PUGC Newsletter | Summer 2019
This past spring and summer, full of once-in-a-lifetime performances with world-class artists, has given us much to be thankful for. Below, Joanna Zhang ‘21 reflects on Bach’s St. John Passion, Gustavo Dudamel’s residency, and reunions, with some other fun surprises sprinkled in! Click the links below to jump around.
JS Bach’s St. John Passion
Gustavo Dudamel’s Residency
PUGC and Tenebrae Choir
Snapshots from our Instagram
Scenes from Glee Field Day
Our Newest Releases
JS BACH’S ST. JOHN PASSION
April 19, 2019
featuring The English Concert, James Taylor, Chris Fistonich, and 10+ student soloists
It begins with thunder. Herr. Herr (“Lord! Lord!”) . Then comes the rolling stream of melismatic glory --- Unser Hescherr (“Our Ruler”) drawn over cascades of sixteenth notes. The majestic pathos of St. John’s Passion filled Richardson Auditorium from its first chord, only to be amplified by the choir’s entrance crying out to the Lord. Whatever and whoever you conceive your god to be, whether or not there is a god for you, St. John’s Passion awakens that place in our heart which weeps in deep empathy at human suffering while also yearning for something more transcendent, something reconciliatory in its beauty. It is a piece that weaves together the most exquisite orchestral polyphonies with choral acrobatics leaving all four parts in breathless exhilaration, then transports us to intimate reflections with sombre recitatives and rhapsodic solo movements. The texture of the piece accentuates the richness of Bach’s compositional mastery, and more importantly, explores the full gamut of the human experience. In writing this article about what, for me, was such a transformative process both musically and personally, I am not only interested in reflecting on the much-celebrated musical brilliance of St. John’s Passion, but more fundamentally how members of Glee Club “lived” the piece from rehearsal to performance.
As the 2019 Nollner Concert, this was Glee Club’s “final concert” of the academic year. A last huzzah for the Class of 2019. Before the performance officially commenced, our conductor Gabriel Crouch read out the list of graduating students. The list included 19 students, spanning a serving of departments from Mathematics to Music, Engineering to English. Some seniors have been in Glee since their freshman year while others joined specifically in their final semester to sing St. John’s Passion.
Lucina Schwartz of the English Department is a Glee Club veteran and also our Student Conductor this year. These are her words describing her final performance in a Glee Club Concert:
“It was an enormous honor to rehearse and perform St. John’s passion with the English Concert. I appreciated their guidance in what is a formidable, challenging, sometimes even vexing work.”
Mel Shu, a fellow Australian in the Department of Computer Science, remarking on his first and last Glee concert:
“I joined Glee Club for my senior spring semester and loved every minute of it. The talent, ability, and musicianship within the group is quite unlike anything else that I've been a part of, and I've been blown away by the sound produced at every rehearsal and performance. On top of this, we are so lucky to have Gabriel and Steph, two of the most inspiring people whose skill and dedication to music are simply out of this world. It was a real privilege to perform the St John Passion under their direction, after we'd worked on the music down to the most intricate detail. I was particularly impressed with how we even discussed the historical context of the piece during rehearsals. My experience of singing in Glee has most definitely helped me to grow as a musician, and I will always remember it as one of the highlights of my senior year!”
Not only was singing St. John’s Passion a bittersweet goodbye to our seniors, it was also an emotionally charged experience for reasons of personal creed and identity.
Eli Berman ‘20 (Department of Music), countertenor and fellow alto, is the virtuosic soloist of Es ist Vollbracht. The aria begins in lament, low and longing. Then, the tempo accelerates like a beating heart and the singer is required to gracefully navigate a maze of melismas. Adding to its complexity, as if the technical challenge is not enough, this aria arrives at the middle of the piece. How strange to sing “it is finished” when there is still more than half the performance remaining! Perhaps that too is the ethos of St. John’s Passion: we are challenged to reconsider the chronology of a life - that what we consider as “the end” may not be the true finish line. I talked to Eli about their aria and the nuances of performing as a countertenor. Regarding the music, they thought the aria was a “good technical challenge” as they are still learning to navigate the higher registers of their voice.
As we started exploring the emotional dimensions of their performance, they talked at length about their personal struggle: as a student of Jewish descent, how were they supposed to perform this exquisite music while bearing in mind historical controversies of the St. John’s Gospel? Eli’s struggle is not idiosyncratic. It points to a larger discussion, hotly debated in academia and the music world alike. This discussion was something we, too, had begun to address in our rehearsal process. Professor Wendy Heller, Chair of the Music Department, spoke to us a week before our performance about her own engagement with the piece, as a singer, as a scholar, and as a Jewish woman. Professor Heller did not formulate for us the “correct” way to approach the historical-social complexities of St. John’s Passion. Instead, she encouraged each of us to personally live the piece in its totality, holding in mind and expressing in voice its musical brilliance, its poignant humanity, and its controversial history.
