When Penna Rose, director of chapel music at Princeton, arrived at the University in August, 1992, Joseph Williamson, Princeton University’s visionary dean of the chapel at the time, supplied her with a model. “He told me that he wanted the Chapel to be the St. John the Divine of New Jersey,” Rose remembers. St. John’s, the cathedral of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, is renowned for its involvement with the surrounding community, for its concern about global issues, and for the breadth of its musical programs. White peacocks live on its grounds.
Williamson, dean of Princeton’s chapel from 1989 to 2001, who hired Rose, was known for his activism and for bringing literature, pop culture, and ancient philosophy into chapel life. An advocate for an open church, and for the poor, he felt comfortable at the intersection of religion and politics and permitted a same-sex marriage in the chapel in 1997.
During her tenure Rose has carried out Williamson’s mandate. She has quadrupled the size of the Chapel Choir and has mounted diverse and frequent programs that run from Gregorian chant to jazz. She underlines her 20 years at the Chapel with a celebratory program for the Milbank Memorial Concert in the Chapel on Saturday, April 21, at 8 p.m. The featured work on the program is Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “All Night Vigil,” a 1915 piece without instrumental accompaniment. Well received, the liturgical piece was suppressed after the 1917 Russian Revolution.
Accounting for the April 21 program Rose says, in a telephone interview from her Princeton office, “Because it’s my 20th year I wanted to do something that would showcase the choir. The Rachmaninoff is a cappella and we’re doing the first eight of the 15 movements. We end with ‘Praise the Name of the Lord.’ It’s a good place to stop.” The program also includes brief pieces by various composers accompanied by Princeton organist Eric Plutz.
The Rachmaninoff work was heard in its entirety in the Princeton Chapel in May, 2011. Devin Mariman, director of the Community Chorus of Rider College’s Westminster Choir College, conducted.
In the April 21 concert Michael Orzechowski is the tenor soloist in the Rachmaninoff piece; Emily Eyre is the contralto solo. The performance is in Church Slavonic. “I’m lucky that Daniel Skvir is the orthodox chaplain at Princeton,” Rose says. “I went to him for pronunciation. He’s an orthodox priest.”
“The most difficult aspect of the piece is the writing for the basses,” she says. “Many times the basses divide into three sections. And in the fifth part there are five B-flats 3 octaves below middle C. They mustn’t sound as if that was the lowest pitch the basses can reach. It should sound as if they could go even lower if they wanted to.”
Presenting the Rachmaninoff piece in the chapel has an emotional appeal for Rose. “Russian music in this chapel is magnificent,” she says. “It fills the space like nothing else. The piece has big, rich, full sonorities. You really invest yourself in the sound.”
Looking back on her initiation to Princeton, Rose relishes Williamson’s telling her to mimic St. John the Divine. “What a great thing to have somebody say!” she explodes. “The organ had been redone, and we were looking for as many ways as possible to get people into the chapel.”
“Not everybody wants to hear an organ concert,” Rose observes. No problem. She made the organ an adjunct to regular showings of silent movies, usually “The Phantom of the Opera” or “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” With an eye to increasing the size of the audience, Rose schedules the movie for Parents’ Weekend in October. She added performances with other instruments and with narrator.
Rose also convinced Williamson to boost the standing of the chapel organist. “When I came the chapel organist was a graduate student,” Rose says. “I told Joe that the position was important and that the chapel organist should be someone prominent.”
Searching for candidates, Rose met with Joan Lippincott, then the head of the organ department at Westminster Choir College of Rider University. Volunteering for the post, Lippincott asked, “Would you consider me?” In disbelief Rose begged, “Don’t tease me.” Lippincott was not teasing.
“She came for six years,” Rose says. “It was a wonderful magical start.” Lippincott left to devote herself fully to concertizing and recording.
Rose is now among the most senior members of the chapel staff. Eric Plutz has been the university organist since 2005. Alison Borden has been dean of the chapel since 2006. While a faculty member at New York City’s Union Theological Seminary, Rose met Borden during the 1980s, when Borden was a Union student. “Alison was in my choir at Union Theological Seminary,” Rose says. “She’s great to work with. She values music and is supportive of anything we want to do.”
