February 1, 2017

Choir College Marathon Protests Possible Closing Of Princeton Campus

GOING OR STAYING: That’s the question on the minds of students at Westminster Choir College, which could be relocated to Lawrenceville if Rider University, which owns the school, decides to put the Princeton campus up for sale. A 24-hour musical performance marathon by Westminster students, faculty and alumni this week was mounted as a protest by those who want the campus to stay where it is. (Photo by Emily Reeves)

Jody Doktor Velloso’s warm, melodious soprano filled the sanctuary of Nassau Presbyterian Church Tuesday afternoon, thrilling those seated in the pews. It was a sparse crowd. But Ms. Velloso’s recital was only the beginning of a 24-hour marathon held by The Coalition to Save Westminster Choir College. It was in protest of a proposal by Rider University, which owns Westminster, to sell the Princeton campus and relocate the music school to Rider’s Lawrenceville location.

With 23 more hours of non-stop music on schedule by Westminster students, faculty, and alumni, organizers were confident that the pews would fill up as the day wore on.

“We expect people to be coming in and out all day and night,” said Kimberly Reinagel, a first year graduate student in vocal performance who helped plan the event. “The idea is to make the community at large aware that Westminster is in jeopardy. The school adds so much to the Princeton community, and switching it to Rider’s campus would mean a loss of facilities, programs, faculty members, and students. And the quality would plummet. So we are protesting in the best way we know how С by performing.”

Westminster has been a fixture in Princeton since 1932. Selling the 28-acre campus on Walnut Lane is among the options being explored by Rider, which has owned the school since 1992, to offset a more than $13 million deficit. A decision was originally planned for this month. But in a statement this week, the University indicated that it will take longer than expected.

“Rider University’s Board of Trustees commissioned this study to determine the feasibility of a one-campus model with the goal of becoming a stronger and more robust institution,” the statement reads. “We continue to evaluate the way we operate and explore all avenues and optionsКto ensure a sustainable future for Rider University as a whole. To be clear,Кno final decisions have been made. We appreciate the passion and emotion involved. We thank everyone for their continued patience and understanding as the Board works to make a fact-based decision in the coming months.”

Opposition to the possible plan has been expressed on social media, print media, and in television news appearances by students, faculty, and alumni. The Coalition to Save Westminster has also appeared before Princeton’s Historical Commission to request that the campus be designated a historical landmark.

Last Thursday, Rider president Gregory Dell’Omo met with students in a public forum to answer questions and listen to concerns. He said four meetings on the issue had been held so far, and the original February date targeted for a decision had been moved up to likely March or April.

“How do we stabilize the short term financial challenges of Rider, and how do we map the growth of the investment in the future?,” he asked. “Its not just about Westminster,” he said, adding that he knew that wasn’t a popular thing to say. “Its about Rider as a whole. We’re looking at the University in its entirety going forward.”

Among those listening to Ms. Doktor Velloso Tuesday afternoon were former Princeton Borough Mayor Marvin Reed and his wife, political analyst Ingrid Reed. As mayor, Mr. Reed said in a printed statement the couple handed out, “I had the wonderful opportunity to experience the close ties between Westminster Choir College and the Princeton community. It is not only the Symphonic Choir and its performances with the New York Philharmonic and Philadelphia Orchestra, but the many other choirs and musical events that thrive on our appreciative local audiences.”

Ms. Velloso, a 1997 alumnus of Westminster who is now the music director at Trinity Presbyterian Church in East Brunswick, was accompanied by pianist Thomas Hobson Williams. They were to be followed throughout the 24-hour marathon by more vocalists, organists, pianists, the Princeton Girlchoir, The Orpheus Club of Philadelphia, a harpist, and many other musicians performing classical, popular, French cabaret, jazz standards, and more. The event was scheduled to end at 11 a.m. Wednesday with African-American spirituals and gospel music.

Westminster Choir College ensembles have performed with major orchestras and conductors, including Arturo Toscanini, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Leopold Stokowski, Eugene Ormandy, Leonard Bernstein, Seiji Ozawa, Zubin Mehta, Kurt Mazur, and Yannick Nezet-Seguin, who studied at the school. The possible closing of the campus “… has outraged current Westminster students, parents, and alumni because the historic Princeton campus is unique in the world in preparing performing artists for the rigors of concert halls, classrooms, and recording studios,” a statement by the Coalition reads.