Brahms and “Daughter”

I write to you again while in transit. Currently, I am sitting in a nearly vacant train back to Princeton where normal life will resume again. Today marks the end of Westminster’s spring break, but I’m trying not to think too much about that fact, lest I break out in some manner of stress-induced boils or pox. As always, the past few weeks have been a gale-force storm of intense music-making as the Symphonic Choir performed Ein deutsches Requiem with Maestro Daniele Gatti and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (not to mention the resplendent soloists, Diana Damrau and Christian Gerhaher) at Carnegie Hall on March 1st, and Westminster Choir performed our Spoleto Preview performance entitled “Daughter” last Friday night.

Performing the Brahms’ Requiem with the Vienna Philharmonic was a series of pinch-me-I-must-be-dreaming moments strung together for an entire weekend. Yet again, I had special Alto 1 privileges as I was seated so close to the orchestra during the first rehearsal, I inadvertently restyled the bass trombonist’s hair with my choir folder every time I moved (my apologies for that. However, I must say that you rocked that tousled, Alfalfa-inspired cowlick look better than most would have in your place.) I couldn’t decide if I wanted to take notes the entire time to glean as much information from the rehearsal and performance process as I could, or merely bask in this incomparable experience. From observing the discrete differences between how American and European orchestras function to the rising to the challenge of delivering copious amounts of German text in front of native German speakers, I think the entire choir grew tremendously from performing this work.

Back in Hillman Performance Hall, Westminster Choir has been preparing our semi-staged choral production for Spoleto, titled “Daughter.” This program featured two works written on the subject of a young girl who loses her life to senseless violence: Carissimi’s oratorio Jephte and David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion. Although these works are separated by hundreds of years, they form a poignant counterpoint when paired together.

Both works presented all sorts of musical ground for us to explore. From the dramatic text painting of Jephte to the intricate simplicity of Match Girl, we were stretched in all sorts of directions in our preparation for the concert. There’s a part of me that never stops feeling like a five year old playing a pretend game whenever I perform a staged work, a particular fancy I was able to dabble in at length due to our staging of Jephte. (Granted, the tale of a father inadvertently offering up the life of his daughter as a burnt offering was a touch more morbid than my usual childhood games.) For the chorus members, backstories immediately sprouted lives of their own (I managed to obtain a husband, a daughter, and a sister in all of two seconds, along with a tortured past and a contentious interfamilial dynamic) whilst other members took on the actual roles within the work itself. Particularly inspiring to witness was sophomore Temple Hammen’s performance of the role of Filia as she stepped in for another member of the choir who was ill at the last minute. I’m not sure how I managed to sneak into a choir with such ridiculously talented and skilled members, but watching her and others perform their roles reminded me once again how blessed I am to be surrounded by this level of excellence every day.

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However delightful the musical challenges of these works were to face, to be entirely honest, the emotional content of the concert was overwhelming for me and many others. Simply singing the works is impossible—they cut into you too deeply to do so. As difficult as this has been, it has had a discernable effect on the environment in the rehearsal room. While a good number of us have no trouble openly crying in rehearsals/concerts/ during bathroom breaks (we’re emotional people), many of the usual barriers were broken down by singing this concert.

