I am now officially an alumna of Westminster Choir College!
Commencement began with a chapel service on campus in Bristol, and marked the final performance of Westminster Kantorei 2012-2013. The space was entirely filled with alumni, and you could sense the deep tradition and connection to the school in the population. We sang hymns together, Kantorei performed works by Handel and Schütz, including one of my favorite choral works of all time, Seilig sind die Toten.
The text of this piece and the rich sonorities were particularly poignant when they were present after bells were rang in the chapel for each member of the Westminster community who had died this past year. It was deeply comforting to know that someday, in this place that will always be a home, a bell will be rung for me.
When the service had concluded, I was so happy to meet alums who regularly read this blog, including Stephen Carpenter and Milton Cloud. It is always a little surprising to think that these posts are actually in front of people’s eyes, and I feel fortunate to catalog these mountain top experiences for a brief time. Thank you, readers, for your time, and for allowing me the opportunity to share my heart and thoughts.
Commencement was…unforgettable. Nearly the entire school was lined up outside the Princeton University Chapel, preparing for the processional. All of the students not graduating were dressed in red robes, and Chapel Choir was placed in the balcony while the sophomores, juniors, and first-year graduate students processed through the main doors. The graduates, in black robes and hoods, enter through the door on the right of the narthex, and we pass under an inscription in the stone that reads
Serve the Lord with gladness,
Come before his presence with singing
Westminster Choir College
We processed all the way up to the front of the chapel where the red-robed students are placed in the choir stalls. From here, we sang a collective opening hymn When in our Music God is Glorified, and the first wash of sound from 1000+ voices was overwhelming in the most spectacular way. Then, the Westminster students and graduates sang the first movement of Poulenc’s Gloria.
The Commencement committee chooses pieces based on the history of the graduating class (they had performed the entire Gloria as sophomores in Schola with Dr. Jordan), a piece from the Symphonic repertoire of the current season (later in the service we performed “And then shall your light break forth” from Mendelssohn’s Elijah), and then hymns selected for their appropriateness to the occasion. This committee also chooses the faculty member who will give the Charge to the Graduates. After the Gloria and one more hymn (As Newborn Stars were formed to sing), the graduates moved into the pews. From here, we heard Paul Plishka deliver the commencement address – he received an honorary doctorate during the proceedings.
Dr. Jordan delivered the Charge to the Graduates, and it was among the most powerful speeches I have heard in all my days.
Among my favorite sentiments shared was when Dr. Jordan talked about his teacher, Elaine Brown:
When I ended my study with Elaine Brown on the last lesson I had with her, a question slid out of my mouth that I had no idea where it came from. Scared…..a bit insecure…NO…a lot insecure…….but knowing I wanted to do something good with my life, I asked her ”How can I ever repay for all the things you’ve taught me?” She looked at me over those large glasses (which were in vogue at the time), she wagged her huge index finger at me—and said “Light a candle for others…that will be thanks enough for me.”
We sang the Anthem of Dedication, and then received our ceremonial diplomas. We then stood, graduated, with the rest of our school again to sing the chorus from Elijah and one final hymn O Spirit All Embracing, a setting of the Gustav Holst’s ‘Jupiter’ theme from the symphonic work The Planets. This was a profound moment – so many voices together in a familiar theme with an epic nature, brass resounding and organ swells soaring through the lofted ceilings. It was awesome to know that every time our class encounters this theme, we will recall memories of this day.
We closed the service with the school song, the benediction, The Lord Bless You and Keep You by Peter C. Lutkin. I wanted to sing every note, to put my voice in the music, but there were times when the emotions won victory over my musical desire. I looked up to see many members of the sophomore class turned toward the graduates, and couldn’t contain the grateful sorrow – so thankful for these experiences and this life in music, so sad to see our time together come to a close. The red-robed students applauded as we recessed out of the chapel, and many stoic individuals who had held the tears at bay were taken over in the wave of love that sent us outside where the faculty was lined up in full regalia to applaud and greet us.