James Jordan, professor and senior conductor at Westminster Choir College of Rider University, shares an unvarnished truth about worldly, sophisticated Princetonians who believe themselves to be “in the know” about nearly everything. “Princeton doesn’t know what a great school this is. Westminster is one of the great music schools of the world, sitting here, and most Princetonians don’t know it.”
Just in case we don’t get it, Jordan adds a few more facts: Every major conductor since Toscanini has conducted a Westminster choir with either the New York Philharmonic or the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra. Westminster was a favorite of Lenny Bernstein. It is the only college in the world whose focus is singing in a choir. Thirty-two people teach voice at the school.
Jordan is at Westminster for its 450 students. “Nowhere in the world do students sing like this,” he says. “The voice is an instrument. If you have a Steinway to practice on, why not?”
Jordan conducts Westminster Williamson Voices in “Music for the Challenged Spirit,” on Saturday, April 28, at Westminster’s Bristol Chapel. His accompanist and, Jordan emphasizes, collaborator is Marilyn Shenenberger. The soprano soloist is Lynn Eustis.
After conducting the chapel choir for first-year students for 12 years, Jordan was asked to create a new choir that would focus on “the choral music of our time,” with 40 auditioned voices. (The 400 students on campus are required to sing in certain choirs, but can enter others only by auditioning.)
Although Jordan characterizes the first two pieces in the program as “something of a downer,” they are, in the end, about the triumph of the human spirit. The first piece, “Annelies: The Anne Frank Oratorio,” by James Whitbourn, is based on the diary of Anne Frank, who died at Bergen-Belsen. The second piece, “Canticum Calamitatis Maritimae,” by Finnish composer Jaakko Mantyjarvi, is in memory of the sinking of the luxury ferry Estonia in the Baltic Sea in 1994, where 800 people died in the first 10 minutes.
Says Jordan: “These are two entirely different situations where people are confronted with an insurmountable life situation, where the human spirit helps them get to the other side or make sense out of an event as it happens.” With Anne Frank, it was about a combination of innocence and maturity, of honest assessment of her situation and hope in the future. “She was always seeing the good in everything,” says Jordan. “She always looked for the silver lining.”
As for the Mantyjarvi piece, he says, “It seems to me he has captured the suddenness of the event, the violence of the event, and the final resolution — the piece ends incredibly peacefully.”
The third piece on the program is Randall Thompson’s “Alleluia,” written for the dedication of Tanglewood and in celebration of the release of some of Thompson’s friends from a prison camp.
The seed of this concert was an experience last year when Jordan was asked to conduct Westminster’s Symphonic Choir in the piece “Son of God Mass” by James Whitbourn, a composer for the BBC. Whitbourn flew to the United States for the performance, and the two men became friends.
Last summer, Whitbourn wrote to Jordan about a piece he had just premiered with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London with conductor Leonard Slatkin, asking him if Williamson Voices could sing the North American premiere; Whitbourn accompanied the request with a promise that he would rearrange the piece for piano trio and a smaller choir. As Whitbourn writes in the program notes for the concert: “I have scored the instrumentation down to just three solo instruments: piano, violin, and cello. Why the piano trio? First, because all three instruments are capable of outstanding beauty, and have such distinct and complementary possibilities. Secondly, for this first re-scoring I wanted to explore the other extreme from the full orchestral scoring I had already completed and present the music at its most intimate and exposed.”
Jordan has read Anne Frank’s diary and has an ongoing personal relationship with the Holocaust. “It was an event that has always touched me deeply,” he says. His Polish-Catholic grandmother grew up in Krakow, where she had many Jewish friends, and she used to tell him stories of her childhood. He has also encountered many survivors who were parents of his students.
Jordan originally had an entirely different vision for the spring concert but found this music so compelling that he completely changed the program. Whitbourn’s oratorio represents, in fact, the first time that the Anne Frank Foundation granted permission to set her words to music.
The piece, says Jordan, provides an honest picture of Anne. “It was her inner strength and that ego of hers that carried her through.”
Anne’s diary entries, used verbatim in the piece, express both her despair and her hope. On October 29, 1943, she wrote, “I wander from room to room, climb up and down the stairs and feel like a songbird, whose wings have been ripped off and who keeps hurling itself against the bars of its dark cage.” Yet on March 7, 1944, she could still write “If you become part of the suffering, you’d be entirely lost.” And as late as July 15, 1944, she observes, “I see the world being slowly turned into wilderness. I hear the approaching thunder, that one day will destroy us too. And yet, when I look at the sky, I feel that everything will change for the better.”
Jordan heard the Mantyjarvi piece at the western division of the American Choral Directors Association convention in Salt Lake City. In a radio interview, he chastised himself for not having known about the disaster when it happened: “What stunned me about it is that I, who consider myself an informed human being, knew nothing about this disaster.”