In light of the devastating nature of the program, one choir member took the time to turn a Westminster Choir tradition on its head as a way of reflecting on The Little Match Girl Passion. This tradition, reading poetry at key times, was infused with new meaning as this member wrote of poem of her own based on the text of The Little Match Girl Passion. She has graciously given me the permission to share the poem with readers here, a kindness for which I am deeply grateful.
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We sing her story in awareness and apology, a disjunct, dissonant elegy.
We are sorry. We should be bound as you were bound – but with the
knowledge of our fate, yet
still too late to save ourselves.
Knowledge, we now know, is not always power. If in the last hour of
your truncated life, had you known, could you have begged your tired
heart to keep going?
Would you?
Carry your chattering, meek skeleton back to the shack of your
attacker, to be beaten of the blood of which you share?
So we will relive your few yesterdays to prevent someone’s tragic
tomorrows.
You, Little Match Girl
Are big in our hearts.
Hear our notes, trickling down. May they fall like rain down upon your
poor face. To thaw your frozen heart, feel the warmth of tears not your own.
To feel warmth at all.
And we attempt to muffle our lament by hoping you are our angel, glowing
in your grandma’s embrace, facing the cold with your light, eating your
roast good by your large iron stove.
But others haven’t found the peace we wish you have. So we will
sing their story, too, within your words, observing a history that
cannot be repeated in action but only in tongues.
A tragedy, in telling, can be undone for others.
And we sing for your silent strife, your innocent life taken too soon, the
purity of your martyrdom. We will be a match that lights a candle
in memorial, to spark light where it’s dark, to melt each cold heart.
I will stay with you, Little Match Girl, when you are most scared.
When it is time for you to die
I will be your chilling lullaby.
Rest soft.
Because you closed your eyes, mine are wide open.
This is my penance.
This is my remorse.
Rest soft.

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February, or the month when a heavenly host of choral greatness descended upon Westminster

Note: This entry was delayed due to to technical difficulties.    Better late than never!
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I can’t believe it has been an entire month since I last brought you a report of WC adventures. In the past month, we’ve been graced with the presences of choral dignitaries from around the world, a new semester has begun, and we’ve nearly learned an entire program.  In light of this massive amount of ground to cover, I’ve decided to bring you the first installment of this semester’s adventures backwards. As an aged senior (weep), I’m aiming to manipulate time as best I can (also I’m prone to forgetting things.)

Yesterday, Dr. Miller was away conducting the Maryland all-state choir, so fittingly, things got rather spirited back in Hillman. In order to prepare for our impending Spoleto preview performance, we had “The Jephte Olympics,” a memorization-fest hosted by GA Max Nolin. Wild and evocative madrigalisms ensued, alongside some tasteless interpretative dance, festive throwing of candy, and a bit of learning. While team Israel did indeed defeat team Ammon (reflecting the tragic reality of the tale), unnamed parties who are definitely not Tom and Olivia, mysteriously replaced the scores with infinity signs, reflecting our immeasurable growth through this arduous experience.

On Wednesday, we had the pleasure of being visited by Chris Watson, the tenor from the renowned Theatre of Voices. As Theatre of Voices premiered David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion, the other half of our March concert, he graciously helped to guide us through the work’s minimalist intricacies. A brief Q and A afterwards allowed us to learn more about the ensemble’s partnership with David Lang, Watson’s own professional journey, and the intangible aspects of the work.

Two weeks ago, it was Ryan Dalton-fest at Westminster. Ryan, one of our esteemed Performance Management staff members, attended St. Olaf College and received earlier choral training at the American Boychoir School. Incidentally, both the St. Olaf Choir and the concert choir from the American Boychoir came to visit the school in the second week of the semester.

The visit from the St. Olaf Choir felt like a historic event to the members of the Symphonic Choir. There are innumerable connections between Westminster and St. Olaf, stemming from Westminster’s earliest history. To listen to and sing with such an impressive ensemble of our musical and choir-loving peers was an indescribable event.   Note:  view a brief video clip of both ensembles singing “Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen” from Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem on Facebook.

Westminster Symphonic Choir and the St. Olaf Choir

Westminster Symphonic Choir and the St. Olaf Choir

One of the most meaningful aspects of the visit for me, however, was discovering a personal connection to the St. Olaf Choir through their tour repertoire. On my first WC tour in 2013, the choir performed several works by alumnus Daniel Elder. This tour brought us to Wazyata, MN, where a multitude of St. Olaf Choir members attended our concert. Lo and behold, on their tour program for this season, they brought us their interpretation of “Lullaby,” one of Elder’s works that we performed on our 2013 tour. When they sang the song at their concert that evening, I shamelessly sobbed through the whole piece. I am so deeply grateful that “Lullaby,” a song that is greatly important to myself and many other Westminsterites, could be shared by an ensemble that connects to it on the same level.

