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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the
April 4, 2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Temporary Inconvenience, Enduring Music at the Chapel
The Princeton Chapel sits swathed in struts and
the temporary captive of a two-year, $22 million restoration project
begun in February, 2000. Outside the Gothic structure is hemmed in
by chainlink fence and surrounded by shards of masonry. Inside the
scaffolding intrudes on the building’s serene space. Yet, while scores
of workmen re-point and repair masonry and stonework or re-lead the
stained glass windows, the chapel remains open for worship, weddings,
and special concerts.
The intact basement office of director of chapel music Penna Rose
lies in the eye of the storm. From this ample, unscathed room Rose
organizes music during the renovation for weekly Sunday services,
a series of noontime organ concerts in Princeton’s Graduate College,
and 10 special musical events at the scaffolded chapel.
Rolling with the inconvenience of repairs slated to continue until
2002, rather than riling against it, Rose has labeled the batch of
special events, "Music Under Construction: A Spectrum of
The next event in the series, the high-profile Albert Goodsell Milbank
and Elizabeth Milbank Anderson concert, takes place Saturday, April
7, at 8 p.m. The free program features Mozart’s Mass in C Minor, K.
427, and his Concerto for Oboe and Orchestra, K. 314. The Chapel Choir
is joined by soloists Clare Mueller, soprano, Alyson Harvey,
tenor David Kellett, and bass Jack Brown. Oboist Peter Velikonja,
a Princeton doctoral candidate, is the concerto soloist. Rose conducts
the Princeton Chapel Camerata.
As music director of the Berkshire Bach Society, Rose has conducted
the Mozart Mass in Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts.
Interviewed in her Princeton office, she delights in contrasting the
acoustical problems of the two settings. "It’s always fun doing
the Mozart Mass in C Minor in different places," she says.
chapel is a more difficult space than Ozawa Hall because the sound
bounces around. It’s difficult to achieve clarity with the chapel’s
four-and-a-half second reverberation time."
"Ozawa Hall is great for chamber music and for solo voices, but
difficult for choral singing," Rose says. "You can’t hear
yourself well on stage. And in the audience, there are different
in different locations. I had to work on how to position the choir
so that the voices would be heard equally. I ended up arranging
altos, tenors, and basses on the bias." Rose positioned the
of each section diagonally behind each other in a sort of quadruple
helix. "Every space you sing in has a different challenge,"
she says. "Here it’s to avoid muddiness. There it was to get a
balance of sound."
Rose is enthusiastic about the Princeton Chapel Choir.
"Though they’re not trained singers, they’re very good
she says. "They have beautiful, young voices. There’s a freshness
and clarity to their sound and they learn things fast. An intelligent
choir is of primary importance." The choir is auditioned and paid.
Its 70 voices consist primarily of undergraduates. There are a few
graduate students and a handful of community members. The sole music
major in the group is a graduate student.
For the Mozart Mass the choir will once again sing from its normal
spot in the chancel of the university chapel, recently freed of its
scaffolding. Mulling over earlier stages of the restoration, Rose
rolls her eyes, and sighs. "It was difficult," she says,
I tried to see it as a creative opportunity. When the scaffolding
was in the chancel, the choir could no longer sing there. At first
we were in the south transept. That was not bad. The pews there face
into the nave. And the wall behind us threw the sound out.
"Then the scaffolding changed and the choir had to move to the
Marquand Transept, the north transept, where the pews face to the
front of the chapel instead of toward congregation. For the choir
to see me and see around each other, they had to stand on the pews
and face out. You do what you have to do."
"The hardest thing about the restoration is not having the Mander
organ," Rose says. The esteemed instrument, with its 109 stops
and 8,000 pipes has been wrapped in plastic and sealed off in order
to protect it from the dust of the renovation. An electronic digital
organ and speakers in the nave temporarily replace the Mander organ.
The chapel’s Milbank Memorial Choir, once again accessible for use,
was dedicated in 1928 as a memorial to Elizabeth Milbank Anderson,
who died in 1921. Speaking at its dedication, her cousin Albert
Milbank, Princeton 1896, and founder of the Wall Street law firm,
Milbank Tweed Hadley and McCloy, praised her human qualities.
though she was," he said, "those of us who knew her best hold
her in affectionate remembrance quite as much for her occasional
her humor, and those endearing human qualities which made her a
Elizabeth Milbank Anderson established the Milbank Fund in 1905 to
honor her parents. With headquarters presently on Madison Avenue in
New York, the fund’s primary activity is the support of nonpartisan
analysis, study and research on significant issues in health policy.
Its endowment grew from the activities of Elizabeth’s father,
in investment banking and railroads, and from his co-founding of the
Borden Milk Company. To help set up the fund she turned to her cousin,
Albert Milbank, a decade after he attended Princeton; he directed
the fund from 1920 until his death in 1949. His son, Samuel R.
an investment banker, was also chairman of the board. The present
chairman is Samuel L. Milbank, Albert’s grandson.
Rose, a quiet feminist, finds a certain resonance in the enterprise
of Elizabeth Milbank Anderson, who died when feminism was still an
exotic movement. Rose admires Anderson’s benefactions; she donated
a library to Greenwich, Connecticut, gave land to Barnard College,
built a sports arena and public baths, and established a program of
free school lunches, in addition to founding the fund that bears her
family’s name. An art collector, Elizabeth Milbank Anderson was
to Abram Anderson, a well-known portrait painter and a friend of Teddy
Using the computer in her cozy office, Rose delights in tracking down
the benefactor honored in the Princeton Chapel. One can imagine that
had the two women met, they would have found common ground in their
readiness to engage the world on its own terms. A comparable
infuses both Rose’s choral conducting and Anderson’s philanthropy.
