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A triumphant tribute: Glee Club's Walter L. Nollner concert

Richardson Auditorium
Marcia Brown / The Daily Princetonian

A baroque orchestra occupied center stage between vacant chairs and a vacant podium. Richardson Auditorium buzzed with the tuning of instruments, the chatter of the audience, and the anticipation of the Glee Club’s annual Walter L. Nollner concert. This concert, named after the late Glee conductor from 1958 to 1993, has also become a celebration of the ensemble’s graduating seniors. As the clock hit 7:30 p.m., the choir filed in from the wings, filling the rows of empty chairs. Then, Gabriel Crouch, Princeton’s Director of Choral Activities, stepped onto the podium and raised his baton.

The first piece performed was “The Listeners” by Caroline Shaw, who at 30, became the youngest winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Music while she was still a graduate student at Princeton. Seasoned contralto Robin Bier, a professional soloist, stood dignified from the very beginning of the piece. As Crouch began to conduct, Bier introduced the audience to “The Listeners” with soaring vocalization. Her voice was complex, with enough resonance to swim through every row in the hall, but enough depth and darkness to assert its presence as a counterpart to the choir. From the balcony, Camilla Tassi, an Italian video designer, projected a series of evocative astronomical images onto the back wall of the stage. Backed by these projections, the choir filled Richardson with a new atmosphere — one of stardust and moonlight.

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A highlight of the concert came early in the fifth movement of “The Listeners.” Crouch put down his baton and turned to face the audience. The strings began without him, plucking out hushed quarter notes as Crouch’s voice creeped into the remaining space. The professional baritone, Charles Wesley Evans, had fallen ill, and Crouch — a practiced baritone himself — had stepped in. The choir watched with awe and amusement, the kind you might feel when reading a book written by your beloved professor. In this two-minute movement, Crouch’s voice reverberated through Richardson, building momentum with the orchestra before disappearing beneath the timpani and a flurry of plucked strings.

Throughout their performance, I was struck by how expressive Glee was. It was clear that the choir sought to give the audience a clear sense of the composer’s intention. When I spoke with Crouch before the concert, he reasoned that this is exactly what a choir aims to do. 

“We know we are just one component in the whole. The choir serves the music, and the music serves the composer,” he explained. And Glee did just that. With crisp cutoffs and an expressive sound, Glee presented the audience with Shaw’s wonderment for space and time. When the last movement built to its dramatic end, tension filled the lingering silence. Then, an uproar of applause.

“The Listeners” was soon followed by a celebration of Bach. Crouch brought up Shruti Venkat ’23 to take his place and conduct “Nun ist das Heil und die Kraft.” The transition from Shaw to Bach — from 2019 to 1723 — was surprisingly seamless. Venkat commanded the choir and orchestra extremely well, teasing out the fullest potential of each section in a triumphant display of the group’s technical facility, but also in a display of exuberance. Following the constant tension and release of the Shaw, the Bach felt like a release — a joyous one at that.

At halftime, Crouch picked up the mic to thank all deserving parties, particularly the 21 seniors in the choir. Crouch then turned to the choir. 

“Thanks to you all for the hours and hours of love and care you’ve brought to this group, for the encouragement and friendship that you’ve given each other, and for every single time you’ve shown up for rehearsal even when you’re overburdened with work and undernourished with sleep,” he said. 

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And it was clear that he meant it. When we had talked in his office, Crouch had gestured to the wall behind me at a slew of pictures of past seniors, some of whom still come to rehearsal from time to time. The collage is situated right in Crouch’s sightline — all he needs to do is look up to see it.

After the break was Bach’s “Magnificat in D,” which featured professional soprano Sonya Headlam, professional tenor David Kellett, and, once again, contralto Bier. The three soloists commanded the auditorium each time they stepped up to sing and drive Bach forward. Even in the context of a different century, Bier’s voice continued to be uniquely beautiful. By the end of the piece, however, the spotlight returned to the seniors — in the movement “Suscepit Israel”, soprano Allyssa Noone ’23, and altos Katelyn Rodrigues ’23 and Corinna Brueckner ’23 stepped forward to offer a wonderful interpretation of the contrapuntal trio. Although the three voices were distinct, they intertwined extremely well, and the choir supported them gently with its warm sound.

When applause for the “Magnificat” ended, Katie Chou ‘23 took the podium to conduct the final piece. I talked to Chou after the concert about the role of Glee in her four years at Princeton. 

“Glee has been a home for me at Princeton. It is where I’ve met some of my closest friends on campus and made lifelong memories,” she said. “Glee is a part of my day that energizes me, just as anyone would feel doing something they love with people who also love doing it.” 

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Though the goodbyes were bittersweet for her and the other 20 seniors, Chou was also optimistic. “The Nollner is a time to celebrate all of the seniors, but it is also a time for self-reflection, for seniors to be proud of the personal growth that has inevitably happened over the four years we’ve been in the ensemble,” she explained.

The choir, the orchestra, the soloists, the conductors — all were present on stage for a reprise of “Nun ist das Heil und die Kraft.” Chou led the charge in an even more triumphant and lively performance, a final celebration of the seniors who have devoted countless hours to their art, their ensemble, and to each other. As Chou cut off the end of the piece, the audience erupted into thunderous applause. Crouch delighted in directing that applause to the choir, and especially to the seniors.

Back in his office, Crouch was pensive. “It’s possible that [the seniors] don’t yet know how grateful I am to them for what they’ve done,” he said. “But I do hope they feel welcome here forever.”

Conner Kim is a contributing writer for The Prospect and Podcast at the 'Prince'. He can be reached at connerk@princeton.edu.

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