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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the March 24, 2004 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Joseph Flummefelt Bids Adieu

Five years elapsed between Beethoven’s first sketches for his “Missa Solemnis” and its first performance in 1824. That’s a long time. The work was a carefully constructed piece of large dimensions. More than three decades have elapsed between choral conductor Joseph Flummerfelt’s arrival at Westminster Choir College of Rider University and his official departure, which takes place in June. That’s a long time. The dimensions of his tenure as Westminster’s artistic director and principal conductor since 1971 have been large both musically and geographically.

As a final celebration, Flummerfelt, with his hefty musical experience, conducts the 150-voice Westminster Symphonic Choir and its Festival Orchestra in a performance of the massive Beethoven work on Saturday, March 27, in Patriots Theater of Trenton’s War Memorial. “Missa Solemnis” and Flummerfelt are a good fit.

Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis” is too big for an ordinary church service because of its length and its musical complexity. Besides, Beethoven’s religious beliefs lay outside the confines of organized religion. Looking to performance of the piece in concert halls, rather than churches, Beethoven retitled the Kyrie, Credo and Agnus Dei movements of his “Missa Solemnis” “Three Grand Hymns with Solo and Chorus Voices.” On the manuscript of the piece the deeply spiritual Beethoven wrote, “From the heart — may it return to the heart!”

Flummerfelt’s outlook overlaps Beethoven’s. He told U.S. 1 (October 2, 1996) “The only way music comes alive is if we get behind the sound and understand the human spiritual impulse. We should not mistake surface for substance and be too dazzled by virtuosi performance. Music comes from a deep human place. The creative gift is a spiritual one.”

The conductors with whom Flummerfelt has collaborated are a roster of the world’s orchestral leaders. Since 1977 he has been director of choral activities for the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, South Carolina. Choirs he has prepared can be heard on more than 40 recordings. He holds four honorary doctoral degrees and has harvested two Grammy awards.

Andrew Megill, now a Westminster faculty member, studied at Westminster with Flummerfelt for his masters degree in choral conducting, and has been Flummerfelt’s associate at the Spoleto Festival. “His leaving creates a vacuum,” Megill says (U.S. 1, December 10, 2003). Still, he is sanguine about the staying power of Flummerfelt’s philosophy of choral music. “We learned from him that great music-making does not happen because of the big ego of a conductor. Great music-making means facilitating all the singers in a chorus to express their passion. It’s not just expressing the conductor’s passion. We’ll miss [Flummerfelt’s] genius, but he has taught us that the music is important, and that what we can offer to the world is beyond what any individual can offer.”

— Elaine Strauss

Celebrating Joseph Flummerfelt, Westminster Choir College, Patriots Theater, Trenton War Memorial, 609-984-8400. Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis” with soloists Sally Wolf, soprano; Laura Brooks Rice, mezzo-soprano; Scott McCoy, tenor; and David Arnold, baritone. $20 adult; $15 students & seniors. Saturday, March 27, 8 p.m

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