The Westminster Choir spends much of its time on the road, and Princeton concerts of the select chamber ensemble from Westminster Choir College are rare treats. Conductor Joe Miller and the 40-voice chorus presented a diverse concert this past Sunday afternoon in their home base of Bristol Chapel on the Choir College campus. This year’s roster of the Westminster Choir showed that the ensemble is as precise and well-balanced as ever and showcased some talented soloists, but also showed that the vocal power of the chorus may be outgrowing the acoustics of Bristol Chapel.
November 22 is the feast day of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music, and Dr. Miller chose as a tribute one of the best settings of Cecilian texts in Benjamin Britten’s Hymn to St. Cecilia. As Dr. Miller explained in his introductory remarks, the tripartite piece reflects Britten as organist, choral composer, and orchestrator, and the Westminster Choir conveyed all three of these musical personalities well. The women’s sections were well-tuned from the start, with pure octaves between sopranos and tenor on the “Blessed Cecilia” refrain which divides the sections.
This piece includes five solos, the most extensive of which was sung by soprano Madeline Apple Healey with a clear sound floating above the soprano and alto parts. Soprano Anna Lenti had the honor of singing the highest solo, lightly reaching up toward high “Cs” with ease. Bass Brandon Waddles and alto Mary Hewlett sang with confidence and assurance, and tenor Jeffrey Cutts displayed an impressive body of sound. Throughout Britten’s Hymn, the chorus showed precision in text and nice dynamic touches, although the bass sectional sound was just a bit unrefined in the lower registers compared to the other sections (this sound smoothed out in later selections on the program).
The Westminster Choir warmed up for the Britten on pieces well within the ensemble’s choral wheelhouse. An emphasis on consonants and well-matched soprano sections marked Tomas Luis de Victoria’s “Kyrie” from Missa Alma Redemptoris, which flowed seamlessly into Gustav Holst’s Nunc Dimittis. The highest notes of the Holst piece were sung with such vocal force that one got the impression that maybe the choir could use a venue with more spacious acoustics (certainly one with more seating, based on Sunday’s turnout). The choir’s performance of Bach’s motet Der Geist hilft unsrer Schwachheit auf sustained a nice flow, aided by John Hudson playing the continuo part on the piano.
Despite all the professional engagements of the Westminster Choir, these are college students, and students like to have fun. Dr. Miller gave the singers a chance to let their hair down in a set of French pieces which provided opportunity for a bit of acting. In the set of six French songs by four diverse composers from different ages, the choir created a storyline, dividing themselves into three different groups and interpreting the text with humorous characterization. Sung from memory, all of these pieces were performed with well-tapered phrases and crisp diction, with the Lauridsen “En Une Seule Fleur” and familiar Renaissance “Mon Coeur se recommande à vous” smoothly performed. In the closing Jean Rivier piece (arranged by Dr. Miller), Myles Glancy provided a suave baritone to convey the 16th-century text. The choir closed the set with a lively arrangement of a 1920s cabaret tune.
Westminster Choir programs tend to close with very upbeat selections, geared toward leaving tour audiences something high-spirited with which to go home. The most unique of the closing selections on Sunday was Haitian composer Sydney Guillaume’s “Kalinda,” a rousing song designed to incite the crowds to dance. Haitian choral arrangements tend to include a great deal of text and instrumental effects and the choir demonstrated both effectively. Most impressive about the last number on the program was its composition by a Westminster student; Brandon Waddles’ Ride in the Chariot was an uplifting and spiritual arrangement sung with great enthusiasm to audience response akin to a football game. Tenors Kyle von Schoonhoven and Justin Su’esu’e led the chorus with full and rich voices to close the concert in a more than upbeat mood.