First Concerts

In a scene from one of my favorite childhood books, Because of Winn-Dixie, the main character, Opal, plants a seed from an unknown tree with her eccentric neighbor Gloria. When the curious Opal inquires as to what type of tree it will be, Gloria responds, “It’s a wait-and-see tree… It means you got to wait for it to grow up before you know what it is.”

The first performances of our tour program always remind me of the wait-and-see tree. The commitment we make together as a choir every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 4:30-6 (and the countless moments outside of class) allows us to progress ever-closer toward becoming a family. But performing together allows us to know each other in a different way—giving us a taste of the cumulative growth we’ve made as individuals and as a community as we step out and take a leap together.

And what an exciting leap it was. In light of the concert’s overarching plotline, it is nearly impossible to experience the full effect of the program in a rehearsal setting. From the meditative first moments of Sisask’s Oremus to the thrill of Leonardo Dreams of his Flying Machine (and everything from the ridiculous to the sublime that falls in-between) we’ve only just begun to explore this story.

Perhaps more importantly, we’ve only just begun learning about each other. You can never predict what will happen in a performance, which, for a Type-A try-hard like me, is simultaneously the most freeing and terrifying part of music making. This weekend, however, certainly fell far closer to the joy side of the spectrum than the terror one. Stepping back and trusting our section mates, quartet, and the ensemble as a whole enables us to see sides of ourselves that we may not show in the day-to-day rush of rehearsals, classes, homework, social lives, and basic functioning. You never know which song, or phrase, or chord will light up someone’s face, or what section you’ve toiled over in a practice room will unexpectedly tune brilliantly in performance.

And then there’s one of the most obvious elements of performing: getting to share our music. The audiences in Short Hills on Saturday and Princeton on Sunday were so deeply receptive, they demanded our best efforts. During the pieces in which we were encouraged to connect with the audience via eye contact, I was delighted to see a multitude of Westminster Choir alumni from the past two years, friends, family members, current students, faculty, and friends. However, the most gratifying part for me was getting to premiere theory faculty member Doug Helvering’s work Love, which was written specifically for this year’s concert. As Dr. Helvering attended both concerts, Dr. Miller took a moment to recognize him on both occasions (when he received much-deserved standing ovations). Even though I’ve been at this school for four years now, I still have moments when the level of musicianship in the faculty and student body seems surreal. Singing Love certainly was one of those moments. I don’t know how someone as deft at enlivening a text with music as Dr. Helvering could possibly be the same jovial person as the one who shows up to teach us mnemonic devices to remember how to sing quintuplets (to be honest, I haven’t been in his classes but a good mnemonic device makes the rounds at a place like Westminster), but I’m hardly complaining.

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Short Hills Concert.

Today, we returned to the daily grind a little sleepier yet deeply refreshed. On Wednesday, we begin Christmas music (insert uncharacteristic primal shriek of joy here – I hide it well, but I am in fact a Sacred Music major), as this first semester cascades to an ever-eventful close. Next stop, Pajama Day, the Racquet and Tennis Club benefit concert, and Readings and Carols!

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I’ve been Mahlered

As someone who hopes to research and write about music for a living, I often get bogged down in dates, facts, theories, and conjecture. Yet despite the fact that I can easily read about music for hours at a time, so often I find that the written word fails to express the truth of being immersed in a work of music. As Felix Mendelsohn wrote, “The thoughts which are expressed to me by music that I love are not too indefinite to be put into words, but on the contrary, too definite.” Performing Mahler’s Second Symphony with none other than The Philadelphia Orchestra and Yannick Nézet-Séguin was indeed an experience too definite for words. But I shall try my best to give you a glimpse into this whirlwind of a week.

Each run-out begins long before the choir steps on stage. We are called to our buses four to twelve hours before the concert or rehearsal begins, depending on where the performance is and what the schedule is for the day. Then, attendance taken and lunches distributed, we depart. After arrival, there is the requisite mad dash to Starbucks, followed by a warm-up with Dr. Miller or Dr. Brandau. Then, like good little ducklings in professional dress, we trek up to the plush choir loft at Kimmel or the stage at Carnegie.

