A Farewell

Last night I celebrated my 22nd birthday. In truly idiosyncratic fashion, I dragged eight friends to a favorite outdoor thoughtful spot of mine where we held a midnight poetry reading. Emily, recurring guest star on the blog, shared one of her favorite poems with us: Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.” As the poem is a reflection on gracefully accepting loss and change, it was a reminder that I desperately needed as I say goodbye to so many things. Daily rehearsals with Dr. Miller and our indefatigable graduate assistants. Two cities, Charleston and Princeton. The third iteration of Westminster Choir that I have belonged to as we go our separate ways. A universe of strange inside jokes, 2 a.m. conversations, ritualistic chamber music attendance, always-sticky practice room piano keys, and that beautiful kind of necessary tension between friends and colleagues who love deeply enough to be painfully honest with each other.

For those who have graduated alongside me, the choir’s performance of St. Matthew Passion at Spoleto was our last appearance as Westminster Choir College students. And what a way to end—singing perhaps the greatest choral-orchestral work ever written in the canon of Western art music. But as impressive as the work is on a technical level, its impeccable construction is only a conduit for its underlying message. As a Sacred Music major, classroom discussions often turn to the concept of “thin places” in classes with Dr. Pilkington. This concept, which originated in Celtic pagan spirituality, is used to describe places in which the boundary between heaven and earth is so thin it is almost imperceptible. I think that there is perhaps another type of place like a thin place, but one in which Luther and Kierkegaard would have found themselves more often. In this space, one is so deeply, empathetically connected to the suffering of humanity that the ego disappears as the individual becomes a seamless part of an infinite whole. As we sang the final chorus of St. Matthew Passion that last night, I found myself in that nameless place. I can remember the looks on the faces of my fellow choir members and Dr. Miller so perfectly, the look of absolute submersion in the present moment. If I could selfishly hold onto performing incredible music with this family forever, I sometimes think that I would. But when I am given moments like these, I know that I would take it all for granted if I were to remain here indefinitely.

But of course, that night was not the last time that we sang with each other. After some much-needed sleep, we had our annual beach party at the Reahards. The Reahard family has a special place in the Westminster Choir’s heart. After winning a private concert from the choir in an auction over thirty years ago, the matriarch of the family decided to thank the choir and Dr. Flummerfelt with a beach party. And thus began one of the annual highlights of Spoleto: a day at the beach, followed by a meal and private concert with the family. I say “with” and not “for” as the family always exchanges music with us. This year, Irene graced us with a choir favorite: her ode to Charleston, which has been passed down by rote to new choir members from Westminster Choir veterans. We surprised everyone by joining her in the chorus, collectively extolling the virtues of Charleston. Then we sang a few choice selections from our tour program, ending in an aptly teary Lutkin. The family’s reception of us is like no other. As we left, they embraced each of us in turn, remembering old faces and committing new names to memory.

And then, the final tour banquet. I’ll be entirely honest: this event was the one I dreaded most when I agreed to be this year’s social chair. Between hounding every choir member for their financial contribution, choosing appropriate thank you gifts for Dr. Miller and student leaders, and purchasing enough champagne at Harris Teeter to earn a year’s worth of raised eyebrows and troubled glances in a mere twenty minutes, attempting to cover every detail of this event kept me more than occupied for the last few days of Spoleto. Additionally, as we had the beach party on the same day as the final banquet, I had only an hour or so to set up before the banquet itself.

But, thank goodness, my attempts to micromanage every detail of the evening were thwarted by the entirety of the choir. When I was fumbling to collect components of Dr. Miller’s final present, Emily took the reins. Rather than letting me walk over to Dr. Miller’s host home carrying all twenty bottles of champagne myself, Olivia drove everything over in her car. As choir members left the dorm for the party, they carried the food and thank you presents. A legion of choral conducting grads took on the task of chilling and serving champagne. In the end, I was left with so little to do that I felt alarmingly relaxed.

