Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXV, No. 13
Wednesday, March 30, 2011
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Westminster Choir College’s Williamson Voices Show Mettle in Contemporary Choral Concert

Nancy Plum

The Westminster Williamson Voices of Westminster Choir College aims to be “a voice of composers of our time.” Conducted by James Jordan, the 40-voice vocal ensemble proved to be just that this past weekend in a concert centered on the music of contemporary composer James Whitbourn. In the performance recapturing repertoire from their recent debut in Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, the Williamson Voices demonstrated why, in less than 10 years, it has become one of the Choir College’s premiere choruses.

In order to be a voice for current times, one must master the past, and the Williamson Voices began Saturday night’s concert in Bristol Chapel with a work appropriate to the coming Easter Season. Thomas Weelkes’ “Hosanna to the Son of David” brought together the contrapuntal, phrasing, and dynamic elements inherent in late 16th and early 17th century music. Any choral ensemble from the Choir College should be able to handle this period of music with ease, and the Williamson Voices, even though somewhat poured into the limited space of the chancel area, showed clean phrasing and diction. The Voices could definitely have used a bigger hall; with 40 trained singers, the sound at times was begging for more space.

The music of Latvian composer Ugis Praulinš was composed for a large space — the cathedral of Latvia’s capital city Riga. The Riga Dom is vast, with high arches where sound can ring. The two movements of Mr. Praulinš’ Missa Regensis performed by the Williamson Voices were full of dissonances and vocal edges which would have resounded well in the Riga Dom, but sounded overwhelming at times in Bristol Chapel. The basses of Williamson Voices sounded sufficiently rumbly for music rooted in a Russian choral tradition, and the thirds between sopranos and altos in the “Agnus Dei” were clean and vibrant. Tenor soloists Ryan Cassel and William Roslak, as well as bass soloist Andrew Skitko, performed effective solo lines within the choral fabric.

The chorus had a chance to really sing out in a lush choral piece by Johannes Brahms, the master of 19th-century Romantic choral music. The overall sound of “An die Heimat” filled the Chapel well, and the space made it easy to understand the words.

The composer to whom most of the concert’s attention was turned was British composer James Whitbourn, a film score writer and long-time collaborator of Mr. Jordan. Whitbourn’s Son of God Mass was derived from fragments of his previous BBC documentary score, with melodic motives representing stages of Christ’s life. The text was drawn from the traditional mass text, and Whitbourn composed an additional solo part for soprano saxophone. In the space of Bristol Chapel, the soprano sax, played masterfully by Jeremy Powell, sounded like a heavy-duty oboe, and as the movements progressed, Mr. Powell found the right balance between the instrument and the hall. As a composer, Mr. Whitbourn is clearly fond of the vocal drone effect, underpinning several movements with low chords in the tenors and basses.

Mr. Whitbourn’s choral texture captured well the vastness of the Holy Land, contrasted by virtuoso passages from the saxophone. The sopranos had their hands full in the “Kyrie,” singing a motive which began very high and eventually faded away to one soprano soloist at the end of the movement. The “Gloria” was more flowing, with effective changes in texture at significant points in the text. The choral writing did not seem to be difficult, but Mr. Powell had several improvisatory and meditative passages which he handled well. The Williamson Voices sang this piece well, as evidenced by their stated plans to record the work at a later date.

Mr. Jordan closed the concert with two other pieces by Mr. Whitbourn. Prayer From South Africa flowed in a typical African chordal and swing style, and even though the drum was a bit too percussive for the space, one could get the flavor of the piece. The closing Give Us the Wings of Faith clearly showed a great deal of vocal accessibility — the sign of a composer who writes well for chorus.

Williamson Voices has had big plans this year, including performances with the Princeton Symphony, an Alice Tully Hall debut, and a planned CD of Mr. Whitbourn’s music. The Voices has quickly become an ensemble which has been out in the choral arena, giving the College a companion chorus to the Westminster Choir as a performing ambassador of the school.

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