And so I bring you back to the beginning of the semester, our visit from the American Boychoir. Rather than simply recounting the whole experience, I will bring you a vignette. So that we might better learn about their musical process, the choir did one of their usual sight-reading games for us. After randomly selecting a four-part hymn by number, the boychoir was given a chance to suggest challenging ways to sight-read it. One of the boys, who was either in eighth grade or younger (as that is the age range of the concert choir), suggested that they sing the hymn in Locrian mode.

Locrian. Mode.

Suffice it to say, the future of choral music is strong with these younglings.

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Until next post (which may or may not include some Brahms), I hope you enjoy your four-part sight-reading adventures in the modes of your choosing.

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Pasadena to Princeton

I write my final tour post not from the bus, but rather, Princeton University’s Firestone Library, where I am “studying” with the aforementioned Emily (she’s studying, I’m people-watching). Now that I’ve been back in New Jersey for approximately forty-eight hours (of which an embarrassing twenty-three hours have been spent sleeping), I finally have the intellectual capacity and requisite consciousness to fill you in on the final details of tour.

Our Pasadena concert provided us with another chance to reconnect with old friends as a surprising number of alumni made an appearance at the performance. As Dr. Miller often reminds us, there are no former members of Westminster Choir, merely ones who have graduated. This saying proved abundantly true as we sang to former members, including a very recent graduate, Justin Su’esu’e. Justin and I spent two years in the choir together, and I place almost exclusive blame on him for my inability to make it through the performance without bursting into tears. I’ve tried to look for the right way to describe the depth of relationships within the choir, but I’ll never be able to find the words. Somewhere in the singing, rehearing and performing, the interactions made in passing, the weeks spent touring and at Spoleto, the silly outings and three a.m. conversations, we become an irrevocable part of one another. With graduation now coming up on the nearer horizon, this connection to my choir family is a deep source of joy and comfort.

Following the concert, the performance management team and Dr. Miller left the choir unattended as they attended an alumni reception. As such, it should come as little surprise that the bus ride to the hotel was a wee bit more raucous than usual. Once we arrived, we were given time to prepare for the final event of tour: the closing banquet.

The closing banquet is usually a misnomer, as it generally consists of a presentation of the Paper Plate Awards and a toast. But this year, we had a decadent, multi-course meal added to the normal set of events. The Paper Plate Awards were presented by me (I’m not sure what Dr. Miller was thinking when he gave me so much power) but the categories were voted on by members of the choir. There are some annual favorites, such as “Rookies of the Year” and “Most Likely to Make You Laugh,” but I added in a few categories of my own (mwahahaha) including “Most Likely to Be Canonized (as a Saint)”, “Radiant Beam of Sunshine Sent from Heaven,” and “Most Likely to Defeat Everyone in a Cage Match.” Discretionary awards were given to our two accompanists, our ever-patient bus driver, John, and the performance management team. In a shocking turn of events, Dr. Miller won one of the most coveted awards, “Most Likely to Defeat Everyone at Trivia Crack” thanks to his savant-like knowledge of all things Californian.

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The toast, however, is my favorite part of the evening. After spending two weeks together (with minimal sleep), logically, we should all be a bit sick of each other. Rather, the opposite is true. The end-of-tour and Spoleto toasts are times set apart, chances to reflect back on what and who we are thankful for and how we’ve grown individually and as a choir. Tears are shed, lengthy hugs are exchanged, and we all leave a little more aware of the gift of being together for this moment in time.

The next morning, we departed the hotel at 6 a.m. The bus was so quiet it was almost terrifying. Thankfully, we had one of those exciting airplanes with individual touch screen T.V.s on the way back to New Jersey, so we only had to exert minimal effort to entertain ourselves over the course of the five and half hour long flight. Now in Princeton, we have a bit of a break before our semester begins on Monday, along with our Homecoming concert at Richardson Auditorium on the same day. Until then, I wish you similarly joyous toasts, some actual toast (I just went grocery shopping so I’m quite excited by the prospect of bread), and thoughtfully-crafted recognition on disposable eating devices.