Rehearsals with Yannick are a delightful mix of the unbridled energy of a puppy matched with the musicality of a musician skilled beyond his years. His ability to breathe life into the finest details while guiding the listeners through the work as a whole is truly incredible. In addition to this, the rapport he has with the orchestra is evident in their sensitive responses and overall camaraderie. Rehearsals flit between moments of levity and deep concentration, with an overall intensity befitting the work.

To express our appreciation for his adventurous spirit and humor, we decided to present a Halloween surprise of our own during Friday’s sound check at Carnegie Hall. Entering the stage as normal, we took advantage of brief lull due to the obligatory logistical difficulties that arise when changing performance locations to don our costumes: pictures of Yannick’s face that we held up like masks. Both conductor and orchestra were amused, and took a moment to capture pictures of our trick.

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140 Yannick selfies for Halloween

While one could easily slip into autopilot when performing the same work four times in a single weekend, the complexity of Mahler’s Second Symphony is ideally suited for multiple immersions. If you are unfamiliar with the work, a bit of background will help in shedding light on the gravity and depth of this monumental symphony. Written as a reflection on the death of a fictionalized hero, Mahler drew from his own encounters with grief over the course of his life when crafting the work. Having lost multiple siblings and friends at a young age, the rage, disbelief, and agony of his grief are certainly not repressed in the slightest. In some of the louder sections, particularly during the Carnegie Hall performance (in which I was seated only a matter of a feet away from the timpanists and trombone section), the pure physical vibrations emanating from the instruments were so physically jarring, I shook in my seat. Although I personally have never experienced loss on the level that Mahler was inspired by, the primal nature of his writing at these times was so visceral, I felt as if I too was grieving.

The hour and a half long symphony follows the grieving process in a surprisingly mature way for a composer who was only 35 at the time of the work’s premiere. After the intense pain of the first movement, he crafts a folk-like waltz melody to evoke the nostalgia of remembering a lost loved one. After this, the third movement uses a pre-existing song by Mahler about St. Anthony preaching to fish as no one showed up to church to hear his sermon (a tragic fate for any priest, I would imagine) to paint the denial intertwined in the grieving process as well as the dark irony of life. The sinuous duets in the woodwinds (one of my particular favorite parts of the symphony) eventually give way to a reprise of the anguished emotions heard in the first movement. Additionally, this was usually my first cue to start crying.

Out of the ashes of this sorrow emerges the fourth movement: another song setting, this time for mezzo-soprano soloist. Sarah Connelly, our incomparable mezzo, beautifully portrayed this dreamlike vignette of dying and encountering an angel, only to be turned away from heaven before entering. Her unanswered cry for reunion with God segues directly into the final movement, where Mahler provides his final answer. The earlier motives and new ideas expressing agony and disbelief engage in battle, leading into an apocalyptic resurrection scene starring the percussion section. After this, a chilling birdlike conversation in the woodwinds empties the dense orchestral texture, providing a purified sound palate in order for the choir to deliver Mahler’s conclusion on the matters of life, death, and the purpose of human existence: resurrection, and eternal life. I don’t think I can write about this and do it justice without weeping profusely, and I’m fairly certain I’m dehydrated from doing so over the past week so I will abstain from waxing poetic. I will simply say that Mahler proves his point in the most heart-wrenchingly honest way one could ever hope to do so. Transcendent experiences are not everyday occurrences, but this week has given the choir more than our fair share. I am simultaneously exhausted and refreshed, humbled and empowered by this incredible journey.

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Final bow at the Kimmel Center

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Mahler Week Begins!

October 27, 2104

Tomorrow marks the beginning of the second Symphonic runout of the year: Mahler’s Second Symphony “Resurrection” with The Philadelphia Orchestra! While we have been toiling away at learning our 11-13 minutes of glory (pending tempo decisions) for the past two weeks, we had the opportunity to give a sneak preview during the official opening of the Cullen Center last Wednesday.

For those readers who went to schools with student bodies larger than that of a moderately-sized elementary school, the opening of a new building may seem relatively inconsequential. But for Westmisnterites past and present, the historical nature of this new building is epic. Gone are the days of Olympic-speed chair arranging between hourly choir rehearsals. Students in the back rows no longer can hide a family of small mammals at their feet, as we now have glamorous stadium seating.

