For Ryan Brandau, the new artistic director of Princeton Pro Musica (PPM), his arrival is a homecoming of sorts. Brandau is a 2003 magna cum laude Princeton graduate with glowing memories of his time as an undergraduate music major. He succeeds Frances Fowler Slade, who founded Princeton Pro Musica in 1979 and was its sole artistic director before Brandau.
“I have decided to ‘pass the baton’ to a new artistic director at the end of the 2011-2012 season,” Slade wrote in her resignation letter. “My experience with Princeton Pro Musica has surpassed my wildest dreams. Now, the time seems right to pursue my other interests — contra dance, English country dance, hiking, travel, and other music making. I am tremendously proud to be taking this step at a time when Princeton Pro Musica is thriving.”
An eight-member search committee headed by Carolyn P. Landis, president of PPM’s board, considered 53 candidates before selecting Brandau. The committee arrived at its decision four months ahead of its June deadline.
Originally from Ohio, Brandau says, “I’ve always loved this area. It’s a hotbed of musical activity, especially choral music. Everybody’s singing around here. You could even say that everybody’s singing well. The level is very high.”
We meet in the waiting room of Westminster Choir College of Rider University’s Conservatory. I am on campus for the conservatory’s adult chamber music sight-reading program. Brandau is there because, in addition to leading PPM, he has responsibilities at Westminster.
Planning Princeton Pro Musica’s four 2012-’13 concerts was largely Brandau’s project. “I got to work as soon as the ink on the contract was dry,” he says. The opening concert for the season takes place Sunday, October 28, at 3 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium on the Princeton campus.
Brandau characterizes it as “German and contrapuntal.” The program consists of Mozart’s “Requiem,” Johann Sebastian Bach’s motet “O Jesu Christ mein Leben Licht,” and a Bach violin Concerto, a non-choral piece. Brandau has included non-choral music also in the third concert of the series. “I wanted to give the audience a chance to listen to the orchestra and become more sensitive to what it does,” he says.
The second program is George Frederick Handel’s “Messiah” — Sunday, December 16, in Patriots Theater at the War Memorial in Trenton. Princeton Pro Musica performs the complete oratorio. “We’ll include everything from the exuberant ‘Hallelujah’ chorus, in the first part, to the somber later sections that are not usually performed,” says Brandau, who lists additional ways in which the PPM rendition is exceptional. He sings a few lines from the piece to demonstrate the crisp articulation that will distinguish the PPM version of the familiar portions of the piece. The approach is perky and sharply defined. “I want to aim at emphasizing the places where the words and the music work together to reveal English as a singable language,” he says.
PPM’s third concert — Saturday, March 2, at Princeton University Chapel — is, Brandau points out, a French program with a non-choral work. It includes Gabriel Faure’s “Requiem” and Francis Poulenc’s non-choral “Concerto for Organ, Strings and Timpani.” The season concludes on with a program of American choral music, Sunday, May 19, at the Princeton Presbyterian Church in West Windsor.
In addition to being involved in all things Princeton Pro Musica, including the mandatory auditions for each of the hundred members of the ensemble, Brandau assists Joe Miller, Westminster’s director of choral activities, with Westminster’s exceptionally hefty load of guest appearances this season. In addition, he teaches conducting to Westminster graduate students.
During 2012-’13 Westminster chorale groups are scheduled to perform Verdi’s “Requiem” with Yannick Nezet-Seguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra; join the American Boychoir for Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck” with Esa Pekka Salonen and England’s Philharmonia Orchestra; do a South American program with Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Orchestra; and perform Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 with Daniel Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Brandau is enthusiastic about getting a close look at this handful of stellar conductors. He thinks that the chance to observe them behind the scenes is an education in itself.
The Miller-Brandau collaboration for preparing the Westminster singers depends on mutual musical trust. “After preliminary discussions about the music we go in with the same markings in the same score,” Brandau says. After each rehearsal, they also look for musical details to tweak. “It’s good to have another pair of ears,” Brandau adds.
Born in 1981, Brandau grew up in a musical family in a Canton, Ohio, suburb. He estimates that his physician father and his blood-bank lab technician mother have sung in church choirs for about 40 years. His father sings in two symphony choruses and plays piano. Like him, his two older sisters and his younger brother participated in choirs, select musical ensembles, and musicals in high school.
Brandau started singing in the cherub choir at his church when he was two or three. His piano study began at five. He played cello in youth symphonies. “I dabbled in a bunch of band instruments,” he says, “and played Christmas carols on just about everything: trombone, bassoon, clarinet, and saxophone. With the band instruments I wanted to get my feet wet, or maybe get into water up to my knees.”
In addition to majoring in music at Princeton, he earned a certificate in gender studies. His Princeton senior thesis was a study about music and gender in Henry Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas,” which redeemed Dido’s reputation as a political leader. Dido, he concluded, doesn’t kill herself because she is lovesick, but because she is protecting the state.
At Princeton Brandau participated in Glee Club and Glee Club’s Chamber Singers. He was the music director of Princeton’s Katzenjammers, a coed a cappella chorus. He conducted orchestras for the musicals of the Princeton Players. As a senior, he co-conducted the Princeton Symphonia. He took private lessons in voice, piano, and cello. “Music at Princeton,” he notes, “is very sociable.”
In 2004 Brandau earned a master of philosophy degree from England’s Cambridge University. His thesis was “Music and Gender in 17th century England.” In 2007 he collected a doctor of musical arts degree from Yale. Thesis topic: “A Study of Dissonance in the Anthems of Henry Purcell and in his Viol Fantasias.” At both Cambridge and Yale he maintained a bulging schedule as a musician, in addition to his academic work, just as he did at Princeton. At Cambridge he founded a women’s chamber choir.
Brandau comes to Princeton Pro Music after directing choral activities at California’s Santa Clara University and directing the Santa Clara Chorale.
Asked about the attraction of PPM for him, he says, “I enjoy working with community choirs. Their level of commitment is high. They’re amateurs; the root of the word comes from the Latin word for love. Amateurs create a positive music-making environment. Princeton Pro Musica attracted me because of its strong history of high caliber music-making and its solid organization in a community that understands and appreciates what they’re doing.”
PPM’s hundred singers include a professional component that hovers in the neighborhood of eight. The remaining singers are volunteers. Instrumental support for PPM comes from an orchestra hired separately for each concert. Although the orchestra is not a fixed ensemble entity, players tend to return repeatedly to play with PPM. Cellist Elizabeth Thompson is the contractor for the orchestra.
According to Landis, PPM board president, its annual budget is just under $250,000. “We are a very lean organization,” she says. In addition to the amateur singers, a squadron of volunteers takes on a variety of administrative tasks.
Landis cites PPM’s distinguishing characteristic as an endowment of about $250,000 and lauds founding artistic director Slade’s foresight in finding donors for the fund. Normally, the organization uses four to five percent of the endowment annually. PPM also has a cash reserve fund that Landis says “enables us to pass through the hills and valleys of revenue and expenditures.”
Fiscally sound Princeton Pro Musica, under the leadership of energetic and enterprising Ryan Brandau, looks to be poised to extend the musical scope of founder Frances Slade.
Princeton Pro Musica, Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University. Sunday, October 28, 3 p.m. $25-$55, 609-683-5122 or www.princetonpromusica.org