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This Preview story by Elaine Stauss was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on October 14, 1998. All rights reserved.
For Sharon Sweet, a Full Circle for `Requiem'
The next time soprano Sharon Sweet sings in Giuseppi Verdi's "Requiem" will be in Richardson Auditorium on the campus of Princeton University. The last time Sweet sang the same music was in Beijing, China.
The past "Requiem" performance, conducted by Zubin Mehta, took place about a month ago in the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square. "It was like singing in the United States Congress," says Sweet, in an interview from her home in Princeton. "The hall seats 10,000 people and it was full. The concert was for the benefit of flood victims in China. It was an experience" -- she underlines the word with her voice -- "to be on the stage where Mao spoke. You look up at the ceiling, and see the great big bright red Communist star. It was an incredible experience, as a Christian, to sing that piece in the hall where Communist policies are made. It was ironic."
Sweet's month-long stay in Beijing saw her in two performances of the Verdi "Requiem," and in the title role of a $15 million production of Verdi's opera, "Turandot," performed in Beijing's Forbidden City. "I really am a Verdian dramatic soprano," she told U.S. 1 (November 5, 1997).
In a performance that launches the 20th anniversary season of the 120-voice choral ensemble, Princeton Pro Musica, Sweet is a soloist in Verdi's "Requiem" on Sunday, October 18 at 4 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium. "The `Requiem' is one of my absolute favorites," Sweet says. "My very first recording was the Verdi `Requiem'." Sweet has sung this requiem on three continents with a constellation of conductors including Lorin Maazel, Christoph Eschenbach, Carlo Maria Giulini, Sir Colin Davis, and Frubeck de Burgos.
"The Verdi `Requiem' takes on new life with each different person that you do it with," notes Sweet. "Everybody's tempos differ. The voice changes as you get older. And then the words and meanings get deeper, and you pull from your life experiences. When you repeat the piece you have to find new things so it doesn't become stale."
Pro Musica's founder and music director, Frances Fowler Slade, who conducts the performance with a full orchestra, comes up with yet another angle on the Verdi "Requiem" as she explains its selection for opening the 20th anniversary year. "We tried to come up with a season that would be exciting from start to finish," she says. "The Verdi `Requiem' is one of the most spectacular of choral works. It has a larger-than-life quality suitable for a real landmark occasion. The last time we did the piece was 11 years ago. This time it's different because the chorus is so much better and the orchestra is so much better, and the soloists are spectacular."
Sweet anticipates that, for her part, no reworking is necessary when she solos with the primarily volunteer Pro Musica chorus. "I don't make any adjustments. I'm just thrilled to do it. It's my way of giving to the community. I'm thrilled every time I get to perform in my home town. Richardson Hall is a fabulous hall."
Sweet grew up in upstate New York, near Lake Placid. She earned a master's from the Ithaca College School of Music and studied further at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute. After an audition tour in Europe she landed a two-year contract with the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, beginning in 1986. "The Deutsche Oper became the opera company of West Berlin because Berlin's two main opera houses were in East Berlin," she says.
By the time Sweet's Berlin contract began she and her husband, John, a Presbyterian minister, were the parents of three children: Joshua, followed by twins Zachary and Sarah. "I began my career in Berlin after the twins were five, so I was a little more mature than most," she says. "I couldn't have done it without the support of my husband. He literally became Mr. Mom so that I could work." Husband John is currently completing his Ph. D. dissertation, an interdisciplinary study of John Milton and his interpretation of scripture. He hopes to finish the project in about a year.
After living in Berlin for four years while the Wall divided the city, and four years after German unification, the family moved to Princeton in 1994. They maintain their language skills by using German at home. In addition, Princeton High School has allowed the children to do independent studies in German with their father as their home instructor. Joshua continues with German at Haverford College. Zachary and Sarah, PHS seniors, will have an in-country work-out for their German when the PHS choir, combining with a group from the C.P.E Bach Oberschule of Berlin, gives joint concerts in Berlin, Leipzig, Dresden, and Weimar.
All three children are musically active. Joshua is with the Humtones, the oldest a cappella men's choir at Haverford. He also sings in Haverford's big chorus and plays violin. Sarah plays trumpet in the PHS Orchestra and studio band. Zachary, a cellist, is a member of the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra. Zachary wants to become a professional musician. "It's all" -- she stresses the word -- "he wants to do."
