Spoleto Festival – First Westminster Choir Rehearsal/Second El Niño

Yesterday brought our first Westminster Choir rehearsal on tour music that we haven’t sung since January. Talk about exhilarating…

As a choir, we’ve put forth a lot of effort into memorizing and learning the Adams’ piece. We’ve developed a sound, stuck with it, and given of ourselves emotionally and physically to produce a wonderful operatic production. Now we have to switch gears and jump back into our sound world and re-create the music we originally rehearsed for our tour. It’s interesting watching our family sing music for the first time in months. It’s as if we never left it. Sure, some pieces were rocky, but the general performance quality and creative ideals each piece brought to existence suddenly danced from our voices as if it never left. How does this happen? I don’t know if I have an answer, but I think a large part of it has to do with trust. Trust that each choir member has given his or her utmost dedication to the ensemble; trust that our conductor still inspires wonder and creativity through every gesture and rehearsal technique; trust that we, as a creative body, are on a mission to shake this world through song.

At the end of our rehearsal, Dr. Miller alerted us to “second-show energy” for the El Niño performance that evening and told us we shouldn’t succumb to it. A light dinner break gave way to costume and make-up calls before our second performance. Some movements worked, others had shaky foundations, but the overall performance quality was just as striking as the first. We received a standing ovation within moments of the house lights going up. Afterward, many Westminster Choir College students who road-tripped to enjoy the Charleston performance and hospitality greeted and congratulated us on a job well done. Times like these remind me of the strength of the Westminster Choir College community.

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Photograph Jennifer Lynn Photography. Courtesy of The Spoleto Festival USA.

Today brings choral rehearsals on tour music and our choral-orchestral concerts with the Charleston Symphony Chorus.

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Spoleto Festival – Opening Night of Kát’a Kabanová and Social Sunday

Saturday night was the opening performance of Janáček’s Kát’a Kabanová in the Sottile Theatre. One of the composer’s gems of operatic literature, this opera actually contains minute chorus parts. We’ve had a fun time learning the repertoire – a brief scene with a men’s chorus at the beginning of Act III, choral interludes that create the tonal landscape of a stormy river, and a rousing finale where the main female character drowns herself in a river. All of the typical dramatic components found within operas appear in this beautifully tragic story. The chorus played its small role very well, and we felt accomplished. It was a great night for opera in Charleston!

Here’s a review of the Kát’a performance:

Sunday brought along a welcome day of rest. Many choristers, myself included, ventured out to Sullivan’s Island for much needed fun in the sand. A beach trip was all that was needed to rejuvenate the body and soul. Afterwards, choristers parted ways until this evening. Another group of us went to see “A Simple Space,” featuring the daredevil acrobatics of Australians. It was one of the most incredible shows I’ve ever seen. The human body is truly a canvas of expression; I couldn’t believe some of the moves these performers were doing with just the strength of their bodies. Here’s just a tiny glimpse of one of the many acts they were performing.

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After the show, a few choristers sat around Caviar and Bananas and enjoyed the lovely evening. We were later joined by the countertenors from El Niño – Steven Rickards, Daniel Bubeck, and Brian Cummings. A night of joyful conversation and silly stories was enough to send us away with happy hearts. We later returned to our dorms, where card games, conversation, and fun iPhone games ensued.

Today brings our second performance of El Niño and our first collective Westminster Choir rehearsal. We’re moving quickly through the festival!

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Spoleto Festival – Opening Night of El Niño

Have you ever put every ounce of your being, your craft, and your dedication into a project? I can safely speak for every Westminster Choir member when I say that learning and memorizing John Adams’ El Niño has been one of the most difficult musical experiences I’ve ever participated in. When we were told about the production in January, Dr. Miller warned that this would be incredibly difficult. He wasn’t lying…every one of us has been pouring his or her soul into this production.

What makes this difficult? This minimalist work uses many repeated patterns with very little help from the orchestral texture. The majority of us are literally counting measures and rests before certain entrances. I’ve never been more mathematically driven when it comes to learning music. Several chorus members, during rehearsals of certain movements, counted the number of beats until the next entrance – comparable to memorizing mathematical equations for a test. It took a long time for our memory to “gel” into performance, but it came together for yesterday’s opening night performance.

