What a remarkable month at Westminster Choir College. For most students on campus, November has felt like like an uphill climb, and Thanksgiving break the plateau that offers a welcome, but all too brief, respite. Westminster Choir, Symphonic Choir, Westminster Kantorei, Westminster Williamson Voices, and Westminster Jubilee Singers have all had big performances this month, chances for the singers to finally present two months of hard work and artistic internalization. Of course, these performances are only a small portion of a student’s rigorous academic requirements. For me, this rigor takes the form of two impending term papers and a finals-week MasterSingers recital, but it’s no more than anyone else. Each student is equally swamped in his or her major’s equivalent workload. For many of us, our performances have served as a needed opportunity to reflect on concepts bigger than the present moment.
It already seems so long ago, but we were truly thrilled to finally share the Westminster Choir program with two wonderful audiences during the first weekend of November, first in Fairview Village, Pa., and then back home in Princeton. We had thoroughly learned, memorized (mostly), contemplated, and truly lived with the music for the better part of two months, and the resultant art was itching to be shared. Looking back, with the performances having come and gone, and everyday commitments having continued, it’s easy to lose sight of how special it was to add the dynamic of an engaged, paying audience, along with a new space that has its own spirit and function.
The sanctuary of Trinity Lutheran Church is a simple space — flat, open, non-ornate, but absolutely reverential and beautiful. I think adaptation, or maybe acclimation, becomes a crucial task for any performer when these new elements of space and audience are added, especially given the fact that our performance is hardly a “park and bark.” Dr. Miller strives to consider every aspect of the performance — aural, visual, and conceptual — to engage the audience as deeply as possible, and in that vein, to bring something for everyone present. We had run through the entirety of our staged program on campus in Hillman Hall, which certainly spoils us, but we needed to consider and own the subtleties of our new space – incorporate it into our music-making rather than clash. We spent the afternoon doing just that, so when the evening came, tuxes/dresses went on, and the audience arrived, we were ready, and the excitement took over.
I think for many of us, myself included, that first performance felt like a blur. Like I’ve mentioned, we can run through the thing as much as we’d like, but until you do so for an audience, you’re not quite sure what the experience feels like. Everyone had moments of “…what comes next…” or “whoops that was supposed to be an F-sharp” or “Sweet Oz, I’m certain the entire audience just heard my voice crack.” But there were even more moments of significance in which we could palpably feel the impact of a musical moment on the entire room, and of each person deciding to trust those around them even more. We had the opportunity to share our “Today I will…” message (see retreat blog) with a new group of people. We invited audience members to submit their own statements either by paper or online, which we will now continue to take with us as we perform this program. This is just one way we felt ourselves tangibly bringing the program to life, and there’s no greater reward for a performer. Overall, it was a wonderful, successful performance that the audience received openly, and from which we were able to learn and feel fulfilled. I’d like to acknowledge Michael Monaghan, WCC alumnus, who serves as Director of Liturgical Music at Trinity – he was a warm host, and showed us the positive impact our alumni can have on musical communities. Also, thank you to the Westminster alumni who were present at the performance! Choir members certainly enjoyed reconnecting.
The beloved Bristol Chapel back on our home turf was the performance space for the following Sunday. While there were similar considerations in terms of adapting to the space (anyone who has performed in Bristol truly understands the acoustic impact of a room full of bodies), we had discovered a crucial piece of information the night before: the program works! We could get through it! Of course…we knew it all along. But now that we had actually done it, things were just a bit calmer on our end. The atmosphere was very different during this performance; it was mid-afternoon (lighter), and there were far more familiar faces in the audience. Of course, in this context performers become just a bit more aware of their actions and how they are perceived. I think this is what really served as the new element for our Sunday performance, unlike Saturday when simply performing was a new experience. Again, we had wonderful day, and we were excited to hear more about some of the ways the audience members were impacted by our program.
Now, I’d like to take a moment and zoom in from the universal, to talk about something personal: I will never forget the feeling of walking out for my first performance as a member of the Westminster Choir, or the sensation of singing the Lutkin Benediction to conclude our home performance in Bristol. Throughout my time as an undergrad (go Dukes!), I continually looked up to this ensemble as a point of inspiration for what was possible, in terms of both sound and artistic impact. To now say that I have performed with this ensemble, in the company of such excellent musicians, who are also among the best of people – it’s difficult to describe. Thank you to the members of the Westminster Choir, and thank you to those who have come before and set the precedent. You fill my heart with joy.
Well, in the time since that first weekend in November, I mentioned that there were a number of performances. Included was the Symphonic Choir’s first run-out with the Philadelphia Orchestra since the strike, which cut the Mozart run a bit short. We had wonderful experiences performing Ravel’s more abstract Daphnis et Chloé with an otherworldly orchestra, under a truly fantastic conductor, Maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Considering the recent tumultuous times in our country, this work and our music making provided a wonderful reminder of our, musicians and audience members alike, shared humanity.
Currently, the Westminster Choir is taking a bit of break form our tour program and is busy working on some Christmas music for our annual benefit concert at the Racquet and Tennis Club in NYC. As arguably the world’s biggest fan of Christmas, it’s possible that I’m getting a little TOO into the music during rehearsals, but hey, it only comes around once a year. There was even more excitement last week as we received our travel itinerary for our trip to Spain and the World Symposium on Choral Music next summer! Needless to say, we all cannot wait for that opportunity.
Something strange now — in three weeks the semester will be over, and we’ll be looking forward to a nice break, followed by our winter tour across the Southeast. The time has already flown by. As we return from Thanksgiving break and dig in for the most intense time of the semester, it’s important to remember things that are bigger than academics. I’ll close again with two Today I will… statements, one by junior music education major, Cecelia Snow, and another by first year conducting major, Sinhaeng Lee:
“Today, I will forget about yesterday, and let go of what I want tomorrow to be.”
“Today I will be grateful for all the people around me and for all the experiences at Westminster as I look back at my first four months in America.”