Not only did the selflessness of the choir make my job painless, it set a beautiful mood for the evening. Dressed in our finest garb, we feasted on cake and crudité in an expansive private garden. We had a chance to thank our incredible student leaders and Dr. Miller with gifts and speeches (I’ll admit that this was the one portion of the evening that I refused to let anyone else do for me—I’m a shameless facsimile of a sham of a standup comedian). To our student leaders, we presented Charleston-inspired accessories (bow-ties, necklaced designed after distinctive wrought-iron gates, and mother of pearl earrings). And for Dr. Miller, we decided to give a gift that represented our journey from invention to love in our tour program: a box, cleverly disguised as Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook, which contained love letters, trinkets, artwork, and other tokens of appreciation from the choir.

The toast gave us our final opportunity to communally express our parting thoughts to one another. Looking around the circle (rather, I should say oval—we decided to hold the toast on the porch so that we could actually see each other’s faces this year), I was overwhelmed by gratitude. This part of the evening is a chance to strip away the trite conflicts that come from working together in such close quarters and to refocus ourselves on what we have done and what we mean to each other. Naturally, the entire event ends in an extended hugging fest and a chance to make private, personal addresses. As I looked across the yard, midway through a hug, I was humbled by the sight of at least half the choir cleaning up without having been asked. As cleanliness (or the lack thereof) is my hamartia, I can’t express what this meant to me. When I feel the jolt of sadness that comes at the end of all good things, I replay that image in my mind, and I know that I am deeply loved.

And so ends my final chapter in this unparalleled adventure. I keep turning over thoughts in my mind, ones that I have only touched the hem of—like how to share such a magnitude of kindness with the world when I don’t know where I will be in three months, or a year, or five years. Or what it means to give so much of oneself that the vacuum of one’s heart is filled with something unspeakably beautiful. To “souls that have toil’d, and wrought, and thought with me,” I am so grateful for you all. Honored to be one of you, and dreadfully excited to see who you become. To those who have put up with my logorrhea all year on the blog, I thank you for taking the time to listen to my reflections. And to the Westminster Choir family that came before me, and will come after me, I am deeply glad to be a strand in this magnificent tapestry that you have created and will continue to create.

As I have mentioned here, Dr. Miller often reads us poetry before performances in order to center us and remind us of why we do what we do. And so I end this, my last entry, with one of my favorite poems (now that I’ve already snuck in references to two others—“One Art” by Bishop and “Ulysses” by Tennyson. Ha.) I leave you with words that I hold dear, ones that encapsulate what this family means to me.

when two violins are placed in a room
if a chord on one violin is struck
the other violin will sound the note
if this is your definition of hope
this is for you
the ones who know how powerful we are
who know we can sound the music in the people around us
simply by playing our own strings
for the ones who sing life into broken wings
open their chests and offer their breath
as wind on a still day when nothing seems to be moving
spare those intent on proving god is dead
for you when your fingers are red
from clutching your heart
so it will beat faster
for the time you mastered the art of giving yourself for the sake of someone else
for the ones who have felt what it is to crush the lies
and lift truth so high the steeples bow to the sky
this is for you

~From “Say Yes” by Andrea Gibson

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Daughter Performances and Other Highly Educational Activities

A week has passed, and with it, a world of experiences, sights, sounds, and as always, excellent food. Tonight we make our final Spoleto appearance in St. Matthew Passion at the Sottile Theatre, marking my final appearance as a Westminster student alongside the 13 other Westminster Choir members who have recently graduated. I have done my best to savor each moment, and in the process, have failed to commit each to pen and paper (or, I suppose, keyboard and word processor. But that lacks a certain poetic grace). So in this hour or so before our final Bach dress, I bring you my reflections on this week’s happenings.

Our final performance of The Invention of Love was bittersweet. As more than a handful of audience members remarked to me afterwards, they’ve come to expect the deluge of tears that marks the end of this annual performance. I will admit full guilt in this regard as I sobbed my way through our encore (Elder’s Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star) and the Lutkin.

Rehearsal for final  "Invention of Love" performance.

Rehearsal for final “Invention of Love” performance.

My sadness at the passing of this milestone was soothed as I spent time with a handful of recent alumni whose time in the choir overlapped with mine. After the concert, we caught up over adjective drinks at the Gin Joint, where I encountered the “refreshing” and “spicy” white elephant, an excellent complement to my refreshing and spicy company. Then, I relived my sophomore year Spoleto experience by having a midnight poetry reading with alumni Drew Lusher and Josh Wanger. The works of Mary Oliver, Rosario Castellanos, and (thanks to Drew) a well-timed Psalm made an appearance. Conversation ebbed and flowed from the idealistic to the ridiculous as we sacrificed our legs to the mosquitos of Charleston. I couldn’t imagine a more idyllic way to transition from current student to alumna.