The energy that brimmed from every member of the production – stage management, principal singer, even Dr. Miller – seethed throughout every aspect of the production. We’ve been waiting for this moment since rehearsals began two weeks ago. The fruit of our labors was to be presented to the Spoleto Festival USA audience. We gathered as an ensemble for a group warm-up and “sing-together” – something we haven’t done since we left for Charleston! Warm-ups were a part of every morning call, but, due to the intensity of the staging rehearsals, our musical contribution took the back burner to the staging process. When we sang together, our collective energies were finally focused into one performing ensemble. There couldn’t have been more excitement in the room!

After our warm-up, we donned our costumes and make-up and took to the stage. We delivered the story and musical ideas to the best of our abilities. To celebrate our opening night performance, the choir went to a nearby club for a social gathering of epic proportions. A much needed relaxation after weeks of laborious rehearsals.

The sense of accomplishment came this morning from a wonderful review in the Charleston Post and Courier. Here’s the link to the review, as well as a link to an article including pictures of the production.

Tomorrow brings another opening performance of the Czech opera

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Spoleto Festival 2014 – Weeks 1 & 2

The end of the semester brings a wonderfully exciting time for the Westminster Choir. For the month of May and the beginning of June, we participate in our annual residency in Charleston, SC for the Spoleto Festival USA. This festival brings wonderfully exciting adventures that we wait all year to experience. This gem of a “work vacation,” as it could be called, becomes a fruitful month of building friendships, exploring a town rich in history, and ending our school year with a beautiful finale.

Westminster Choir’s involvement in the festival varies from year to year, but we are one of few regular cogs that keep the wheel of the festival moving at a well-tempered pace. This year, in addition to two performances of our tour repertoire and a choral-orchestral concert with the Charleston Symphony Chorus, we are the opera chorus in two full-stage productions. These productions exemplify the festival’s ideal of putting together avant-garde productions for the Charleston community to experience. These operatic productions are a staged version of John Adams’ oratorio El Niño and Leoš Janáček’s Kát’a Kabanová. Such hard work has gone into both of these productions – it’s safe to say that I’ve never had to work so hard to memorize such difficult music as El Niño. What a leap our musicianship has taken since we’ve started preparing for this production. Because our involvement has been significant, our rehearsal schedule has been as intense as it can be. More regular updates will occur from here on forward. Here’s a bit of an overview about our first week in Charleston.

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One of our first staging rehearsals with the director in Princeton.

Our travels began on Friday, May 9. The majority of the choir flew, while seven others (myself included) road-tripped down to Charleston from New Jersey. I love the scenic, rustic view of the eastern seaboard as life moves before your eyes. The hustle and bustle of life relaxes me. After about 11 hours on the road, I arrived in Charleston with a greeting that was like I was returning home from years of weary travel. The Southern charm of Charleston extends to you so warmly; I’ve never felt more at home. The choir checked in to our dorms in McConnell Hall at the College of Charleston, explored the city for a few hours, then had a tiny meeting run by this year’s choir managers. Afterwards, celebrations ensued as the choir parted for an evening: some went on frozen yogurt runs, others went out, while many retired for the evening.

An overview of our rehearsal schedule for the week is as follows: Saturday and Sunday were accompanied by double-rehearsals of El Niño. Lasting for the majority of the day, these rehearsals were mostly staging rehearsals. At long last, our principal singers and professional puppeteers were with us in addition to the entire set. It made the director’s artistic vision much clearer to see. What happens afterwards is where intensity comes into play. For El Niño, the choir is on stage for the entire production, since we play such a crucial role in the music. From Monday onward, we had triple rehearsal dates that were difficult to go through. Fortunately for us, the Westminster Choir has unrelenting work ethic and an undying determination to make professional-level music. These rehearsals, combined with staging rehearsals for the Janáček, provided us with wonderful insight on the professional musician community and gave us important experiences to bring back home to our friends and family in Princeton.

On Friday, we flew back to Princeton for our Commencement with the entire school participating. After two wonderful days back, our seniors and graduate students walked across the Princeton University Chapel chancel and received their degrees. The celebrations extended throughout Saturday, and the early Sunday morning bus call back to the airport came quickly.

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Here I am with my fellow Choral Conducting graduates “The Six.”

We boarded a bus at 5:30a.m.(!) and traveled to Newark International Airport for our final returning flight to Charleston. After a few minor delays, we made it safely back for even more rehearsals that extended through Wednesday afternoon. Diligently, we trekked onward in our musical and professional journeys to make each opera a work of art. This week has been fruitful in terms of performances – El Niño opens on Friday, Kát’a opens on Saturday, and our Westminster Choir rehearsals begin for our own concerts.