But, as we learned from the libretto of El Niño last spring, “all delights are tinged with melancholy.” The Playhouse, the original rehearsal space for Chapel Choir, Symphonic Choir, and Westminster Choir has housed innumerable rehearsals since Westminster’s earlier days. From these daily choral rehearsals to visits from guest conductors such as with Leonard Bernstein, Simon Rattle, and Kurt Masur (to name a mere handful amongst legion), The Playhouse has been the setting for creating music and memories for longer than I have been on earth.

In that spirit, it was only fitting that we opened the Cullen Center in the company of the forces who have shaped Westminster, celebrating the occasion with one of the greatest works ever composed for choir and orchestra. As many of our alumni who were present that day sang the symphony during their time at Westminster, the effect that hearing the piece had on them was moving to behold. The Westminster experience is unique, to say the least. Once you’ve experienced it, you share in a bond that decades cannot erase. To get our first taste of this work among those who understand that was a beautiful way to begin this Mahlertide (or, as many students have taken to calling it in light of our performance this coming Friday, Mahlerween).

Cullen Center Opening

To add to the experience, Gilbert Kaplan came to campus today to give a lecture on “The World of Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony.” Mr. Kaplan has devoted his life’s study to this particular work, and he was able to present us with a wealth of knowledge through Mahler’s correspondences, photographs, and earlier editions of the score. From insights into Mahler’s views on the afterlife to his opinions about standing cues, the information he presented reshaped my understanding of the symphony.

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As a mere 12 hours stand between now and our first orchestral rehearsal, I must bid you adieu! The sheer amount of resurrecting required this week will undoubtedly be exhausting, and I intend to be as well rested as any mortal can be.

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Pranks, Pictures, and Performances

The past few weeks have been a whirlwind for the choir. Following our return from retreat, we dove right back into rehearsals, culminating in a surprise party at the end of the week for Dr. Miller’s annual 32nd birthday. Soprano sectional leader Nicola made a delicious cappuccino cake, which we feasted on in honor of our esteemed leader.

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However, that was not the only surprise in store for Dr. Miller’s birthday. To show our love, members of the choir decorated copies of what has been dubbed “the mustache picture”: a ravishing photograph of Dr. Miller sporting an impressive mustache. Year after year, the picture resurfaces, surviving even his most ardent attempts to stamp it out of existence. While he was away in New York City listening to auditions for mainstage roles at the Spoleto Festival on his actual birthday, certain unnamed parties snuck into his office and decorated it with due festivity. Despite any photographic evidence to the contrary, I would like to state for the record that I spent the entire day busily engaged in saving kittens from trees and solving world hunger and therefore I had nothing to with these shenanigans.

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The following Monday was our annual picture day at Princeton Battlefield. In a delightful twist of the weather report, it was lightly sprinkling the entire time, lending us all a dewy glow.

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The next rehearsal was followed by a special reception for donors who contributed to the building of the Marion Buckelew Cullen Center. Westminster Choir had our official first performance at the event, regaling the guests with Clements’ Flower of Beauty and an arrangement of Alwood’s Unclouded Day. Although the performance was brief, it was incredibly exciting to perform together as a choir for the first time. It’s hard to believe that we’ve only been together for two months now—the beginning of the year is always so full of growth, time seems to be somewhat irrelevant.

We were able to further this growth by working with renowned guest artists Alberto Grau and Maria Guinand during their residency at Westminster. The dynamic duo worked with us on Monteverdi’s Si ch’io vorrei morire, Sisask’s Oremus, and Bach’s Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild. Working with Alberto on the Monteverdi was simultaneously hilarious and enlightening. His unexpected playfulness in terms of tempo and articulation allowed us to understand the work in an entirely different light. Maria’s work with us on the Sisask was similarly illuminating, as she empowered us to play with pitch alterations and overtone singing to evoke electrical energy currents.

This week has been less intense for Westminster Choir as Symphonic Choir has been occupied elsewhere, making its season debut performing Debussy’s Nocturnes and Orff’s Carmina Burana with the New Jersey Symphony. These works have been a joy to perform, allowing us to access our inner sirens and medieval drunkards within a rollicking orchestral soundscape. But alas, our weekend of performances is now over, and we are growing ever closer to our next goals—Mahler 2 with the Philadelphia Orchestra and the first Westminster Choir concert!