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Santa Monica and San Diego

In the words of the choral conducting graduate, scholar, former history major, Westminster Choir member, and my dear friend, the Princeton-educated Emily Sung, “I love the ocean! I love the ocean! I love the ocean! The ocean is so big big big big BIG BIG BIG! I love the ocean YAY hooray wheeeeeee!” Her wise words accurately summarize the last few days we have spent in Santa Monica and San Diego.

After arriving in Santa Monica and Monday, we were given free rein to explore our environs. And by environs, I mostly mean food. Have I mentioned that I’m a vegetarian, and that I’m never leaving California? Because being in Santa Monica was the final selling point in that decision. I joined a large portion of the choir for an almost unbearably wonderful dinner at True Food Kitchen, followed by a trip to the pier. I don’t think that there’s anything more magical than traipsing about an illuminated wonderland of sea, Ferris wheels, street musicians, and sea lions under a clear sky. Although I only intended to dip my feet in the water, it turned out that Poseidon had other plans, as by the time I turned in for the night I was drenched up to my waist.

The next morning we went on a group trip to the Getty Museum. Even though we were only there for a couple hours, I hardly know where to begin in describing it. My inner history nerd was satiated by an exhibit on WWI propaganda and artwork, but the true highlight came at the end as several choir members and staff persons (including Dr. Miller) took on the task of recreating one of the outdoor statues and were duly caught on camera. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

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The end of the day was filled with further beach shenanigans, a poetry reading, and a late night bonding by the ocean with one of the youngest members of the choir, Tsarina.

On Wednesday, we performed in the auditorium of Santa Monica High School. This concert was particularly special for the choir as the director of the school’s choral program, Jeffe Huls, is a former student of Dr. Miller, and a former Westminster Choir member, Shari Perman, was Mr. Hul’s student during her time in high school. As I was in the choir with Shari for one year, it was moving to get to perform for her and her home community.

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The next morning was the end of workshop marathon as we worked with the choirs at Santa Monica High School and Mira Costa high school. In a change from our normal workshop format, we got to watch Dr. Miller work with these choirs as a clinician. This gave us a chance to step back and see how he achieves certain results with groups of a different age, which enlightened aspects of our own rehearsal process.

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At Mira Costa, we also had a chance to socialize with the students and learn about their passion for choral music, glitter, and anarcho-feminism, amongst other things.

Before we could depart for San Diego, however, a choir member (who will remain unnamed to protect his anonymity) realized he had left his tuxedo at the home of his host for the previous night. What should have been a tedious hour of sitting about the bus turned into one of my favorite moments of tour as we played various games and soaked up the glorious Southern California sunlight.

And then, San Diego! This stop was especially important to me as my paternal grandparents and much of my family lives near San Diego. While most of the choir went to various sectional dinners, I had a chance to reconnect with my family. After that, I went out on the town with the choir as we graced various (somewhat empty) pubs with our boisterous presence.

The next day we performed in the gorgeous St. Paul’s Cathedral, which is the reigning champion of concert locales for this year. The lush acoustic was filled by an enthusiastic audience, lending the choir the energy to perform with vigor. However, the best part for me was being able to share my music and choir family with a large part of my extended family for the first time. It was an experience I know I will treasure for a long time.
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Now, I write to you from the dressing room at the First United Methodist Church of Pasadena, the last stop on this tour. Though my brain is addled by the scent of hairspray and the obligatory copious amounts of deodorant, I’m dizzied even more by the excitement of performing the concert for one last time (before we tuck it away for a few weeks) and the prospect of tonight’s tour banquet. This tour has been quite a trip, and I’m truly blessed to be able to tell you all about it.

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Aptos, Fresno and Clovis

Once again, I write to you from the road. According to the ever-trusty Google Maps and slightly invasive GPS technology, we are currently passing through the bustling metropolis of Visalia en route to Santa Monica.

