An excellent Westminster Choir makes the most of 'Legends'

Westminster Choir

As usual, the Cathedral Church of St. Luke and St. Paul was the site of the Westminster Choir's "choral miscellaneous" concert.

Under conductor Joe Miller, this concert is now themed and choreographed dramatically to make use of the space.

"Legends" was the theme of this concert, building backwards from Eriks Esenvald's "Legend of the Wall-Up Woman," a rather dire Albanian folk tale, sung behind the closed west doors of the Cathedral after Daniel Elder's "Elegy."

This led to more music of mourning for the sacrifice the woman has made: Johannes Brahms' exquisite "Naenie"; an Alleluia by a Westminster student, Alejandro Consolacion, glossing on Randall Thompson's famous setting of the word; and a Lord's Prayer in Latin by Renaissance composer Jacob Handl, which sounded more like Brahms than the Renaissance with a choir of this size.

After Maurice Durufle's "Ubi caritas," a sudden wrenching shift to "Buffalo Gals ("Charleston Gals" was substituted) Won't You Come Out Tonight," then "Nelly Bly." The sublime to the ridiculous, indeed. But it helped relieve the tension.

Daniel Elder, a graduate of Westminster Choir College and a successful composer of choral music in the Lauridsen/Paulus/Whitacre idiom, was the author of "Ballade to the Moon," and the "Elegy" which bookended this part of the concert.

Folksongs and a spiritual formed a sort of coda to the whole, the choir sounding a bit tired by that point. The end of "Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal" in Alice Parker's famous arrangement went out of focus and out of tune.

But then there was wonderful "Shenandoah" arranged by James Erb, which featured some of the best soft singing of the evening, and pristine unison singing, very hard to get.

"I'll be seeing you" and the Peter C. Lutkin Benediction were encores.

So the sum was at least as great as the parts. Enough variety, though only two pieces with piano and no extra instruments as in past years.

The "Legends" format worked well enough, even if it required a verbal explanation (mercifully shorter than the nine-paragraph explanation printed in the program). There were no texts provided, so the emphasis was on the general mood of the music.

The choir sounds better this year than last, and as always there were a number of opportunities for solos, assigned to interesting voices, giving some variety to the sameness of the choral tone.

Ensemble was excellent, and Miller conducts with minimal gestures, letting the focus be on the choir, from which individual members move and react with a little too much animation (from my vantage in the third row, probably it is better for those farther away).

This program repeats 5 p.m. Sunday.