Spoleto Festival USA Day 8

After a gorgeous and relaxing Sunday, we started our Monday with a Westminster Choir rehearsal at 11a.m. Finally we got to sing tonal music! (Sorry, Lachenmann, but we miss singing.)

We started working on the Gala concert music, one piece being a beautiful commissioned work by John Kennedy. Dr. Miller explained to us that John Kennedy has hardly written choral music, yet the piece he wrote, titled Blessing the Boats, is one of the most peaceful and ethereal works we’ve had the privilege of singing. After a short lunch break, we had an afternoon Lachenmann orchestral rehearsal, followed by a night rehearsal in Memminger Auditorium. We began integrating the shadow puppet show with the orchestra part, while Helmut Lachenmann was there to help with musical notes. Because the set is still being adjusted, some of the stage hands have precautionary helmets. Hilariously enough, they gave Helmut a helmet. The pictures and memes that ensued are priceless.


Helmut wearing a Helmet.  Photo by Kanisha Feliciano

By the end of the two rehearsals, we were pretty pooped. We’ve had enough subdividing for one day. Time to hit the hay.

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Spoleto Festival USA Day 7

It’s a Sunday and we have the day off! Woo! A ton of us are going to hit the local beaches and get some sun. To keep y’all entertained, I’m just gonna post a few amusing/inspiring/ridiculous quotes (mostly from Dr. Miller) that I’ve written down in my music from previous rehearsals. Enjoy!

“You’re unusual. Thank you.”
—-Jerry McCoy, after being a guest conductor for us last semester

“I want you to sound like you’re 10 days drunk and you’ve been smoking for 55 years.”
—-Dr. Miller, about Debussy’s Trois Chansons, 1/10/16

“I want to see some sparkle in your dead eyes.”
—-Joseph Flummerfelt, written in the copy of Debussy’s Trois Chansons that I borrowed from the library (the choir sang it 10 years ago under his direction)

“Don’t ever stop being silly.”
—-Dr. Miller

“The goal is not to match each other, but to resonate together.”
—-Dr. Miller

“It has to be perfect. So be perfect.”
—- Dr. Miller

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Spoleto Festival USA Day 6

Our first “rehearsal” was at 2pm today, thankfully. With the morning off, we always go out exploring. Charleston is a very diverting city. The plethora of coffee shops, bakeries, Southern comfort food restaurants, and tons of eccentric little shops decorating the ever-crowded King Street keep us occupied for our free time. As Spoleto musicians, we straddle this odd gap between tourists and residents – quickly learning how to get around, but constantly gawking at the never-ending attractions Charleston has to offer.

During our afternoon rehearsal, they started doing mic checks. As they were turning the mic up, the feedback started ringing through out the space. From the opposite side of the choir, I started hearing a commotion of moving chairs, stands, and people before someone from the choir called for Dr. Miller. Pauli, a member of our choir, had fainted. In order to be carried out, the mics had to be turned off and that section of the orchestra had to clear out. After he’d been hauled out and whisked away to the hospital, we continued rehearsal. The show must go on, as they say.

Regardless, we were all worried about Pauli. During our dinner break, we found out he had received a minor concussion, but was returning for the evening rehearsal. It was a simple, yet firm reminder that although we seem to be in a harmless profession, we always need to make sure our bodies can handle the events of the day. Our instrument is our body, and thus we must be physically prepared for every rehearsal and performance venue.


Choir 3 women taken by Fiona Ellis


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Spoleto Festival USA Day 5

Thankfully, the morning rehearsal was cut down to just an hour. It was just Westminster Choir and D. Millz (aka Dr. Miller) in the Cathedral of St. Luke and St. Paul. Probably the most revealing thing yet: Dr. Miller telling us that he got lost just as many times as we did the previous night and was extremely proud of us for how we fared. We went through a few pages in the score, warmed up, then finished 15 minutes ahead of schedule.

After lunch was our first rehearsal in Memminger Auditorium, the actual production performance space. It’s extremely difficult for me to do justice to the set-up of this production. Apparently, a construction crew was hired to make platforms for the full orchestra that are about 2 stories tall and hold the entirety of us (180+ people). The shadow puppet show is the focal point of the production, so there are two side wings where the chorus and certain parts of the orchestra sit, while the majority of the orchestra sits at the front of the space. That platform has a wall on which the puppet show is projected from underneath the main part of the orchestra. We all have stand lights to see our scores since the performance is done in the dark, which means we have intricate wiring throughout the whole orchestra and choir. Not only that, but each of us choristers has a wooden table to store all of our extraneous instruments. They also have small digital screens distributed in the wings, which show John Kennedy conducting in real-time with measure numbers in the corner of the screen so that we can stay together. The whole set-up is impressively elaborate.


