Lions, Tigers, and Staging – Oh My! November 9, 2015

Staging has begun. For those of y’all that don’t know, staging is the phase of rehearsal where we learn the order of the pieces and begin to plan our formations for performances. Up until now, we’ve been learning the music, working on details, and memorizing each piece. (While I word that concisely, all of that work is arduous and takes a lot of outside hours to perfect.) However, staging, at least for me, is the scariest part.

The whole tour program is basically a storyline in Dr. Miller’s mind. He gets inspired by a musical work, a concept, or a situation and finds pieces that will help weave that tale for the audience. He groups songs together into different scenes, each scene ordered to shift the emotions and develop the plot of the program. Our job is to tell that story and instill those feelings in our audiences.

The hardest part, I believe, is for us as a choir to understand where he wants to go with that story line, what kind of aura we should elicit through our performances, and how to find personal experiences and emotions to connect to this story without Dr. Miller explicitly telling us what he envisioned. We spent time during the second staging rehearsal enumerating the order of the pieces in our program and then outlining different adjectives that we relate to each scene. It helped us reach a communal idea of how to direct our emotions throughout the course of the program, but we still have to apply it. It’s a very intricate and delicate emotional puzzle that takes time to organically build as a choir. Up until these staging rehearsals, every song we’ve learned has been its own singular emotional experience. We’ve already cried as a choir. We already know what it’s like to collectively feel, collectively live in the music. Staging is just how we begin to intertwine those isolated moments into an open experience for our audience to participate in as well.

Yet, it doesn’t end there. On top of finding a way to weave the whole program together emotionally, we must have it fully memorized. All 17ish pieces (that is, if you count every movement of the 2 works we’re doing, which I definitely do), not including solos, small ensembles, or encores. We have to remember each transition, every starting chord and how to transition from the last chord of one piece into the next, who sings what solo and where, how our movements to new formations change based on the sequence of the story – let’s just say it’s a lot.

And we don’t feel ready. Honestly, I doubt we’ll feel ready until we’ve performed on tour a few times. But this choir teaches vulnerability, if nothing else. Because, yes, we go into performances feeling woefully unprepared and unrehearsed. Despite the hours and hours we dedicate, it will never feel like enough. We will start some performances shaking in our boots, scared to death that we have to emotionally give so much when we feel like we’re not ready. Performing is up there with lion taming and tight-rope walking. It makes us give everything we have, unsure of how we’ll be received, and wondering if we’ll make it out in one piece. (Pun intended?)

On that note, here goes everything.

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Beethoven Aside. (#Beethoven) November 4, 2015

So, most of us (sophomores and some grad students excluded) are performing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Jacques Lacombe. Westminster Symphonic Choir has an intimidatingly important schedule of performances with all the symphonies and philharmonics in the area each year. And while I feel pretentiously ridiculous anytime I mention that, I’m just simply in awe of the number of experiences we get at this school and very proud of the professional expectations we consistently meet. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, as Dr. Miller reiterated, is one of the most frequently performed choral orchestral works and meant to tell the world to put aside our differences and find peace. It is always pertinent, and it continues to move people hundreds of years later, but we still have to deliver it to our audience so that it will do just that.

These performances take weeks of meticulous detailing, meetings with Marianne Barrett (German diction professor at Julliard and German diction coach with the Metropolitan Opera in New York City) to ensure our German is impeccable, and several evening rehearsals to fully prepare us for these performances.

We then miss school to travel to the different venues in which we perform. While they’re experiences of a lifetime, they are also extremely tiring. We’re expected, as professionals should be, to maintain our outside work – aka schoolwork (but for some of us, also part-time work) – even though we miss hours of class time. After having our normal routines altered, workload shifted, and sleep schedules changed, it’s no surprise that by the end of the week we are thoroughly exhausted. It’s pretty overwhelming for most of us.

Yet, there is nothing quite as rewarding as going through all of that, singing our faces off and hearts out to the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth, then having thousands of people leap up out of their seats to applaud and cheer. That rush you get from feeling appreciated for all of your efforts, those heart throbbing moments when you realize they’re cheering for you, that pride when you realize you’ve truly changed people with your music – there is no earthly equivalent. It’s pure, unadulterated bliss.

I’m immeasurably grateful to be a part of a program that gives us the opportunity to change the world at large every time we open our mouths to sing. We love every second of it.

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Westminster Choir, Retreat!