Asked about changes since her tenure at Princeton, Rose immediately cites “the dramatic expansion of the chapel music program.” Its activities now include participation in the weekly Sunday worship services and in events of the ecumenical year, a series of midday concerts on Thursdays, participation in academic proceedings, an annual community singing of Georg Frederic Handel’s “Messiah,” two jazz series, two annual concerts open to the public, and assorted special events.
The evolution of the chapel choir under Rose is of major significance. “When I came, there were a few students and many community members,” she says. “It took about three years by word of mouth to let it be known what I was after. The choir has grown in ability. We can now sing more complicated music more quickly than we used to.”
“Expanding the choir as much as possible was an original goal for me,” she says. “I didn’t worry about it getting too big since there were only 20 choristers. The first year I ordered 50 copies of music and [Dean] Joe [Williamson] was skeptical. Now there are 80 people in the choir. They’re primarily undergraduates, with some graduate students and a few community members.” The choir rehearses twice a week and performs at the chapel’s main Sunday service.
“Every fall I put out fliers in back of the chapel inviting people to audition,” Rose says. She is a compassionate examiner. “My goal is to make prospective choir members comfortable, not create terror,” she says. “I ask them to bring a prepared piece. If they don’t, I ask them to sing the national anthem. That’s more difficult than any prepared piece. Many people are not from United States, and I ask them to sing ‘Happy Birthday.’” Sight-reading skills and the ability to sing back a series of pitches are included in the audition.
Trips abroad are a Rose innovation for the choir. In 2009 Spain was the destination. In 2011 the ensemble visited Prague, Vienna, and Budapest. “We go during the January intersession so people don’t have to worry about turning in papers for courses,” she says.
The creation of a music library is an accomplishment that delights Rose. “When I came there were boxes and boxes of music, and no card catalog,” she says. “There was a couch with stacks and stacks of music. Some of it was orchestral; some of it was vocal. When we got a computer, not too long into my tenure, we hired Betty Horn, whose parents are still in the choir. She entered everything into the computer, found a program that worked, and set the whole thing up. New shelves were built and the music was arranged alphabetically by composer. It’s one of the things I’m happiest about — that there is some order.”
Rose grew up on a dairy farm in Michigan — her father was a tenor and encouraged her to sing and play piano. Her given name is of Cornish origin. A 1965 graduate of Michigan State University, she earned a master’s degree in sacred music from Union Theological Seminary in 1968 and has directed musical theater in the Berkshires. She is married to John Alicea, a New York printing broker.
In addition to her Princeton appointment, Rose has been artist in residence at Union Theological Seminary since 1983. She led Karl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” there for the 14th time in February. Her responsibilities at Union include rehearsing and conducting the Seminary Choir for weekly Tuesday noon services.
Every other year at Union she gives an ever-changing course called “Music in the Church” primarily for non-musicians. “I teach them to see that there are lots of choices and that a traditional route is not necessary. I try to get them to stretch themselves and their congregations. I want them to think about why music is used in a certain place and how it shapes the direction of the service.”
“I want them to think about the context of sound and about how a congregation is affected. I encourage them to use non-musical elements — stamping feet, rubbing hands together, clapping hands, whispering. Silence can be very effective too.”
“One of my big efforts is to get them to listen again. Music is everywhere all the time, and it’s easy to ignore it. I take my Union students outside and ask them what they hear. I take them to the street or the subway and tell them to close their eyes and listen.”
Rose has conducted at Carnegie Hall. In addition to welcoming its acoustics, she treasures what she calls its “mystical element.” “You feel the power of everybody who has performed there before you did,” she says.
Rose tries to capture that element for Princeton. “I always ask the choir to sing our music into the stones so it will resonate with music to come in the future,” she says.
Princeton University Chapel, Saturday, April 21, 8 p.m. Milbank Concert with music of Rachmaninoff, Chesnokov, Hogan, Tippet, and others. Penna Rose conducts. Free. 609-258-3654. www.princeton.edu.