Westminster Choir shows why they're at the top of the heap 

Dr. Joe Miller and his protégés offer something for everyone

How many ways can you say "wonderful?" It seems that, after 10 years of reviewing the Westminster Choir, writing about each year's Cathedral concert becomes ever more an exercise in searching out fresh superlatives. And this year's program (to be offered again on June 2) had me scratching my head and scrabbling through my thesaurus harder than ever.

They made quite a show of their opening number: "Weeping Mary," in an arrangement from the ebullient old New England "Social Harp" tradition (sister to "Sacred Harp" music). The choir was broken up into three sub-ensembles: mini-choirs to either side of the main floor, with a gaggle of treble voices in the balcony. Their exuberant antiphonal exchanges, complete with stomps and hand-claps, made the rafters ring.

A pair of accomplished young men (tenor David Edmonds and bass Claude Cassion) then delivered a solemn and affecting "Znamenny chant" from the Russian Orthodox tradition as the choir moved up front. From there, they presented "Ave Maria, Gratia Plena," a marvel of limpid polyphony by Renaissance master Josquin Desprez. From there, we got a rousing rendition of the Kyrie movement from French composer Louis Vierne's Solemn Mass: the evening's only accompanied piece; choir member Tom Colao did himself proud at the organ bench.

I'm so pitifully grateful they performed a pair of movements (Kyrie and Sanctus et Benedictus) from Swiss composer Frank Martin's indescribably deep Mass for Double Choir. It's one of the 20th Century's greatest a cappella choral monuments — and a work the composer described only as "a matter between God and me." I own several recordings of it, but had yet to hear it any of this eight-part antiphonal wonder performed live. And it was heavenly. Thank you!

The foreign fare ended with two exotic numbers: Fatise Kolo, a happy and sprightly wedding-song from the Serbian folk-tradition by Ivan Markovic and an especially fascinating piece, "Singing Aboard Ship," by Estonian master Veljo Tormis. The choir assumed special positions for this one. The "seafaring" men were to the rear, with the sopranos (representing some sort of stratospheric force) in the middle, and the altos up front, telling of life without their men. Radiant Alto Soloist Melissa Fajardo did much of the "talking." The vibrant music of Estonia (and other Baltic nations) is one of the new directions Dr. Miller's exploring at Westminster.

Then came the love-songs. What choral concert can be complete without one or two? "Flower of Beauty," a lovely and touching wedding-day tribute to a young bride by obscure English composer John Clements, was followed by American sensation Eric Whitacre's "A Boy and a Girl," a sort of "between-the-lines" look at romantic relationships. Whitacre makes a beautiful thing of dissonance, and the choir's pure, crystalline tones made for the kind of needlepoint intonation that his cunning harmonic schemes demand.

Finally, we heard three of the late Moses Hogan's revered spiritual arrangements. Hogan left us the finest synthesis we have between the authentic Afro-American spiritual idiom and modern choral technique. And our singers made the spirit move with them. "Great Day," with dynamite alto soloist Christina Dennis, brought jumpin', jivin' joy. "Deep River" brought tears. "Elijah Rock" brought the house down.

Encores included a breathtaking arrangement of the beloved American folksong, "Shenandoah," plus the popular church benediction, "The Lord Bless You and Keep You," with its sevenfold amen.

If you can't make it to their next concert, they'll be releasing their next CD in September, sporting several of this program's numbers. GET it; you won't regret it. There's no finer academic choir in America.


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