Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 46
Wednesday, November 18, 2009
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Westminster Choir Sings Challenging, Yet Provocative Prequel to Winter Tour

Nancy Plum

The Westminster Choir, conducted by Joe Miller, has had a very busy fall. Not only has Dr. Miller just released his first full-length CD with the ensemble, he is preparing the choir for an upcoming tour of California as well as a performance at the February 2010 regional conference of the American Choral Director’s Association. The premiere chorus of Westminster’s many performing ensembles, the Westminster Choir is comprised of singers who will likely have careers in vocal performance. Since taking over the choral program at the Choir College, Dr. Miller has enabled the Westminster Choir experience to be an active part of a student’s development as a soloist by his choice of some very challenging choral repertoire and his approach of having the students really singing out even as members of a chorus. This challenging repertoire and vocal style was very much in evidence in the Westminster Choir’s concert on Sunday afternoon in Bristol Chapel, as the ensemble performed music from both the recent CD and the upcoming tour.

Dr. Miller is certainly not one to shy away from dark and dramatic texts, as the Westminster Choir’s first “set” of pieces on Sunday afternoon worked its way back through time in a program of “questioning.” Australian composer Stephen Leek’s very operatic Knowee is a work popular in the choral field, opening with overtone singing accompanying several frantic female soloists playing the role of the goddess Knowee looking for her lost son. Dr. Miller had the soloists searching throughout the fall, singing phrases clearly rooted in opera. These singers possessed good solid voices with a great deal of color, and the soloists maintained the drama of the piece well.

The Westminster Choir will present “An Evening of Readings and Carols” on December 11 and 12, together with several other Choir College ensembles. For information surf to or call (609) 921-2663.

The Leek work was followed directly by Francis Poulenc’s O Magnum Mysterium, a piece requiring impeccable tuning through the impressionistic harmonies. The Westminster Choir was well focused and blended in sound, with an especially nice low bass to conclude the piece. Still moving back further through time (but keeping with the theme of avant-garde composers) was a selection from Claudio Monteverdi’s Madrigali di Guerrieri et Amorosi (Madrigals of War and Love). “Hor che’l Ciel e la Terra” was accompanied by a small ensemble of string and keyboard players, but the opening section maintained the same homophonic choral palette as the Poulenc, setting off two effective tenor solos from David Edmonds and Brandon Motz.

Monteverdi revolutionized music through his use of chromaticism and drama, and Dr. Miller elicited a steady intensity from the chorus through the climbing chromaticisms and shifting moods. Two singers, Daehan Kim and Isaac Brody, stepped out of the ensemble to play violin, joined by a cello, double bass, and harpsichord. This piece showed the burgeoning signs of the Baroque era in its lively canonic entries, and a soaring soprano line effectively closed the work. Sung from memory by the singers, the Monteverdi work was most impressive in its difficulty and challenging nuances.

Not quite done with subdued sacred text, Dr. Miller returned to the 20th century and what surely must be a solid stand-by for the Westminster Choir in Morton Lauridsen’s setting of O Magnum Mysterium. Lauridsen has a long association with the Choir College, and his palette of vocal colors is tailor-made for this kind of ensemble. The soprano sectional sound was a bit straighter for this work, and it was clear that the singers were singing with their ears as well as their voices, listening for critical entrances and unified sounds. This piece was also easy to sing in the acoustics of Bristol Chapel, and the choir had no trouble presenting the text to the audience.

The two slightly longer works on the program were very different in style. Henk Badings, a relatively unknown Dutch composer with a very interesting background (combining his early composing career with that of a paleontologist) produced music rooted in unusual scales and overtone harmonies. His setting of popular French poet Theodore Botrel’s text in Trois Chansons Bretonnes is full of the same sweeping choral sound as the music of Lauridsen and Poulenc, accompanied by a rolling piano part depicting the sea. The Westminster Choir’s men’s sections were able to demonstrate the possibilities in male choral singing in the opening verses, later joined by the precise tuning of the women’s sections. Derrick Goff provided very capable piano accompaniment for the three-movement work.

The other significant work on the program is one which might scare off a few choruses considering contemporary repertoire. English poet Simon Armitage (another artist with an interesting “day job” as a probation officer) set the poetry world on fire in the 1980s with his writing reflecting modern life. His thousand-line poem “Killing Time” depicts world history over 1000 years. Composer Paul Crabtree set a portion of this epic poem pertaining to the Columbine tragedy for the 10th anniversary of the high school shootings. Armitage’s poetry is an analogy of the incident in flowers, and Crabtree’s setting presents four soloists telling the story with the chorus as a backdrop. Soprano Alexandra Batsios, alto Lindsay Pope, tenor Joe Walsh, and bass Jackson Williams approached the operatic music with finesse and crisp diction, as the choral singers relayed the story to one another behind them. This piece kept the audience riveted to the performers, creating a strong sense of drama in the Chapel. Dr. Miller wisely closed the afternoon’s program with a few Westminster “chestnuts,” some of which appear on the newly-released CD.

As with many educational institutions, the Westminster Choir College campus is a community, and students came out in force to support their colleagues onstage on Sunday afternoon. Like the Princeton University concerts in Richardson, there was a certain amount of “star” recognition and loud appreciation from fellow students, which was amusingly deafening in the confined acoustics of the Chapel. However, as the Westminster Choir prepares for its tour and upcoming high profile performances, its own “community” support will serve it well.

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