For Eli, hearing Professor Heller’s talk gave them “the permission to feel the piece.” And, Eli continued to explain to me, “ the more we did it the less good it felt.” Standing before the audience, Eli embraced St. John’s Passion with their own experience and individuality: “I retwisted the words to fit my own meaning, all the sadness and desperation."
Yet, the emotionality of the St. John Passion, a foundation so central to its message of joy and hope in reconciliation, proves most present in the darkest moments of the piece. Soprano Maddy Kushan ‘20 (Department of Neuroscience) is the soloist for Ich folge dir gleichfalls. Her aria shines forth from the darkness with exuberance, singing “I will follow You with happy steps and shall not leave You, my Life, my Light”. The lyrics call us forth, like hope fluttering out at last in the aftermath of the evil released from Pandora's Box. Even in the wake of death, light remains eternal. When I asked her about her preparation leading up to the challenge of performing such a joyously bright aria in the middle of this somber Passion, she first commented that the arias of St. John’s Passion “have always seemed daunting” to her. She expressed much gratitude for the opportunity to work with Jimmy Taylor (our Evangelist), the English Concert, and Gabriel: “they encouraged me to experiment with new vocal colors and ways of phrasing musical lines which helped find a light, hopeful, joyful message amidst an otherwise somber piece.”
More importantly, for Maddy, Bach’s St. John Passion has always held a special place in her heart. In fact, this Glee performance is not her first encounter with the piece. “It was one of the first major choral works I sang as a chorister at the National Cathedral,” Maddy tells me, recounting her experiences with Passions past and present. She recalls that when she was first learning the piece, she had been “particularly overwhelmed by the technical challenges of its many fast-moving melismatic phrases” and had “struggled to grasp the austere meaning of the German text”. Commenting on “returning to the piece” a few years later with the Glee Club, she describes the Glee rehearsal process and performance as “an incredible opportunity to both reacquaint myself with its unexpected musical twists and turns and delve deeper into its cultural and historical significance”. Particularly, Gabriel’s rehearsal of the Passion opened her eyes to “new musical interpretations of the piece” and Professor Heller’s insight into its background provided “an important awareness of its controversial history”. Perhaps, one might venture to say, this deepened understanding of the nuances --- historical, cultural, social --- present in St. John’s Passion has offered us a greater understanding of what it means to experience joy and to have hope.
As Professor Heller had challenged and encouraged us, we headed into performance week, each of us wrestling with the piece’s potential for inciting Anti-Judaism and Anti-Semitism in order to fully embrace St. John’s Passion. And, at the same time, we must also let ourselves be moved by those moments of pure emotionality, universal to all of humanity. It’s messy. It’s difficult. And it’s overwhelming --- much like the music of the piece itself. Yet, I keep returning to what Professor Heller emphasized in her talk: so much of St. John’s Passion is about reconciliation. It is up to us to try to find, through the musical experience and the power of performance, what this reconciliation means for us individually.
The end begins with wind. Echos of Ruht wohl, ruht wohl --- “rest in peace” --- sweep the auditorium in haunting lamentation. Orchestral strings wrap the chorus with chords of mourning. And, yet, that is not the end. There is more to be said. The final chorale gently urges us to gaze upward in hopeful optimism. The final chord resolves with simple perfection. Our final breaths reaffirm the joy of reconciliation.
April 26-27, 2019
Maestro Dudamel harnesses the power of music-making to unite people and to dissolve the divisions between them. Not only is he one of the most recognised conductors of our age, his most recent award being the 2018 Paez Medal of Art and the Pablo Neruda Order of Artistic and Cultural Merit, his passion for spreading classical music and promoting musical literacy has gained him mainstream cultural recognition. The Maestro has been on a variety of TV programs, from Stephen Colbert to Sesame Street. We were so fortunate to have him as our Artist in Residence last season for the 125th Anniversary of the Princeton University Concert Series. Together with the Princeton University Orchestra, we performed two concerts on April 26th and 27th. In the spirit of community outreach, the April 27th concert was not housed in our usual Richardson Auditorium but in the Patriots Theatre at the Trenton War Memorial. Glee Club and Princeton University Orchestra filled up a convoy of buses and traveled down to Trenton, music and instruments (for those who need them) in hand at the ready.
There were three pieces on the concert program, in the following order: Franz Schubert’s Gesang der Geister uber den Wassern, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet overture, and selections from Mendelssohn’s setting of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Both our performances were received by the audience with generous applause, perhaps a little delayed as so many of them (and us) were completely ensorcelled by the magic of Maestro Dudamel’s passionate movements tempered with meticulous direction. Perhaps, too, the fairy dust breathed to life in A Midsummer Night’s Dream added to the hypnotic musicality of Maestro Dudamel’s conducting.
We opened with the orchestra and the tenor and bass sections of the Glee Club. Gesang der geister über den Wassern (Song of the Spirits over the Waters) --- a setting of Goethe --- likens the soul of Man to water which “comes from heaven” and “returns to heaven”, and “down again\ to Earth must go\ ever changing” (trans. Shaun Thuris). Full of text-painting, the piece uses the tenors and basses to create a bed of sound, undulating in homorhythmic runs as waves rolling to shore.
