Choral director to stretch music offerings

Westminster Choir conductor Joe Miller leads the choir during rehearsal for their upcoming concerts.

Taking over a position held by the one person for over 30 years is perhaps an unenviable task, particularly when that person is as beloved as choir conductor Joe Flummerfelt. Yet Joe Miller, the new director of choral activities for Spoleto Festival USA, is more than up to the challenge.

Miller, 48, officially succeeds Flummerfelt this season. He previously inherited Flummerfelt's position as director of choral activities of Westminster Choir in 2006.

"I've learned a tremendous amount from him," Miller said. "His love and understanding of what the mission of the festival was, and the deep value he has for the longevity of the festival. His view of the festival is probably the biggest thing, the heart that he had for it."

While Miller shares many of Flummerfelt's values, he said he will introduce a range of new repertoire.

He said he plans to bring a wide range of musical material and new multimedia ideas to assist with audience development.

An example of that new repertoire includes John Adams' 2000 opera-oratorio "El Nino," a retelling of the Nativity story from a modern perspective. Miller led a staged performance of the work at Memminger Auditorium.

"I think it's a brilliant piece, it's masterful," Miller said. "I had the opportunity to perform it with John Adams in Carnegie Hall several years ago. I fell completely in love with the piece, so when I began presenting works for Spoleto it was on the very top of my list."

"El Nino" premiered during opening weekend, and has been well-received, thanks in no small measure to Miller's confident, precise conducting.

Miller, born in 1965 in Tennessee, did not grow up among musicians, he said.

"My attraction came through church," he said. "I grew up in a tiny Presbyterian church in Knoxville, and that was the only classical or formal training that I had. Even from a very young age, I began singing in the choir there. It was really through church that I learned my love of choral music."

Miller took that love and went on to earn a Bachelor's degree in music and education from the University of Tennessee and both a masters and doctorate in choral conducting from the College-Conservatory of Music at University of Cincinnati.

It was there he met Dirk Garner, now the director of choral activities at Baldwin-Wallace Conservatory of Music, where Miller has had a residency in the past. Garner was a fellow student at the College-Conservatory, and he spoke of the impression Miller left on him.

"He's a consummate musician," Garner said. "He seems to have an innate understanding of instruments, of how to bring the best out in people's voices."

The term "consummate musician" was used by another of Miller's colleagues, Amanda Quist. Quist met Miller at Western Michigan University when he auditioned for a position there in 1999, which he held until his hiring by Westminster in 2006. Quist was immediately impressed by his energy and his ability to engage and inspire.

"His ability to hear and know a score is remarkable," Quist said. "He's able to pull from the depths of who he is and his experiences and marry that with his ability to know the score."

Quist eventually followed Miller to Rider University and Westminster Choir College, where she now serves as an associate professor of conducting. Although she has spent only four years at Westminster compared to Miller's eight, she notes the sense of community that he's fostered.

"They were in transition, and transitions are always hard," Quist said. "He's done a good job of bringing people together, and engaging the alumni, continuing to foster a great relationship with the important orchestras."

Garner concurred, adding that Miller has "brought Westminster into the 21st century with their tour and their repertoire."

That repertoire includes Westminster's upcoming Spoleto performances: "Legends," centered around a piece by Erik Esenvalds, and "Te Deum," featuring two versions of the Christian hymn of praise, one by the baroque composer George Frideric Handel, one by the Minimalist composer Arvo Part.

"I think it is a theological supershock," Miller said of the "Te Deum" pairing. "That's one of the things I like about it so much. We have a very modern piece that sounds ancient and an old piece that sounds so celebratory that it could have been written today. This great text of praise by Part is complete introspection, with a sense of belief done in a very meditative way. In the Handel, the text is a celebratory, brass choir."

Miller's reason to combine those disparate works for the program?

"My curiosity," he said. "I had no association with the Handel before we started, which is perfect for me. It's a new angle to look at Handel. That's a very big part of my life."

Through the joys and hassles of programming not only his own program, but Spoleto's whole choral slate, Miller continues to push for excellence in himself and others.

"I try to learn everything that I can," he said. "What I talk to my students about is (trying) to decompose every piece."

"But to me the most important thing is the 'why,' " Miller said. "Why was it written? Why this piece? Why with an orchestra? Why a capella? As I do that, I begin to pull back the layers of history, harmony, theology, literary value, whatever there is."

Max O'Connell is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.