Today, Thursday, May 22, was our first day off in a while – although we still have one final dress rehearsal for the Janáček opera this evening. Choir members are exploring, beaching, writing, reading, job-hunting, and catching up on much-needed sleep before the festival opens tomorrow. To those reading, be on the look out for special updates, included performance reviews, bios of the 2013-14 choir members, and updates on the pleasures that Charleston holds for our dear Westminster Choir.

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Return to Blogging

Greetings Westminster Choir Blog Readers,

My deepest apologies for such a long period of silence from my end. The second semester at Westminster Choir College catapults from the beginning of the school term and moves quickly toward the finish line. Like many other students, I fell victim to many great projects and required school directives that required the bulk of my attention. From this point forward, you have my undivided attention.

A lot has happened since last I wrote. Westminster Choir diligently defeated the “snowpocalypse” and gave a wonderful Spoleto Festival USA Preview Performance in Richardson Auditorium in March. Usually a homecoming concert featuring our tour repertoire, this concert featured two choral-orchestral works that we’re performing at the Spoleto Festival USA in May: the Dettingen Te Deum by G. F. Handel and Te Deum by Arvo Pärt. We were challenged by many missed rehearsals due to snow days and ice warnings, but we prevailed as an ensemble and made beautiful music.

Since then, many additional projects have occurred: my colleagues gave beautiful voice, conducting, and performance recitals, Westminster Choir has been working carefully to memorize El Niño by John Adams for another Spoleto Festival USA project, Schola Cantorum – the sophomore ensemble on campus – gave a wonderful tour in the South for three days, and many other performances eagerly awaiting as the days dwindle nigh. The past couple months have moved so quickly for all of us here that it’s no wonder that Westminster Choir College breeds success on a daily basis. Our professionalism, standards of excellence, and commitment to honest music-making stand strong throughout our stressful times. As the performances continue and the days for our pilgrimage to Charleston, S.C draw nearer, we continue to change the lives of those who come to hear our music.

Spoleto Rehearsal

First El Niño staging rehearsals with director John Labouchardiere at Westminster.

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Surprising Symphonic Sleepover in Philadelphia

In my last blog post, I mentioned certain weather surprises that tried to prevent our travels to Baltimore for the ACDA Eastern Division conference. Unfortunately, the weather got the best of the Symphonic Choir during our preparation for a performance of Rachmaninoff’s The Bells with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Vladimir Jurowski. After several snow days, our long awaited piano dress rehearsal with Jurowski came, where the vigorous and detailed conductor exacted every amount of emotional energy from the ensemble. It was such a beautifully energized rehearsal that allowed us to tap into the “Russian energy” needed to perform this gifted work.

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The next couple days brought along some surprises…

On Wednesday, February 12th, Symphonic Choir left Westminster Choir College with overnight bags and performance attire prepared to stay and meet the approaching snowstorm in Philadelphia. After another great rehearsal with the orchestra, all were warned of the storm’s impact on the mid-Atlantic and rumor spread about a forthcoming second night stay in Philadelphia. As time passed into later evening, we were all told that we were staying Thursday night as well, although no storm had hit yet. Imagine 165 students staying in the Doubletree Hilton hotel in Philadelphia. An evening of friendly encounters and supportive conversations gave way to an early morning of long-awaited answers.

We had performances scheduled for Thursday, Friday, and Saturday of February 13th, 14th, and 15th. Due to the weather’s impact on the mid-Atlantic, our first performance was cancelled and we were stranded in Philadelphia for another night. Many students ran to a nearby Macy’s to acquire necessities (including clean underwear) for our second night’s stay. The hotel staff was wonderfully accommodating, as well as our staff and graduate assistants, who helped facilitate all of our surprise sleepover needs. Our Thursday agenda including a 45 minute detail rehearsal with Dr. Miller at the Kimmel Center, then we were left to our own devices.

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Many went out to dinner, others stayed in and watched movies and socialized.

Friday gave way to a brief run-through of the work and our first performance. Spending Valentine’s Day locked away inside a hotel with 165 of your closest classmates is an experience I will never forget. After spending a day working on schoolwork and preparing for the performance, we finally donned attire and took to the Verizon Hall stage. A successful first performance after such a variety of surprises made the trip extremely worth it. This is an experience I will never forget!