Our next endeavor was our two presentations of Daughter for Spoleto audiences. As the choir is (shockingly) composed of singers, chances to collaborate with dancers mesmerize us. Between their coordination, grace, and intricate movement vocabulary, we often are reduced to the fumbling state attributed to what are colloquially referred to as “fangirls.” Our performances of Daughter gave us ample opportunity to revel in the glories of dance as the staging for David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion featured dancers Kaitlyn Gilliland and Max van der Sterre, guided by the choreographic prowess of Pontus Lidberg.

Having now lived with this piece for several months, it was fascinating to see how the addition of dance changed the direction of the work. The choir, clad in greyscale professional wear, took on the roles of ordinary business people as we went about our daily lives. Our comparatively simple movements compounded the visual narrative as we completely ignored Kaitlyn, who portrayed the character of the Little Match Girl. While this staging was effective, it was somewhat upsetting to perform. To embody the act of remaining complacent in the sight of cruelty required inordinate amounts of self-control for my bleeding-INFJ heart. That being said, few things excite me more than the prospect of using music and performance to illuminate larger systemic issues. So I’m really not complaining at all.

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Following Sunday’s performance, we made our annual choir pilgrimage to Pantheon. What could possibly be more amusing than seeing a herd of choristers attempt to grace the dance floor, particularly as our far more skilled dancer counterparts Kaitlyn, Max, and Pontus joined us for the event? But we did our best. In the sage words of alumna Allison Miller, “sometimes you just need to dance it out.” And that we did. We cavorted until the wee hours of the morning, fully aware that a large portion of the next day (our day off) would be spent napping off the energy expenditure of the night before.

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Spoleto Continued

I write to you live (I’m fairly certain that there is no other way to write, but I’ll keep you posted) from the lounge of our luxurious dorm where 42.5% of the Westminster Choir is gathered. As our first event is at 3:45 tomorrow afternoon, we are actively engaged in what are referred to as “leisure activities.” Since the opening of the festival, our days have been packed with rehearsals, one performance of our own (so far), and attempts at getting into every performance we can manage.

On Sunday evening, we had our first concert—a presentation of our tour program for Spoleto audiences at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke and St. Paul. Being a Westminster Choir member at Spoleto has likely ruined me for life, as I have a hard time imagining that any future choral activities in my life will come with such invested (and well-dressed) fans. Entering into the lovely cathedral for the penultimate time felt like a homecoming. Following the concert, I had the chance to chat with Mayor Joe Riley, Dr. Flummerfelt, and Westminster Choir’s South Carolina family, the Reahards. I never get tired of seeing how the choral concert setting can break down the performer-audience divide as human interaction takes the place of the composer (or performer) worship. It is in these moments that I begin to grasp how much can make us more human, and ultimately, have a true impact.

That evening, I returned to the dorm with most of the choir for costumed tabletop diversions while others elected to explore the evening performance options. Speaking of performance options, there are few material possessions in the muggle world more magical than a Spoleto Festival participant badge. For those who carry one, the badge is a free pass to any performance that (so long as it is not sold out.) On Monday, Emily and I decided to commit to attending three performances before our evening rehearsal of St. Matthew Passion, and we were certainly not disappointed.

We began the day with the second chamber music performance, in which I was delighted by composer-in-residence’s Mark Applebaum’s work. He began by sharing an intimate piano improvisation on the subject of loss, in which a melody that he wrote after the death of a friend took on a palimpsestic nature as he reinvented it to reflect on the loss of his sister. Pre-composition, written for live performer and 8-track tape (naturally, in digital form as we have recently left the Paleolithic Era) represented a far more whimsical side of his oeuvre. Each speaker represented a different, dueling internal voice during the composition process (for example, the philosophical voice, the critical voice, and the mind-in-body voice). The work blurred the lines between theater, performance art, and music. I can’t remember the last time I’ve been so delighted (and strangely enough, comforted) by a piece. In an expert touch of programming, the performance ended with another profound and constrasting exploration of the human experience: Schumann’s Dichterliebe.

