Partnering Music and Art in Princeton

Partnering Music and Art in Princeton

Visitors who wander into the Princeton University Art Museum on Saturday simply expecting to examine the pieces on display are likely to be caught by surprise. “You might find yourself looking at a baroque painting, and suddenly the sound of music draws your attention,” explains Caroline Harris, the museum’s associate director of education.

Gathered among the patrons that day will be a student choir from the renowned American Boychoir School of Princeton. The young singers will give a traveling concert of sorts, performing in one gallery and then moving on to the next.

In other words, they’ll turn the art museum into a roving music hall.

“It’s taking the music out of a typical performance space and putting it into another situation,” choir director Fernando Malvar-Ruiz says. “Somebody comes in just to spend a Saturday afternoon, and all of a sudden they get music that may enhance that experience. Or people come in to hear the choir and in doing so, they get to see art they wouldn’t have experienced otherwise.”

The event is actually the first collaboration in a new partnership between the museum and the school, one of only two boychoir boarding schools in the U.S. (The other is St. Thomas Choir School in New York.)

The school — which is technically in neighboring Plainsboro — draws students in fourth through eighth grades from throughout the country and often the world. They perform more than a hundred times each year across the globe.

They’ve appeared at Carnegie Hall. They’ve shared stages with the New York Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. They even sang with Beyonce at the 2005 Academy Awards. And later this month, they’ll set off on a tour in France.

But last year, the school’s choir director had a two-pronged idea. First, Malvar-Ruiz wanted to collaborate with artists from a discipline other than music. Second, he wanted to have the choir perform at an unorthodox venue.

“How can we get the concert out of the concert hall?” he remembers thinking. “How can we get a concert that isn’t static? People come to the concert hall, they sit down, the ensemble comes out, the ensemble performs, and the people leave. It’s wonderful. But I wanted something a bit more dynamic.”

The best place, he thought, would be an art museum. And the campus of nearby Princeton University happened to be home to a respected artspace featuring more than 92,000 pieces, from ancient Byzantine jewelry and Roman sculptures to modern prints and paintings by the likes of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.

For the choir, the museum works like a muse. Every time the 33 boys enter a new gallery Saturday, they’ll tailor their repertoire to the art on display on the room.

Inside the gallery of medieval art, they’ll sing music from the early Renaissance. Inside the American art wing, they’ll perform pieces from the Colonial era. And when they reach the contemporary art room, they’ll try something “a bit more experimental,” Malvar-Ruiz says.

“It’s not just a new venue,” he says of the museum. “It’s interdisciplinary art. We have visual art in conjunction with aural art.”

Adds Harris: “It’s a way to use the music to interpret the space.”

The choir will make the rounds twice Saturday, first at 2 p.m. and again at 3:30 p.m. Admission — as always at the museum — is free.

Malvar-Ruiz calls the event the first step in what expects to be a long-term relationship between two of Princeton’s leading artistic institutions.

“It’s a little bit of a glimpse of what (the partnership) can be,” he says. “It’s just opening the door. And once you open the door, the sky is the limit.”

American Boychoir School Collaboration at Princeton University Art Museum begins Saturday, May 10. Princeton University, McCormick Hall, Princeton, NJ 08544. For more information, call (609) 258-3788 or visit

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