Selfie taken by Grant Farmer

We had an afternoon rehearsal and a night rehearsal, both equally difficult. Since there are few screens and none of the choristers can really see John Kennedy, it was hard keeping up with him. In between rehearsals, we went outside to get some fresh air, but it’s been so humid lately that it feels like we’re breathing in water.

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Spoleto Festival USA Day 4

We had the morning off! It was glorious. Since we didn’t have a morning rehearsal, a lot of us spent the night exploring and having fun. A group of us choristers went to the Kickin’ Chicken for trivia night. They conveniently serve you delectable, fried foods while you attempt to answer trivia whilst competing against neighboring tables. It’s a game of who-can-remember-things-without-using-Google. It’s pretty legendary.

(Speaking of Google, Dave proved that he rightfully won the Passion Flower contest with a selfie.)

Our first rehearsal of the day was at the St. Johannes Lutheran Church with Lachenmann. Hilariously enough, before Lachenmann arrived, one of the members of the parish heard us practicing. She came out of the office chuckling because out of context, it sounded like we were passing gas. Helmut Lachenmann came halfway through our rehearsal to help us understand a few more of our score markings (most of the notation he invented himself).

We had a dinner break and then were scheduled to meet in the Gaillard Ballroom for a night rehearsal with the full orchestra. Let me reiterate the breadth of this performance. The orchestra is 140 instrumentalists strong including instruments like electric guitar and sound engineers who distort sound bites. Westminster Choir is 40 vocalists; there are 2 soprano soloists, a German text speaker, and John Kennedy as conductor. This was the first rehearsal of us putting it all together. There were puppeteers from all over the world sitting in the rehearsal, who’ll be telling the story using shadow puppets as we perform. Apparently they’ve been planning the puppet show using a recording of a previous production of the opera, so hearing it in real time must have been really new.

Honestly, this whole thing seemed to be very new for all of us. Having never heard the orchestral part before we were stunned by the inventive score writing Lachenmann had done for the instrumentalists. They had never heard us “sing” our part either so they were giving us as many confused looks as we were giving them. John Kennedy was conducting the heck out of everything, cueing everywhere that he could, subdividing everything with precision, and only stopping when necessary. Despite his superb conducting and all of our prior preparation, we got lost a million times. The score is just so insanely intricate that it was impossible to stay with it the whole time. It was both exhilarating and anxiety-inducing.

By the end of the three-hour rehearsal, the whole choir looked in dire need of rest. We trudged back to the dorm and conked out for the night.

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Spoleto Festival USA Day 3

Update: David Conley, our choir’s grad assistant, won the Find the Passion Flower contest. There is speculation as to whether he just Googled a picture since he didn’t take a selfie with it.

Another day of rehearsing in gorgeous (and rainy) Charleston. We had a morning rehearsal with just us and Dr. Miller before rehearsing with John Kennedy in the afternoon at the Gaillard Center. Hearing John Kennedy talk about the orchestral parts to the score has piqued our curiosity even more, not to mention trying to figure out all of the cues we see him conducting.

In the last half of the rehearsal, we finally got to mess with the percussion! So the choral scores have several fun percussion parts. There are slapstick solos, a temple gong part (a bowl that vibrates on a certain pitch), a pan flute part (a little woodwind instrument with several pitched pipes), a rolled/glissando mallet part, and a Styrofoam part (still confused about this as they don’t have it yet). Getting to finagle the different instruments was fun and trying to figure out how to properly execute each part was interesting (to say the least). It truly is a unique score.

Thankfully, we have a lot more rehearsals to get the hang of our new musical toys.

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Spoleto Festival USA Day 2

Today is the day we got to meet the enigmatic composer, Helmut Lachenmann, himself. We met up for our morning rehearsal at the brand new Gaillard Center to run through the piece with him. None of the choir really knew what to expect, although we’d made a million conjectures as to what he’d be like. Upon walking in, this tall, charismatic German man with a scraggly salt-and-pepper beard greeted us with ceremonious waves and multiple handshakes. His charm and bright demeanor won the choir over almost immediately.


Photo by Alicia Brozovich

Running through the opera with Lachenmann at the rehearsal was extremely helpful and slightly intimidating. He had just as many notes for us as we had questions for him. John Kennedy (no, not the late president), our director for the performance, also helped us secure parts we were unsure about.

Amusingly enough, John Kennedy and Dr. Miller showed up in matching outfits. Coincidence? We think not.


Photo by Jacob Truby

In the afternoon we met back up with Dr. Miller at the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul to solidify the parts of the opera we were still having difficulty with. The piece itself is an amalgamation of voiced, unvoiced, and a few sung German consonants. When all the parts of the choir lock in, we are collectively speaking the German text of the Hans Christian Anderson tale. However, the opera changes meter so often and the rhythms have to be so exact, that it takes a while to get the text to speak. But with a lot of hard work on our part and help from Dr. Miller, it’s really beginning to shine. The Lachenmann opera has gone from something we didn’t understand upon first encountering it, to something we can perform accurately and with pride.

