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Westminster Choir undertakes new challenges at Spoleto Festival

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Path of Miracles

Westminster Choir in Joby Talbot's "Path of Miracles," with staging by John La Bouchardiere, at the 2019 Spoleto Festival USA.

The Westminster Choir, long a cornerstone of Spoleto Festival USA, typically gets a good opera workout. The young singers form the choruses needed to present original festival opera productions. But this year, with the Sottile Theatre closed for renovation, an important opera venue is not available and, along with it, opportunities for Westminster choristers to assume a role on the dramatic stage.

Problem solved: A staged production of Joby Talbot’s “Path of Miracles,” a musical pilgrimage about the Camino de Santiago, offered for a second time on Friday, May 31 at the Gaillard Center.

“We're looking forward to the fact that ‘Path of Miracles’ is the Westminster Choir alone,” said choral graduate assistant and choir member Jessica Huetteman. “While it's very exciting to work with the solo artists in residence or fellows, it’s really nice to have a moment where you get to do something different with a piece that's never been done before.”

Under the guidance of director John La Bouchardière and conductor Joe Miller, the Westminster Choir will be the second ensemble in the world to memorize the piece and the first to perform a fully staged version.

“The piece kind of represents the pinnacle of a 21st century choral work,” said Miller, who is also the director of choral activities at Spoleto. “It's very demanding, it's very spiritual and it’s very, very exciting to be able to do a stage production. It was written as a more of a concert work and we are actually fleshing it out, so it will be the first of its kind in the world.”

The choir also will perform Bach’s St. John Passion, in partnership with the Charleston Symphony Orchestra Chorus and Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra, on June 4 at the Gaillard Center, where Miller will take the podium once again.

“The St. John Passion is recognized as one of the greatest pieces of work for chorus and orchestra ever written,” said Miller. “It's kind of a monumental work with lots of moving parts, so it's just a huge project and it's very exciting for us to be able to bring that to the festival.”

Two programs of a cappella choral music are set for June 1 and June 7 at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church.

“What’s different about Spoleto is that we serve as more than just a concert choir,” Huetteman said. “So we like to incorporate semi-staging in our regular concerts where we move around and interact with each other and the audience. But in Spoleto, we do full-on staging as if we're putting on a stand-alone theatrical show.”

The Westminster Choir concerts at St. Matthew’ include a wide variety of material from around the world, Miller said. This year’s repertoire features works by Claudio Monteverdi, Stephen Leek and Ēriks Ešenvalds, and will honor the late Joseph Flummerfelt, who preceded Miller as the festival’s director of choral activities and as conductor of the Westminster Choir. Flummerfelt died in March.

The choir’s visit to Spoleto Festival this year comes at a moment when Westminster Choir College is embroiled in controversy over a potential sale by Rider University to the for-profit Chinese company Kaiwen Education. The deal was inked last year, but now is challenged by two lawsuits and contractual uncertainty.

Opponents of the sale fear the Chinese company, which is new to higher education, will compromise the integrity and future of Westminster Choir College. Rider University’s Director of External Affairs Anne Sears said it’s a long process involving litigation and she cannot comment at this time.

For now, the choir will focus on this year’s Spoleto performance, something Miller says is a foundational part of the member’s overall education.

“They're here four weeks a year and it just becomes part of their soul, part of their spirit, and they keep coming back afterwards to Charleston,” Miller said. “The singers really, really do fall in love with the city and the people.”

Mary Walrath is a Goldring arts journalist at Syracuse University.

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