Considered by many to be America's premier academic vocal ensemble, The Westminster Choir has been Spoleto's resident choral ensemble since the festival's inception in 1977. As such, the choir has consistently been a true festival workhorse, presenting at least two choral concerts and one major choral-orchestra extravaganza every year, on top of serving as the "world's finest opera chorus" in most of Spoleto's opera productions.
And now, after Dr. Joseph Flummerfelt's departure last year as the festival's director for choral activities, Dr. Joe Miller, the director of choral activities at Westminster Choir College of Rider University, has stepped into Flummerfelt's very big shoes. Miller has been conducting the festival's smaller-scale choral events for several seasons now, but, beginning this year, Miller is in charge of the entire range of choral events.
Not only will Miller conduct his ensemble for the ever-popular chamber choir concerts (the same program is presented twice), but Miller will also mount the podium for not just one, but two major choral-orchestral happenings. He, along with a huge range of performers, are presenting one of this year's magnum opus productions, El Niño, a staged blend of opera and oratorio by composer John Adams. This very different kind of "Christmas spectacle" has been previewed elsewhere. Miller's other big event will be a program entitled Te Deum, with the Spoleto Festival Orchestra, in which the Westminster Choir will be beefed up by a sizeable contingent from our own Charleston Symphony Orchestra Chorus.
Full disclosure, on a personal note, the Westminster Choir and I go way back: all the way to 1995, when, as a member of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra Chorus, I was tapped eight seasons running to augment the 40-voice Westminster Choir in their big events with orchestra (you can't pull off something like Verdi's Requiem with a chamber choir). And I'm here to tell you that singing for Flummerfelt and rubbing elbows on stage with young vocalists who have gone on to become vocal superstars was both exhilarating and humbling. Those concerts taught me more about the art of choral singing than anything else. I got to review two of the Westminster Choir's CDs for a national magazine. Miller and I call each other friend. Color me one of their most rabid fans.
So much for journalistic impartiality. Writing a piece like this one would disturb me if it weren't for the fact that just about every choral aficionado or critic I know of shares my unassailable conviction that choral art just doesn't come any finer than when the Westminster Choir is doing its thing. With each Spoleto, I cudgel my brains — often in vain — for fresh superlatives as I write about them. But whether or not you choose to take what I say about them with a grain (or shaker full) of salt, let me tell you something about what sorts of choral wizardry we can expect them to work upon us this time around.
The first chance you'll get to hear the Westminster Choir as a chamber choir will be at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke & St. Paul on Thurs., May 29. Legends, the title of their program, is most closely linked to the program's centerpiece, Legend of the Walled-up Woman, by Latvian composer Eriks Ešenvalds. The work recounts an ancient Albanian legend in which a young woman is entombed in the walls of a castle under construction to make it magically invincible to attack. Programming of this piece reflects one of the Westminster Choir's areas of stylistic emphasis under Miller's directorship: the vibrant choral traditions of the Baltic region.
Miller finds ways to project this theme into the rest of the program, too, though I'll refer you to his program notes in the festival brochure if you want to follow his thread for yourselves. We'll hear, as usual, an incredibly varied array of music in terms of style, nationality, and vintage. The Renaissance era gets its due with an exquisitely layered sacred Pater Noster setting by Jacob Handl, and German romanticism is honored with Nänie, a reflective setting by Johannes Brahms. There's a nod to the 20th-century French sacred tradition with Maurice Duruflé's lovely "Ubi Caritas."
Otherwise, we'll hear a number of shorter pieces encompassing various early American folk and sacred traditions, including the customary spiritual and a catchy Stephen Foster song. Remarkable and attractive 21st century voices will be heard in selections by Filipino composer Alejandro D. Consolación and young American wonder Daniel Elder, both of whom are Westminster graduates. You'll melt to Elder's haunting Elegy and one of his ethereal Three Nocturnes — pieces that are also included in the Westminster Choir's recent CD, The Heart's Reflection: The Music of Daniel Elder (Naxos) devoted entirely to Elder's music.
On to the Westminster Choir's other main event, scheduled for June 6 at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. Te Deum is an ancient sacred text that has been set to music by countless composers over the centuries and still remains in active use as part of the Roman Catholic and Anglican liturgies. According to ancient Christian lore, the core text was originally attributed to St. Augustine, as a spontaneous outpouring of praise to God on the occasion of his baptism by St. Ambrose late in the fourth century A.D. Additional sections have been added to it through the ages.
The first of the settings to be offered is the Dettingen Te Deum by George Frideric Handel, representing the exalted heights of the late Baroque era's sacred choral style. In 1743, after English forces had won a major battle over their French foes, Handel was commissioned to celebrate the triumph with a festive setting of the text in English. The result is Handel at his best: it's a paragon of celebratory pomp and majesty, with distinctly martial overtones.
After intermission, you can look forward to Estonian-born contemporary composer Arvo Pärt, whose creations have earned him something of a cult following over the past several decades. His music employs an essentially tonal, yet completely unique harmonic scheme that the composer invented; he calls it the "tintinnabuli" style. The simplest explanation would be to call it, in effect, a minimalistic technique employing often repetitive, step-wise melodies derived from their related diatonic triads, with the result projecting a sort of bell-like effect. For those of you who aren't into music theory, simply imagine the three notes of any standard musical key's basic chord, but played in random sequences. Then, in your "mind's ear," superimpose a simple melody, mostly in single steps, that arises from that harmonic foundation and floats over it.
All that most folks need to know — whether they "get" all that or not — is that Pärt's music invariably casts a mesmerizing spell of mystical intensity upon most listeners, an ethereal atmosphere of often stark simplicity that still manages to inspire a collective sense of spiritual engagement among entire audiences. In this music, forget trying to pick out melodies that you can hum and store in your memory to be savored later. But you'll never forget the ethereally heavenly aura it projects.
So do your level best to make it to at least one of these wonderful Westminster Choir events. I do believe you'll enthusiastically confirm my assertion that choral art just doesn't come any better than this.