According to Jordan, Mantyjarvi, who works as an English translator, is one of the leading choral composers in the world. “His writing explores all the colors of the choir in the most unique way,” he says. The original broadcasts were from a Finnish radio that broadcasts in Latin; the translations appear in the piece. The radio bulletins, which occurred at five-minute intervals, trace the ferry’s front being torn off through its tragic sinking. That day 910 people lost their lives, and only a little over 100 were saved. The piece also uses Psalm 107, which includes the verse “they that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters.”
As a conductor, says Jordan, “you have to figure out how to teach the choir.” He has developed a system of using Harmonic Immersion Solfege, a system of score analysis that focuses upon what is aurally perceived by the choir — do, re, mi, fa — which, he says, “is very different than anything used in the musical world right now. It allows people to take the notes off of the page quickly, to take their eyes off the notes.” He likes to teach choirs through listening, not through reading first. “It’s like a language; you learn to speak, then read.”
Solfege, he says, allows him to deal with the most important teaching he does with his chorus, helping them in “hearing the colors of a piece that the composer is trying to get and, for me, trying to understand the human message of the pieces.” Nova Thomas, on Westminster’s voice faculty, will speak to the singers about “being in that event” — “how do you live that music in front of people dramatically?”
Jordan wants the choir to understand where this piece lives in the life of Annelies (her full name) Frank. “What I try to do is encourage them to go to places in their lives that were similar; we have all been in desperate situations. Many parts of the piece are desperate and frightening — this is a young child not knowing.”
Jordan has known his soprano soloist for the concert, Lynn Eustis, who is on the voice faculty at the University of North Texas, for at least 20 years, since she was his student teacher in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. She went on to the Curtis Institute. As a frequent lecturer on the music of the Holocaust, Eustis will bring a special dimension to the piece.
When Jordan matriculated as an undergraduate at Susquehanna University, he was on a pre-med track but he had always loved music. He grew up in the coal regions of Pennsylvania, his mother a nurse and his father an automobile mechanic and avocational keyboard player. “On Tuesday nights my dad played in the Coal Region Band that read down the charts for Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey.”
Jordan says he was unhappy as a pre-med and switched to music education because he could play a little clarinet.
As for how he ended up in conducting, one evening he was catching dinner in Sunbury, Pennsylvania, and saw signs that said, “Concert this evening, the Luther College Nordic Choir, Weston Noble, conducting.” “That one concert changed my life,” he says. “I had never heard anything like that in my life and never sung in a choir but I felt this is what I want to do.”
As part of his music program, he had taken some conducting classes, and at age 20 got a job conducting for the First Baptist Church in Lewisburg. “It was an amazing little church choir,” he says, “mostly professional singers who taught at Bucknell University. I had no clue what I was doing but I could practice on them.”
Then Jordan heard about a choral conducting program at Temple University with Robert Page. From what he had learned from conducting the church choir, he says, he was able to audition there successfully. After he left Temple, Jordan worked for 10 years in a public high school program choral music program. Then, after a year at Penn State as conductor of the University Choir, he moved to the Hartt School of Music in Hartford, Connecticut, where he was chairman of musical education.
In 1991, he ghostwrote a book with Frauke Haasemann, who was on Westminster’s faculty but died before Jordan arrived. “She taught me everything I know about the voice,” he says. He calls the experience working on the book with her “the best independent study that anyone could every have.”
Soon after she died, he joined the faculty at Westminster. Today, in addition to conducting the Westminster Williamson voices he also teaches conducting, which he calls “one of my great loves.”
Jordan did his doctoral work at Temple with Edwin Gordon, the leading music psychologist of the 20th century. “The reason I did the degree,” he says, “was that I thought I wanted to learn more about how people learn music.” His dissertation focused on the application of the Laban approach, which comes from the dance world, to teaching rhythm. “One learns rhythm by learning how to displace weight as you move,” he says. “Within your body you feel weight shifts.”
He teaches his conducting students on the big Swiss exercise balls used in exercise studios, “It makes people aware of their body and alignment as they are conducting. They sit on them. If they are aware of their bodies, they will stay on, and if not, they will fall off.”
Jordan loves to write. He has just finished a 500-page work on choral rehearsal techniques but says the most favorite books he has written deal with “the philosophy and spirituality of being a musician”: “The Musician’s Soul,” “The Musician’s Spirit,” and “The Musician’s Walk.”
“I try to get musicians to understand that it’s they that make the music,” he says. “It is their being, and they have to know themselves.” It’s not just about singing notes, Jordan says. Musicians have to be “spiritually connected to what they do.”
Westminster Williamson Voices, Saturday, April 28, 8 p.m., Westminster Choir College, Bristol Chapel, “Music for the Challenged Spirit” includes the North American premiers of “Annelies: The Anne Frank Oratorio” by James Whitbourn, “Canticum Calamitatis Maritimae” by Jaako Mantyjarvi, and “Alleluia” by Randall Thompson. The select ensemble of 35 singers is conducted by James Jordan. $15. 609-921-2663.
A podcast about the performance is available at http://media.rider.edu/blog/westminster-music-for-the-challenged-spirit-a-discussion-with-james-jordan/performance.