The Westminster Choir offers a magical marriage of music and memory 

The vaunted Westminster Choir (WC), Spoleto USA’s resident choral ensemble, is known far and wide as America’s leading academic choir. They’ve already appeared (last Wednesday) in the first of their two different programs this year: a single glorious outing of more substantial works by three British composers. But this program, featuring the shorter works of nearly a dozen composers from various places in the world, is the one that they customarily offer twice; you’ll be able to hear this one again on June 8.

You might be surprised at how many Spoleto attendees have no idea as to the WC’s exalted international reputation, their varied festival functions, or their prime institutional pedigree. Quite simply, their Spoleto functions encompass whatever events require collective (or sometimes solo) singing. They appear in the festival’s operas (as the “world’s finest opera chorus”), occasional gigs with the festival’s main series (Chamber, Music in Time, or Intermezzi), orchestral concerts featuring works with choral elements (rarely), and the big yearly choral/orchestral extravaganzas in which they form the core of larger choruses. On their own, they routinely offer at least one program of music by multiple composers that they present twice, and, in more recent years, they’ve offered one-shot specialty events, like the one mentioned above from last Wednesday.

Their institutional pedigree? Well, this group is the flagship choir of Westminster Choir College (WCC) of Rider University in Princeton, NJ. WCC is America’s premier music school specializing in choral art and performance, with practically no appreciable rivals (Minnesota’s St. Olaf College comes close, but no cigar). Just about every student sings in at least one of the school’s eight choirs, ranging from small specialty mini-ensembles to a huge symphonic chorus that performs regularly with major American orchestras. No run-of-the-mill voices or half-baked choral hacks here: its members all possess exceptional vocal and musical ability (or potential), and are chosen by rigorous audition. A high percentage of its members are aspiring professional singers.

This concert’s general theme had to do with how music intersects human memory; how it makes us feel or stimulates nostalgia based on similar sorts of past experience that many of us share within a common cultural context. One such sort of common experience is found in the religious upbringings many of us have experienced: like who taught us to pray, or first exposed us to bible stories or classic religious texts. Hence the religious works that adorned this particular program, beginning with Gloria in Excelsis Deo from English Renaissance master Thomas Weelkes, a bright, counterpoint-laced hymn of praise. Works of similar sacred purpose (praise) come from the Russian (Rachmaninoff) and Estonian (Cyrillus Kreek) traditions. In a side excursion into the related Latvian tradition, the excellent music of Eriks Esenvalds took us along a less spiritual jaunt down memory lane (lovers’ lane, too).

From there, the music was all-American, while remaining mostly attuned to the concept of how each of us is a product of our particular native environment, and, via memory, how we remain forever attached to and influenced by it. A humorous, yet touching aspect of said concept was expressed in three short excerpts from Paul Crabtree’s Five Romantic Miniatures from The Simpsons — yep, you got it, the same Simpsons that we’ve all watched on TV in recent decades. One of the pieces raved about Marge’s winning ways with pork chops; another (“Marge, I need you”) was a tender declaration of love: something that can even bind satirical cartoon characters. Talk about things we share via common cultural context: do you know anybody who’s never watched The Simpsons on TV?

Another example was (believe it or not) a moving choral arrangement of the lovely Dolly Parton song, “Light of a Clear Blue Morning” — a song (and a singer) that takes WC director Joe Miller right back to his childhood, growing up in East Tennessee only a few miles from Parton’s girlhood home. And wouldn’t it do the same for the countless other denizens of that neck of the Appalachian woods?

Two of the pieces are quite recent, having been composed by Westminster students, one of whom (Daniel Elder) is also a member of the choir. His work, the Seven Last Words from the Cross, went back to the idea of how we remember seminal sacred events, among which Christ’s crucifixion definitely tops the list. It attempted — very successfully, I thought — to re-create musically the experience of the crucifixion by investing Jesus’ last words with the physical and mental manifestations that he must have felt in the process of his tortured execution on the cross: things like raging thirst, agony, betrayal, despair, or delirium. And how do you express something like delirium in music? I don’t know how, but Mr. Elder does. The other number was White Stones, by Thomas LaVoy: a very moving piece recounting his childhood memories of how his brother would have frequent nightmares. It sets a poem by his mother, describing how she would come and comfort her terrified boy without really knowing how to make the terror go away besides just being there for him with nothing but her soothing words and warm physical presence. The College’s composition department is definitely producing some real winners.

The WC’s concert, as many of them do, finished up with two wonderful Spirituals, a vocal genre that has become one of America’s unique musical gifts to the world. The memory factor here has to do with the historical milieu that produced them, namely the bad old days of slavery — something, like the Holocaust, that we dare not forget. Isn’t it ironic how such rich musical blessings could’ve come from such a societal curse? We heard Any How, in a soft and heartrendingly sweet example by La Rue Pittman, followed by a rip-snortin’ version of Battle of Jericho, by spiritual king Moses Hogan. Our screaming standing O prompted a stock, yet beloved encore: a melting rendition of Shenandoah, as well as their usual parting gift: the choral blessing, The Lord Bless You and Keep You.  

If you love choral music and have yet to hear this choir, just be there for their repeat performance of this program on June 8. If it’s sold out, do anything you can to get in: sell your soul to the devil, or sign over your firstborn to a scalper. Because chances are slim to none that you’ll ever hear choral music done better.               

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