Fire is a fact of life, both literally and figuratively. In the natural world, there is the benign fire of the sun and the harmful fire of lightning. Then, again, fire may be a figure of speech; there is the fire of passion and the ardor of love.
Voices Chorale pays tribute to fire’s many aspects in “Songs of Fire” at D&R Greenway’s Johnson Education Center in Princeton on Sunday, November 22, at 3 p.m. Lyn Ransom, founder and artistic director of Voices, conducts most of the music. Assistant conductor Emily Vite shares in leading the ensemble. Vite currently holds Voices’ two-year assistant conductor spot.
A benefit for D&R Greenway, the event includes poetry in addition to music. The performance concludes with an outdoor ceremony in which the audience transmits its wishes for the earth.
D&R Greenway, now in its 26th year, preserves and protects open spaces and farmlands in central and southern New Jersey. Since its founding in 1989, the organization has rescued almost 19,000 acres of land — an area 20 times the size of New York City’s Central Park — that includes 28 miles of trails open to the public.
In a telephone interview from her home in Hopewell, Ransom talks about her involvement with D&R Greenway and about Voices’ agenda for 2015-’16.
Her commitment to the Greenway is largely a personal one, almost a decade old, she says. In 2007 Voices Chorale gave two concerts to help raise money for the Greenway’s purchase of St. Michael’s Farm Preserve in Hopewell, a tract of 400 acres.
“My husband and I are active contributors to the Greenway,” Ransom says. We go to their events.” Ransom’s husband is Ken Guilmartin, composer and founder of “Music Together,” a music program designed for children and their parents.
The Greenway benefit is a prelude to Voices Chorale’s three-concert schedule for 2015-’16. The roster for the 50 to 55-member auditioned choir includes a Christmas program on Saturday and Sunday, December 19 and 20; Maurice Durufle’s Requiem on Sunday, March 6; and Gabriel Faure’s Requiem on Friday, May 6.
Titled “Stille Nacht,” (“Silent Night”), the Christmas program consists of music from Germany and Austria. “This is one of our choral backgrounds concerts, which honors the ethnic origins of participants in Voices,” Ransom says. “In the past we have done Irish, Scandinavian, Polish, Russian, and French concerts.
Three configurations of vocalists mark the performance: the full choir; Sotto Voce, a chamber choir consisting of 24 singers from among the ranks of the full choir; and solo performances by soprano Rochelle Ellis, a frequent participant in Voices’ concerts. Audiences are invited to join the Chorale for some of the carols. Ransom and Vite are on the podium.
For the most part, standard instrumental accompaniment supports the singers. However, a piece by Latvian composer Eriks Esenvalds calls for accompaniment by six tuned wine glasses. The desired pitch is achieved by adding a specific amount of water to each wine glass. A musician plays the wine glasses by running a damp finger on their rims.
In contrast to the many short pieces included in the Christmas concert, Voices’ March concert focuses on a single composition, Maurice Durufle’s Requiem. Although the details for the Durufle program are not finalized, Ransom paints a vivid picture of what is in store.
The performance is unique in attempting to replicate a 1971 performance of the work in Trenton’s Trinity Cathedral, where Durufle himself conducted and his wife, Marie-Madeleine Durufle, played organ. According to Anthony Tommasini, who wrote the organist’s 1999 New York Times obituary, Mme. Durufle was considered to be the last great performer in the French romantic school of organ playing. The choral forces in that performance were the Trinity Cathedral Choir and the Princeton High School Choir.
“I learned recently of the Durufle performance in 1971 and was inspired to recreate it, and bring back people involved in that performance,” Ransom says. She was able to track down two of the participants: Bob Parrish and Nancianne Parrella.
Parrish sang bass in the 1971 performance. At the time a voice teacher at Trenton State College (now the College of New Jersey), he was head of its music department. Retired, Parrish is now a choral conductor.
Parrella was the Princeton High School music teacher who trained members of the PHS Choir for the 1971 performance. She is now the associate organist for New York City’s Church of St. Ignatius Loyola, which celebrated the 23 years of their association in a tribute on November 3.
Ransom shares notes she made after interviewing Parrish and Parrella:
“Durufle was very happy with the performance,” Parrish told Ransom “and didn’t seem to have a strong opinion on how he liked [the Requiem] done, feeling that matching the orchestra to the choir [was] more important than forcing a full orchestra on a too small choir.”
“With the pickup orchestra,” Ransom heard, “there were some rough spots. However, Mme. Durufle knew the piece so well that she was able to recover them and lead the orchestra through those spots. She was an incredible organist.”
