princeton pro musica: Joy to the world

I had the pleasure of attending what may very well be the most beautiful Christmas concert I have ever experienced. Of course we are well used to world-class performances from Pro Musica but even with that established reputation, this concert was really something special on December 11 at Trenton’s magnificent War Memorial auditorium.

Ryan James Brandau, Artistic Director, Princeton Pro Musica

Brilliantly directed by Dr. Ryan Brandau, the program first took us on a re-telling of the nativity story beginning with a slow and ethereal version of “O Come O Come Emanuel,” the 15th Century French melody, with orchestra and chorus rising to full power on the final “rejoice, rejoice, Emanuel shall come to thee oh Israel.” This blended seamlessly into “God Rest Ye merry Gentlemen,” which in turn led into one of my personal favorites, “Lo How A Rose E’er Blooming,” another musical legacy from the 15th Century. The facility with which orchestra and chorus could move from renditions that were exquisite and haunting to powerful music that filled the house —all with perfect discipline and precision was a demonstration of why Pro Musica is held in such high regard.

With this opening setting the standard, the concert went on to give us selections from Bach, Handle and others. Laura Kosar’s crystal clear soprano voice gave a beautiful rendition of the recitative “There Were Shepards” from The Messiah. Baritone Scott Purcell did an excellent performance of “Mighty King” from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.  The first act ended triumphantly with “Joy To The World” and “The Hallelujah Chorus.”

Act two was a sampling of many different Christmas moods ranging from “Greensleeves,” done with a very delicate intro by the strings, then moving to the wind instruments, through “Deck The Halls,” “I Heard The Bells,” “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” and more. The music was interspersed with dramatic reading by Trenton Mayor Eric Jackson and Dr. George Pruitt, both of whom have excellent speaking voices and showed real promise if they ever decide to take up a career on stage. The second act also gave us a genuine treat in the performance of the Trenton Children’s Choir singing “Ose Shalom,” a traditional Hebrew song that was perfectly performed.

Concluding with the most beautiful arrangement of “Auld Lang Syne” I’ve ever heard, and a magnificent grand finale, this was a memorable concert indeed. Anyone who is not keeping up with the performances of Princeton Pro Musica is missing one of New Jersey’s leading treasures.

Princeton Pro Musica:

a Musical Feast


Princeton Pro Musica:

Carmina Burana


Reviewed by Nancy Plum for the Town Topics

By Nancy Plum

A 40-year history is commendable for any performing organization, and Princeton Pro Musica, which presented its first concert in the spring of 1980 and has only had two music directors in four decades, celebrated this milestone this past weekend with a festive concert at the Princeton University Chapel. Pro Musica’s decades-long musical roots provided bookends to Saturday afternoon’s performance of the music of George Frideric Handel as founder Frances Fowler Slade led the 100-voice chorus in the opening and closing works on the program. Current Artistic Director Ryan James Brandau conducted the chorus and an accompanying chamber orchestra in several of Handel’s lesser-known but equally as appealing pieces, recreating a concert atmosphere which could have taken place in Handel’s time in a space which well suited the performers and repertoire.

Slade retired from Pro Musica in 2012, but many of the current singers performed under her direction for a number of years. Slade took the podium to lead the chorus and orchestra in two “Coronation” anthems of Handel, a composer whose music Pro Musica performed every year since its founding. Slade maintained a lively tempo in both pieces, keeping a crisp conducting style and encouraging the blocks of sound for which the chorus has been known. The University Chapel can be a cavernous space for a large chorus, and the choral sound that seemed to work best for Pro Musica included the ensemble’s trademark expansive homophonic passages. In both “Zadok the Priest” and “The King Shall Rejoice,” Slade guided the chorus well through the Baroque lilt in the music, demonstrating that even in retirement, she is still looking for precise endings and phrasing.

Brandau took the audience back to the early 18th century by juxtaposing excerpts from Handel’s oratorio Alexander’s Feast with an organ concerto which Handel might have played on the same program as the oratorio. Longtime Princeton University Chapel organist Eric Plutz, who also has a strong connection to Pro Musica, played Handel’s Concerto for Organ in G minor using effectively light registrations so that the ornaments and extended running lines were clearly heard in the Chapel. Accompanied by lean strings, Plutz showed solid command of Baroque style and musical effects.

The excerpts from Alexander’s Feast included four choruses and one aria, which was sung by guest soprano Sherezade Panthaki. Well-known throughout Baroque performance circles, Panthaki showed no fear of the space in the University Chapel, displaying a voice which soared into the Gothic architecture. It takes an unusual singer to fill the Chapel acoustic as a soloist, and especially in the upper registers, Panthaki’s voice was clear all the way to the last pew. The sopranos of Pro Musica were extremely vocally bright in the choruses from this oratorio and handled the vocal runs well, as Brandau ended each chorus with orchestral cadences that tapered away. The fifth chorus in particular, “Your Voices Tune,” shifted styles effectively, with a solid and driving underpinning from the celli and double basses.

Panthaki had her superstar moment singing Handel’s “Eternal Source of Light Divine,” an aria from the composer’s Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne, originally composed for solo alto and trumpet which has been recently heard more in the soprano world. This aria is loaded with long melodic lines, sustained ornaments, and a demand for almost superhuman vocal stamina. Singing from memory, Panthaki had no trouble drawing out the lines with perfect control over the aria and space. Joined by sustained strings and trumpeter Shelby Lewis playing a valveless instrument from the pulpit, Panthaki once again sent vocal sound soaring into the rafters of the Chapel, and the two soloists mesmerized the audience throughout the aria.

