The human voice has been the most intimate and personal of musical instruments since the dawn of mankind. As the world’s remaining primitive tribal choruses have shown us, group singing has served through the ages as a primary means of collective celebration, mourning, commemoration, spiritual expression, consolation, emotional release, and ritual observation of every kind.
And while it’s a physical activity, with expressive sound generated from the diaphragm and lungs via the vocal cords and out through the mouth and nasal passage, it’s driven jointly by the mind and heart. Maybe that’s why the blended sonorities of multiple voices go straight to the hearts of listeners, striking a primeval chord that lurks deep within us all, an instinctive urge to take part in communal music that goes all the way back through the mists of time to our earliest ancestors. In our allegedly civilized times, gifted composers and singers may have made a refined art of it. But even such art can’t escape its origins.
While Thursday evening’s Westminster Choir concert at the Cathedral of St. Luke and St. Paul event may not have generated such thoughts, it served to remind us yet again that vocal music is the most deeply intimate and personal of the musical arts. It’s one that can be adapted to just about any human feeling, impulse or purpose. And that’s just what conductor Joe Miller did for the evening’s program, entitled Legends.
The program’s core work was Latvian composer Eriks Ešenvalds’ Legend of the Walled-up Woman: the musical retelling of an ancient tale about the sacrificial entombment of a young wife within the walls of a castle under construction. Miller then selected other choral works that could be applied to the telling of an imaginary story about the young woman’s earlier life. He chose to tell the story from it’s end (the actual legend) to it’s beginning, with succeeding works serving as “flashbacks,” so to speak, that gave listeners glimpses into her life before her sad demise. Each work thus served as a window of sorts into some aspect of the woman’s humanity. It’s beyond the scope of this review to relate how each work tied into this imagined story; suffice it to say that it worked, despite the very wide range of musical periods, styles, and purposes explored.
The concert’s commemorative mood was set with the first piece: Elegy, a simple, yet highly effective number by Daniel Elder, a recent Westminster graduate. The touching music treats the “Day is done” poetic text that accompanies Taps, the pensive military bugle call we’ve all heard. It was delivered mainly by a small vocal sub-ensemble singing from the rear of the church as the rest of the choir slowly processed to their places up front. The piece featured a trio of dulcet sopranos, Nicola Bertoni, Jessie Moreno, and Jorie Moss, with conductor Matthew Brady. Then we heard the core Ešenvalds piece mentioned above. It was a sober and epic-toned setting, with exchanges between the main choir and a separate small ensemble (Lena Andreala, Vinroy D. Brown, Jr., Dominic Lam, Trevor Sands and Shane Thomas, Jr.). This piece exemplifies the Westminster Choir’s ongoing exploration of the vibrant choral scene in the Baltic nations, where strong vocal traditions have experience a resurgence in the years since Soviet Russia’s collapse.
Next came Johannes Brahms’ Nänie, a rich and harmonically dense setting of a text by Friedrich Schiller. This one, being a sort of lament, was also quite solemn, yet uplifting. It was full of Brahms’ lyrically expressed sense of somber reflection, as well as his clever musical devices — including a dandy fugato passage. The piano-four-hands accompaniment was adroitly performed by Tyler Weakland and Dominic Lam. Weakland also accompanied the next item, Alleluia, by another Westminster grad, Filipino composer Alejandro D. Consolación. A setting of just the title word, the piece was definitely in keeping with the composer’s last name, because the incredibly moving music simply dripped warmth and amiable comfort. The choir sang it holding hands, and — with my emotions already juiced up by the Brahms piece — I cried. I’ve learned long since that it’s futile to fight back the tears when the Westminster Choir is at work.
After a short stretch break, the choir returned to begin the next part of their program with a Latin setting of the classic prayer, Pater Noster (Our Father) by the late-Renaissance master Jacob (Gallus) Handl. The work unfolded in cunning antiphonal exchanges (common in the day) between the men and the women, finishing off with an ornate and magnificent “Amen” — spinal shivers galore.
Then we got Maurice Duruflé’s well-known motet, “Ubi caritas,” a gently glorious choral gem that I’ve sung often as a seasoned church vocalist. But I managed to resist my impulse to run up to the stage and join in, settling instead for some heartfelt lip-synching from my seat (right next to the conductor, no less). Baritone Patrick Dunnevant expertly preceded the piece, intoning the classic Gregorian chant melody line that forms the basis for the motet.
Lighter fare followed: Alice Parker’s arrangement of the exuberant old American folksong, Buffalo Gals, which, in this version, became Charleston Gals. Then came an arrangement of one of American icon Stephen Foster’s saucier songs, Nelly Bly. Both were delivered with verve and spirit, and the choir hammed it up all the while, to the crowd’s delight. More serious fare then came with a return to Daniel Elder’s music, beginning with his exquisite “Ballade to the Moon,” a warm and gentle piece of night music that, while completely original, smacks somewhat of Morten Lauridsen’s radiant style. Mr. Weakland was back at the piano for that one.
We were then treated to a welcome reprise of his Elegy, this time from the front and the main aisles, where we could hear it better and savor its full effect.
The concert’s third and final section contained three pieces that were unrelated to the otherwise prevailing Legends theme. It led off with another Alice Parker arrangement, “Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal,” a nostalgic nod to the old American sacred harp tradition. Then we got a Westminster Choir specialty, a glowing rendition of the classic American song, “Shenandoah.” I melted. Finally, they got us all jumpin’ and jivin’ to the Moses Hogan arrangement of the classic spiritual, “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord.” With some ebullient help from tenor Justin Fatu Su’esu’e, the spirit moved, and got some real toe-tappin’ and head-bobbin’ going in the audience.
Thus ended the formal program. But we couldn’t let them go without a couple of encores, both of which I’ve heard from the Westminster Choir before. The choir gave us “I’ll Be Seeing You,” originally a Broadway song, in a lovely arrangement full of softly jazzy harmonies. Last came their signature farewell number, “The Lord Bless You and Keep You,” with the traditional sevenfold “Amen” that still puts a lump in my throat, even though I’ve sung it in church many times.
After covering the Westminster Choir for 15 years, I’ve long since run out of superlatives. So let me simply say that, if you love choral music, your life won’t be complete until you hear this choir. And you’ll get two more chances to hear them this year as a choir: They’ll repeat this program on June 1, and you can hear them, along with the Spoleto Festival Orchestra and beefed up with members of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra Chorus, in their Te Deum program on June 6 at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. Also, you can catch them as “the world’s finest opera chorus” in the festival’s remaining outings of Kát’a Kabanová.