Princeton Pro Musica closes its 2015-’16 season with “American Voices” — an all American composer concert featuring, in the words of artistic director and conductor Ryan Brandau, “one of the most beautiful settings that exists of a 20th century text.”
Brandau is talking about the scoring of Dylan Thomas’ vivid poem “Fern Hill.” And while the poet is Welsh, the musical work’s Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, John Corigliano, is New York-born (in 1938).
Corigliano’s piece — one for chorus, orchestra, and a mezzo-soprano part to be sung by guest artist Margaret Lias at the Sunday, May 22, concert in Princeton’s Richardson Auditorium — is one part of a program that includes Boston-born composer and conductor Alice Parker’s settings of two hymns in celebration of her 90th birthday; Grammy-award winning Eric Whitacre’s “Cloudburst,” a piece for chorus, percussion, and handbells; the New Jersey premiere of Minnesota-based Rene Clausen’s “Now Talking God,” a commission based on a traditional Navajo poem; and two works by famed New York-born composer Aaron Copland (1900-1990): the orchestral “Appalachian Spring” and selections from his choral and orchestra work “Old American Songs.”
Interviewed by telephone from his New York City home, Brandau comments on some of the works in the tightly knit program. He turns his attention first to Corigliano’s “Fern Hill.” Thomas’ poem repeatedly evokes outdoor scenes of green and gold bathed in sunshine. In an unexpected twist at the end he associates “green” and “dying.”
Says Brandau: “The poem has lots of pastoral imagery and a very easygoing, carefree quality. The melody comes back in minor to make a dramatic ending.” He adds that the nature imagery works well with Copland’s “Appalachian Spring.”
Turning to Clausen’s “Now Talking God,” the commissioned piece, Brandau says it “works well with the Corigliano.” Clausen uses as his text an excerpt from a chant that addresses the Talking God, one of the four gods involved in the Navajo creation myth. The Talking God is in charge of earth treasures and is compassionate to man. The text extols the Talking God’s devotion to beauty.
“Now Talking God” — scored for chorus, piano, and solo flute — is the product of an annual commissioning consortium project of Chorus America, a nation-wide support organization that looks after the interests of choral ensembles. Each year Chorus America selects a well-known, well-respected composer and invites choruses to join in underwriting the piece to be composed.
“I knew Clausen,” Brandau says. “We were told at the outset the piece would be a cappella or chorus plus piano. Princeton Pro Musica was happy to accept the invitation. Choruses like Princeton Pro Musica are always looking to foster the future of the art form.”
“We were thrilled (the commission) worked so well with our American program this season. We made our $500 contribution. There were 17 other choral ensembles co-commissioning the piece. No one solicited our opinions for the commission. We all allowed Clausen to write what he wanted.”
Brandau came to Princeton Pro Musica in 2012 as artistic director, succeeding Frances Fowler Slade, who founded the ensemble in 1979. An eight-member search committee selected him after considering 53 candidates for the position.
“I have learned what a joy it is to work with this community of musicians,” Brandau says. “They show a fearlessness when it comes to exploring different kinds of repertoire, and indefatigable dedication to making the best music they can. They come ready to work at every rehearsal. It is energizing and inspiring to me.”
As a listener to Princeton Pro Musica, I report to Brandau my impression that the chorus sings with clarity, energy, and nuance, all rolled up together. “We’ve tapped into a satisfying synergy,” he responds.
Looking back on his stewardship, Brandau says, “I’m proud of the level of refinement we could achieve with Bach and Handel. Their music is very intricate, and Bach’s Thomaskirche choir, for instance, was much smaller than Princeton Pro Musica. It can be difficult to achieve the desired rhetorical nuance and sense of style with a large chorus.”
Princeton Pro Musica has about 100 singers who re-audition every year. Members come from Mercer County and its surroundings. The largest contingent lives in the Princeton area.
Instrumentalists appear on almost every Princeton Pro Musica program. The orchestra is not a fixed entity. The ensemble uses two types of orchestra with different structures, depending on whether programs are baroque or modern. Many instrumentalists return.
Next season’s program is already in place. A Richardson concert in October includes Franz Josef Haydn’s “Lord Nelson Mass” and vocal quartets of Johannes Brahms. The Polydora Ensemble, a vocal quartet specializing in chamber music, furnishes the solo singers.
In December Princeton Pro Musica gives a holiday concert at the Trenton War Memorial Patriots Theater with orchestra and the Trenton Children’s Chorus. Brandau arranged the suite of carols to be featured.
Anton Bruckner’s “Te Deum” and Leonard Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms” are included in a March concert at the Princeton University Chapel. Chapel organist Eric Plutz participates.
In May Karl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” provides what Brandau calls “an esthetically rich close to the year.” The Lambertville-based Mark Roxey Ballet joins PPM in Richardson for a costumed combination of art, dance, narrative, and instrumental music.
Born in 1981, Brandau grew up in a musical family in a Canton, Ohio, suburb. He estimates that his physician father and his blood bank lab technician mother have sung in church choirs for more than 40 years. Both parents accompanied Brandau when he took Princeton Pro Musica to Croatia in 2014, and the Monmouth Civic Chorus, another Brandau-led ensemble, on a tour of Ireland in 2015.
Brandau also leads Amor Artis in New York City. In addition, he is a faculty member at Westminster Choir College.
Brandau started singing in the cherub choir at his church when he was two or three. His piano study began at five. He played cello in youth symphonies. “I dabbled in a bunch of band instruments,” he says, “and played Christmas carols on just about everything: trombone, bassoon, clarinet, and saxophone.”
In addition to majoring in music at Princeton, Class of 2003, Brandau earned a certificate in gender studies. His studies included private lessons in voice, piano, and cello. He also participated in Princeton’s Glee Club and the Glee Club’s Chamber Singers. He was the music director of Princeton’s Katzenjammers, a coed a cappella chorus and conducted orchestras for the musicals of the Princeton Players.
In 2004 Brandau earned a master of philosophy degree from England’s Cambridge University. In 2007 he collected a doctor of musical arts degree from Yale. At both Cambridge and Yale he maintained a bulging schedule as a musician in addition to his academic work. At Cambridge he founded a women’s chamber choir.
Before coming to Princeton Pro Musica Brandau directed choral activities at California’s Santa Clara University and at the Santa Clara Chorale, in addition to other posts.
Brandau lives in New York City with Ian Ferguson, an entrepreneur, his partner of 12 years. “Ian comes to my concerts,” Brandau says. “He’s a counter-balance to what I do for work. It’s great to have a partner who’s not going to tell me that he didn’t like my interpretation. Ian provides non-musical feedback, and keeps me sane.”
American Voices, Princeton Pro Musica, Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University. Sunday, May 22, 4 p.m. Pre-curtain talk, 3 p.m. $25 to $60. 609 683-5122 ,or www.princetonpromusica.org.