Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 46
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
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Rafters Ring at Westminster’s Bristol Chapel as Packed House Enjoys Varied Music Styles

Nancy Plum

The Westminster Choir, the Choir College’s premiere ensemble, has made a reputation for itself and its parent university touring the nation and the world, as well as singing with leading conductors and orchestras. To the 40 voices within the choir, the most refreshing concert experiences might just be singing for the home crowd — as they did Sunday afternoon in Bristol Chapel on the Westminster campus. Conductor Joe Miller programmed works from a wide range of composers, with the second half of the performance representing the 20th century. Mr. Miller chose several themes within the concert, with works on these themes from diverse periods of music. The Westminster Choir does not need to work hard to be heard well in Bristol Chapel, but the hall is unforgiving in exposing every nick and tuning flaw. The choir suffers from almost none of these types of choral difficulties, with its singers well trained to maneuver through almost any compositional device thrown at them.

This concert included several works from Eastern European composers, the first of which opened the program. Lithuanian conductor/composer Vytautas Miskinis (Baltic composers were well represented on the concert) employs the same dissonant chordal style used by many Eastern European composers, and the Westminster Choir brought out these dissonances sharply and definitively. In Miskinis’s Lucis Creator Optime, the unison octaves were pure and the choral sound was straight and laser-focused. A choir cannot have too much vocal color in these pieces, as the dissonant chords will not tune, and the Westminster Choir kept the sound clean, allowing a bit of color in toward the end of the piece. Contrasted with the dissonance of this piece was William Byrd’s Haec Dies, a sparkly and light work. Mr. Miller kept the vocal sound on the light side and the choir used the acoustics of the hall well, emphasizing the meter and rhythmic changes. Mr. Miller programmed the concert in blocks of several small pieces centered on a theme. The theme of “lament on the death of a soul” included three works from very different times and places. Thomas Weelkes’s When David Heard, bridging the 16th and 17th centuries, again required a choral straight tone, which the sopranos were especially able to achieve without sounding strident.

The bass section provided a very solid foundation and the altos were well able to manipulate the very low registers of music originally composed for male altos. Georgi Dimitrov’s Umrel Dzerman demonstrated the clarity of the Westminster Choir’s choral sound — the altos sang right in line with the tenor sound just below, and it was not jarring to hear the women’s sections come in after a long section of male singing. In this work, Mr. Miller was able to bring the sound up to full volume, essentially ringing the rafters of the Chapel. Contrasted with this piece was James MacMillan’s A Child’s Prayer, composed in a haunting effect. Sopranos Allison Albright and Kelley Schreiber added to the haunting nature of the piece with very effective (and difficult) solos.

The three Brahms choral songs which closed the first half of the program were the bread and butter of the Westminster Choir repertoire, and were a refreshing return to tonality after all that dissonance. Mr. Miller kept these pieces moving along well, and the chorus demonstrated a solid emphasis on uniform vowels and diction. The second half of the program featured music by contemporary choral composers, most notably one of Westminster’s own graduate composition students. Nathan Jones set what appears to be an original poem to a palette of chordal colors creating a continuous stream of sound. The diction had to be exact in a piece such as this and the work built well in intensity. In recent years, the Choir College has focused more on composition, and Mr. Miller’s premiering a work such as this demonstrated the talents and potential of the students. Also notable in this set of contemporary pieces was baritone Zachary Coates, who introduced two choral settings of Shakespeare songs with a sung “sonnet.” Mr. Coates was imaginatively dramatic in his presentation, backed up by the well-blended chorus.

The lighter works which closed the program were crisp and lively and in the case of Jonathan Quick’s arrangement of Loch Lomond, featured baritone Michael Tedesco singing very cleanly in a higher register. This concert was performed largely from memory, and the packed house at Bristol Chapel indicated clearly that the Westminster community enjoys hearing its own.

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