Frances Fowler Slade, founder and conductor of Princeton Pro Musica, says that normally her favorite piece of music is the one that she is working on. Following that principle, Slade is obliged to have two favorites for the concert scheduled for Saturday, May 1, at Richardson Auditorium, when the ensemble performs both Paul Moravec’s “Songs of Love and War” and Johannes Brahms’ “German Requiem.”
Soloists are Sarah Pelletier, soprano, and Kelly Markgraf, baritone. Composer Moravec, whose residency at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study ended in 2009, talks about the composition of “Songs of Love and War” at Stonebridge on Monday, April 26 at 7:30 p.m. and gives a pre-concert lecture at 7 p.m. before the May 1 concert at Richardson.
The text for the Moravec work is four unrelated letters, in English, involving American soldiers in four different wars: Vietnam, World War II, World War I, and the Civil War. Brahms’ Requiem uses as its text the Lutheran Bible, in German. Brahms made the selections himself. More than 130 years separate the writing of the two pieces. Princeton Pro Musica performs the Brahms piece for the fifth time in its 31-year history; the group presents the Moravec piece for the first time.
In a telephone interview from her home in Skillman, conductor Slade accounts for the programming. “The Brahms ‘Requiem’ came first,” she says. “Usually I feel it stands alone. Paul’s composition is an excellent companion piece. The two works contrast. The Moravec is more intimate than the Brahms. It’s about love and grief, while the ‘Requiem’ is about love and comfort. I think they work together very beautifully. We’ll open the program with the Moravec.
“The Brahms ‘Requiem’ has been my favorite piece since I first sang it with Robert Shaw and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra right out of college,” says Slade. “It’s designed for the living; that’s why I love it.”
Personal reasons shape Slade’s affection for the “Requiem.” “At times of grief I have heard it in the back of my head,” she says. “I didn’t understand the end of the first movement until I went through grief of my own and learned that mourning is an act of love. I think Brahms got that. The piece has at its core blessedness and peacefulness. It has all sorts of drama, hellfire, and excitement, but keeps coming back to peace, blessings, and comfort. It has incredible beauty.”
In Slade’s remarks about the program she divulges information that goes beyond the normal program notes. “The writer of the Vietnam War letter is still alive,” she says. “He sent me an E-mail that said, ‘As a twice wounded and permanently disabled Vietnam veteran I would be most gratified if my words and this work could be used to deglorify war and possibly dissuade some young person from enlisting.”
Slade reveals that Moravec, to the contrary, has no polemic in mind. “Paul says that this piece is not pro-war or anti-war,but concerns expressions of love in extreme conditions, where death is close.
“One of the challenges in preparing the piece,” she continues,” is that the text consists of letters and not poetry. So we have to deal with natural speech rhythms.”
Moravec attended one of PPM’s rehearsals. “Working with the composer is a wonderful opportunity,” Slade says. “It brings the music so much to life for all of us to have the composer right there, telling us either ‘That’s just what I had in my mind,’ or showing us what he really means. It’s kind of scary; we love this composer and want to do the best for him.”
The Brahms piece, Slade discloses, presents its own array of challenges and solutions. “The ‘Requiem’ is very demanding of the sopranos,” she says. “It lies high for the soprano voice and calls for many sustained notes. The fugal sections are very like Bach, and very tricky.”
A key to the piece, for the entire chorus, she says, is handling the German. “Getting the diction right makes the articulations right. If the diction is not right, the articulations do not fall into place. A cardinal rule in singing German is: never slide into a vowel. Sung German requires a break before the vowels.” She cites, as an example, a portion of the second movement marked “legato, poco marcato” (connected, somewhat stressed) with the text “Alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras.”
John Cavalaro, a chorus member, acts as a German coach. He has prepared a guide to German pronunciation that appears on PPM’s website, and goes over portions of the text before each rehearsal. A side-by-side translation appears in the program.
