For Westminster Choir director Joe Miller, performing during the Spoleto Festival USA at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke and St. Paul feels like a homecoming.
“We love singing in that space,” said Miller about the cathedral on Coming Street not far from the College of Charleston’s campus. “I love the reaction and the response that we share with the audience.”
Since the festival’s beginning in 1977, the Westminster Choir has been the chorus-in-residence. Over the last 38 years, the choir has earned its reputation for vocal brilliance. The choir’s opening concert is today at 5 p.m. at the cathedral.
“We do a lot of conceptual programming, which means we program things that will have a storyline to them or a central dramatic theme,” Miller said. “Sometimes I’ll pick the core of that part of the dramatic theme and we’ll use that section of our repertoire to sing at Spoleto.”
Today’s program explores the struggles and rewards of invention, ranging from the plans for a flying machine to the formation of love in a blossoming romance. The concert includes Eric Whitacres’ “Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine”; Frank Martin’s “Mass for Double Choir”; Bach’s Cantata 79, “Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild”; and seven other works.
While Miller tends to program pieces the choir has not yet performed for Spoleto audiences, he certainly sees the value in presenting familiar works at the festival, he said.
“There will be some things that the audience has heard the Westminster Choir sing for many years and I do like to have some of those pieces,” he said. “I like for everyone to have a little bit of a teddy bear, something that they remember and feel good about.”
One familiar piece Miller is programming is a scene from Philip Glass’s opera “Kepler,” which the choir performed when the work made its North American premiere in 2012.
Founded in 1920 in Ohio by John Finley Williamson, the Westminster Choir soon prompted the creation of the Westminster Choir College, in 1926, which eventually moved to its permanent home in Princeton, N.J., and operated independently until 1991, when it merged to create Rider University.
The choir has performed across the country and around the world. It traveled to the Soviet Union in 1934, and it opened the Carnegie Hall season in 2007.
For some members, Spoleto is one of the highlights of their season. Graduate assistant conductor Max Nolin, 24, who will sing with the choir, said that performing at the cathedral is one of the festival experiences he cherishes.
“The church is not just remarkable acoustically, it’s so beautiful,” Nolin said. “The old architecture from the era feels untouched in many ways.”
The cathedral, which was built in 1810 and stayed in continuous use through the Civil War, is mostly devoid of ornamentation save its richly painted chancel, the area behind the alter. The building is renowned for its acoustics.
“One of my favorite musical experiences was singing at Spoleto,” Nolin said. “The crowds who come are fans, they get what we do.”
This year, the choir will present two additional programs, but it is not participating as the ensemble in an operatic production as it has in the past. This change will allow the choir to focus completely on choral singing, Miller said.
Their second program called “Daughter,” combines Giacomo Carissimi’s “Jephte” with David Lang’s “The Little Match Girl Passion.” In their closing program, the choir will collaborate with the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra, Taylor Festival Choir and musicians from New York Baroque to present Bach’s “St. Matthew’s Passion.”
Seamus Kirst is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.