With the Princeton Singers having reached the age of 30, artistic director Steven Sametz exudes a fondness for what is yet to come. Interviewed by telephone from his home in suburban Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the conductor/composer says, “We like to think that we’re not just re-creating music of the past, but creating music of the future.” Sametz’s vision becomes a reality in the schedule he has devised for the new season.
Sametz has programmed a substantial dose of new music for the Singers’ upcoming season. The opening concert on Saturday, September 27, at Trinity Church in Princeton includes the premiere of Steven Stucky’s “Winter Stars.” Three of the four Singers’ concerts this season include premieres: prominent Bucks County-born composer Aaron J. Kermis’s new piece for February and a new work by Sametz in April.
Completing the four-concert season is the established holiday favorite “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” aimed at children ages 10 and older, where tradition, not novelty, is the key criterion.
Stucky’s “Winter Stars,” the piece being heard for the first time, is set to a bittersweet poem by Sara Teasdale published in 1920. Written in the first person, the voice in the poem is that of a young woman grieving about war-borne tragedy. She finds consolation in knowing that the stability of the sky at night counterbalances her short-term sadness. Sametz describes the poem as “personal and intimate.”
Composer Stucky is a professor of composition at Cornell University. His “Second Concerto for Orchestra,” commissioned and premiered by the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2004, won a Pulitzer Prize. His “First Concerto for Orchestra” was one of two finalists for a Pulitzer in 1989.
Given free rein to create, Stucky chose the Teasdale poem — also called “Winter Stars” — as his text and started work on it at the end of August. Sametz’s instruction was “just to write the piece.”
The September concert also includes works by composers Orlandus Lassus (from the late Renaissance), Claude Debussy, Robert Schumann, contemporary American Eric Whitacre, and Sametz (who is commissioned every year to create a piece for the group). For the presentation the Princeton Singers will appear in one of their largest configurations — 19 members of the ensemble, along with about a dozen alumni.
The included Sametz piece is “Dante’s Dream,” which dates from 2013. “Dream” is Sametz’s own word for the vision that Dante presents in his “Divine Comedy.” The composer says, “I set the last 33 lines of the 33rd canto of ‘Paradise’ — the very end of the poem, where Dante has reached summit of his vision. The last line is ‘The love that moves the sun and other stars.’ I set it for triple choir — there’s a lot of trinity in this.”
In addition to participating as composers for the upcoming program, Sametz and Stucky have been colleagues at the Lehigh University Summer Composers Forum, which Sametz founded in 2000. “About 15 to 20 composers from all over the world come to the Forum,” Sametz says. “Each participant writes a new piece for the Princeton Singers. Every day each composer comes up with a sketch, and the Princeton Singers sing it. Then the composers revise their sketch.”
While the Princeton Singers is the choir in residence at the forum, Sametz annually invites a guest composer to join him in directing the project. Stucky was the guest composer in 2012 and got to know the Princeton Singers from his personal experience.
As for Sametz, he has known the Princeton Singers from his own personal experience for half of the Singers’ existence, having become their artistic director in 1998. John Bertalot, who came to Trinity Church as director of music in 1983, founded the ensemble as an independent entity. When Bertalot decided to return to his native England, Sametz took over the group, but not Bertalot’s other duties. Sametz’s appointment was the result of a national search.
“I didn’t overlap with Bertalot,” Sametz says. “Princeton Singers was a wonderful gift that he handed to me. At the time it was larger than now, and amateur. Under my direction it became leaner and more professional.” Sametz has expanded the repertoire of the ensemble, adding world music and cutting-edge contemporary pieces.
During Sametz’s leadership the size of the Princeton Singers has hovered at 16 to 17 members. Detailed criteria for auditions are listed on the Princeton Singers website, which also gives the general protocol: “Prospective Singers should be experienced choral musicians with pleasing voices and good intonation, be able to sight-read, and have a sense of humor.” Auditions are held throughout the year by appointment. New members take over as vacancies occur. Two-hour rehearsals are normally scheduled for Tuesday evenings.
Sametz, the youngest of three children, was born in 1954 into a musical family in Westport, Connecticut. His father, an accountant, played piano. His mother taught first grade. The family enjoyed music together.
With broad horizons as a musician, Sametz specifies piano and viola as his instruments. His exposure to choral singing began when he was in fifth grade. A composer for the piano since age six, he began to write for vocal and instrumental ensembles in junior high school. He pursued his interests abroad during his junior year at Yale, studying conducting with Helmuth Rilling in Germany and composition with Sylvano Bussotti in Italy. The credentials he earned from the University of Wisconsin in Madison — master’s and doctoral degrees in choral conducting — understate his musical capacities.
Selected spiritual practices from Judaism and Christianity, meditation practices, along with three trips around the world play a role in Sametz’s daily life and in his musical activities. He returned from his journeys influenced by the musical traditions of Japan, Thailand, and Indonesia, and bringing with him a large collection of musical instruments.
Sametz’s compositions range from opera, and works for orchestra, band, and choral forces to solo songs. Music for dance is part of his output. “I love it because it’s like composing for movies. You have to fit the music to pictures in your head. The collaborative element in writing for dance is inspiring to me. You start with a scenario — a plot line. With your collaborator you create a storyboard. You write the music first. Writing for dance is something very physical, unlike writing for chorus or orchestra,” he says.
Sametz has had experience in conducting works of which he is the composer. “I get to conduct my own compositions because of my training in both fields,” he says. “The advantage is getting what you wanted. Such pieces are usually performed very close to the time when they’re written. It’s immediate gratification. You don’t lose the impulse of the composing.”
To prepare for conducting pieces that he composed recently, Sametz says, “I seek the input of experienced singers. It’s humbling and exciting. Singers are artists. I want them to let me know what they think. It’s like birthing a piece.”
“When it’s a new performance of an old piece of my own, I have to re-learn the piece; I have to re-examine it. There’s always a difference between being a conductor and being a composer. There are different hats.”
Since he has conducted throughout the world, Sametz feels capable of reaching audiences with varying concert-going habits. “My experience is that if you present something exciting, audiences any place are responsive. We have a lot of heart in our programs. We want to be provocative and to challenge audiences. We want to communicate.”
Three notable performances of Sametz pieces have been scheduled within the next half year. First to come is a Carnegie Hall all-Sametz program, conducted by the composer on Friday, November 21. The event includes a Lehigh University Choral Arts ensemble performance of his 2001 work, “Carmina Amoris,” a six-movement work based on medieval texts by clerics and nuns about love. Also on the program is Sametz’s brief 1993 composition “I Have Had Singing,” about the joy of singing.
On Thursday, March 5, Sametz’s “Requiem for a Child” premieres at the University of Connecticut in Storrs with a student performance. Commemorating the Sandy Hook Elementary School (in Newtown, Connecticut) killings in December, 2012, the piece is Sametz’s response to being awarded the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Music Composition Prize. Sametz grew up 20 miles from Newtown. Composing the “Requiem,” he solicited input from elementary school children across the country for their visual and verbal ideas about tragedy and loss.
And on Saturday, April 18, the Princeton Singers perform a Sametz commission. “The piece is not yet ready to be talked about,” he says. “The composer’s job isn’t really done until his work hits the audience. There’s a cycle. The composer starts in his studio scratching with pencils, then singers interpret the piece, and then they present it as a gift to an audience. As a composer I know this cycle well.”
Princeton Singers, 30th Anniversary Concert, Trinity Church, 33 Mercer Street, Princeton. Saturday, September 27, 8 p.m. Tickets $20 to $90. 866-846-7464 or www.princetonsingers.org.