Slade admires Brahms’ structure for the “Requiem.” “The way in which it opens and ends is a kind of circle,” she says. “The ending of the first movement is the same as the ending of the last movement, musically. Only the words are different. The first movement ends, ‘Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.’ The last movement ends, ‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord, and ends with the repetition of the word ‘blessed’ [‘selig, selig, selig’].”
I observe that the concluding text is rather pious for a skeptical composer, and Slade explains. “Brahms was singularly unreligious,” she says, “but he himself said he could not argue with the work’s venerable authors. Even though he was agnostic, Brahms had a good Lutheran upbringing and knew Luther’s Bible well. He chose the text himself.”
Slade has conducted the Brahms ‘Requiem,’ not only in performance. In November, 2009, she led a reading of the piece for the Princeton Society of Musical Amateurs, a group of un-auditioned enthusiasts that joins to sing major musical works for their own pleasure, with a non-professional orchestra, under the guidance of a professional conductor. “The reading took less than three hours,” Slade says. “Basically it was a sing-in.
“People love the Brahms. We were able in that short time to make some music. It was wonderful to spend the afternoon with Brahms. And it’s wonderful to really polish the piece.”
Slade was born and grew up in Atlanta. “I was raised to be a southern lady and not expected to have a career,” she says. “I was taught piano as something a young lady should do. In my college interview, I said that music would be my avocation.
“My dad might have been more musical than he let himself be. He played the banjo. At the end of his life he listened to my recordings, not just because of me, but because he loved the music. I had musical grandmothers. One of them was the first music major at what became Converse College in South Carolina. The other had very good ear.
“I have absolute pitch. It’s definitely hereditary. It can be a pain in the neck sometimes. I started singing in a church choir at two and a half. The choir directors were Westminster graduates. They were good. I always loved to sing and realized early that I really liked it.
“I can’t remember my parents taking me to symphony concerts. The Metropolitan Opera would come to Atlanta and they took me once or twice.”
Slade discovered her affinity for choral conducting as a Wellesley College student, where she became director of an undergraduate 20-person choral group. “After doing it for six months, I got so I could feel it in my hands. It was a tactile sensation.”
After graduating from Wellesley, Slade earned a degree at Northwestern University. She has done postgraduate work at Rutgers University and Westminster Choir College of Rider University. Her resume includes high school teaching. She was a member of the choral faculty at Rutgers from 1986 to 1998.
Slade founded Princeton Pro Musica in 1979. The group consists of about 100 singers, a smaller number of which form a chamber chorus. All chorus members audition annually. During its existence PPM has performed a survey of the great choral works in the tradition of western music, from Josquin Des Prez in the 15th century to the present day. Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Verdi, and Britten are among the composers whose works the ensemble has performed. Princeton Pro Musica did nothing special to celebrate its 30th anniversary in 2009. Slade treats the absence of festivities with remarkable matter-of-factness, giving no sign of regret, apology, or explanation.
In February the ensemble survived a strenuous audition process and participated by invitation in the American Choral Directors Association Eastern Division convention in Philadelphia. Their convention program included contemporary music and a Brahms motet. “The motet had foreshadowings of the ‘Requiem’ and was an homage to Bach,” Slade says.
Slade has conducted instrumental literature as well as choral works. “I’ve done symphonic literature with some frequency,” she says. “I’ve conducted Beethoven’s ‘Ninth’ twice. But mostly, it’s Princeton Pro Musica.
“Actually, waving your arms and feeling it in your fingers are not the main things that choral directors do,” Slade says. “I think of myself as a conductor.”
To come to grips with the music that she conducts, Slade minutely studies the score in advance, without the presence of performers; she uses a metronome. My phone call interrupts her examination of the Moravec score, and she turns off the metronome. “Looking at the music, I hear it in my head,” she says, “but the metronome keeps me honest.”
Brahms Requiem, Princeton Pro Musica, Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University. Saturday, May 1, 8 p.m. Soloists are Sarah Pelletier, soprano; and Kelly Markgraf, baritone. Frances Fowler Slade conducts. $25 to $55. 609-683-5122 or www.princetonpromusica.org.