Our time in the Central Valley has been demanding yet refreshing. After arriving in Aptos, we had a chance to explore the grounds of Cabrillo College where we performed that evening. As a chronic East Coast/Midwesterner, I can’t describe how idyllic it is to lounge about in summer clothing during January. I was in paradise. Choir members read, napped, played Frisbee, enjoyed the nearby artwork, and took a much-needed chance to rejuvenate before our second in a series of three concerts in less than 72 hours.

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Following that night’s concert, we embarked upon our first homestay. For me, homestays are one of the most exciting parts of tour. They provide us with a chance engage with our audiences on an individual level. My first host, Gayle, provided my three tour roommates and me with a delicious dinner (including thoughtfully selected vegetarian soup), over which we got to learn about her experiences performing in local choirs and her work as an educator in schools in California and the former Soviet Union. It is always a bonus to stay with a host who has a deep love of music, and as such, the conversation flowed freely as we each reflected on the different roles music has played in our lives.

The next morning, we departed early, heading off to Fresno, the homeland of current choir member Sarah Michal. Sarah’s family has been deeply involved in this tour, attending all of our concerts up to this point and arranging innumerable logistical details of our stay in Fresno.

Our performance in Fresno was in the recently renovated performance hall at Fresno City College, a beautiful location with ideal acoustics. The audience in Fresno was so vivacious, there was a contagious energy in the room. Between certain selections, we could hear their eager comments while standing on the stage. As all of us were beginning to fade a bit at this point in the tour (due to our rigorous schedule and a touch of remaining jet lag), their enthusiasm certainly made a positive impact on our performance.

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My host family last night, the Von Sauns, hosted my roommate Lauren and me in their stunning historic home in Fresno. In addition to graciously providing us with a delicious dinner, their children serenaded us on the piano and the organ as well as playing board games with us after dinner. I felt like I’d walked into a tastefully modernized Jane Austen novel. During the school year, I often find that the things I miss most are being around people of multiple ages (especially children) and seeing animals. As they also had a magnificent Begnal cat who could leap over six feet into the air and took to wrapping himself around my leg and swatting my skirt, both of these voids were filled a bit during our overnight visit.

But there is no rest for the wicked, the good, or anything in between whilst on tour. This morning, we were off again for a series of three workshops in the Fresno area. The first, which was at Buchanan High School, featured a surprising twist: at the end of the workshop, their choral director passed out a piece for Westminster Choir to sight-read and sing with the high school’s concert choir. As the text of the piece was composed of the appropriate solfege syllables (in movable do/ la-based minor), a spirited debate broke out on the bus afterwards regarding solfege methods. Blows were exchanged, lives were lost, but thankfully, with half choir now gone, tour will be significantly less expensive. (Of course, I jest—the factions remain as strong and impassioned as ever, ensuring that we will never want for conversational fodder even after our two weeks on the road together).

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For the second workshop we returned to Fresno City College to work with their choir. I’ve only ever done WC workshops with high schoolers, so to work with a choir with members closer in age to ourselves was exciting. From there, we gathered our lunch (provided by the ever-generous Cater/Michal family—In-and-Out burgers for the omnivores and Chipotle salads for the vegetarians) and went to our final workshop of the day at Clovis North High School.

The choir shared a few stunning works for mixed and women’s choirs that I was unfamiliar with, and to finish out the day, we sang a setting of “Unclouded Day” together. Throughout the tour, I am continually amazed by the level of musicianship and sophistication shown by the choirs we have worked with. It is inspiring to see other musicians in action, whether they are professional educators or students.

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Currently, we are near Bakersfield. The bus is pleasantly quiet, filled with sleepy choristers catching a bit of rest before our free night in Santa Monica. The only stirring creatures are the Trivia Crack addicts (as what was once a diversion has evolved into an all-out competition between different members of the choir). Here I shall leave you, for I am determined to both:

  1. Not fall asleep (as to avoid having my picture taken whilst unconscious and put on the album of Sleeping Beauties on our secret choir Facebook page)
  2. Defeat everyone once and for all in Trivia Crack (which unfortunately entails sports trivia, my Achilles heel).

