Signalling a generational leap, Joe Miller has taken over as director of choral activities at Westminster Choir College of Rider University. He succeeds Joseph Flummerfelt, who held the position until 2004 with the title of artistic director and principal conductor. Miller was six years old when Flummerfelt began his 33-year tenure at Westminster in 1971.
Appointed after a three-year international search by a faculty committee, the cheerful Miller, 41, conducts his first public concert on Saturday, November 11, at Bristol Chapel on the Westminster Choir College (WCC) campus, leading the 40-member elite Westminster Choir in a carefully-engineered program.
The Westminster Choir is selected from the 150-member Westminster Symphonic Choir, which is composed of upper-class and graduate students. Miller led the Symphonic Choir in a concert at St. Paul’s Roman Catholic Church, Princeton, in late October.
“Joe” is Miller’s official first name, he reveals during an interview in his bright WCC office. For a very brief period he tried following the counsel of an advisor, who thought that “Joseph” sounded more professional. Miller soon abandoned the practice. “Joseph Miller wasn’t me,” says Miller, who is a master of directness.
Maurice Durufle’s 1947 “Requiem” is the featured piece on the November 11 program, and occupies the entire second part of the concert. Miller uses the version of the piece that calls for organ and solo cello. Although Durufle died in 1986, his works are tied musically to an earlier musical tradition.
Five shorter works from an assortment of European countries are programmed before intermission: Francis Poulenc’s “Exultate Deo” (France), Jaakko Mantyjarvi’s “Ave Maria” (Finland), Trond Kverno’s “Ave Maris Stella” (Sweden), Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Der Geist hilft unsrer Schwachheit auf” (Germany), and Veljo Tormis’ “Curse Upon Iron” — “Raua Needmine” (Estonia).
Explaining the thinking behind the November 11 program, Miller says, “With this being my first performance, I wanted to offer variety. The program is purposely eclectic. One of my themes is preserving and strengthening the fabric of the past. The Durufle is a link to the past.” The work is also part of Miller’s personal past. “I did it at Western Michigan and Cal State (where he held director of choral music positions previously),” he says. “It’s my signature piece.”
Miller accounts for the early part of the program by calling the sacred pieces of Poulenc (1941), Mantyjarvi (1991), and Kverno (1976) “three motets by great contemporary writers.” In addition, he describes noteworthy features of the other two pre-intermission works. “The Bach is very athletic,” Miller says. “It’s for a double choir and has an eight-part fugue.” That’s a lot of polyphony. In Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavichord,” the keyboard compendium of multi-part music, the most layered fugue has only five parts.
The Tormis piece “is a tour de force,” Miller says. “It’s accompanied by a shaman drum. It’s not easy to find a shaman drum player. But we happen to have a graduate student in choral conducting at Westminster who was formerly a professional percussionist.” The dissonant piece concludes the first portion of the concert, which otherwise consistently avoids dissonance. Based on the Kalevala, the Finnish epic, Tormis’ composition is an allegory about the evils of war and was banned by the Soviet regime.
Choral director Miller was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1965 to a father now retired from teaching and from coaching football, and a mother now retired from her work with neglected children for the Tennessee juvenile court. His elder brother, Jon, has a name as short as Joe’s, and both have red hair. Joe’s elder sister, Elizabeth Anne, the sibling with the long name, is known as Libby. Miller attended the University of Tennessee. He earned master’s and doctoral degrees from the College-Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Miller taught high school in Tennessee before moving elsewhere. “When I left, I left,” he simply states. His family still lives in Tennessee.
“I was raised as a pianist, and played trombone and French horn,” Miller says. He first studied singing as an undergraduate. At the beginning of his career, he worked in musical theater and opera. Somewhat later, he performed Lieder as a recitalist and was a soloist in oratorios. I ask Miller if he thinks it’s important for a conductor to have performed, and he fires back decisively, “Absolutely.”
