The gift of hindsight is the knowledge that we made it out alive. Dolly Parton seems to have drawn inspiration from that well when she wrote the lyrics to her 1977 song “Light of a Clear Blue Morning”: “I’ve been looking for the sunshine/’Cause I ain’t seen it in so long/But everything’s gonna work out just fine/Everything’s gonna be all right/That’s been all wrong.”
For Joe Miller, conductor of the world-renowned Westminster Choir, Parton’s song — which she wrote after parting ways with longtime musical partner Porter Wagoner — sounds a lot like his childhood.
“It’s really personal for me,” Miller says. “I grew up in East Tennessee, so I see the world through my East Tennessee lenses.” As a child, he remembers seeing Parton singing on the local television station in all her effervescent charisma. As an adult, he worked just five miles from the ramshackle country cabin in Locust Ridge, Tenn., where Parton grew up with her 11 siblings.
This year’s program by the Westminster Choir, the Spoleto Festival’s longtime choir-in-residence, takes its title from the Parton song. The arrangement features soloists Margaret Montoney (in the June 1 performance) and Elizabeth Hermanson (June 8), but the entire choir joins in to create instrumental vocal effects. In one section of the piece, Miller says he can hear a clear evocation of a sunrise over the Great Smoky Mountains: the pink-purple sky, the bullfrogs croaking low, the birds waking up and calling to each other from the pines.
The Westminster Choir, based out of Rider University in Princeton, N.J., has been connected to Spoleto since the festival’s inception. When Gian Carlo Menotti organized the first Spoleto Festival USA in 1977, he had a close relationship with then-choir conductor Joseph Flummerfelt and asked him to bring the choir down to Charleston. Since then, their performances have become a perennial favorite, reliably bringing a surprising mix of styles and even some innovation in the staging of their songs. Last year, the group began their concert with a unique stereo performance, splitting off half of the choir to sing in the center aisle for concert opener “The Spheres” from contemporary composer Ola Gjiello’s Sunrise Mass. Asked if Westminster has any tricks up its sleeve this year, Miller coyly answers, “Of course,” and leaves it at that.
It is fitting that “Light of a Clear Blue Morning” brings such personal reminiscences to Miller’s mind. The theme of the evening’s program is memory and how sound affects it. From spirituals to personal poems to songs that draw their lyrics from scripts of The Simpsons, the selections are all meant to bring to mind strong emotions and recollections.
The Simpsons thing is no joke. After 23 seasons, the longest-running American sitcom has at least some place in the memory of most television watchers. And while composer Paul Crabtree is no doubt toying with the line between high-brow and low-brow art, Miller says the song series, titled “Five Romantic Miniatures from The Simpsons,” makes a deep emotional impression once the audience stops chuckling at the sound of a world-class choir singing lines like “Marge, you make the best pork chops. Mmmmm, pork chops.”
“If you read the text and you hear Homer saying them in your head, they’re very funny,” Miller says. “But what this composer, Paul Crabtree, is so good at doing is taking things that are in our natural vernacular and everyday and making us think about them in a different way … If you take those words out of the comedy of what’s happening, what is actually being said is a profound statement of loving someone.”
Pop-culture pundit Chuck Klosterman once posited that nostalgia for songs, movies, and TV shows is not nostalgia at all, but merely a mild form of expertise. In other words, we can quote every line of Dazed and Confused, and we know every lyric and harmony from a Dolly Parton song, and that familiarity feels a little bit like home. But the Westminster Choir’s program draws from ancient sacred texts as well as modern secular ones, and Miller compares the impact of the hymns and spiritual songs to the arresting sensation of hearing scriptures recited aloud as a child.
“I think about it much like having the Ten Commandments read to me for the first time,” Miller says. “There’s kind of this imprint of, ‘Wow, this text really means something important. I should listen to it.'”
The concert opens with an arrangement of “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” by 17th-century English composer Thomas Weelkes, with the choir singing “Glory to God in the highest” in both Latin and English. The program also includes “Priidite, Poklonimsia (Come, Let Us Worship),” a 1915 call to worship by Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, who is well known for his brooding piano pieces (so brooding, in fact, that the title character played one of his songs in The Exorcism of Emily Rose). There is also a setting of the 104th Psalm by Estonian composer Cyrillus Kreek and a vigil song by Alexandre Tikhonovich Gretchaninoff, a student of Rimsky-Korsakov.
The two most recently composed works in the program are “Seven Last Words from the Cross” and “White Stones,” both written by current Westminster Choir College students. The former, by Daniel Elder, considers the events of Good Friday and the Crucifixion from the perspective of Christ. The latter, by Thomas LaVoy, is set to a poem written by LaVoy’s mother. “It’s quite dreamy,” Miller says, “much like when something startles you at night and you’re just half-awake.”
The piece is about comforting a child — LaVoy’s brother — who suffers from night terrors. The boy wakes up screaming, “Giants are coming here,” and she comforts him. But Miller detects a hint of uncertainty toward the end as the mother tells the child that everything will be OK, all the while having no idea how to make the horrific visions stop. In the end, Miller says, the song is about “having to almost lie to him because she doesn’t really know.”
The composers span five centuries, but the songs all serve the same purpose, Miller says: They bring the audience back. Personally, when he hears a song he has heard before, Miller says, “not only does it give me a memory, but it also reminds me of who I was at that point.”