Westminster Choir offers sublime lesson in choral art 

As Good as it Gets

I haven’t missed a Westminster Choir (WC) program for 15 Spoletos running. Yet, from year to year, as this stellar ensemble of around 40 glorious voices opens its collective mouths and fills the inner spaces of the Cathedral Church of St. Luke & St. Paul with sublime sonic alchemy, I wonder anew if they’ve ever sounded better. But I don’t believe that’s the case. It’s just that they steadfastly maintain absolutely peerless quality of choral sound, even though it’s just a tad different each time — due mostly to the constant academic turnover that keeps bringing fresh voices into the mix as veterans graduate and move on. Still, such factors have never, ever diminished my inevitable feelings of enchanted wonder as their sweet sonorities wash over my eager ears.

Just think: the young people who comprise the WC come to Westminster Choir College simply because they want to join the ranks of the world’s very finest singers, choral professionals or choirmasters — as well as to study related disciplines like organ/piano playing or composition. At least one of the choir members I heard at Thursday’s WC concert at the cathedral was adept at several such skills (see “Ride in the Chariot” below). Many of the choir’s singers own opera- or oratorio-grade voices, as Thursday’s audience was reminded of whenever any of the evening’s multiple soloists appeared.

Yet, to sing in a master choir like the WC, they must learn to tame their often massive instruments (and sometimes their egos) and subordinate them to the requirements of first-rate choral singing, which demands blend, balance, and making 40 voices sound like a single one where called for. That entails the tricky process of vocal control, which singing in a great choir teaches better than anything else. Yet, any choir is the sum of its vocal parts, and the better the individual voices, the better the overall communal sound. And that — in addition to having a choirmaster of Joe Miller’s choral mastery and pedagogical stature — is the secret to the WC’s supremacy among academic choirs.

Hence the ensemble’s ravishing tonal quality, ultra-clear diction, perfect balance, stiletto-sharp intonation, incredible dynamic control and exquisite nuance (not to mention spiritual intensity) as they launched into their opening Renaissance-era selection: the opening “Kyrie” section of Tomás Luis de Victoria’s Marian mass, the Missa Alma Redemptoris. The music’s lush textures, overlapping layers, and interwoven vocal lines combined to produce a rush of spine-tingling aural ecstasy within me, just seconds into the piece. Fast-forward over 300 years to the early 20th century, for English master Gustav Holst’s very effective Nunc Dimittis setting; delivered with the same choral virtues as just described, it gave a modern twist to the previous piece’s style of polyphonic splendor. Unlike the English texts traditionally used in classic Anglican “Mag-and-Nunc” settings, Holst chose to set the original Latin text.

The opening set ended with one of the concert’s highlights for me: J. S. Bach’s double-choir motet, Der Geist hilft unsrer Schwachheit auf, a sacred masterpiece of particularly bright and gracious nature that speaks of the Holy Spirit’s role in guiding the lives of the faithful. Performed here with spare piano accompaniment (the Bach motets are usually done either a cappella or with Baroque-style basso continuo), the dense, yet buoyant counterpoint of the piece wove antiphonally between the two choirs in magical, brain-teasing complexity. The final chorale was of particularly ingenious harmonic structure. Bach’s six (some count seven) motets are among choral music’s supreme technical challenges, but the WC pulled this one off with nary a hitch.

From there it was on to the music of Benjamin Britten, another brilliant English composer who was a later contemporary of Holst’s. His Hymn to St. Cecelia (the patron saint of music; Britten was born on her feast-day) is a fascinating and substantial three-part fusion of Britten’s music and the poetry of W. H. Auden, celebrating the good saint from several viewpoints. I was particularly taken with the choir’s impish rendition of the sparkling and childishly charming middle section. In the proper mood, Britten could be a master of musical whimsy, and it showed in the next piece: The Ballad of Green Broom, a downright funny little number that depicts an anonymous tale of the lengths to which a young man goes to avoid work. I loved the choir’s playful spirit in delivering it.

As Miller told us (he frequently talks informally to his audiences about the music at hand), the next three pieces represented different depictions of women: one who wonders if she’s truly beautiful, one of an imagined woman’s idealistic beauty, and one who flaunts her attractions. The first was American choral guru Morten Lauridsen’s “En Une Seule Fleur,” from his well-known cycle, Les Chansons des Roses, setting the French poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. The next, “Dieu! Qu’il la fait bon regarder!,” was one of Claude Debussy’s very few choral Chansons. And the third, “Véronique, le printemps est là,” was an arrangement (courtesy of the King’s Singers) in French of a popular 1930’s-era ditty. With the singers (especially the ladies) really hamming that one up, it was laugh-out-loud funny.

We next heard the most impressive music of Daniel Elder, a recent (2012) Westminster College grad; he’s a wonderfully gifted and original composer whom we’ve seen (and heard from) in WC concerts here before. The choir will release a CD on the Naxos label devoted entirely to his music later this summer. First came a rich and pearly-toned choral fantasia called “The Heart’s Reflection,” setting a passage from the Biblical Book of Proverbs. His second piece was a fairly simple, yet heartrendingly lovely and flowing “Lullaby,” setting Elder’s own sensitive text. I can hardly wait to get my hands (and ears) on his impending new recording. In between those two exceptional pieces, in what Miller called “an Elder sandwich,” the choir jumped and jived its way through “Kalinda,” a delightful choral romp by Sydney Guillaume, complete with sound effects and happy vocal glissandi sung in the Creole dialect, no less. Talk about musical mood swings.

While on the subject of jumping and jiving, it remained the order of the day in the concert’s grand finale: the classic spiritual, “Ride in the Chariot,” in a stunning new choral arrangement (it’s usually done as a solo spiritual) by composer/arranger extraordinaire Brandon Waddles. Not only did he craft the joyfully jazzy, gospel-tinged arrangement, but he was there in person, accompanying his colleagues at the piano, and otherwise contributing substantially, by means of his burly basso voice, to the WC’s low end during the rest of the concert. With a total of four terrific soloists at work, the happy crowd held on for dear life as the choir built up to a fever pitch, bringing the house down with it at the end — and the howling horde of fans to their feet.

Of course, we refused to let them go without an encore, and we got a doozy: a sensual and gently jazzy arrangement of the Broadway classic, “If I Loved You” complete with sultry-voiced soloist. Then they sent us on our way with what has become the WC’s hallmark farewell: the famous choral “Blessing and Sevenfold Amen” that so many of us choral wannabes grew up singing in church.

As ever, we all departed with happy ears, uplifted hearts, and exalted souls. If you want to feel the same way (and if there are any tickets left), be sure to catch their repeat performance Monday.


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