After a quick stroll in a nearby churchyard, we returned for round 2. We were not disappointed, as we were treated to an impromptu waltz jam session in the lobby, a chance to meet host Geoff Nuttall, a Westminster Choir shoutout in the performance, the world premiere of one of Applebaum’s newest works, and two renditions of opera arias for strings and piano. Here, it behooves me to thank Jeff Foster, usher extraordinaire for the Dock Street Theater. Without fail, he consistently manages to find seats for the Westminster Choir members at every chamber music concert, sometimes in delightfully unconventional locations. During the second concert, many of us were comfortably nestled in a perch to the left of the stage. Sitting on the ground, peering at the performers through the wooden railing makes me feel a bit like a child again, peering through the various banister railings of friends’ houses in elementary school. If only their staircases had overlooked such ebullient, communicative music!

Our final performance of the day was Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare’s Globe. I must confess that, of all of the Shakespeare plays I have read, this one is perhaps my least favorite. Desensitized by years of reinventions, parodies, and English class over-analysis, I really only went because of my desire to see how the company presented the work. And I’m so glad that I did. Clad in 1930s-inspired street performer garb, the troupe rapidly switched between roles, played together as a klezmer band, and layered concurrent scenes on top of one another. This fast-paced, witty production redeemed the formerly unpalatable story for me, as I actually found myself sympathizing with two of my least favorite fictional characters.

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Here I am with Sarah Michel and Emily looking astonished for a Westminster Instgram post at intermission.

That night, we had our first combined rehearsal for St. Matthew Passion with the Taylor Festival Choir. The two choirs fit together almost seamlessly, so we were free to sing the entire choral portion of the work in a relatively short rehearsal. I was particularly excited by the basses of choir one, as they were seated behind me. While I love my newly found alto identity, I have missed sitting in front of the bass section. Due to the seating for this production, however, I am comfortably placed in front of the tenor-bass divide. There’s nothing like being grounded by earth-shaking low notes, and they did not disappoint.
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First Spoleto Festival USA Rehearsals

Our first almost-week at Spoleto has primarily been centered on bringing our performance of Daughter to life via the combined staging prowess of Dr. Miller (for Jephte) and Pontus Lidberg (for The Little Match Girl Passion.) While we performed this program in March, we have added to the program greatly over the past few days. So often, we have such a rapid turn-around rate from rehearsal to performance, we don’t get to sink as deeply into a work as we might wish to before sharing it. This week’s detailed rehearsals (and being removed from the day-to-day busyness of the school environment) have given us a chance to grow deeper roots into both the musical and thematic matter of both pieces. Additionally, we’ve all had a chance to revisit our childhood triumph of learning how to walk as we learn how to walk (again), this time for an audience. Oddly enough, it seems that as soon as we are in a performance setting, we all start instantaneously walking both in an overly performative manner in time to the music. As such, Dr. Miller began yesterday’s rehearsal by making each of us walk across the imaginary stage in our rehearsal room and greet him. You’ll be happy to know that all of us passed this arduous test. Or at least, no one has been removed from the choir under mysterious circumstances. Yet.

The festival began yesterday with the opening ceremony at City Hall. As befits a festival of its ilk, this ceremony is filled with a pomp, biodegradable confetti, a surprise performance, and an always-stunning rendition of the national anthem. The Westminster Choir contingent that attended was particularly delighted by the festival’s recognition of conductor emeritus Joseph Flummerfelt. Our cheering (which artfully demonstrated our superior resonance) enticed him to our gathering place, and we then had a chance to chat with him briefly before our afternoon rehearsal. The Westminster Choir’s legacy is, in ways, deeply intermingled with that of the Spoleto Festival. Our time with Dr. Flummerfelt and the gracious reception we have received from the festival prove this to us each year.