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ACDA Eastern Division Conference

One cannot survive in a career without a support system. The greatest aspect about being a choral conductor is the family that surrounds you throughout the world. The American Choral Director’s Association (ACDA for short) is an incredibly vibrant organization throughout North America, which offers tons of professional development experience, from intriguing interest sessions to concerts by choirs across the nation. The annual conference is an incredible time to get together with colleagues who share the same exciting passion as you for the choral art. This year, the ACDA conventions were held throughout different divisions. The Eastern Division ACDA conference was in Baltimore, Md., and featured several Westminster faculty members presented or performed. Here are photos of Amanda Quist and Westminster Katorei, who presented a program titled Building Sound and Spirit, and Tom Shelton, who presented a session “Getting Out of the Rut…Ideas for Introducing a New Song to Young Singers.”

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This past week carried a lot of surprises. We had two snow days in a row, which prevented classes from occurring. Traveling to Baltimore was much less of a hassle than we had expected. The Student Government Association at Westminster Choir College covered the conference registration for 60 student members.  We had to take care of our food and travel expenses. What an opportunity to reap the benefits of the convention’s offerings! I attended many great interest sessions.  One, presented by the American Boychoir School, focused on teaching of musical literacy. They went into great detail about how they teach music literacy and demonstrated some useful methods. It’s beautiful to see such young students making music at the same level as collegiate musicians.

Several great concert sessions led to inspiring talks with colleagues. The two invited concerts – Seraphic Fire from Miami, Fla. and TENET with the Sebastians – were particularly beautiful. I left both concerts feeling fulfilled and inspired to make beautiful music all over again. The greatest aspect of these conventions is walking out with the urge to change the world through musical inspiration. I always love watching concerts and discussing exactly what made them great.

The convention certainly provided great inspiration for me to press forward into my last semester of graduate school. I’m fortunate to have gone, met new people and rekindled wonderful connections, and represent a great choral school. This only makes me more excited for the next national convention! Up next on our docket is a Symphonic Choir performance of Rachmaninoff’s The Bells with Philadelphia Orchestra.

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Ode to Joy – William H. Scheide 100th Birthday Concert

If I could sum up my experiences thus far at Westminster Choir College, it could be described in one word: Freude! Since I’ve come to graduate school, the Westminster Symphonic Choir has performed Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on three separate occasions. The first was with Daniel Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in January of 2013. The second was last semester with Yannick-Nézet Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra. The third time was this past weekend with Maestro Mark Laycock and the Vienna Chamber Orchestra for a benefit concert celebrating the 100th birthday of William Scheide.

This past Thursday afternoon brought a slew of rehearsals to prepare the choir for the upcoming performance on Saturday. Westminster Choir members had just three short days of relaxation before we jumped into our next project. Our rehearsal began strongly, as we jumped head first into our repertoire. Other than Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the Symphonic Choir also performed “Gloria sei dir gesungen,” the final chorale from Bach’s cantata 140 Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, and a premiere of “Gaudeamus igitur” from Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture. The Brahms’ piece is based off “collegiate drinking songs,” so we sang the text of the famous theme that appears multiple times in the overture. Both pieces were great to learn and carried with them important weight for the honoree of this concert. After a quick dinner break, the maestro and the four soloists for the Ninth Symphony joined us. A detailed rehearsal ensued, which offered us insight into the conductor’s interpretation. The choir delivered joy and fervency with every detail. I left the rehearsal amazed at how 100 singers can come back from a long break and sing together as if they’ve never left!

Friday’s schedule was similar to Thursday’s: we met at Richardson Auditorium on Princeton University’s campus to rehearse with the orchestra. We did a couple of runs of each piece, and we were on our way to a delightful performance. Squished like sardines on the stage, the Symphonic Choir acted professional in their actions and delivered intention in every note. After rehearsal finished on Friday, Performance Management and Dean Annis showed us the promotional video that was to be displayed during the concert. Students cheered and applauded each other as we watched the legacy of Westminster’s famed teaching unfold before us.

We arrived early on Saturday for a dress rehearsal that was observed by a small audience. We had a great run through of all piece, and we departed until the evening performance. William Scheide was in the audience, and he beamed with joy throughout the entire concert. A spectacular performance was given by all performers and it culminated in a rousing “Happy Birthday” to Mr. Scheide. Symphonic Choir delivered a great, joyful message that delightfully rang in the new school semester. 

