Westminster Choir Begins 100th Anniversary Celebration with At-Home Concert
By Nancy Plum
On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Westminster Choir, the renowned ensemble took the opportunity this past weekend to remind the Princeton community of its raison d’etre. Taking a line from the poetry of W.H. Auden, the 40-voice elite chorus of Westminster Choir College presented a concert of music to “Appear and Inspire” in Bristol Chapel on Sunday afternoon, reaffirming the Choir’s rich history and its connection to American musical culture.
The cornerstone piece of the concert was Benjamin Britten’s Hymn to St. Cecilia, composed to commemorate the patron saint of music and from whose text the title of the concert was derived. Setting poetry by Auden, Britten composed the three-movement work while living in America as war was breaking out throughout Europe. Westminster Choir conductor Joe Miller took the three movements of Britten’s tribute to music and interspersed them throughout the first part of the concert, surrounding Britten’s music with standard works from the Westminster Choir repertory, in many cases featured on Westminster Choir recordings or composed by individuals connected to the Choir College.
The first “set” of pieces, five a cappella choral works comingled with movements of the Britten Hymn, were sung without interruption, seamlessly flowing one into another. The Choir began the concert at the back of the Chapel with a dissonant setting of the medieval “Responsoria Tenebrae” text, showing vocal warmth from the lower voices and a laser-like sound from the sopranos. Throughout the concert, conductor Miller had no trouble building intensity in dynamics in the space of the Chapel, with the well-focused and blended sound of the Choir almost overwhelming the audience in volume at times. The Choir explored unusual tonalities and musical effects in German composer Michael Ostrzyga’s setting of “Canticum novum,” which incorporated tubular bells and overtone singing — a manipulation of vocal resonance, producing melodies within the range of harmonic overtones. All expertly trained singers, the members of Westminster Choir had no trouble producing vocal overtones, which helped create tremendous volume.
The Choir presented the first movement of Britten’s Hymn to St. Cecilia singing with full vocal color in a circle around Miller. In this piece, Britten paid his own tribute to tonality with the refrain, which is detached from the rich harmonies of the piece with unison chantlike singing. The second movement contained short sizzling choral passages which the Choir sang lightly and precisely, with Miller always finding phrase direction despite the speed of the text. Using the refrain to rearrange themselves onstage, the singers of Westminster Choir continually reminded the audience of the overriding theme of the concert — inspiration through music. The third movement contained several difficult solos well sung by sopranos Christina Han and Betsy Podsiadlo, alto Madison Bowling, and tenor Kevin Schneider. Bowling handled a short but particularly difficult and low alto solo well, and Podsiadlo performed an extended passage with rich vibrato and vocal color, accompanied by the rest of the Choir.
Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg composed the a cappella motet “Friede auf Erden” in 1907 on the edge of World War I in Europe. Setting the text of an 1886 poem by the Swiss poet Conrad Ferdinand Meyer describing the angelic proclamation of the first Christmas, Schoenberg created an endless stream of tonality and chordal shifts which the Choir complemented with powerful dynamics and solid tuning. Miller wrote in the program notes that he programmed this piece to demonstrate the essence of Westminster Choir’s mission — embodied in the technical vocal skills required to perform Schoenberg’s chromatic work.
Westminster Choir’s longtime commitment to contemporary American choral works was also demonstrated by the inclusion on the program of two pieces rooted in American history. Marshall Bartholomew’s arrangement of the spiritual “Little Innocent Lamb” contained great interplay among the voices, with a bit of bounce in the Choir and consistent phrase direction. The Choir presented J. David Moore’s arrangement of the traditional Appalachian Christian hymn “Will the Circle be Unbroken” with a trio of women (soprano Yiran Zhao and altos Madison Bowling and Chelsea Warner) singing in the open, straight-tone shape note style of early American country music, followed by spirited gospel-style singing from the full ensemble.
For its 100th anniversary season, the Choir commissioned Westminster Choir College professor Christian Carey for a new work; his setting of Psalm 96 (“Sing to the Lord a new song”) was fitting for the occasion both in text and music. Receiving its second performance in this concert, Carey’s piece pays tribute to Westminster Choir’s rich tradition of church music and showed off well the Choir’s well-blended sound and ability to shift harmonies smoothly.
Teamwork among the members of Westminster Choir was evident in all the works on this program; touring can create a sense of camaraderie not unlike a sports team, and the singers in this ensemble continually demonstrated their respect and collaboration with one another through their singing. Britten’s Hymn to St. Cecilia calls on the patron saint of music to “appear in visions to all musicians, appear and inspire” — not bad advice to anyone in this day and age.
Westminster Choir will present a “Homecoming Concert” on Monday, January 27, 2020 at 7:30 p.m. at Richardson Auditorium, following its winter tour. In this concert, the Choir will continue its 100th anniversary celebration with music from the ensemble’s history as well as other choral works. Admission is free, but tickets are required, and can be reserved by calling (609) 258-9220 or by visiting www.rider.edu/events/westminster-choir-homecoming-concert-2020.