Brandau closed the concert with a graceful and elegant performance of Handel’s Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day in which Pro Musica showed that the ensemble was well at home in this period of music. Slade returned to the podium to lead the chorus in a closing crowd-pleaser from Handel’s Messiah, a staple of Pro Musica’s repertory. In a very quick tempo and subtly accompanied by the orchestra, Pro Musica closed its anniversary concert with the final chorus from Messiah, leaving a celebratory atmosphere in the Chapel to start off the next four decades of the ensemble’s history.

Reviewed by Tobias Grace for

The May 21st performance of Carmina Burana by Princeton Pro Musica at Richardson Hall was more than a performance – it was a phenomenon.  Enhanced by the brilliant dancing of the Roxey Ballet company, skillfully integrated with the music and by a clarity of sound created both by the chorus itself and by the outstanding acoustics and sound engineering of Richardson Hall, the production left me stunned and entranced.

Carmina Burana is perhaps the most popular secular cantata of all time and this, of course, creates a challenge for any company undertaking it. Composer Carl Orff intended this to be not only a musical but also a visual spectacular. The collection of 13th Century poems from which the lyrics are drawn celebrates the pleasures of the flesh and the lust of youth and gives a backhanded slap to the church hierarchy and conventional rectitude.  Unfortunately, the cantata is rarely performed as Orff envisioned it. Perhaps the best depiction of Orff’s vision is a film created for West German television in 1975 with the close co-operation of Orff in honor of his 80th birthday. The various stories of young lust and gluttony are quite literally brought to life. The film was banned there for decades because of this almost literal interpretation of the texts Orff had put music to.  The mixture of Christian and pagan imagery is exactly what the lyrics describe in this mixture of sacred and profane songs, but the  Miss Grundys of the time couldn’t handle it.  Some Copies of the film were destroyed, but a survivor can be seen on Youtube.

By including the ballet, Director Ryan James Brandau returned to Orff’s true vision of how this work should be staged and the Roxey Ballet’s sensual, wonderfully costumed and highly skilled performance gave life to the vision. Special mention should be made of those dancers who performed solo or in Pas de deux as they were a particular joy to behold.  I have heard Carmina Burana performed by larger choruses with full orchestras and in larger halls, including the London Proms at Royal Albert and they were very good – very good indeed – but not as good as this Pro Musica production, lacking as they did this essential visual quality brought by the ballet.

The 96 voice chorus is a powerful instrument, perfectly rehearsed and performing with a precision and clarity that was absolutely meticulous. Every element of the music, whether it was a majestic chorus or the slightest tinkling of a bell or a castanet had the same perfect rendition. Laura Kosar, (soprano) Ryland Angel, (tenor) and Will Berman (baritone) were the soloists and all three enhanced the production greatly. Ryland Angel’s acting was especially appropriate to his material. Will Berman was in excellent voice and Laura Kosar’s clear and perfect soprano voice was yet another joy in this production.

Princeton Pro Musica’s 2017- 2018 season has been announced and includes such outstanding selections as the Brahms Requiem and Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. See for more information.

The Roxey Ballet is based in Lambertville, N.J. and information regarding its performances can be found at

AMOR ARTIS: an amor artis new year's eve

Reviewed by Daniel Spahr for See and Heard International

Despite countless choices for a New York City New Year’s Eve, the packed pews at the elaborate St. Jean Baptiste Church on Lexington Avenue revealed Bach’s timeless appeal. Amor Artis Chorus and Orchestra presented a celebratory evening, eloquently crafted, that elicited a sense of harmony and hopefulness for the coming year.

Director Ryan James Brandau gave a fresh format to familiar, beloved works, such as splitting the Mass in B minor in two—the first half at the beginning of the concert, and the second at the end. With current events on everyone’s mind, in the Kyrie eleison, Brandau somehow reflected the challenges facing the world in 2015. But with Bach’s exultant Dona nobis pace, the conductor sent us off with the musical equivalent of champagne toasts, and the hope for a better 2016.

Along with extra energy from the soloists, mezzo-soprano Sarah Nelson Craft gave a particularly mesmerizing reading of the Agnus Dei. Her voice flowed with a smooth, honeyed quality that seemed to trickle down the church’s thick stone pillars. That she and the orchestra blended so well was further tribute to the chemistry with Brandau and his focused direction.

The choir gave distinct attention to vocal layering, built phrases that framed Bach’s deific harmonies, and used dynamics to emphasize contrapuntal shifts. A particularly joyful Gloria movement was one of many memorable sequences. And Brandau satisfyingly and precisely measured the very last note—just the right length—which resonated throughout the church’s pleasing acoustic.

In between the two halves of the Mass, the Amor Artis musicians showed their early music expertise in the Concerto for Two Violins in D minor and the Suite No. 3 in D major. The Suite, in particular, was distinctive with joyful tempos in the Gavotte, and playful accents from the brass—airy popping notes that seemed to lift a set of imaginary Baroque dancers. A noble, short Bourree led straight into a dandy Gigue, appropriately festive.

Amor Artis performs every New Year’s Eve. For a delightful alternative to the Times Square throngs, consider an evening at St. Jean Baptiste Church on Manhattan’s East Side, where there will be music of a different kind, to help you ring in the new year.


PRINCeton pro musica: Handel's israel in egypt


Reviewed by Nancy Plum for Town Topics

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.

Princeton pro music: Mendelssohn's Elijah

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.