November 3, 2021

Westminster Symphonic Choir Performs Live Concert at Trinity Cathedral

By Nancy Plum

After eighteen months, students at Westminster Choir College of Rider University were able to perform choral music live this past weekend. In a short but certainly welcome concert at Trinity Cathedral in Trenton on Saturday afternoon, the 75-voice Westminster Symphonic Choir performed a single work well representing the profoundness and solemnity of the past year and a half. Although usually directed by James Jordan, the Symphonic Choir concert his past weekend was led by guest conductor James Bagwell and accompanied by the Westminster Festival Chamber Orchestra. 

Composers have been creating works from the Mass for the Dead “Requiem” text for centuries. Settings by such composers as Verdi and Berlioz were full of apocalyptic terror, but the 1947 Requiem for chorus, soloist, orchestra and organ by French composer Maurice Duruflé has served as a musical standard for the opposite — full of forgiveness and comfort. Through this piece, conductor Bagwell led the chorus and chamber-sized orchestra to convey the devastation of this past year and offer peace and resolution for the coming season. Princeton, Duruflé and Trinity Cathedral have come together once before, when in 1972, Duruflé helped prepare the Princeton High School chorus for a performance of his Requiem at the Cathedral, with his wife, Marie-Madeleine as organist. 

Conductor Bagwell began the nine-movement Requiem in a quick-moving tempo, with the Symphonic Choir women singing ethereally as if angels were leading the dead on their journey. Bagwell maintained good control over the cadences, leading the ensemble to the high point of the movement on the text “et lux perpetua luceat eis.” This movement flowed effortlessly into a second movement showing a solid sound from the alto section leading the melodic material. Duruflé based much of the music in this work on Gregorian chant, and organist Clara Gerdes brought out well the chant lines through the registration combinations on Trinity’s four-manual organ. 

With the chorus singing from the Cathedral chancel, there were times when the diction was not well delineated in the hall, but with the music of Duruflé, that is all right — the impressionistic choral palette was sufficient to carry the message. The men’s sections were well blended and well-tuned and were not overpowered by the significantly more women in the chorus. Bagwell chose to present a baritone solo in the third movement with the entire bass section, and a duet between sopranos and altos in the same movement showed well-tuned thirds. 

Duruflé’s work is an arc, with the fifth movement Pie Jesu as the central peak. The plaintive mezzo-soprano solo in this movement was sung Saturday by Morgen Zwicharowski, a music education major at the Choir College. Zwicharowski soared on the higher passages of the solo, showing a rich but sometimes harder to hear lower register. Throughout the movement, she was poignantly accompanied by solo cellist Glenn Fischbach and organist Gerdes. 

As a composer, Duruflé was particularly favorable to altos, giving the section extended passages on their own. The Symphonic Choir altos excelled at the free-flowing chant lines and added to the well-blended choral palette from the ensemble as a whole. Duruflé’s “apocalyptic” moment came in the eighth movement, in which conductor Bagwell constructed the tension well and a pair of trumpets added fire and brimstone. The Symphonic Choir closed the Duruflé piece serenely, effectively entreating the angels.

Symphonic Choir director James Jordan took the podium for an encore with one of Duruflé’s rarely-heard motets. Dedicated to his wife, the Notre Père setting of the Lord’s Prayer was Duruflé’s last published composition. Jordan’s command over the chorus was immediate in this a cappella work, as chorus and conductor stood close together inside the chancel for a more intimate performance. Serving further notice that live choral performance is back, the Westminster Symphonic Choir ended the concert with the signature musical closing of many of the Westminster choirs, singing Peter Lutkin’s “The Lord Bless You and Keep You” as much for themselves as the audience.