It is 3:30 p.m. on a bright October Sunday afternoon, and 125 or so people are gathering at the Universalist Unitarian Congregation of Princeton on Cherry Hill Road. Although many have arrived alone, they are now seating themselves in groups — basses over here, sopranos over there, brasses this way, strings on the other side. One man wheels in a harp. Another, a baritone soloist, sits calmly at the front of the group, occasionally waving at friends.
At 4 p.m., maestro Marjorie Herman — the director of music at the church — steps up to the platform. She signals the chorus to stand and leads a brief vocal — and somewhat physical — warm-up. She then lays out the rules for the three hours ahead. The group will work on some of the trickiest parts of Johannes Brahms’ difficult Opus 45, “Ein Deutsches Requiem”— sung in the original German so the sonorities and flow of the language will not be lost. Then the chorus and orchestra will spend the following two hours singing through the lengthy work.
The session is part of the monthly meeting of the Princeton Society of Musical Amateurs (PSMA). It’s an 82-year-old Princeton tradition where — since the word “amateur” means “to love” — singers and musicians come together for the love of making music.
The PSMA’s history says it started in 1935 when people gathered in each other’s homes for “musicales” and charades, low-cost ways to enjoy each other’s company during the Depression. The founder, professor Roy Dickinson Welch, chair of the Princeton University music department, modeled it on a group in Philadelphia. The original 20 or so amateurs met in the Princeton home of Mrs. MacKenty Bryan, who served dinner to everyone at intermission.
The group grew and in the 1950s added an orchestra. That is when certain works then became essential — Handel’s “Messiah” and Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” — and alternatively performed each December. Recognized Handel scholar J. Merrill Knapp of Princeton University’s music department conducted most of the sessions.
As smaller dinners gave way to snacks for more members, PSMA incorporated in 1963 and has since been guided by an executive committee. But the original spirit continues, as PSMA executive director J. Rogers Woolston and president Marilee Thompson make clear.
And while one of the largest costs for the group is the purchase or rental of the musical scores, Woolston says the expenditure reflects PSMA’s goal to create access for singers of all economic levels. As he tells it, Knapp left a bequest to PSMA sufficient to provide musical scores for all. A small participation fee from one-time singers, and modest annual dues, make it even more feasible to participate for much less than the cost of a movie. There is no charge for students.
Adds Thompson: “Between the endowment and the membership dues, we have been able to stay lean and focused on our goal, to help members of the community gather together for the common and joyful enterprise of making music, to sing through for their own pleasure the great works in choral literature.”
Woolston says his involvement started decades ago when he was a Princeton undergraduate “corralled” by Knapp, a larger-than-life character who helped forge the ethos of the group and is considered by many as the “grandfather” of PSMA.
Woolston studied physics and electrical engineering and played violin in the Princeton University Orchestra under Knapp. He says engineers were required to take at least one course per semester outside of their department, so he chose a history of music course with Knapp, which he calls one of highlights of his undergraduate years.
After he graduated in 1955 and started working as an electrical engineer for RCA Labs, Woolston says he found a lot of violinists in the area but a shortage of double basses. Since his civil engineer father played double bass and happened to have one, the resourceful Woolston re-tooled himself and has been playing the instrument ever since.
In addition to being a past RCA researcher and owner of JRW Custom Software, Woolston is a member of the American Federation of Musicians Local 62 and has contracted orchestra members for many local groups, ranging from the now defunct Trenton Civic Opera to the very active Princeton Pro Musica, of which he was also a board member.
When asked what keeps him coming back through all these years, Woolston says, “I don’t have the credentials of a professional musician, but I love being a part of this group. The result of playing these marvelous works gives me a high that can’t be achieved any other way.”
Marilee Thompson tells of growing up in a home filled with music in a suburb of St. Louis, the daughter of an architect father and homemaker and St. Louis Symphony Volunteer Association member mother. Her older brother was a concert pianist and an accompanist for singers such as Eartha Kitt and Eddie Fisher.