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Retreat 2014

I recently read on NPR’s “The Salt” that the flavor vanilla is not a single flavor; rather, it is a compound consisting of a combination of over 250 flavors. Similarly, while Westminster Choir retains its name and some of its membership from year to year, due to its changing roster of approximately 40 people with their individual voices, musical skills, personalities, and histories (to name a few factors), each choir is an intricate community unto itself. While we begin to glimpse that community in our first rehearsals, retreat is always a pivotal moment in understanding the spirit of each year’s choir.

Last weekend, the choir trekked to Northern New Jersey after a full day of classes on Friday to spend a little over twenty-four hours rehearsing, getting to know each other, playing games, and (time permitting) sleep. We began by diving into our musical repertoire early Friday evening, and then headed into the first part of our nonmusical activities: the getting-to-know-you games. As this year’s Social Chair, I had the joy of planning these games and other fun activities with the help of the retreat committee. Friday night’s games ranged from silly (such as an improve game based on the concept of building a human machine and the Westminster Choir classic “Kissing Rugby”) to a more serious set of games centered on building connections within the choir. After this, the choir went off into the woods to feast on s’mores and continue bonding. That is, all except a small group who remained in the lodge to carry on another Westminster Choir tradition: a prank on Dr. Miller. In the spirit of Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine, one of the pieces on our tour program, we strung together garlands of paper airplanes and then decorated Dr. Miller’s room with them.

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The next morning was dedicated to musical exploration as we rehearsed our tour repertoire and broke into smaller groups for group projects. These group projects are quite simple in premise: the choir receives a theme, and then is broken into six smaller groups, each of which is secretly given a musical genre. The groups are given about half an hour to create a musical work in their respective style based on the theme. This year’s topic? The dreaded process of choral hearings. The imagination and unexpected skill sets that emerge in this activity are always a surprise, and this year’s output was no exception. Performances ranged from a stirring Wagnerian operetta complete with highly accurate leitmotifs to a George Crumb-inspired performance that portrayed the candid internal monologues of all parties involved. However, in the end , the outstanding soloist award went to soprano section leader Nicola Bertoni for her performance in the Disney group, and the overall winners were the Medieval group with their brief, tragic Morality Play, in which their chanting ceased when the entire cast perished from the plague (with the exception of Symphonic Choir’s immortal accompanist, Eric Plutz).

After an intense musical rehearsal in the afternoon, we embarked on the main team-building event of the weekend: The Sectional Olympics. This tripartite competition pits the sections against each other in a thrilling battle of wits, brawn, endurance and originality. This year’s Olympics began with the lava game, in which each section must cross a field by only stepping on their allotted ten sheets of construction paper. While the tenors and basses certainly had original approaches (such as using the paper as pseudo-skis and carrying one another), the winners of this event were the altos.

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Altos demonstrating how they won!

Altos demonstrating how they won!

Following this were the section skits, in which each section had a chance to fight back against their respective stereotypes by wittily mocking those associated with another section. Our esteemed Graduate Assistant, Max Nolin, won best actor for his eerily accurate portrayal of a soprano, but the overall winners were the basses for their rendition of alto section dynamics.

The third and final part of the Olympics was a multipart relay involving sprinting, balloon popping, a three-legged race, recitation of memorized texts, speed eating, and solving riddles, culminating in a sectional pyramid and performance of Row, Row, Row Your Boat.

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I will feign no impartiality in expressing my excitement that, for the first time in Westminster Choir’s history, the alto section won the Olympics! A final full choir game of Stork vs. T-Rex link tag rounded out the afternoon’s organized activities, after which the choir was free to socialize, relax, and play impromptu games before dinner and the final rehearsal.

The final rehearsal gave us a chance to become better acquainted with Bach’s Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild, Leonardo Dreams of his Flying Machine, and Sisask’s haunting Oremus. After this came my favorite part of every retreat: a time of reflection on our time together thus far and a poetry reading by Dr. Miller. Periodic poetry readings, particularly before concerts and at key times throughout the year are at the heart of my Westminster Choir memories. In his sage wisdom, Dr. Miller always seems to know the right words to bring us in times of transition, travel, joy, and sorrow. Saturday evening’s poems included Passengers by Billy Collins, and one of my personal favorites, Wild Geese by Mary Oliver. The nervous energy that inevitably comes at the beginning of a semester subsided as we all took a moment to revel in this time to grow closer to each other, musically and personally. We are only at the beginning of exploring the flavor of this year’s ensemble, but there is something so delightfully fresh and honest about this group of musicians, I cannot wait to learn more.