"We're lucky here in Princeton that music takes such a high priority. Most school systems don't have this kind of a program and don't sing the level of music that the PHS choir sings. We take it for granted here. We" -- she means the American public -- "need to continually support the public schools' music programs. A well-rounded student has to be well versed in the arts. I taught music at the college level for 10 years before I started singing and saw the level of musical knowledge of kids from all over the country. Most kids don't have a high level of musical knowledge. It's expensive to have a good music program. It's curious that nobody questions expenditures for sports, but many do question expenditures for the arts."
Two days after the interview with Sweet, my stereotypes bring me up short. Where was the temperamental diva? Sweet is easy to talk to, unpretentious, and good-tempered. Furthermore, she is fundamentally non-competitive.
Here's how I know: In the course of our comfortable conversation I summarize for Sweet a snippet from my interview with Slade: Slade declines to estimate the amount of time she spends on Pro Musica. "I spend whatever it takes," she says, and then she appears to veer off. "And then there's this dog. She ate my Verdi score. I've had the score for 20 years. I ordered a new one, and I have to put in the markings again. I remember a lot. And I'm noticing things I didn't notice before. That's the silver lining. But I'm only about a quarter of the way through."
I wonder if Sweet has ever had a comparable experience. Sweet laughs and contentedly says, "I don't think I have anything to top that for the Verdi `Requiem.' I don't even care to top that."
Taking time out from recopying her Verdi "Requiem," Slade looks back on Princeton Pro Musica's two decades. "We certainly have come a long way," she says. "The very first season, we had two concerts. The first concert had 30 singers and four instrumentalists. In early June that year we did a Handel piece with 40 singers and an orchestra of 25. The next year we started with 60 singers, and we kept growing until we reached our optimal size of 120. That was about 10 years ago. We stressed quality. Singers are re-auditioned every year and encouraged to take voice lessons."
"About nine years ago we started adding professional singers," Slade continues. "Now there are about 15 professionals. We're not trying to kick the volunteers out, but the professionals give a core of quality because of their experience. On the whole, they have more musical and vocal training than the volunteers. They provide a focus for the volunteers to listen to and blend with. It helps the volunteers, all of whom have extensive choral experience, when they hear voices near them approaching the ideal. Having a professional core has improved the sound of the chorus. We have excellent volunteer singers, some as good as the professionals, but they choose to volunteer. The volunteers are singing because they really love it. (I hope the professionals love it also.) The volunteers who give of their time like that bring a special spirit to the chorus. When visitors come they talk about its friendliness and responsiveness."
In auditions for the chorus, Slade looks into the main aspects of musicality. "I have an image in my mind of the kind of sound I want, and I listen for that. I consider musicianship: do people know instinctively where to breathe? How is their intonation? I have a scientifically-graded test for pitch matching; it involves five tones and gets progressively more difficult. I'm after their rhythm also. Besides my tests, the people auditioning sing something they've prepared. That tells me a lot, too. The audition takes 10 minutes, and I take time to chat with the person. I don't want people to think they're being rushed out of the doctor's office."
Of those who audition each year, Pro Musica takes about half. "If somebody fails the audition and wants to try again, I frequently suggest what to work on," says Slade. "I may say, work on sight reading or sing in a church choir and get your voice moving again. A person can sing in a college choir, and then not sing for a long time. Their voice gets rusty."
Slade, born in Atlanta, is a Wellesley graduate who has done graduate work at Northwestern University and Rutgers. She has consciously decided to abandon work on a Ph.D in musicology. "I had finished my courses, and taken the first part of the exam, and I realized that my interest was much more in performance than in scholarship," she says. "I took a leave, and never went back. I regret that it's so difficult on the East Coast to get a doctorate in choral conducting; it's more available in the Midwest. But by now I probably know as much about choral conducting as I would have learned in a doctoral program."
After 12 years as a member of the choral faculty at Rutgers, Slade is now the music director of Princeton's All Saints Church. "I realized that there's just so much of me," she says. "It's a lateral move, but a change of direction."
Looking to Princeton Pro Musica's future, Slade says, "I feel like this year is a turning point. We're ready to graduate to larger staff and a bigger budget. We're at a place where we're ready to expand our outreach and mission. We could easily be self-perpetuating, making sure that we can do the same thing the next year."
Slade searches for constant improvement. "In five years it will be our 25th anniversary and that's got to be even bigger. We're on a continuum. We're doing major works with orchestra. We want to do contemporary works. We have to develop our marketing to attract people. But our goals for the future are not vastly different from the past. We want to keep doing what we're doing, and do it better."
-- Elaine Strauss
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