Thompson gravitated toward singing, joining the church choir at age six. She says that she was able to continue to pursue that love by minoring in music at Mount Holyoke, where she majored in math. After graduate studies in mathematics at Wesleyan, Thompson came to Princeton in 1968 to work for RCA Astro Electronics. She says she found PSMA shortly after and speaks on the relationship between music and mathematics. “A lot of math is structure — algebra, set theory. Music is also about structure. I resonate with the structure of music and find that experience deeply satisfying.”
“PSMA keeps music alive for me,” she continues. “To my mind, there’s a huge difference between going to a concert and the opportunity to participate in a musical event of this caliber. The great choral masterpieces are beautiful, complex tapestries, and it’s thrilling and exhilarating to be a voice in that tapestry.”
Although there are other groups in the United States gathering to sing through choral music together, Thompson says most of them are accompanied only by a pianist. Due to the presence of so many conductors and musicians in central New Jersey, PSMA has the luxury of a full orchestra and professional soloists and conductors for each event. Thompson thinks that this may be the only place where one could field a group of this scale. They currently have a roster of 12 conductors, drawn from Westminster Choir College, Princeton University, and many of the thriving church music programs in the area.
Thompson says she is looking forward to the debut of a new conductor, Mason Gross School of the Arts’ Chiu-Tze Lin, who will lead Bach’s B-Minor Mass on Sunday, November 6. But she’s not the only guest. On Sunday, December 4, Princeton Girl Choir conductor David Fitzpatrick leads Handel’s “Messiah.”
Starting the new year on Sunday, January 8, Bucks County Gilbert and Sullivan Society musical director and conductor Lee Milhous is on hand for “The Pirates of Penzance.” Gilbert and Sullivan has been a staple of PSMA for a long time, and, according to Woolston, Gallup poll founder George Gallup frequently sang the patter roles.
On Sunday, February 12, Voices Chorale’s Lyn Ransom conducts Randall Thompson’s “Frostiana”; and Sunday, March 12, New Jersey Choral Art Society music director Martin Sedek takes on the Vivaldi “Gloria” and Faure “Requiem.” Sunday, April 9 is still being decided.
Both Thompson and Woolston agree that for all participants, including seasoned veterans like themselves, one of the positives is that a read-through, by its nature, is a small investment of one’s time.
PSMA does not hold vocal auditions. Most participants have had some choral experience, and all know how to read music. But beyond that, Thompson emphasizes that it is open to all. The orchestra, however, is by prior invitation only.
Singers and orchestral players alike spend their weekdays working in many different professions. A random survey of just a few turns up a college administrator, a journalist, a property manager, a development professional, a waiter at Conte’s, and, as an alto puts it, a “recovering banker.”
Anne Seltzer, another long-time string player with PSMA and a development consultant during the week, says, “When my family and I moved to Princeton in 1970 from Chicago, I was homesick and not too sure how I would adapt to this new environment. Within a few weeks I met Anne Florey, a Musical Amateurs regular for years, in the supermarket, and she invited me to come to Musical ‘Ams’ (short for amateurs) with her to play in the violin section. That was it! I consider Musical Ams to be one of the highlights in my happy Princeton life. I have played regularly in the string section for the past 37 years.”
Meanwhile, Herman is continuing with the Brahams read-through and extols the chorus, “Don’t just sit back and wait as the orchestra plays. Listen to what they are playing, feel the drama of jumping into the music, follow the melody that is being established for you.”
Then at 7 p.m., as it grows dark and colder outside, the temporary community inside brings the great requiem of loss and acceptance to an end. Singers and musicians now break up, no longer grouped by the timbre of voices or instruments. But a glow lingers.
And while what has just been created certainly wasn’t perfect, like listening to a recording of this work would have been, and it wasn’t even pretty for some rocky stretches, it was made together — in real time.
Princeton Society of Musical Amateurs, Sundays at 4 p.m. at the Universalist Unitarian Congregation of Princeton, Cherry Hill Road. There is a participation fee of $10 at the door, or an annual membership of $45 ($65 for a couple), no fee for students. The next event is Sunday, November 6, and will be a sing-through of Bach’s B Minor Mass conducted by Chiu Tze Lin. Auditors are allowed and encouraged to contribute toward the refreshments. The sing-throughs are open to anyone, though experience in reading music is needed. www.princetonol.com/groups/psma.
Robertson is a choreographer, dance instructor, and past director of the Princeton Ballet School.