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Rediscovering the Princeton Singers
This article by Elaine Strauss was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on May 5, 1999. All rights reserved.
When a member of a group praises its glories, the
motive is likely to be self-promotion. Often it takes a dispassionate
outside observer to establish credibility.
Despite his post as artistic director of the Princeton Singers, Steven
Sametz qualifies as an outside observer. In June, 1998, Sametz succeeded
John Bertalot, who returned to England after serving as director of
music at Princeton’s Trinity Church since 1983 and founding director
of the Princeton Singers, an a cappella group that has made a name
for itself on two continents with its performances and recordings
(U.S. 1 November 19, 1997).
Sametz, who is also professor of music and director of choral arts
at Lehigh in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, heard the Singers for the first
time when he applied for the position. "When they brought me down
for the interview," he says, "I didn’t know who they were.
It wasn’t until I actually heard them that I got enthusiastic."
As he nears the end of his first season with the Princeton Singers,
Sametz still considers himself an outsider.
"The Princeton Singers is insufficiently known," Sametz says.
"This jewel of a chamber choir is a fabulous asset, but Princeton
has yet to discover its own wealth. I’m an outsider and have a different
perspective. I can come in and say, `You’re internationally wonderful,
and let’s let people know it.’"
The Princeton Singers share a program Saturday, May 8, at 8 p.m. in
the Princeton University Chapel with the American Boychoir’s Resident
Choir, the women of the Princeton High School Choir, and additional
forces from the Princeton area. "It’s like shaking hands in the
community," Sametz says. The same performers appear also in a
program at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in New York on Sunday,
May 9. Two pieces by Sametz are included in each of the programs.
The Singers have chosen as a programming thread for the season the
theme of reincarnation, and have included in each of their programs
different versions of the same piece, often versions composed at a
distance of centuries from each other. The idea of reincarnation,
explains the Singers’ marketing director Natalka Pavlovsky Weismantel,
also reflects the present situation of the choir, which is re-inventing
itself as it makes the transition from Bertalot to Sametz.
The May 8 program includes Giovanni Palestrina’s "Exultate Deo,"
a 16th century masterpiece, paired with Francis Poulenc’s work of
the same name, which was written about 400 years later. Another pairing
joins Thomas Tallis’s "Lamentation of Jeremiah (II)" with Darius
Milhaud’s lament on the fall of Babylon. "Ave Marias" by Poulenc,
Zoltan Kodaly, and Franz Biebl are included. Two polychoral works
are included: Tallis’ "Spem in Alium," written for eight separate
choirs of five parts each, and Sametz’s "in time of," a setting
of the e. e. cummings poem for five choirs.
Sametz shows his nimbleness as a conductor as he talks
about the Tallis "Spem in Alium" slated for the May 8 program.
(The name is a shortened version of a Latin phrase meaning "I
have never put my trust in other than you.") How does Sametz track
the 40 parts that make up the piece? "Carefully. I put it together
in layers. There are different factions all over town. Two parts are
at the American Boychoir, where there are 11 on a part. The Boychoir
is doing the extremely high parts, the high piercing parts. The Princeton
High School women are doing four parts, which are lower. The Princeton
Singers are doing 20 parts. The other parts are done by former members
of the Princeton Singers and new singers. There are eight choirs,
with five parts each. All are equally important."
"Spem in Alium," maintains Sametz, must be listened to live
to create its proper impact. "The extraordinary thing," he
says, "is that if you hear the piece in recording, the impact
is lost. You don’t get the right impression out of two speakers."
"In time of," also written for multiple choirs, was originally
composed with orchestral accompaniment. In the Princeton Chapel, organ
will be the sole instrument, with Nancianne Parrella as organist.
Sametz is convinced that the organ will furnish a compelling matrix
for the piece.
