The centerpiece of the Westminster Choir’s Thursday afternoon program was Benjamin Britten’s setting of a text by W.H. Auden, “Hymn to St. Cecilia.” This year marks the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth. Appropriately he was born on St. Cecilia’s Day, Nov. 22, always an inspiration for his muse.
Handel and Purcell had contributed settings of Cecilian poems in their day, so Britten asked Auden to write a text in which there is a refrain, “Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions to all musicians, appear and aspire.”
This helped conductor Joe Miller pick a theme that held together what was otherwise the usual traversal of choral literature from the Renaissance (an exquisite Kyrie by Victoria) to five pieces written by living composers.
Gustav Holst’s richly scored neo-modal Nunc Dimittis and a vigorously performed J.S. Bach double-choir motet followed the Victoria.
Britten’s score, written during World War II, was given a solid reading by Miller and his choir, singing from memory as they did the entire program.
The remainder of the program was lighter and included three songs with a French text about women. We needed the texts to really appreciate what the composers were up to. This was especially true in two works by Daniel Elder (b. 1986), beautiful textures that rendered the English texts incomprehensible.
A spirited arrangement of “Ride in the Chariot” by choir member Brandon Waddles, who played the piano part with great style, ended the formal program before and encore and the (required) Peter C. Lutkin Benediction.
The sound of the choir under Miller is full-bodied and even a bit too loud in the loudest passages, where chords almost go out of focus. But all in all this was one of the best programs in the Miller era. The emphasis on Eastern European choral music seems to have waned in favor of a much more balanced approach to programming.
This program, given at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke and St. Paul, repeats Monday at 5 p.m.
William Gudger is an organist and retired professor of music.