“Performing strengthens the conductor’s understanding of ensemble,” he says. “You get to know the incremental steps that lead to performance. As a performer, you have to sequence the building blocks of performance. The conductor has to have a clear idea of the steps by which a soloist masters a piece. You start with notes and rhythms. Then comes breathing and resonance — articulation and vowel production. The last part is diction and expression. Expression comes not only from singing; it’s produced with the face and body.”
From 1994 to 1999 Miller was director of choral and vocal activities at California State University in Stanslaus, California. From 1999 to 2006 he was director of choral studies, professor of music and voice area chair at the Western Michigan University School of Music in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Miller still performs occasionally as a soloist but the number of his performances is gradually decreasing. “As my career develops, the window for performance gets narrower,” he says. “Now I’m performing on the podium.”
Trying to understand how Miller operates, I ask him what is uppermost in a choral conductor’s mind. “A choral conductor thinks most about how the text is being delivered,” he says. “Articulation, intonation, phrasing, melody, and rhythm — all are part of it. You have to express the emotion. Diction has a huge scope in the program we’re doing on November 11. There’s more enunciation in some pieces, and more legato in others. It depends partly on the language, and partly on the musical setting.”
Miller is still settling into Westminster Choir College. He is well on the way to occupying fully the office he chose on the third floor of Williamson Hall, WCC’s main building, and giving it his personal imprint. A coat rack and a stack of diplomas have yet to be hung on the wall. Miller’s denim jacket is draped over a music stand. A Yamaha grand piano and a full-length mirror are in place. The large L-shaped desk is uncluttered and holds only a laptop computer and a compact printer. There is still room in the bookcases for additional books, scores, and CDs.
Located below the clock tower of Williamson, Miller’s office is known as the “tower room.” Open the door from the access corridor, and one passes first through a narrow passageway before reaching the office proper, where light from windows at the upper level of the room bathes the space. For me the passageway is a transitional connection offering an opportunity to change pace. Since one must first negotiate the passageway, it is hard to barge into the inner haven of calm and competence from the outside. At the same time, the access route binds the two.
Maybe the setup is a symbol for Miller’s outlook about his role at Westminster Choir College. He is eager to maintain the link to what his distinguished predecessor, Joseph Flummerfelt, has created. Still, he wants to make his own mark.
What is it like to follow in the footsteps of Flummerfelt, the man who led WCC to a worldwide reputation for excellence? Miller says that no one seems to mind that he is not his predecessor. “I talk with him often and look to him for support,” Miller says.
Actually, about two years ago, before he knew that he would come to Westminster, Miller met Flummerfelt. Flummerfelt had been invited to conduct at a congress of choral directors in Michigan. Miller’s Western Michigan choir was one of four university choirs at the meeting and Miller was a tenor soloist. “I had no idea about the future,” he says.
Is he comfortable carrying on Westminster’s choral tradition? “What I’m doing here fundamentally is what I’ve done in other positions,” Miller says. “The exciting part is that this institution is centered on singing and on choral art. It’s very specialized but the supporting aspects of its program have great diversity.
“Joe Flummerfelt put his stamp on the program here. I have to put my stamp on it in my own way. I imagine that the Westminster sound will change to reflect my values. My characteristic sound is an absolutely flexible one with many colors. Sometimes it has to be clean and articulate, sometimes warm and mellow, so the sound of the ensemble changes from period to period, and from piece to piece. You have to make singers aware of the versatility of their voices.
“Westminster is already widely known,” Miller says. “My vision is to get what we’re doing at the school out into the world even more and make our presence felt even more in the United States and internationally.”
Westminster Choir, Saturday, November 11, 8 p.m., Westminster Choir College, Bristol Chapel. Durufle “Requiem,” Poulenc’s “Exultate Deo,” and works by Mantyjarvi and Bach. Conducted by Joe Miller, the new director of choral activities, in his inaugural concert with the group. $15. 609-921-2663.