Each year we’re given thrice-photocopied directions to a camp out in the middle of Nowhere, New Jersey and expected to find our way through the meandering roads that slice through the mountainous, lush woods that propagate themselves throughout this gorgeous state. Once we arrive at our destination, we sit in a room rehearsing for hours. Then when we’re exhausted for the night, we cram ourselves into rooms full of twin-sized bunk beds, only to get up the next morning to rehearse again, knowing that later we’ll have to go outside and compete against each other, only to rehearse more after that. Why would anyone do this, you ask? Why would anyone subject themselves to such insanity? Simply for music and for love.

Ambiguity and hyperboles aside, Westminster Choir retreat is the first event of the year, the first time we get to socialize and bond with the wonderful musicians we will spend the rest of the year creating art with. After our choral hearings happen, extracurricular choirs have callbacks for the Westminster students that match the sound that conductor has in mind for his or her choir. Then, after that arduous process but right before school begins, a list comes out that denotes the members of that choir for the year. We jump into rehearsals with the beginning of classes and Westminster Choir rehearses on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 4:30 – 6:00 pm. However, besides stumbling through the year’s repertoire in a flurry of frantic sight-singing, we don’t really get much time to get acquainted with one another.

Thus, we have retreat. And so we escape to a scenic spot in New Jersey and begin figuring out who we are as a choir. The social chair this year, the wonderful contralto Jess Kerler along with our Retreat Committee, organized a plethora of fun icebreakers so each of us could get to know each individual in the choir. From passing a ball around the choir with personality questions scribbled in hardly-legible handwriting, to playing a questionable version of rugby, we cheered and laughed (and of course, sang) the night away. As we dispersed to spend the evening as we pleased, many of us went stargazing or exploring the campground, letting the cool breeze accompany us as we indulged in the presence of our peers for just a bit longer before retiring to our beds. By the time our heads hit our pillows, we’d learned so many new things about our fellow singers’ backgrounds and personalities.


The following morning we ate a hearty, camp-provided breakfast, then began rehearsing the nitty gritty things in the music we hadn’t fully touched on yet. Despite the early morning, the music sounded invigorated, almost as if a night of bonding helped the sound of the choir become more unified.

As is tradition, skits ensued shortly after rehearsal ended for the morning. Every year, Retreat Committee picks a topic and a subtopic for groups of 5-6 members to act out. This year the topic was “choral warm-ups.” We disperse around the camp, finding a private spot to brainstorm, plan, and rehearse, then come back to perform our skits for the choir. This year’s skits were exceptionally hysterical. We had subtopics like Christmas, minimalism, baroque, Disney, etc. Thus, our temporarily incapacitated Lauren Kelly sang about her inability to use her legs using a melody from The Little Mermaid while a group of the grad students dramatically embodied baroque composers before collapsing on the ground for the finale. My absolute favorite was the rendition of David Lang’s The Little Match Girl (which Westminster Choir performed this summer at Spoleto Festival USA) that was performed for the minimalism group, where their warm-ups mirrored the detriment of the little girl, acted out by soprano Kanisha Feliciano, and ultimately resulted in this year’s Grad Assistant, the brilliant David Conley, dragging her “dead body” off stage by her feet. We get a tad ridiculous to say the least.


We gathered again to eat lunch, rehearse more, but then it was time for the annual event we’d all been training for (and by training, I mean bragging about and planning coordinating outfits for): Sectional Olympics! Each section comes out in matching garb, like team uniforms, except this year the tenors and basses forgot to plan anything (so of course the basses improvised and tied their sheets and towels on like capes – typical basses). The sopranos wore all black with camo boas and the altos made awesome tie-dye shirts that had our names and section number on the back. (No applause necessary, but if you feel so inclined, we won’t deny our fans what they want.) After doing everything from inventing cheers to emulate rival sections, nonverbally putting ourselves in birthday order, becoming a human train that could only travel by sparsely-separated paper (weird and vague, I know), scarfing down oranges as fast as humanly possible, and forming a human pyramid (lots of human-replicas of pre-existing objects) while singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” the altos won! Just kidding. The tenors technically won, but the altos came in close second. While the competition is a great motivator, the coolest thing is to look at your section after attempting to accomplish random, absurd tasks together, only to realize you’re not only surrounded by great musicians, but some unique, impressive individuals as well.

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Some of us stuck around on the field to play an epic game of touch football, which is always really friggin’ fun. With Dr. Miller and David Conley as team captains, the game was even more interesting. For the record, Dr. Miller is a cheater (everyone knows now, so you can’t deny it). However, despite his less-than-honorable tactics at the beginning, I see now that Dr. Miller definitely knows his people – whether it be within a choral setting or on the football field, his talent for recognizing and utilizing people’s strengths is impeccable. Despite a pretty evenly matched team, our team was creamed.

We then met up with the rest of the choir to serenade the other campers and camp staff with the Lutkin (basically Westminster’s school song) and eat a delicious dinner.


