I recently read on NPR’s “The Salt” that the flavor vanilla is not a single flavor; rather, it is a compound consisting of a combination of over 250 flavors. Similarly, while Westminster Choir retains its name and some of its membership from year to year, due to its changing roster of approximately 40 people with their individual voices, musical skills, personalities, and histories (to name a few factors), each choir is an intricate community unto itself. While we begin to glimpse that community in our first rehearsals, retreat is always a pivotal moment in understanding the spirit of each year’s choir.
Last weekend, the choir trekked to Northern New Jersey after a full day of classes on Friday to spend a little over twenty-four hours rehearsing, getting to know each other, playing games, and (time permitting) sleep. We began by diving into our musical repertoire early Friday evening, and then headed into the first part of our nonmusical activities: the getting-to-know-you games. As this year’s Social Chair, I had the joy of planning these games and other fun activities with the help of the retreat committee. Friday night’s games ranged from silly (such as an improve game based on the concept of building a human machine and the Westminster Choir classic “Kissing Rugby”) to a more serious set of games centered on building connections within the choir. After this, the choir went off into the woods to feast on s’mores and continue bonding. That is, all except a small group who remained in the lodge to carry on another Westminster Choir tradition: a prank on Dr. Miller. In the spirit of Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine, one of the pieces on our tour program, we strung together garlands of paper airplanes and then decorated Dr. Miller’s room with them.
The next morning was dedicated to musical exploration as we rehearsed our tour repertoire and broke into smaller groups for group projects. These group projects are quite simple in premise: the choir receives a theme, and then is broken into six smaller groups, each of which is secretly given a musical genre. The groups are given about half an hour to create a musical work in their respective style based on the theme. This year’s topic? The dreaded process of choral hearings. The imagination and unexpected skill sets that emerge in this activity are always a surprise, and this year’s output was no exception. Performances ranged from a stirring Wagnerian operetta complete with highly accurate leitmotifs to a George Crumb-inspired performance that portrayed the candid internal monologues of all parties involved. However, in the end , the outstanding soloist award went to soprano section leader Nicola Bertoni for her performance in the Disney group, and the overall winners were the Medieval group with their brief, tragic Morality Play, in which their chanting ceased when the entire cast perished from the plague (with the exception of Symphonic Choir’s immortal accompanist, Eric Plutz).
After an intense musical rehearsal in the afternoon, we embarked on the main team-building event of the weekend: The Sectional Olympics. This tripartite competition pits the sections against each other in a thrilling battle of wits, brawn, endurance and originality. This year’s Olympics began with the lava game, in which each section must cross a field by only stepping on their allotted ten sheets of construction paper. While the tenors and basses certainly had original approaches (such as using the paper as pseudo-skis and carrying one another), the winners of this event were the altos.
Following this were the section skits, in which each section had a chance to fight back against their respective stereotypes by wittily mocking those associated with another section. Our esteemed Graduate Assistant, Max Nolin, won best actor for his eerily accurate portrayal of a soprano, but the overall winners were the basses for their rendition of alto section dynamics.
The third and final part of the Olympics was a multipart relay involving sprinting, balloon popping, a three-legged race, recitation of memorized texts, speed eating, and solving riddles, culminating in a sectional pyramid and performance of Row, Row, Row Your Boat.
I will feign no impartiality in expressing my excitement that, for the first time in Westminster Choir’s history, the alto section won the Olympics! A final full choir game of Stork vs. T-Rex link tag rounded out the afternoon’s organized activities, after which the choir was free to socialize, relax, and play impromptu games before dinner and the final rehearsal.
The final rehearsal gave us a chance to become better acquainted with Bach’s Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild, Leonardo Dreams of his Flying Machine, and Sisask’s haunting Oremus. After this came my favorite part of every retreat: a time of reflection on our time together thus far and a poetry reading by Dr. Miller. Periodic poetry readings, particularly before concerts and at key times throughout the year are at the heart of my Westminster Choir memories. In his sage wisdom, Dr. Miller always seems to know the right words to bring us in times of transition, travel, joy, and sorrow. Saturday evening’s poems included Passengers by Billy Collins, and one of my personal favorites, Wild Geese by Mary Oliver. The nervous energy that inevitably comes at the beginning of a semester subsided as we all took a moment to revel in this time to grow closer to each other, musically and personally. We are only at the beginning of exploring the flavor of this year’s ensemble, but there is something so delightfully fresh and honest about this group of musicians, I cannot wait to learn more.