The e. e. cummings poem "in time of" was written in memoriam
for a close friend of Sametz’s family, who died at 29. The poem is
a metaphor for the seasons of life, using a sequence of blooming flowers
to evoke the passage of time, and then moving on to the mystery that
is beyond what the mind can comprehend.
The germ for Sametz’s "Magnificat" came to him during an airplane
trip in Asia. "I had had a wonderful experience in Tibet, and
I was flying from Katmandu to Bangkok, listening to what I thought
was the sound system on the plane. It was very soft and was an extraordinary
piece. I thought it was a famous Renaissance ensemble singing Renaissance
polyphony. I looked in the pocket for the listening guide. There was
no guide. And I thought ‘There’s no Muzak here.’ I was hearing the
overtones from the plane engine and attributing words to it. I was
really hearing a piece, so I drew two staffs and wrote it down in
the back of the Willa Cather novel I was reading."
Sametz has been around the world twice. He enjoys Asia for its spiritual
component, as well as for its differentness. "It’s great for recharging."
he says. Sametz’s association with the Princeton Singers is in addition
to his duties at Lehigh and he will take the Lehigh Choir on tour
to major Asian cities including Bangkok, Singapore, Taipei, and Seoul
later this year.
Sametz was born on Mozart’s birthday in 1954 in Westport, Connecticut.
His father, a classically trained pianist, played show tunes and Rhapsody
in Blue while Sametz was growing up. "He’s still playing Rhapsody
in Blue," Sametz says. Both of Sametz’s grandfathers were violinists
and played in community orchestras. "Nobody was professional,"
he says, "but there was music in the house."
Sametz remembers playing piano and writing music at age six. He says
that he imitated his brother, five years his senior, who was studying
piano. But this was not merely listening to his brother practicing
and mimicking what the older sibling played. "I played my own
things," he says, somewhat surprised that anyone might think he
merely imitated. "I was making things up." What he remembers
about the first piece he wrote is, in the order he stated it, that
it was in F major, that it was contrapuntal, and that it had "some
really nice chords."
After completing his undergraduate studies at Yale University
and the Hochschule fur Musik und darstellende Kunst in Frankfurt,
he earned his doctorate in choral music from the University of Wisconsin
in Madison. As a composer, he has been commissioned by the National
Endowment for the Arts, Connecticut Council on the Arts, and Santa
Fe Music Festival. He made his conducting debut leading Chanticleer,
the men’s a cappella choral group.
Princeton Singers’ marketing director Weismantel says that the Singers
were at first surprised when Sametz applied for Bertalot’s position
with the group because they knew him as a composer, rather than a
conductor. The momentary confusion was transformed into mutual benefit
by writing into Sametz’s contract the requirement that he compose
a piece each year for the choir.
The Singers learned about Sametz several years ago when a choir member
brought in his piece "I Have Had Singing," and insisted that
the group look at it. Performed in the fall of 1996, the piece so
won the hearts of several members of the Princeton Singers that they
declared that they wanted it performed at their funerals. Using the
piece at a memorial service seems to be an idea that arises spontaneously.
It was performed at the recent memorial service for the late Robert
Shaw at Yale. "It’s not particularly meant as an elegy," Sametz
says. "It’s meant for people who make time for singing. I’ve done
it with professionals and they cried and said to me, `Thank you. You’ve
reminded me why I went into music.’" Heard on the CD "Out
of this World," by Chanticleer, the piece has a transcendent beauty
that is part hymn, part exuberance, and all self-fulfillment.
Sametz started singing in choirs when he was in fifth grade. "I
liked hearing sung lines against each other," he says. "I
remember hearing Purcell as a child, and thinking it was the greatest
thing in the world." Looking back on his musical experiences,
Sametz draws an educational principle from them. " I believe in
nurturing kids," he says. "If you give kids great material,
it will grow on them."
— Elaine Strauss
The Princeton Singers joins with the American Boychoir and women of
the Princeton High School Chamber Choir. Saturday, May 8, 8 p.m.
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