November 15, 2017

Westminster Choir Invites Audience to “Listen”

By Nancy Plum

Westminster Choir College has experienced its share of uncertainty in the last couple of years, but one constant has been the quality of the choral education and ensembles on campus. The premiere chorus, the Westminster Choir, draws together the most select Choir College students to tackle intricate and complex music for concerts both locally and on tour worldwide. Conducted by Westminster Director of Choral Activities Joe Miller, the Westminster Choir presented a very challenging program of a cappella choral music this past Sunday afternoon in the Choir College’s Bristol Chapel. Entitled “Listen,” Sunday’s performance invited the sold-out audience to “find the voice within us” through some very contemporary music. 

The defining work on the program was Mass for Double Choir by 20th-century Swiss composer Frank Martin, who came to success late in life but whose music is now considered a staple of choral repertory. Martin’s music is technically demanding in its rich harmonic writing, seamless vocal lines, and intense chromaticism — all unaccompanied — and Miller wisely interspersed shorter pieces by other contemporary composers within the five movements of the Mass to create a well-rounded program.

Martin’s Mass dates from 1920, with the first four movements completed by 1922 and the closing “Agnus Dei” added in 1928. Due to his own self-doubts, Martin would not allow the work to be performed until 1963. The Westminster Choir, singing from memory, easily showed why this Mass has achieved deserved success over the past 50 years. The altos of the choir began the opening “Kyrie” with a long melodic line eventually picked up by all the sections, sung with tight vowels, and a lean vocal sound. The chordal sections of this movement were warm, and the Westminster Choir had no trouble filling Bristol Chapel with sound.

Moving to a different formation while singing the opening of the “Gloria,” the chorus delivered the sacred text well, with crisp lines and rhythms in the quicker passages. Throughout the choir, singers sang with little vibrato — too much vocal color within the sections would have blurred the harmonics and chromaticism. Sharp entrances marked the middle “Credo” section, with gently-sung chords depicting Christ “incarnate by the Holy Ghost.” The choir sang the quick and light lines of the “Et resurrexit” section precisely, and consistently brought out Martin’s emphasis on sonorities as voices revolved around pulsating rhythmic patterns and pedal tones.

The level of concentration required to maintain vocal intensity and tuning in Martin’s Mass was astronomical, and the pieces which Miller intermingled within the Mass were revitalizing and clearly designed to give the singers a vocal break. The most lyrical among these choral interpolations was the anthem “I Sat Down under His Shadow” by English composer and organist Edward Bairstow. Dating from 1925 and showing the influence of Bairstow’s contemporary, Gustav Holst, this piece was like a refreshing drink in tonality for the members of the Westminster Choir; they could sing the long lines freely and enjoy the choral sonorities.

Miller also programmed two works by Westminster composers: composition and music theory professor Joel Phillips and visiting assistant professor of popular music studies Tim Brent. Phillips’ Little Lamb set a well-known William Blake poem in a comforting tonal style, and in a manner which suited the choir which Phillips clearly knows so well. The free-flowing chords were no doubt easy to sing after the intensity of the Martin work, and the words were cleanly emphasized. Brent has composed an appealing setting of three of the Beatitudes from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount in a jazzy sonority accompanied by drum and finger cymbals. The chorus sang in mixed formation, which blended the sound even further, and a quintet of soloists sang cleanly from the back of the chapel. Sunday’s concert was the second performance of Brent’s work (the concert had been performed in Philadelphia the night before), and this composer has written a piece which should have longevity in choral circles.

Joe Miller designed Sunday afternoon’s performance not only as a showcase for the Westminster Choir, but also as a concert reflective of current times. In his written commentary to the performance, Miller noted that “Listening to the human voice has great power to connect people from differing beliefs and backgrounds,” and the works presented centered on themes of beauty, peace, and love, as well as choral music of the highest quality. The overall effect of the concert seemed to be summed up in Miller’s closing statement: “In times when our society seems to be focused on our differences, let us take a moment to be still and strengthen our ability to listen.”