After spending some glorious time savoring the culinary delights of Charleston with friends and family, I attended the opening jazz performance at the Cistern along with several other choristers. Musica Nuda, the ensemble for the evening, wowed us all with their ability to make a string bass, human voice, and microphone resonate with more complexity than we ever could have imagined. The duo’s unexpected programming of songs including “Somewhere over the Rainbow,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “Lascia ch’io Pianga,” and “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” alongside original songs was surprisingly cohesive. Their jocular stage manner and vocal pyrotechnics left us amazed. Following the performance, we had a chance to get our programs signed by the duo. Upon finding out that we were members of the choir, singer Petra Magoni shared with us her philosophy that performance is a collaboration between the audience and the performer. After she then impressed upon us the importance of creating music as a way of bettering the world, we prepared for said mission by eating ramen noodles and sleeping.

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A few of us with Petra Magoni after the Musica Nuda performance.

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Catching Up!

I’m baaaaaaaaaaccccccckkkkkkkkkkkk and more qualified to be writing this than ever!

I write to you now, not from the back of a tour bus or train, but from beautiful Charleston. I have a blissful forty-five minutes of freedom to enjoy before our first Spoleto rehearsal (which is worthy of excitement in its own right.) But for now, I am in a sunlight-dappled courtyard, knee deep in a fountain, listening as church bells around the city mark the passing of another hour. It is glorious to be back in this place that has become (for a few weeks a year) home.

I must apologize for my long absence before catching you up on the events of the end of the semester. Between the flurry of senior recital preparation, honors thesis writing, St. Matthew Passion, Commencement, and other such negligible events, I have been running on caffeine for the last eight weeks and little else. That being said, I have missed writing (for a non-academic audience) terribly.

So what has the choir been up to? Following spring break, a portion of Symphonic Choir delved into our performances with St. Matthew Passion with The Philadelphia Orchestra. The gravity of the work was balanced beautifully with the vibrancy and joy of the rehearsal process. Most of the soloists had performed the work together a few years ago, and the camaraderie (read: tomfoolery) between them was evident. And of course, working with Yannick and The Philadelphia Orchestra always feels a bit like visiting much-beloved extended family. On top of all of that, we got to perform tasteful choreography, brought to us by stage director James Alexander. The score swipes, which aided our transition from character to character, have been embraced as an in-group mannerism amongst the Westminster student body as a whole. The synthesis of these parts is difficult to write about without sounding hyperbolic. However, the experience was everything I could have wished for in a final runout.

Thanks to the leniency of our Spoleto schedule, Westminster Choir was able to perform for Alumni Weekend for the first time in several years this weekend. In true Westminster fashion, the concert occurred after a several hour-long Commencement rehearsal (where two senior pranks occurred—who knew how aptly the final “Auferstehen” from Mahler 2 fit into the “Anthem of Dedication?” And the closing flute solo in Wilberg’s arrangement of “Homeward Bound” has never sounded better than it did when performed by approximately 50 kazoos.) Singing for Alumni a mere 14 hours before becoming an alumna myself (ahhhhhhhhh) was a surprisingly comforting experience. Contrary to the Biblical adage that no prophet is accepted in their hometown, we are never more embraced than when singing for our own.

And then, the Class of 2015 commenced. While the day was a blur of picture-taking, singing, and choir folder/ diploma/ hand-shaking logistics, three particular moments stand out in my memory. The first was Yannick Nezet-Seguin’s Commencement address, a personal message to the graduating class. Speaking off the cuff, he managed to find the words that every graduate tenuously entering into the real world needed to hear.
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The next was a long-awaited reunion with my Schola Cantorum graduate assistant and former Westminster Choir blogger, Jordan Saul. Seeing a person who made such an indelible impact on my life on such an important day was more meaningful than I can say.

The final moment, however, was made possible not by a treasured collaborator or old friend, but by a chance encounter with a group of strangers while in town. After they noticing my regalia, a group of Westminster alumni stopped to congratulate me, give me chocolate (which is next to coffee on the list of swiftest routes to my good graces), and chat with me for several minutes about my time at the school, plans for the future, and place in the WCC community. Westminster is an experience, and this final milestone proved its idiosyncrasies and joys to me better than ever.

And now, I must depart for Westminster Choir’s Charleston home base, the Cathedral of St. Luke and St. Paul’s Wellbrock Hall. We have a musical rehearsal in store before we tech our performance of Daughter, and I have a fair bit of personal score-study to do in preparation. Farewell for now!

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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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