“Durufle was reserved, but Madame was a firestorm!” Ransom found out. “He spoke no English and used an interpreter.”
Addressing the New York City Chapter of the American Guild of Organists in 2014, Parrella had revealed other Durufle memories of the 1971 performance. “The first half of the concert was a recital by [Durufle and his wife] … an amazing performance … an incredible gift,” Parrella said. “The next day they did a workshop together for Westminster Choir College students and the local American Guild of Organists chapter.”
“We entertained the Durufles in our home several times during their stay. We worried about having the right wine to drink, but Monsieur Durufle wanted only glasses of milk — fortunately we had plenty of that!”
“In the performance of the Requiem — during the ‘Pie Jesu’ — one of the high school boys became faint and fell down onto the wooden platform making a loud, resounding sound. The boys on either side caught him and carried him into the sacristy. Madame could see them doing this out of the corner of her vision and said: ‘Mon Dieu — we have performed the Requiem many times but never with a cadaver.’ (The young man was OK).”
For its final concert of the season in May, Voices turns to Gabriel Faure’s Requiem.
Ransom is conscious of the similarities between the two Requiems. “Both Durufle and Faure were French,” she says. “They lived within 60 years of each other and both were organists in Paris. How nice for the singers to sing one French masterpiece [the Durufle], followed by another one, better known [the Faure]. One informs the other.”
Voices has performed both pieces previously: the Durufle in 1996; the Faure in 1994 and 2003. Ransom knows the virtues of returning to a work. “It’s always thrilling to repeat a masterpiece,” she says. “You approach it at a different level. This time around, I’m appreciating Faure’s orchestral writing and his beautiful melodic lines. And the Durufle is more full of dramatic contrasts than I remembered. It shakes your bones.”
Voices is now in its 29th year, and Ransom has amassed some wisdom about perennial problems of performing groups. “Our area is culturally rich,” she says “and it’s important to harmonize our schedule with other choruses and to avoid programming the same pieces.” She notes that to sidestep repetition of repertoire and conflicts of timing, Bucks County has a formal organization, while New Jersey relies on informal contacts.
As for raising funds, Ransom finds that events are the most successful ways to bring in money. She considers Voices’ ceili dances, where patrons combine sociability with performing Irish dances, particularly attractive. She favors silent auctions and gala dinners.
Another productive fundraiser used by Voices at its Christmas concert is raffling off, at a post-concert reception, baskets containing snacks, pastries, and wine based on the theme of the concert.
Ransom also observes, “The sooner we get our marketing materials out, the bigger the audiences.”
Born in 1947 into a musical family, Ransom grew up in a musically rich part of Indiana. Her father played violin; her mother, piano; one of her younger siblings played cello; another, violin; violin was her own instrument. At one point there was a family quintet. Ransom’s high school in Martinsville had two full symphony orchestras and five choirs.
Ransom earned a bachelor’s degree in music from Oberlin College and Conservatory; a master’s degree from Eastern Michigan University in voice performance and choral conducting; a master’s degree from the University of Michigan in choral music education, and a doctoral degree from Cincinnati College and Conservatory of Music in conducting.
Ransom’s legal name is “Lynne.” She changed it to “Lyn” following a winning encounter with breast cancer in 2005. Under the guidance of Gerald Epstein, a New York psychiatrist and advocate of mental imagery, she turned to numerology. Calculating the positions in the alphabet of letters in the name “Lynne” and manipulating them according to prescribed patterns, she found that spelling her name “Lyn” gave a more favorable numerological result. “It was the bookend of the process of coming through cancer well,” she says.
Lyn Ransom plans to retire from Voices in 2017 and hopes to play violin and to sing.
Songs on Fire, Voices Chorale, D&R Greenway Johnson Education Center, One Preservation Place, Princeton. Sunday, November 22, 3 p.m. $30. 609-924-4646 or www.drgreenway.org.
Stille Nacht, Miller Chapel, Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton. Saturday, December 19, 3 p.m. Hopewell Presbyterian Church, Hopewell. Sunday, December 20, 3 p.m.
Durufle’s Requiem, Trinity Cathedral, 801 West State Street, Trenton. Sunday, March 6, 3 p.m. Seminar open to public with performers in the 1971 Trenton performance of the Durufle Requiem.
Faure’s Requiem, St. Paul’s Roman Catholic Church, 214 Nassau Street, Princeton. Friday, May 6, 8 p.m.
Single ticket prices $25 to $40. Family Pass $55. Season subscription for three concerts $60 to $95. Family Pass $130. 609-658-2636 or firstname.lastname@example.org.