That being said, we got out of the rehearsal feeling a little brain-fried and ready to enjoy some of beautiful Charleston. A few of us had planned to go for a run after rehearsal to shave off the deliciously filling Charleston food, but it was raining when we got out of rehearsal. Fortunately, that didn’t stop Fiona, Jacob T., and me from going for a jog in the refreshing rain. #SpoletoBod

After a full day of rehearsals and rain, we retired in the dorm.

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Spoleto Festival USA Day 1

Our first rehearsal was at a reasonable 9:00 a.m. in the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul. Even though we had several rehearsals (and a very emotional alumni concert) the week before leaving for Charleston, it was interesting getting back into the groove of rehearsal. The first thing on our agenda? The Little Match Girl opera by Helmut Lachenmann.

To those of y’all unfamiliar with the Little Match Girl story by Hans Christian Anderson, it’s a tale about a poor beggar girl who goes to sell matches in the freezing cold on New Year’s Eve. Unable to sell any matches and afraid of going home to her abusive father empty-handed, she freezes to death in the cold. It is a chillingly raw tale that Westminster Choir also performed a setting of at last year’s Spoleto Festival, composed by David Lang. However, Helmut Lachenmann’s opera tells the tale in a unique, unconventional way. With an orchestra of 140 instrumentalists, 2 amazingly talented soprano soloists, a German speaker, and our own choir of 40, Lachenmann illustrates the story of the Little Match Girl. The piece is in 24 movements and changes time signature almost every bar. The choir part is mostly vocalized German text that tells the story with very few sung notes. It is nothing like we’ve ever done or heard before, to say the least.

With a double rehearsal slightly wearing us down, the choir needed to wind down for the evening, some of us gathering to watch the season finale of RuPaul’s Drag Race and others hitting local dinner places before crashing for the night.

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Traveling to Charleston

Note:  This is the first in a series of entries about the Westminster Choir’s 2016 residency at the 2016 Spoleto Festival USA.

Life lesson for all choir directors: do all in your power to never have a call time before the local coffee shops in town are open. Our bus call for the flight to Charleston was 6:30 a.m., and the energy level of the choir was at a minimum. Yet, under-caffeinated and perpetually yawning as we were, we shoved our luggage under the bus and drove to Newark airport. The security line was backlogged, mostly because the entirety of Westminster Choir was still trying to wake up while going through TSA. The plane was insanely tiny – so small that Dr. Miller couldn’t stand up straight while walking to find his seat. Like any early flight, all who could, slept. When we landed, we did the usual scramble to grab luggage and then crammed into a couple of vans to drive to our dorm.

So a lot of people ask, “Do y’all get to stay in a hotel while performing at Spoleto?” No such luck. That being said, the College of Charleston lets us room in their dorms, which is pretty fun. We all have at least one roommate, and we normally share a bathroom with three other people. After checking in, we had the whole day to explore and acquaint ourselves with the streets of beautiful Charleston.

At 9:00 p.m., we met in the dorm lobby to talk to Dr. Miller about rehearsals and the upcoming weeks. He did his usual spiel as Encyclopedia of the choir and told us about the best restaurants, hang out spots, along with notable flora and fauna in the area. (He even made a contest to see who could find a passion flower growing in Charleston. The winner, he said, would get to enjoy a cold drink with him on his patio.) Then off to sleep we went!


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Day 3 – First Concert

There is nothing quite like a “first.” Your first steps, your first day of high school, the first time you live away from home, when you first… well, you get the point.

Joking aside, the first concert of tour was the most exhilarating experience. It’s when the tedious hours of rehearsing, the tiring staging process, and the hours and hours of travel finally mean something. It all falls into place. Especially after staying in the homes of some of the people in the community, you feel connected to the performance space and the audience. On top of that, we’ve been building ourselves up to this moment.

I can’t fully describe the connection we feel as a choir to people who haven’t sung in an ensemble. I can try, bu45 hearts together and having all of our collective emotions flow together into a sound. When Dr. Miller molds our voices, he is sculpting the raw human connection that’s there. Then, with an audience we had already bonded with and with all the hype that we had pent up, the concert was like a dam spilling over. Yes, we made mistakes and yes it was only just the beginning, but it was the most beautiful beginning we could have had.

To the audience at St. Ignatius: thank you for being so receptive, so willing to join us in singing and be a part of such an amazing, unique experience. We’re about to hop on the bus and head out to Connecticut (then NYC the following morning) but y’all will be with us in every concert we sing.


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