Seventy-five minutes is normally more than enough time for a choral performance. After an hour, even the most choir-loving among us are ready to get out of the pew and stretch our legs. But when the Westminster Choir’s altos and sopranos sang the final “requiem” of their Angels program, nobody rushed to the door. Rather, the room stood in unison, offering thunderous applause for the young women and accompanying musicians who took their audience on a harmonic celestial tour.
Bach began the evening, as violinist Rachel Sandman set the mood from the center of the sanctuary with Largo from Sonata in C Major. The first angelic voices soon emanated from the narthex of St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church. The singers processed down the aisle singing Hildegard von Bingen’s “O choruscans lux stellarum,” a composition written nearly a millennium ago.
The singers circled the small orchestra at the altar to commence the evening’s primary piece, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s “Stabat Mater.” Recounting the death of Jesus and sung in Latin, the first eight segments were reminiscent of the stations of the cross. Five segments were performed by soloists, including phenom alto Madison Bowling, whose small size belied her powerful, beautiful delivery of “Quae moerebat et dolebat.”
The program’s first segment, “Darkness,” concluded with enthusiastic applause and bows by the soloists, providing the only brief pause in the evening’s music. “Awakening,” the second part, found the singers moving into the audience for the modern composition by Abbie Betinis, “Soyez comme l’oiseau.” As the singers passed by in the aisles, their ability to blend their individually powerful voices into a greater sum was clear and striking. Made up of repeated rounds that echoed and built on each other, the song foreshadowed the transcendence soon to come.
From the choir loft, above and behind the majority of the audience seated in pews at ground level, the singers flowed through four hymns from the Rig Veda. The arrangements by English composer Gustav Holst could have fooled most listeners into thinking they were hearing traditional Christian hymns rather than the words of sacred Hindu texts.
“Awakening” then seamlessly transitioned into the third and final segment, “Angels.” Without straining one’s neck to turn 180 degrees around, the choir was out of sight, offering the unspoken suggestion that we close our eyes. Thus situated, the “perpetual light” of American composer Z. Randall Stroope’s “Lux Aeterna” encouraged meditation, although those with their eyes open were treated to an array of refracted light and “stars” across the church’s arched ceiling.
The closing piece, Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem, op. 48., was the evening’s most transcendent. From above and behind the audience, guided by flowing harp and the gentle roll of double bass, the singers seemed to float out over the sanctuary, spreading their voices throughout the perfectly attuned room. Their singing was powerful but smooth, like water flowing over river rocks. There were no jagged edges — just the soothing, transcendent voices of angels lifting us up to a higher realm.