Ashwin, a freshman Tenor, called working with Maestro Dudamel “an unparalleled experience combining both musical collaboration and musical excellence.” Something that he found inspiring in this collaboration, both with the orchestra (PUO) and the Maestro himself was that “Maestro Dudamel… was able to seamlessly and expertly fuse our sound with PUO’s sound while simultaneously imparting his unique musical knowledge and wit.” This concert was Ashwin’s penultimate Glee concert for this season (his last concert was singing Spem in Alium at Reunions). When thinking back to his first year with Glee, he expressed that the Gustavo Dudamel collaboration was “priceless and continues to remind me why PUGC is so special and important”.
Then, the singers got a break as the orchestra performed the soul-wrenching melodies of Romeo and Juliet. We were fortunate enough to sit in the audience for this piece. Watching Maestro Dudamel’s expressive gesturing beckoned me to follow him in my own journey through the twists and turns in the music. From the flourishes of excitement to the deep sighs of grief, the journey was led by the baton in Maestro Dudamel’s hand.
Finally, the Glee Club women had their chance to shine in the chorus sections of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The piece was a multi-party collaboration that included three students from the Program in Theater who narrated the libretto, and even featured a series of animations at the Trenton performance. From the first chord of the overture, Mendelssohn’s music brings us into a world that defies our expectations, yet, paradoxically is still very much our own. The lightness in the flurry of notes comprising the violin melody, then echoed by the woodwinds, awaken your imagination to the almost-palpable magic filling the auditorium. And yet, when you reach for it, it pops like the most delicate of bubbles. Our singing too, enhanced this gossamer-like quality. In the words of Glee Club Senior and Student Conductor Lucina Schwartz, “the upper voices got to put a sprinkling of fairy dust on Dudamel and Princeton University Orchestra”. Being the Student Conductor for Glee Club last season, Lucina saw this as an important occasion to observe how the Maestro encouraged every last drop of musicality from us performers. She remarked that “so often a performer, I relished getting to sit back for much of the piece and watch Dudamel make magic with PUO. He elicited varied moods from the music, lighthearted and passionate in turns.”
Now we couldn’t possibly talk about Maestro Dudamel’s conducting and musical direction without including some comments from our own beloved director Gabriel Crouch. Here are his reflections from Glee Club’s work with Maestro Dudamel this past semester.
“There are many methods which have been created to facilitate competence in ‘conducting’ - this peculiar physical process we have developed in order to elicit sound from other musicians - and none of them can create the finished product. You can read for years, you can practice drills with an array of props, you can train your muscles to the point of flawless control, and you can know the score inside and out; but the alchemy of conducting… when internalized beauty is magically realized in the hands and arms of a master… that only comes to those with a happy combination of fortune, diligence and talent. I’ve spent years of my life watching great conductors, and generally speaking I place them into one of two categories: those whose process leaves me completely baffled (often because their physical movement seems to bear no relationship to the sound) and those whose physical movement seems to reveal the entire score with the most luminous clarity, as if the answer to every possible question can be found simply by looking towards the podium.
Gustavo Dudamel, more than any musician I’ve seen, sits squarely in the latter category. I first watched him in 2006, conducting the fiendish scherzo from Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony at a terrifying pace, and coaxing a vast orchestra of Venezuelan students with a cheerful nonchalance through a constantly changing, asymmetrical meter. For someone who had studied the score and tried to imagine what it might take to conduct it well, it was truly jaw-dropping… but even so, it didn’t compare to the sensation of watching the great man bring Princeton students to an entirely new level of musical excellence in Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. He makes conducting look like the most natural of physical impulses - like throwing a ball, or swimming the front crawl. And through every gesture there is unfettered joy - a sense that this moment doesn’t just honor the composer, it ennobles all of us in the room.”
Needless to say, it was an immense privilege to work with Maestro Dudamel. He came, he conducted, and he changed what music-making looks like for us all.
May 31, 2019
What gives the Glee Club Reunions its magic? Is it the 40-part Thomas Tallis Spem in Alium, shaking the old columns of Richardson Auditorium? Is it the intricate weave of syncopation, voice parts trading melodic progressions, clusters of choirs calling and responding to each other? Is it the communal effort of careful listening, training our ears to make out the soprano line amidst the polyphonic tapestry? Is it the camaraderie in counting four beats in a bar (or at least trying to)? Is it realising that the singer next to you is unfortunately just as lost as you are, yet, miraculously the two or three (or whole row) of you find your way back by staring at Gabriel’s conducting? Is it singing alongside Glee veterans of so many generations, that despite our differences in age and experience, we sing and stand united by this common passion for music? Is it the gathering on-stage to belt out the Football Medley? Is it the solemnity of Old Nassau? Is it the improvised descants that embellish the final chords---three cheers for Old Nassau?
This coming year marks the 10th year of Glee Club Reunions. How lucky we are to gather together and sing!
PUGC and Tenebrae Choir
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Read on for some shocking audition anecdotes!