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An Introduction…and Choral Hearings & Callbacks

An Introduction
Christianna Barnard
To those of you who haven’t read my profile on the WCC website, I thought I would provide a brief introduction so you aren’t taken aback when Shane’s words are supplanted by an unfamiliar tone. I am Christianna Barnard, the 2014-2015 Westminster Choir blogger. I am a senior Sacred Music major, and this year marks my third with Westminster Choir. I am thrilled to be given the opportunity to take you into the inner mechanisms of life as a Westminster Choir member, as choral singing and writing are two of my greatest joys in life.

If you are a choir devotee, you might recognize me for my work at Spoleto as an inept barmaid and crazy-lady-in-hospital-gown #13 in the 2013 production of Le Villi, the person in a green cardigan who had to keep running into the center of huddles in El Niño because the color was distracting, or for my work as the distinguished Movie Mastress* on our tour of Texas and Oklahoma.

Le Villi Curtain Call.  I'm the second from the left!

Spoleto Festival USA 2013 curtain call for “Le Villi.” I’m the second from the left!

Getting made up for El Niño

Getting made up back stage at the 2014 Spoleto Festival USA production of John Adams’ El Niño

Getting ready to go onstage for El Niño

Ready to go on stage for El Niño


Choral Hearings & Callbacks
In addition to introducing myself, it seemed fitting to explain the process of how each year’s Westminster Choir is chosen. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Westminster tradition known as choral hearings, I will provide you with a seasoned-warrior’s perspective. Every student who sings in an academic choir partakes in a five minute long hearing before the school year begins. The highly caffeinated choral conducting faculty has the pleasure of braving up to 12-hour long stretches of these auditions, each of which consists of three parts: a song of the student’s choice, the sight-reading of a brief excerpt of music, and a test of tonal memory, in which the student repeats several sequences of notes played by the accompanist.

The results of choral hearings determine students’ eligibility for callbacks to the many auditioned ensembles at Westminster. Given the importance of ensembles in the lives of Westminster students, it would be feasible for the choral hearing and callback season to devolve into competition-fueled madness. However, the opposite is true. An air of mutual support and camaraderie is evident throughout campus during this hectic time. At our unique and wonderful institution, we are taught to invest equal care in our relationships with one another as we do our choral sound.

Callbacks for Westminster Choir always occur shortly after Fall Convocation. This year’s Convocation was a historic one, as it marked the first use of Hillman Hall in the Marion Buckelew Cullen Center—an incredible state-of-the-art performance and rehearsal space that has been decades in coming. The new hall is indeed beautiful, and it is made even more so when filled with the glorious sounds of the entire student body joined together in song.

The callback itself took place in The Playhouse, Westminster Choir’s traditional home. For me, callbacks are deceptively enjoyable. First, we are presented with a Renaissance anthem. After this, we are voiced within the choir, and then Dr. Miller splits us into quartets. These smaller groups rehearse for a brief period of time, and then return for the quartet test, during which each quartet performs a portion of the song for Dr. Miller and the other auditionees. Having been tested early on in the process, I was free to simply revel in the beauty of the music. An outside observer would never be able to tell that this piece had been given to the singers only about half an hour earlier. The level of musicianship, attention to detail, and quality of performance was astounding. I certainly did not envy the difficult decisions Dr. Miller would have to make to determine the makeup of this year’s choir.

And then, the waiting game. A few hours later, the list is posted on the top floor of Williamson Hall and is met with rejoicing by some, and disappointment by others. After some much deserved sleep, the new choir comes together for the first time as Westminster Choir on the first day of classes.

During our first rehearsal, we introduce ourselves and always include an interesting fact about ourselves. This year’s choir includes several members from as far away as Japan and Hong Kong, two former nationally ranked athletes, and an internationally ranked video game player (I, sadly, am none of the above). After this follows the long-anticipated revelation of this year’s calendar and tour program. The theme of this year’s tour program is “The Invention of Love,” and it features music about invention, astronomy, and all forms of love from passionate to the divine. As we explore this music and more as a choir, I will be bringing you my thoughts on this experience. It’s a joy to be heading into this year’s adventure, and I am honored to be able to share it with you.

*Mastress is antiquated term that functions as the female equivalent of master. Basically, it just means that I got to count votes when we were selecting a film for movie time on the tour bus.

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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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