Review: Westminster Choir offers weird, wonderful concert
BY BILL GUDGER
Special to The Post and Courier
Conductor Joe Miller introduced the Westminster Choir’s Friday afternoon concert at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke and Paul by labeling it “sound and memory.”
Just as smells (of your mother’s kitchen, he suggested) bring back memories, so do sounds.
The choir gave a program a bit heavy on “soundscape” pieces of the last hundred years. But it was well performed, flawless in fact, with lots of solo moments for singers stepping out from the choir who are too numerous to mention by name.
In a sense, though, this was a traditional choral concert. It began with a Renaissance piece, Thomas Weelkes’ “Gloria in excelsis Deo,” sung from the narthex of the church, followed by a processional that split the choir into two unequal groups for Erik Esenvalds’ “Long Road.”
This proved one of the most effective pieces, with about a third of choir remaining in the narthex while the larger group sang from the front.
And the concert ended with spirituals, folksongs and the Peter C. Lutkin Benediction (which always closes commencement services at Westminster).
But in between, nothing from the Baroque, Classical or Romantic periods, unless you count Rachmaninoff as Romantic (chronologically most of his music belongs to the 20th century).
The opening movement of Rachmaninoff’s “All-Night Vigil” was sung in the original Old Church Slavonic, and Psalm 104 set by Estonian composer Cyrillus Kreek was sung in its original language.
These were beautiful examples of the Eastern European influence on the sonorities of present-day choral music.
The sacred half of the concert ended with “Seven Last Words from the Cross,” a striking setting of the Latin texts by Daniel Elder, a member of the choir.
This “purposefully virtuosic piece” earned one of the most extended ovations of the afternoon. Its jagged polyphony and harsh dissonances sought to depict chorally the agony of Jesus on the cross.
What a shock to follow this with settings of three texts from “The Simpsons” — yes, Homer and Marge, including such lines as “Marge, you make the best pork chops.” Paul Crabtree was the composer of these little miniatures that seemed a bit too serious musically with texts such as the one just quoted.
Norman Dello Joio’s setting of a riddle (“Of Crows and Clusters”) was the only piece accompanied by the piano, played brilliantly by John Hudson, a choir member.
Another choir member, Thomas LaVoy, set his mother’s poem, “White Stones,” about comforting a child who has nightmares, in a style that seemed reminiscent of the rather bland harmonic style of Randall Thompson (of “Alleluia” fame).
And then Dolly Parton (I kid you not), with her song “Light of a Clear Blue Morning,” arranged by Craig Hella Johnson. This, as Miller explained, reminded him of his days growing up in East Tennessee. Margaret Montoney was the effective soloist.
And so to the spirituals, including a rousing “Battle of Jericho” in the now-standard arrangement of Moses Hogan, not easy to sing, but with great effects from the highest soprano sounds to the lowest rumbles in the bass section.
This concert is always a highlight of the festival, perhaps the favorite event for many, and the good news is it repeats next Friday at 5 p.m. at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke and St. Paul.
The bad news: Only a few limited-view seats remain. But there’s good news again: The sound in the Cathedral balcony is superb even if the sight-lines are not.