I promise to bring further installments of our adventures in Santa Monica and beyond!

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San Francisco and Beyond

I can hardly believe that we’re nearing the end of our time in San Francisco. From our brief visit, the choir has collectively decided that we have no intentions of ever leaving this fascinating and beautiful city.

I last left you briefly before our first high school workshop. As a former home -schooler who never set foot in a high school (except to take the SAT and watch friends’ musicals) these workshops always feel like a glimpse into a parallel universe. Although the two high schools we visited were markedly different from one another, I was deeply impressed by both programs. At Campolindo High School, we had the pleasure of joining ranks with their concert choir as we sang Monteverdi’s “Si, ch’io vorrei morire.” I’d like to take a moment to publicly acknowledge their altos, some of whom sang tenor on this piece. The low notes those altos had were awe inspiring.

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The second high school we visited, Ruth Asawa San Francisco School for the Arts, was essentially every choir member’s dream high school. Nearly every wall has a mural, the students sing major works on a regular basis, and they take classes in subjects I didn’t even know existed when I was their age— we were all a tad envious. Getting to meet such skilled, but more importantly, impassioned students at both schools was a bonding experience. Choir geeks know their own, and we felt a sense of camaraderie at both schools because of this.

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That evening we were left to our own devices. What began as an excursion to explore some of San Francisco’s offbeat history with the choir’s resident historian, Emily Sung, evolved into a minor mountain climbing expedition (the hills here are not a joke), including a knee-deep jaunt into the frigid Pacific (well, at least for me— Emily exhibited more restraint), finally culminating in dinner with nearly a third of the choir at a restaurant in Fisherman’s Wharf. There may have been a trip to Ghirardelli in there as well, omitted in hopes that my body forgets about my caloric intake for that day.

The next day we had a luxuriously late call time, giving us ample opportunity to rest and engage in further sightseeing. Later in the day, we journeyed to Mission Dolores Basilica for our first concert. This beautiful space was a pleasure to sing in both acoustically and visually. The stunning artwork was refreshingly different from that of the east coast Anglican churches of my childhood, and there seemed to be a new chapel or churchyard tucked behind every bend. However, as a vegetarian, one of the highlights of the experience was the dinner provided for us by the church. I’ve never had so many scrumptious options during a tour dinner. I was almost giddy.

During the concert itself, we were delighted to see a number of familiar faces, from current students and family members to alumni. The concert was thrilling to perform again— perhaps made even more so by the sudden intrusion of a fire truck siren during the penultimate chord of the Lutkin. During the dozens of times I’ve performed the piece in the past four years, I don’t think I’ve ever held the dominant chord for quite that long.

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Today, we head to Aptos for our next concert and first home stay. Though I am sad to leave San Francisco, I look forward to seeing what this next portion of the tour brings.

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2015 Tour Day One

Greetings from San Francisco! I write to you from our tour bus, which is currently en route to our first high school workshop. Or at least, I’m trying to, but the view is so distracting I keep forgetting to look down.

While this is only our first day of touring, our journey began several days ago. Mostly rested from our two and half weeks of break, we all returned to Princeton for our pre-tour marathon rehearsal on Tuesday. During this time, we not only became reacquainted with the  concert repertoire, we also learned a new closer for the program (Moses Hogan’s incomparable “Elijah Rock”) and a new encore. Though we haven’t sung most of the program for nearly two months now, it was an exciting foretaste of the tour to come, complete with obligatory hijinks and a time to catch up with one another.

Yesterday, we left frigid Princeton for warmer climes. Call it karma, or simply paying my dues, but I landed luggage crew duty along with several others. Thanks to last year’s polar vortex, I was stranded in Chicago and never had to fulfill my duties. But this year, the handful of us slated for day 1 were assisted by a few intrepid volunteers as we loaded and reloaded the tour bus in 19° weather. As unpleasant as that was, it made the unloading in San Francisco seem all the more idyllic after we landed.