We rehearsed for a bit more, but the rehearsal was unexpectedly truncated by Dr. Miller’s annual poetry reading. Each year he brings poems to read to the choir, poems he feels embody the aura of the choir or the future of the choir. They always seem to relate to something all of us understand inherently, and somehow there’s never a dry eye in the room. And here it comes full circle. This year he talked about personality and love. He relayed to us how the sound of the choir has morphed over the years, how legacies and traditions should tie us together but never hold us down, and how we should love what and who we are as a choir because it’s unique every year. I think this is the night we learn that we are family, not just any simple choir, and we must love each other, accept the love we receive, and in turn love ourselves. Then, and only then, can we open our hearts enough to let the music change us and the world with it.

Oh, the monumental life lessons I learn from this choir never cease, as it should be.

Last but not least, with Dr. Miller’s annual 32nd birthday being September 27th and retreat ending the night of the 26th, we made him a present to coincide with this year’s tour theme (sorry, can’t give it away) and Liska (an alto section leader for Symphonic choir) made him a delicious cake. Of course, we sang our version of “Happy Birthday” that normally ends with us split into 5 or 6 octaves at the top of our lungs and Andrew Stack came out in a gorilla suit (still confused on that one).


We laughed, we cried, and it was most definitely better than Cats.

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An Introduction


Tsarina Islam is the 2015-2016 Westminster Choir blogger. Want to learn more?  Read on…..

Name: Tsarina Islam
Hometown: Dallas, TX
Major: Music Education
Teacher: Rochelle Ellis
Voice part: Alto 1
Class Year: Junior(ish)

Professional plans after graduation: This is such a hard question. It’s bad enough I have to figure out my life during school, much less after it. Maybe grad school? Maybe teaching before grad school? I know I want to keep getting more education, but I don’t know when or what for quite yet.

Composers I admire: For choral stuff? Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, Bach, and Perotin are pretty cool. Frank Ticheli is pretty awesome as well as Adam Gorb for orchestral stuff. Beethoven’s symphonies are definitely some of my favorite. For clarinet writing, I love Gershwin and Saint Saëns. Opera? Wagner all the way.

Why Westminster: It’s funny. Everyone who goes here says they knew some alumni who told them about Westminster or persuaded them to apply, but I just did some good, ol’ fashioned research. I knew I wanted to go into choral music education and Westminster Choir College is one of the best (if not the best) in the country for that major.

Life outside of class: I work at Small World Coffee in downtown Princeton, at Talbott Library on campus, and I babysit for some families in town. That takes up the majority of my free time during the school year. However, when I have any real free time I love playing football, designing my own clothes, or writing poetry. (I would add binge-watching shows on Netflix, but that isn’t a reputable hobby just yet.)

What’s on my iPod: What’s not? Honestly, I have 64 gigs on my iPod and 90 percent of my memory is taken up by pictures. I take thousands of pictures of everything. What little music I do have on there is mostly film scores: Hans Zimmer, Danny Elfman, Andrew Kaiser, Harry Gregson-Williams, some John Williams (of course), and a little John Powell. I love every genre of music except modern country and German death metal (don’t even look it up) so I have an amalgamation of everything. From Coldplay to Kanye, Ingrid Michaleson to Taylor Swift, Pentatonix to Motion City Soundtrack – it’s all there.

Favorite apps: Notes is my all-time favorite. I’ve got a million poems on there. And Clock because I need alarms. Besides those, though, I use Snapchat and Insta a lot. I recently downloaded SpongeBob Doodle Jump because life is short, so why not?

Favorite food: Everything. Food is delicious and I eat way too much. Although, I’m a vegetarian so that somewhat limits what I can eat. My favorite dessert to make for myself? Nutella and cream cheese french toast sandwiches. Sounds questionable, but it’s perfection in a sandwich. My food philosophy is very much, “Don’t knock it ‘til you try it.” Also, I can beat you in a pepper-eating contest any day.

Last book read: Non-school-related? A book about Korea’s history and culture. Last fiction book was Game of Thrones (George R.R. Martin is the man).

If you were trapped on a desert island, who/what would you like to have with you? If this is a practical question, water and Emily Sung. Water because safe freshwater is hard to come by when you’re surviving in the wild and Emily Sung, because I’m pretty sure she could survive any situation life throws at her (she’s a Princeton U/Westminster alum). If this is a sentimental question, I’d say a notebook and my stuffed cougar, because I think I’d write pretty stellar poetry if I was stranded on a desert island, but I’d also need something to cuddle with.

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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.


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.


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.
Yannick_speaking    051615_grad_0598  Commencement  Commencement2

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.

2015-03-13 20.18.46

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.
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
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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