Westminster Choir Delivers ‘Turning of a Day’ Performance
It ain’t for nothing that Westminster Choir College is reputed to have one of the finest choral programs in the United States. This fact was amply demonstrated in yesterday’s concert at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke and St. Paul.
Under the capable direction of Dr. Joe Miller, the choir presented a range of music that, as Dr. Miller noted, “revolves around the turning of a day.” The “Latin sandwich,” as he put it, was filled with one German and five English pieces—all of which were performed with great determination and vigor.
As a conductor Dr. Miller is both nuanced and controlled. Of course, it helps that he is working with the cream of the crop: young people with supple voices that can more or less do whatever is asked of them. And in the course of the 75-minute program, much was asked and much was delivered.
The first work, Lux surgut aurea, (“See the golden sun arise”) by the Catalan composer Bernat Vivancos, began with chant-like melodies that set the stage for the remainder of the piece, which was tonal and largely homophonic, with long, sustained harmonies that sounded effortless.
The single German work, Johannes Brahms’ Abendständchen, Op. 42 No. 1, (Evening Serenade) continued the theme of moving throughout the day. Dr. Miller understands 19th-century performance practice in that he performed this Romantic work without vibrato—anathema to many modern conductors. but frequently described in contemporaneous writings.
“Yes, it’s beautiful” from The Constellation of Apollo by Kile Smith, recounts the conversation between the three astronauts aboard Apollo 8 as it photographed the Earth from outer space for the first time on Christmas Eve 1968.
For Windham, L.M. by Daniel Read—an important early American classical composer—half of the choir came to the middle of the room. The style and timbre of singing abruptly shifted from the warm, well-blended sound of the earlier pieces to the exceedingly bright and somewhat nasal tone associated with Shakers and music from The Sacred Harp. My one criticism of this and the following work, Zion, C.M., arranged by the American composer John T. Hocutt, was that one of the tenors’ voice was rather too prominent—though to be fair he was standing directly in front of me.
The next work arranged by Tom Malone, Yonder Come Day, took us from the Neoclassicism of the cathedral to a summer evening camp meeting held in a tent. The African-American spiritual featured two outstanding alto soloists and the energy of the work successfully captured the raw emotion associated with such gatherings; however, the hand clapping was at times overly enthusiastic and had the unhappy effect of drowning out the text—an error easily corrected.
Paul Crabtree’s “Death and Resurrection” from The Valley of Delight is primarily a dialogue between the men and women of the choir; there was one section where Miller dropped his hands and the choir just kept going—all the while maintaining its perfect ensemble.
Laudibus in Sanctis (“Praise the Holiest” from Psalm 150) called upon the singers to explore not only the extremes of their dynamic palette but also of their tessituras. The basses produced clear, articulated low notes while the sopranos sang the high pitches with grace and a sense of ease that belies how difficult such notes really are.
Three encores followed and the concert was finished with a rousing rendition of Great Day—a fitting conclusion since, as far as choral singing is concerned, it really was a great day.
Charleston, SC Post and Courier, May 30, 2017