November 17, 2021

Westminster Choir Presents Concert of Comfort and Celebration

By Nancy Plum

Westminster Choir, the flagship choral ensemble of Westminster Choir College of Rider University, returned to live performance this past weekend. Led by conductor Lynnel Joy Jenkins, the 35-voice mixed chorus presented a program centered on “Returning to Joy” in Rider University’s Gill Memorial Chapel on Sunday afternoon. The program of a cappella and lightly accompanied choral works featured music both past and present and took the audience at Gill Chapel from “mourning” through “singing and new song” and “comfort” to “celebration,” capturing the myriad of feelings and atmospheres over the past 18 months. As Jenkins explained, this concert musically depicted “a tumultuous journey of returning to our beloved choral singing after a storm of life.”

Conductor and music educator Lynnel Joy Jenkins has built a successful career on cultivating community in the choral classroom while inspiring artistry. Her local connections range from a Westminster Choir College degree to conducting the Resident Choir of The American Boychoir School to her current position as artistic director of the Westrick Music Academy and conductor of the Princeton Girlchoir Ensemble and Concert Choir. From her worldwide choral clinical experiences, Jenkins has brought to choral programming a multicultural approach well evident in Sunday afternoon’s concert.

Jenkins opened the performance with three choral pieces of grief from three different time periods. The text of 16th-century composer Tomás Luis de Victoria’s “O Vos Omnes” was derived from the biblical book of Lamentations, and Westminster Choir sang Victoria’s a cappella Latin motet with clear harmonies and a well-focused sound. Westminster Choir has been renowned for a number of choral strengths, including solid blend, impeccable tuning, and the ability to produce an endless stream of choral sound, all of which were in evidence throughout this concert.

The three pieces of the first section of “mourning” were varied, but all were performed with good musical flow. The third piece, Jeffrey L. Ames’ arrangement of “I’ve Been in the Storm So Long,” seemed to capture in its title alone the struggle of the Westminster Choir College choral scholar over the past year. In this spiritual (composed in response to Hurricane Katrina), alto Zoe Beaton provided an expressive solo line against an ensemble palette which unfolded seamlessly as the piece went on. 

The biblical book of Psalms is replete with texts celebrating “singing a new song” and none set better than Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach’s double-chorus motet “Singet dem Herrn Ein Neues Lied” is musically complex in its many moving parts, and conductor Jenkins kept all of the motet’s components flowing through clean choral runs and refined phrasing. Accompanied by cellist Katherine Cherbas, Westminster Choir sang this piece with clarity, energy, and joy.

Textually, the musical selections of the “comfort” section of this concert seemed to be the meat of the performance. Two pieces focused on the text “abide with me,” with Josef Rheinberger’s “Abendlied” in particular showing pure tuning and a shimmering choral sound in the hall. An expertly-played extended piano introduction by accompanist Akiko Hosaki led the chorus to dramatic presentation of Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo’s chant-like arrangement of “Ubi caritas.” Drawing on her past South African musical experiences, Jenkins followed Gjeilo’s work with a traditional isiXhosa setting of a text of comfort. Michael Barrett’s arrangement of Ndikhokhele Bawo allowed the chorus to sing a bit outside the classical choral style, incorporating swing into the phrase repetitions.

Westminster Choir closed the concert looking ahead — to the “celebration” of a return to their chosen craft. Not surprisingly, the texts of the last four choral works were uplifting, leading to a final piece linking the past and future. The chorus sang the spiritual “Great God Almighty” with energy and emphatic swells on appropriate words. As with several other works on the program, the singers performed this spiritual from memory, strengthening the connection between chorus and conductor, and enabling the ensemble to react to every one of Jenkins’ conducting gestures. Westminster Choir closed the concert with a tribute to past Westminster conductor Joseph Flummerfelt by performing his graceful arrangement of “Danny Boy.”

As conductor of the well-established Westminster Choir, Jenkins has seen the past year and a half as a “journey.” Westminster Choir has been through a great deal in the past year — a change in performance home, change in music director and a lost season. Although a small step compared to the Choir’s usual frenetic schedule, Sunday afternoon’s concert was the beginning of the journey back to traditions — and what Jenkins calls “indescribable joy in our creative force each time we gather to sing together.”