August 5, 2020

Choir College Is Now Based At Rider’s Lawrence Campus

By Anne Levin

According to the Rider University website, “Westminster Student Advocacy” is the topic of a Summer Town Hall series discussion scheduled for Thursday, August 6 at 1 p.m. The event, which was planned by the Student Government Association in conjunction with University administration, is designed to give students a chance to ask President Gregory Dell’Omo, members of his board, and others, about the fall semester.

This semester is significant for Westminster Choir College, and not only because of the restrictions of COVID-19, which is particularly devastating to singers. The term marks the first since Rider has relocated Westminster, with which it merged in 1992, from its longtime Princeton location to the Rider campus in Lawrence Township. The move has been a source of controversy since it was announced a year ago, after the University tried unsuccessfully to sell the Princeton campus to a for-profit company from China.

Whether Rider will be able to eventually sell the campus depends on the outcome of two lawsuits, which are still pending. The appeal briefs are due in September, according to attorney Bruce Afran, who is representing a group of students, alumni, and others who have sued the University claiming terms of the 1992 merger prohibit the sale.  Meanwhile, the University has gone ahead with plans to relocate the Choir College.

In a July 29 mailing to Westminster alumni from Dean Marshall Onofrio, the status of Westminster’s various choral ensembles was outlined in reference to the global pandemic. In the message, Steve Pilkington of the Conducting, Organ, and Sacred Music Department called the next 10 months “a kind of institutional gap year.”  After multiple meetings and virtual discussions, and review of recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control, a plan for Westminster’s renowned choral program “in what is probably the most challenging year in the College’s history” was developed.

All in-person 2020 fall public concerts will likely be canceled, the message says. All of the choral ensembles will employ a variety of virtual activities, and, if possible occasional in-person rehearsals that follow health and safety requirements. If possible, the Westminster Concert Bell Choir, which doesn’t involve singing, will meet in person.

The Westminster Choir will be on a one-year hiatus. Upcoming concerts by the Westminster Symphonic Choir with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s have been canceled, while February and March performances with the Philadelphia Orchestra are still undecided. Plans for the school’s additional ensembles vary, and efforts are underway to reschedule any canceled concerts, tours, and appearances. 

Soon after the message was sent to alumni, the Westminster community received an email from Constance Fee, who is president of the Westminster Foundation, a group of alumni and supporters who have opposed the move and the sale.

“The news shared in the letter sent to our community today concerning plans for the choirs in the coming academic year is unsettling, it is not what we may want to see, but we can be grateful that there are plans in place,” Fee wrote. Referring to the hiatus of Westminster Choir, she continued, “A Westminster Choir College without a Westminster Choir for a year is unthinkable, but it is a year during which there are no scheduled performances for any choral ensembles, anywhere.”

Despite the obstacles, the Westminster Foundation continues working to ensure the future of the Choir College. “The move to Lawrenceville is not an ideal situation, not by any measure,” Fee wrote. “Although it gives the impression of permanence, the reality is that what is moved can be moved back again. The lawsuits remain in place and have successfully blocked attempts to sell the campus, and they will continue to do so as the appeals process moves forward.”

It is unclear how many students are returning to Westminster or starting out as freshmen, but the Choir College has suffered a drop in enrollment as the situation has played out over the past three years. “As this academic year begins, a group of talented incoming students will arrive, the majority of the choirs will be functioning, and for that, we can all be grateful,” Fee wrote. “The legal process moves painfully slowly, and it would be disingenuous to attempt to give the impression that anything will change quickly. The reality is that what lies ahead may become even more difficult and challenging, but we are obligated to honor those who came before us. This endeavor is far from over and we will stay the course.”