After checking in at our hotel (which is perhaps the most decadent place in which I will ever sleep— the lobby looks like a museum and we have a costumed door man) we were free to roam. And by roam, I mean voraciously ingest delicious food. Well-fed and a tad jet lagged, I settled in for a night of excellent sleep.

As I have a mere ten minutes before our first workshop begins, I shall leave you now, but I look forward to bringing you further news from our travels!

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Of Racquet and Tennis and Readings and Carols and Most importantly, Pajamas

Sometimes, a day at Westminster is a bit like the wardrobe in the “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” You pop in for what feels like 30 years (accomplishing the appropriate amount of work), and step out to find that only moments have passed. Other times, it’s a bit more Rip van Winkle-esque (or so I felt when Microsoft Word recently corrected my attempt to write the date as 12/14/11 on a paper. I’m in serious denial about the impeding end of my undergraduate career.) The end of the semester is a pendular play between these two extremes: so much happens in such a swift amount of time, yet the annual traditions give you a pleasant (if at times confounding) sense of déjà vu.

The first of such traditions is (in my humble and certainly unbiased opinion) the most important. The pinnacle of Westminster Choir excellence, our chance to truly convey who we are with our actions and our very existences: Pajama Day. I’ve been a wimp for the past two years, pulling a quick change before rehearsal rather than committing to the full sleepwear experience. But this year, I committed for the entirety of the school day—Frida Kahlo socks, mildly macabre shirt, psychedelic menagerie pajama pants and all. I was matched if not outdone by my peers, with their festive holiday onesies, batman pajamas (including a cape), and appropriately patriotic Canadian sleepwear. Naturally, the highlight of the day was watching Dr. Miller conduct in footie pajamas, despite the flickers of cognitive dissonance.

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After Thanksgiving break, we go into marathon mode to prepare for our annual holiday concert at the Racquet and Tennis Club in New York. This concert is possibly the closest thing we will ever experience to being characters in Mad Men. People wearing uniforms open doors for us. There are so many forks at the dinner table that I can’t remember what food I consumed with the first fork by the time I finish the meal. The paper towels in the bathroom aren’t even made out of paper; they’re made of some sort of impossibly absorbent space-age fabric and are emblazoned with symmetrical squash racquets. And that’s just what happens before we sing. This year’s program gave us a full-French immersion experience as we tackled a set of three (strophic) French carols, a brief encounter with Britten’s Hymn to the Virgin, and a rollicking closer in the form of John Rutter’s setting of Good Ale (if you are an Anglophile but are unfamiliar with the text, it’s certainly worth a Google). The highlight of the evening was for me was actually a non-musical one. Westminster alumna and the Hillman Hall’s namesake, Elsie Hillman, came to the concert and delivered a speech that still gives me a pleasant chuckle in retrospect. Her contributions and the contributions of her family to the school have been unparalleled. It was a delight to be able to share the program with her and so many others who make it possible for our school to exist.

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President Rozanski, Elise & Henry Hillman, Dean Annis

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Graduate assistant Maximillian Nolan also conducted the choir.

But that’s not where the Christmas music stops. Not at a choir college. This year, for the first time in my four years at Westminster, we had a full-school Readings and Carols concert. These annual performances bring together all of the curricular choirs in a grandeur-filled event at Princeton University Chapel. I can’t imagine a better way to end the semester than by singing in this stunning acoustic with hundreds of other choristers, especially as I was conveniently hidden behind the lectern so no one could see my enthused dancing (the organ part on We Three Kings inspired my greatest work in this area.) There’s sadness in realizing that this would be my last time singing this concert, which is so integral to the year at Westminster. But given the performances by the sophomore and freshman choirs, I have no doubts that the future is in competent hands/ larynxes/ insert other body parts necessary for singing here.

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As I finish up the remainder of the work I’ve so artfully evaded this semester, I wanted to take a moment to wish all of the readers of the blog and followers of the choir a tremendous holiday season. May your yule log burn brightly in the appropriate fire-safe location and may you be surrounded by tasteful arrangements of your favorite seasonal musical selections. I can’t wait to return next year to bring you tales from our January tour!

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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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