April 19, 2017

Westminster Choir Performs Oratorio At Historic Roebling Wireworks Site

MUSIC AND HISTORY: Joe Miller, Choral Director at Westminster Choir College, is the conductor of this weekend’s performances of “Anthracite Fields” at Trenton’s Roebling Wireworks. Mr. Miller spent two years working to bring the Pulitzer-winning oratorio by Julia Wolfe to the Wireworks, where he is pictured.

When Westminster Choir College embarked on Transforming Space, a project exploring how the arts can alter a site not originally intended for that purpose, Trenton’s historic Roebling Wireworks immediately fit the bill.

The renovated factory where workers made wire rope for the Brooklyn Bridge is a fitting showcase for Anthracite Fields, a multi-faceted collaboration for chorus and chamber group that marks the project’s first initiative. Composer Julia Wolfe won a Pulitzer Prize for the oratorio, which addresses issues of labor and industry in the coal mines of northeastern Pennsylvania around the turn of the 20th century. It is being performed Friday and Saturday, April 21 and 22, at the Wireworks, a location familiar to the hordes who attend Trenton’s Art All Night festival there each June.

The site makes sense for Anthracite Fields not only because of the Wireworks’ soaring dimensions, but because of the building’s history. “I’ve learned that there is a great connection between the Wireworks and Trenton and anthracite coal,” said Joe Miller, director of choral activities at Westminster and the conductor of Westminster Choir. “That coal had the kind of power necessary to turn the machines that made the wire, as well as the machines that made pottery, which was a big industry in Trenton.”

Anthracite Fields was originally commissioned by The Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia. It uses video projections as well as music to weave together personal interviews the composer conducted with miners and their families, as well as oral histories, speeches, and more. The six-member musical group Bang on a Can All-Stars joins the choir for the production, which was staged by choreographer and opera director Doug Varone. Ms. Wolfe won a Pulitzer for the oratorio in 2015, and was a recipient of a prestigious MacArthur Genius Grant a year later.

Mr. Miller first became aware of the work through composer David Lang, part of a group of composers, with Ms. Wolfe, called Red Poppy Music. “The choir was doing a piece by him a few years ago in Princeton and at the Spoleto Festival, and it was a terrific experience,” Mr. Miller said. “It was the kind of music that had a great effect on the audience. I came to know Julia’s music through that.”

Westminster’s Transforming Space project is designed not only to bring music into non-traditional venues, but also to attract viewers of different backgrounds. “We want to intersect with new audiences, people who might not otherwise come to this kind of performance,” said Mr. Miller. “We want to reach people from downtown Trenton, the Trenton Public Schools, and the hipster art community that hangs around the city.”

The project has dominated Mr. Miller’s life for the past two years. “It’s my baby,” he said. “I am the music director for the project, and I put all of the moving parts together. You’re creating a concert hall venue in places it normally would not be, and that takes a lot of work and resources. There has been an educational component to this, and I have been writing grant after grant. We have gotten some very nice, generous support, and there is no way we could be doing this without that.”

Working with Bang on a Can All-Stars has been a welcome challenge for Mr. Miller and members of the choir. “They are an unusual group of players. They use their instruments in the most interesting and modern way,” he said. “They are always trying to find different ways to create sound and color. They are a quite seasoned, terrific group.”

The 40 members of Westminster Choir are “excited and a little terrified,” Mr. Miller said. “They’re being asked to memorize a minimalistic score and to do it with staging and movement, with a conductor behind them, not in front of them. This is a very stretching thing for the school and the choir.”

Performances of Anthracite Fields are Friday and Saturday, April 21 and 22, at 8 p.m. “Transformations,” an art exhibit exploring post-industrial locations such as Trenton and northeastern Pennsylvania, will be on view from 6-8 p.m. At 7:15 p.m. both nights, Mr. Miller, Ms. Wolfe, and historian Clifford Zink will deliver a presentation.

Tickets are $20 for adults; $15 for students and seniors. The Roebling Wireworks is at 675 South Clinton Avenue in Trenton. Visit www.rider.edu/arts or call (609) 921-2663 for tickets.