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Vol. LXI, No. 16
Wednesday, April 18, 2007
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With New Conductor, the Westminster Choir Closes Season With Elegant Spring Program

Nancy Plum

In the orchestral world, it is well known that each conductor puts his or her own stylistic stamp on their orchestral sound. Aficionados talk about the “Ormandy strings” in Philadelphia or the “Bernstein sound” of the New York Philharmonic. Choral directors have their styles as well, and nowhere has this been clearer over the years than at Westminster Choir College, which, in its 80 year history, has been under the stylistic influence of primarily two conductors, and is now embarking on its third “choral period.”

Joe Miller is just completing his first year as Director of Choral Activities at the Choir College, following a very long tenure of Joseph Flummerfelt and carrying on a tradition which harks back to the founding of the school by John Finlay Williamson. In a recent presentation on the state of the choral art, Mr. Miller described his role, and that of his contemporaries, as creating a “new vision based on the foundation that has been laid before us. We must keep the traditions but be willing to change in order to build a vision for the future.” Mr. Miller came to Westminster from a similar position at Western Michigan University School of Music, and has, in this short year, already made his mark on the marquee ensemble of the school, the Westminster Choir. Mr. Miller and the 32-voice ensemble presented their closing local concert of the 2006-2007 season on Sunday afternoon at Bristol Chapel on the Choir College’s campus.

“Celebrate Spring” clearly also celebrated the depth of choral music being written today by young composers. Only two pieces drew from the 19th and early 20th centuries: Johannes Brahms’ Drei Gesänge and Dmitri Shostakovich’s Die fürsorgliche Mutter, excerpted from a larger solo song cycle and performed as a choral piece. Mr. Miller drew the rest of the afternoon’s repertoire from contemporary Czech, British, Canadian and American composers, including a member of the Westminster Choir itself.

The choral tone from the outset, in Zdenek Lukas’ Sanctus was biting, ringing through Bristol Chapel with an edgy sound. Unlike some of the Westminster Choirs of past years in which the soprano sound was light, this soprano section was very clear and full (voices were allowed to exhibit a little more vocal personality), and the alto sound was fresh. This piece was conducted by graduate assistant J.D. Burnett, but it was clear that Mr. Miller has trained his singers to keep the vowels tight, with a blend which is surprisingly perfect after less than a year of working with the ensemble. He has also included a male counter-tenor in the alto section, making a mark of originality in his choral product.

Paul Ayres’ Ruth was very chordal and from the Morton Lauridsen school of choral composition, with very lush harmonies. A five-voice solo quintet (sopranos Allison Albright and Sue Gerace, alto Emily Capece, tenor Lee Cromwell and bass Michael Tedesco) added further depth to the overall choral effect. The top soprano sounds were both sparkly and soaring, and the choral soprano parts were well-matched.

Mr. Miller took the podium for the Brahms work, demonstrating the chorus’ ability to move flexibly through the dynamics of the three short pieces. He does have the cream of the Westminster student body crop to work with, but nonetheless, the bass sound in particular was impressive for a university-level choral ensemble. His conducting style pulls the piece along like taffy, bringing out dynamic nuances characteristic to Brahms.

Mr. Miller introduced pieces to the Bristol Chapel audience which the ensemble will be taking on tour when they sing in the Spoleto Festival in South Carolina later in the spring. David MacIntyre’s Ave Maria for women’s chorus required exactness of tuning which has been a hallmark of the Westminster Choir, and for a “heavenly prayer” was both breathless and intense. The soprano sound was especially penetrating, and the women maintained the intensity throughout the work. Juxtaposed against this piece was Shostakovich’s solo duet, Die fürsorgliche Mutter, performed as a choral duet with parallel intervals between the parts pure, well accompanied by pianist Stephen Hopkins (also a member of the chorus). It was clear throughout the rest of this performance, including the lighter works which closed the program, that Mr. Miller expects musical precision and attention to detail.

Replacing Joseph Flummerfelt was not an effortless task; it is never easy to replace someone with more than 30 years’ tenure with an ensemble and whose professional identity was Westminster Choir College for so many years. The Westminster Choir is a principal recruiting tool of the College, and as many arts organizations know, a mistake in this type of choice could be disastrous. Joe Miller wasted no time “getting to know” his ensemble — they were out on the road by March and will be heading to one of this country’s leading music festivals later this spring. Hopefully, he and the Westminster ensembles will have just as long and fruitful a collaboration as his predecessors did.

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