Well, we thought were going to hear Joseph Flummerfelt’s successor as Westminster College’s Director of Choral Activities last year, but initial appointee Tim Brown backed out at the 11th hour. “Flum,” bless him, leapt into the breach — and ended up giving his “farewell” concerts two Spoletos in a row. Not that we’re complaining, mind you. Besides, we’ll still get to hear him when he directs the big choral-orchestral concerts — this year, the Verdi Requiem.
But the torch was finally passed last summer, and for the set of concerts given by the 40 voices of the Westminster Choir, the show now belongs to their new director: distinguished choral conductor and pedagogue Joe Miller. But, surprise! Owing to a happy turn of events, there will be double the usual pair of concerts — with an extra set for just the women’s voices.
Remember, this group also serves Spoleto as “the world’s finest opera chorus.” This year, there are three operas, but only one of them — Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny — calls for a real chorus. And even that one is men-only, leaving the ladies with rather little to do this year. So why not give the gals their own pair of concerts, so they won’t be forced to languish at the beach while the guys do most of the work?
And sweet affairs they’re likely to be, taking place in the cozy acoustics of St. Stephen’s Church. You can describe much of the music written for treble voices (sopranos and altos) as ethereal, or even angelic, and so their program (the same for both concerts) is entitled Les Angélus, after a solo song by French composer Claude Debussy, to be sung here in a choral transcription.
Other highlights will include some Yiddish poetry settings by Dmitri Shostakovich (it’s still his birthday year), some Asian-tinged creations from Chinese-American composer Chen Yi, and another modern piece by David McIntyre. The program will have three sections — reflecting sorrow, joy, and eternal life.
The men will rejoin their ditched damsels for the usual two concerts by the entire ensemble at their regular stomping ground, the Cathedral. Miller described their program as “ultimate eclectic,” seeking to explore the tremendous diversity of the choral repertoire, with its extremes of tonal texture and color. Hey, he’s got one of the world’s most fantastic choral “instruments” under his baton, here. Why not “play” the hell out of them and show off everything they’re capable of?
Featured works are to include three luscious romantic pieces by Johannes Brahms. One of my favorite living choral composers is the Estonian master Veljo Tormis, who’s produced lots of knockout settings of texts from prehistoric Nordic epics. His angry “Curse Upon Iron” treats an ancient incantation deploring the deadly misuse of iron for the latest war technology, like swords and spears. But despite its primitive tribal sound, it rings just as true in our age of potential nuclear devastation. There will also be a piece by prizewinning American tunesmith Blake Henson, plus an absolutely ravishing number — Sleep — by reigning Yankee choral sensation Eric Whitacre.
And will we hear the choir’s traditional encore, Danny Boy, this time? If we do, I won’t bitch about it. But a cherished era of 30-plus years ended when Flummerfelt passed his baton. There’s a new Joe in charge now, and maybe the time is right for him start some fresh traditions. There’s a difference between simply stepping into a very big pair of shoes and forging a new legend of your own. — Lindsay Koob
Westminster Choir Concerts • Spoleto Festival USA • $25-$32 • Les Angélus (women’s voices): May 28 and June 2 at 5 p.m. • (1 hour 20 min.) • St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, 67 Anson St. • Full choir: May 31, June 7 at 5 p.m. • (1 hour 20 min.) • St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church, 405 King St. • 579-3100