Rose might very well have shown a curious Anderson how the computer
works, and invited her to settle on the comfortable couch near the
piano. Anderson might have noticed that Rose’s tendrils of
bear more than a passing resemblance to the woman in Botticelli’s
"Birth of Venus." Rose’s books and music might well have
an active exchange of views beginning with Rose’s take on choral
For Rose conducting is more the expression of a philosophy of life
than the application of a set of rules governing a craft. "The
most important thing," she says, "is to know that it’s not
written anywhere that when you bring your hand down anybody is
going to sing or play. You have to have a contract with each other.
Conductors must always be aware of this. They must know that the
they lead are there because they love the music. You have to respect
the music, and the people. Then you can do anything you want with
the group. When you have that basic understanding, then everything
else falls into place." The statement sounds definitive, but it
evokes an equally basic idea.
"The other thing," Rose adds, "is to remember to be
that we have the opportunity to do this together. We should remember
that it’s remarkable to get together and produce this sound in that
space upstairs. What could be better than that?" Once she has
let this awe for music making settle in the air, Rose thinks of yet
another criterion. "The text is important," she says. "It
must have meaning to you in order to have meaning to the
The question of what is important in choral conducting continues to
percolate in her mind.
Later, in a follow-up conversation, she mentions the criterion of
total immersion in the music. "It’s basic that you sing musically,
that you do not approach the music casually. You’ve got to sing in
a meaningful way. You have to bring your life experiences to whatever
kind of music you’re performing and devote yourself to the music.
You can’t remove yourself." Rose’s active mind seems never to
At Princeton since 1992, Rose lets imagination mark her activities.
"When [Dean] Joe Williamson hired me," she says, "he told
me he wanted Princeton to be the St. John the Divine of New Jersey
with various events open to the community. We knew that it would be
difficult to get people to attend organ concerts in the evening. But
I thought people would have to hear the organ if we showed silent
movies and played organ music during the film. So we started doing
`Phantom of the Opera.’ It was a ploy to get people in." The
evening showings of the film play to capacity crowds.
Rose grew up on a dairy farm in Michigan. "My father gave me the
name Penna," she told Bruce Anderson of U.S. 1 (March 30, 1994).
"It’s a Cornish surname in his family. When the name looked like
it was going to die out, he passed it on through me. Penna means
I like the name a lot."
Both of Penna’s parents encouraged her music. Although her father
was a chemical engineer, he used to sing, and Penna would accompany
him. From the time she was nine, her mother faithfully drove her to
Rose earned a bachelor’s degree in music education from
Michigan State in 1965. After finding a year of high school teaching
unsatisfying, she went on to Union Theological Seminary for an M.A.
in sacred music. "I had to go to New York," she told Anderson.
"In Michigan I was always considered an oddball because I spoke
my mind. But in Manhattan, it was okay to be an individual."
Formerly active as a musical theater director in the Berkshires, Rose
reluctantly gave up musicals in 1997. "It was too much. I was
at Princeton half time, and at Union Theological Seminary one day
a week. Then I would go to the Berkshires on Thursdays and return
for the Sunday chapel service. I needed the summers off and I wanted
to work in my garden." She and her significant other, John Alicea,
a New York printing broker, have a house 15 minutes from Tanglewood,
in Canaan, New York. Rose has been at Princeton full time since last
July. In addition, she continues to conduct the choir at Union
Seminary. "That’s all!" she says, punctuating her remark.
She finds her post at Princeton a proper environment for her personal
mix of feminism, pacifism, and anti-racism. "I’m not an
she says. "You do it as you live. I’ve been a feminist for so
long, I no longer remember that I’m a feminist. It has become
The 1995 hymnal used in the chapel, "A New Century Hymnal,"
compiled by the United Church of Christ, meets Rose’s requirements
for what she calls "inclusive" language, free of stereotypes.
"There’s no hierarchical language, no racist language, and no
more soldiers of Christ. It’s `Our God in heaven’ instead of `Our
For more than a century chapel attendance was an integral part of
university life. Attendance at weekday services was required until
1915 and Sunday attendance was required until 1964. Architecturally,
the chapel is a prime example of the university’s Gothic style. It
is one of four buildings designed by the firm Ralph Adams Cram, campus
consulting architect from 1907 to 1929, whose master plan prescribed
collegiate Gothic architecture. Built between 1925 and 1928 at a cost
of $2.5 million — about one-tenth the cost of the present
— the chapel is one of the largest college chapels in the world.
Within the chapel, music is an essential part of Princeton today.
Princeton’s music has traveled a long road since the 1770s when Yale’s
president called the Nassau Hall organ "an innovation of ill
and John Adams, later president of the United States, remarked,
Scholars sing as badly as the Presbyterians at New York." Rose
sees to it that Princeton’s chapel-based music maintains not only
its musical quality but also its connections to a more inclusive world
than Princeton’s founders envisaged.
— Elaine Strauss
Road, 609-258-3654. The Grand Mass in C Minor and Oboe Concerto by
Mozart. Free. Saturday, April 7, 8 p.m.
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