that evening (contemporary composer John Tavener's "Hymn to the Mother of God" and Renaissance composer Ruggiero Giovanelli's "Jubilate Deo") were both for double choir, as Gabriel had astutely noticed that the austere glass-and-metal surfaces of the lobby, coupled with its soaring ceiling, had given the space the grandiosity and (more importantly) the acoustics of a modernist cathedral to science. Despite the challenges presented by the distance between the two choirs, and the resulting echo that meant we had to trust our eyes above our ears (an unnerving sensation for any musician), I think we all knew as we left the building that our singing had left its desired effect on our audience.
We were invited back to sing for Aspire again in fall 2011, but while we were this time asked to sing in the Berlind Theater at the McCarter complex, our performance had a unique twist to it; we were lined up along the back of the theater while the stage was occupied instead by our feasting audience! Whether or not this unexpected reversal of roles was obvious to our audience, they seemed highly impressed by our two selections for the evening, the elegantly simple song "Mu süda, ärka üles" by contemporary Estonian composer Cyrillus Kreek, and the electrifying spiritual "My Soul's Been Anchored," arranged by the beloved American composer Moses Hogan, which together showed the wide range of styles that the Glee Club can accommodate within the same concert.
Our final Aspire performance took place in fall 2012, once again in an unconventional venue, which in this case was a large tent in President Shirley Tilghman's backyard. As the guests entered to sit down for their dinners, we sang a modified version of the spiritual "Set Down, Servant," whose semi-improvisational ordering of verses and choruses lent an extra dose of mental engagement and adrenaline to our singing, even on a Thursday night. Once the guests had settled down at their tables and we had been formally introduced, we burst into the rhythmically anarchic and tonally bizarre "Pseudo-Yoik" by contemporary Finnish composer Jaakko Mäntyjärvi, a send-up of Finnish folk music designed to be sung as strangely as possible with the most serious demeanor imaginable; our audience expressed its loud approval afterwards, as we crept off through the back of the tent to allow them to get on with the rest of the eating and speeches.
What I think these performances prove about the Glee Club is its versatility, its artistry, its accessibility, and its heart. Undaunted by the challenges of performing in unconventional spaces, we have adapted to spaces with no echo and excessive echo, performing pieces in a variety of styles that span centuries and continents. We have managed to engage our audience actively in the music we have created, even as we ourselves have grown closer to each other through the music we make, in spite of our large size. We are a group that can impress with its cumulative energy, even as we can stun the audience by dropping the sound of 80 voices to the most intensely quiet of whispers. In short, I believe that President Tilghman called us back to sing for Aspire again and again because she recognized that this choir fills a very unique and invaluable place in Princeton's arts community and cultural life: The Glee Club encourages the fostering of a group identity for the sake of creating something beautiful and soul-sustaining, in essence making tangible through music the spirit of being "in the service of the nation and all nations." The Aspire campaign raised over $2 billion to support Princeton University, and I believe that, having seen the work that the Glee Club has done, those who have so graciously donated to the campaign cannot regret that their contributions will help support our fine choir for years to come.