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Tour 2014: Houston and Return to Princeton

The end of our tour is nigh! After a night filled with exciting stories from our home stays, we boarded the bus the next morning to head to the Galleria in downtown Houston. Our final installment of “Prairie Home Stay Companion” brought tons of laughs, envy, and overall enthusiasm for our friends’ evenings. We have never been so happy to come together than we were this morning! After spending some downtime at the large mall, we rode to our hotel for a brief period before we returned to Clearlake United Methodist for our final rehearsal and performance.
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Our rehearsal went quickly and dinner came before we knew it. Barbecue was our last hosted meal, with many light appetizers, sides, and peach cobbler with ice cream to cap it all off.
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Our stomachs filled, we ran upstairs to dress and came back down for our brief pow-wow before the concert began. Dr. Miller read no poetry, nor did he give us a motivational speech. He shared his love for us and his appreciation for such a successful tour, and we were brimming with gratitude. The performance was finished before we knew it.
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At the end, the women of Westminster Choir greeted Dr. Miller with smooches on his cheeks, leaving a delightfully placed mark.

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This concert brought an incredible surprise to me: a friend of my from my undergraduate days, whom I haven’t seen in about three years, surprised me at the concert. It’s amazing how music can bring us back together and friendships begin right where they left off.

We loaded the bus to go back to the hotel where we quickly changed for our annual end-of-tour banquet. This banquet consists of the Paper Plate Awards and the Westminster Choir toast. The Paper Plate Awards are voted by members of the choir and consist of categories like “Rookie of the Year,” “Most Likely to Sleep through a Zombie Apocalypse,” and “Choir Mom or Dad.”
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These are just a few of the many categories given to Westminster Choir members voted on by the choir. Tenor Justin Su’esu’e presented the awards and provided great laughs for the choir. After the presentation of the Paper Plate Awards, the toast came to cherish the memories made on tour. This is when members of the choir say what they’re thankful for, toast the choir, and express their gratitude for one another. Many tears are shed for the memories made during tour and throughout our time at Westminster Choir College. Our appreciation for one another burns brightly and spreads like wildfire. The joyful weeping is greeted with pleasant smiles and overflowing love for one another. This is what family is all about.

After the toast was finished, many of us celebrated the end of tour at a local spot with pleasant conversation and great drinks. The next morning brought an afternoon call to the bus where our bus driver Rich told us that, in all the years he’s driven for tours, he was incredibly thankful for this group of people. We knew he was a teddy bear at heart! We arrived the George W. Bush International Airport and began our travels back with acceptance and reflection.

As I sit on the plane and write this post, I’m reflecting on the successes this tour brought to all of us. Sure, the performances were magical, the memories unforgettable, but it’s not about traveling to distant lands or promoting the school’s name. It’s about refreshing the soul through the power of music. It’s about the beauty found in all walks of life, through every home stay and concert, through every interaction and social event. It’s about an appreciation for the opportunities given to us and a love for what we do as artists. I will never forget the family that I love and the reasons for why I sing. This tour has been a success because the choir has developed strong bonds with each other and our music, as have the members in the past. This is why we sing; these are the shoulders on which we stand. Thank you, readers, for taking this journey with us and accepting our song with open arms. Until next time.

 

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Tour 2014: Final Workshop and Travel to Houston

Our home stays brought us back to University Presbyterian Church at 9:00 a.m. sharp for us to load the bus. Our next adventure on tour was our third and final high school workshop at James Bowie High School. We arrived with plenty of time to run a brief warm up and sing through some music. The choral director at James Bowie High School is Ben May, one of Dr. Miller’s first choral conducting master’s students when he came to Westminster Choir College. Another one of the family!
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We sang a bit for them, they returned the favor, and we were dazzled with questions afterwards. The booster club hosted a delectable lunch of soup, salad, and desserts to send us on our way. I think it’s safe to say that the Westminster Choir came and “left Austin weird.”

We got on the road to Houston, our last destination on tour, when we were finished at the high school. With only a couple of stops and a movie to entertain us, we arrived in Houston and met our host families. Tonight was a unique circumstance. We usually leave with our host families after a concert, but tonight was the complete opposite. Many were worried about the amount of time we would spend with them. It will certainly make for interesting stories on the bus later. Tenor Alex Underwood and I met up with our hosts and departed almost as quickly as we arrived. Delightful conversation in the car, when we arrived at home, and during dinner is what makes home stays exciting. It brings such a special dimension to the tour experience that it’s hard not to connect with them on a personal level. Tonight was no different. Tomorrow morning brings some free activities in Houston, our final concert, and our ending banquet.

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