Every year at this time, Westminster Choir returns, following an extensive tour, to reunite with the Princeton community through its annual Homecoming Concert.
What makes this year stand apart is that the choir really is going home.
To mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the ensemble, in addition to its tour of the western United States and its traditional concert at Princeton University’s Richardson Auditorium, the choir will travel to Westminster Presbyterian Church, in Dayton, Ohio, where it was founded in 1920.
“The choir will travel to Cleveland in April to be part of the Baldwin Wallace Bach Festival, which is one of the oldest Bach festivals in the country,” says Joe Miller, Westminster Choir College’s director of choral activities. That follows stops in Seattle, Boise, Salt Lake City, and Garden Grove and La Jolla, California.
“We’re going to perform the ‘St. Matthew Passion,’ and while we’re there, we’ll head over to Westminster Presbyterian Church. We’ll celebrate by actually singing the same homecoming concert, in Dayton, in the home church. It’s something we’re really looking forward to.”
That concert, “Appear and Inspire,” arrives in Princeton on Monday, January 27, at 7:30 p.m. The program features repertoire rooted deep in Westminster Choir’s history, with staples, such as Benjamin Britten’s “Hymn to St. Cecilia,” performed alongside works by Westminster Choir alumni such as Daniel Elder’s “O Magnum Mysterium.”
Also included will be a brand new work by Westminster faculty member Christian Carey, a setting of Psalm 96, “Sing to the Lord a New Song.”
Miller says, “To celebrate 100 years, I put together a program that really speaks to the fact that John Finley Williamson’s vision started as just a simple idea, and how it grew and grew and grew, and finally became a school, and how he used the Westminster Choir to fulfill that vision. The first part of my program all has to do with the development of that idea.”
He says the second half, which includes the Carey work, “is really just saying, now here are all the things that happened because this man was dedicated to his vision. The choir expresses this in singing new music, new songs, putting new music out into the world, and love and peace, and all the things that we hope are the great by-products of music.”
Benjamin Britten’s “Hymn” will be a cohesive element, its individual movements interwoven with other works.
“I love to do that,” Miller says. “I like to take kind of a single idea, or kind of a cantus firmus [existing melody], that’s going to go through the program, so it has a perspective or kind of a forward vision. I chose the ‘Hymn to St. Cecilia’ because it talks about inspiring musicians, and that’s exactly what the Westminster Choir has done. There are a lot of works that are 21st-century works, a lot of new works and new arrangements.”
Among those is a piece by Daniel Elder, whose music the choir documented most eloquently on the album “The Heart’s Reflection,” devoted exclusively to his music.
The homecoming program also includes works by Pawel Lukaszewski, Michael Ostrzyga, Steve Barnett, Toby Hession, Jake Runestad, and Jeffrey L. Ames, arrangements by Marshall Bartholomew and J. David Moore, and Arnold Schoenberg’s “Friede auf Erden” (“Peace on Earth”).
The concert is free, but tickets are required. It will also be simulcast on WWFM The Classical Network at 89.1 FM and streamed online at www.wwfm.org.
John Finley Williamson, widely regarded as one of the most influential choral conductors of the 20th century, founded the Westminster Choir in 1920.
Already in 1922, the choir was touring the country annually, with appearances at Carnegie Hall, Philadelphia’s Academy of Music, and even the White House, where the group sang for Presidents Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower.
The ensemble made its first commercial recording in 1926, the year Williamson established the Westminster Choir School, which employed a faculty of 10 and supported a student body of 60.
In 1932 the school relocated to Princeton. Classes were held at First Presbyterian Church and Princeton Theological Seminary until 1934, at which time the school settled into its present location at 101 Walnut Lane. The campus was dedicated with a performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B minor at Princeton University Chapel, with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski. Williamson retired as president of the college in 1958.
When asked to explain the difference between the Westminster Choir and Westminster Symphonic Choir, Miller responds, “Westminster Choir is our kind of elite touring choir — it’s 40 singers — and Symphonic Choir can be up to 200 singers. The big difference is size, and they sing different repertoires. Principal choir for orchestra performances is usually the Symphonic Choir, but we have done orchestra performances with the smaller choir as well.”
This season the Symphonic Choir has already sung Bach’s Mass in B minor with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Mozart’s Requiem, both in Philadelphia and with the New York Philharmonic. Yet to come are Philadelphia performances of Ravel’s “L’enfant et les sortileges” (The Child and the Enchantments), February 13 through 15, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, April 2, 4, and 5. Those concerts will take place at Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts. The choir and orchestra will take Beethoven to Carnegie Hall on April 3.
Recent seasons have included concert tours to Beijing and Spain, with the choir participating in the World Symposium on Choral Music in Barcelona. Closer to home, it presented Julia Wolfe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Anthracite Fields” at the historic Roebling Wire Works in Trenton, as part of Westminster’s Transforming Space project.
In addition to being director of choral activities at one of the world’s premier choral music institutions, Miller serves as choral director of the Philadelphia Orchestra. He is also one of the artistic directors at Spoleto Festival USA, the 17-day spring festival established in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1977 by Pulitzer Prize-winning opera composer Gian Carlo Menotti.
For the festival Miller has overseen acclaimed performances, in recent years of Joby Talbot’s “Path of Miracles” and John Adams’ “El Nino.” Westminster Choir has been chorus-in-residence at Spoleto since 1977.
Westminster Choir has been recording choral masterworks for nine decades. Its most recent album highlights Swiss master Frank Martin’s “Mass for Double Choir.” Another, “The Heart’s Reflection,” was the first devoted to works by the Westminster graduate Daniel Elder. “Noel,” a collection of French Christmas music, features Westminster alumna Jennifer Larmore, a mezzo-soprano, and organist Ken Cowan.
All of these recordings have drawn praise from major outlets in print, digital, and broadcast media, including American Record Guide, Classics Today, and Public Radio International. Concert performances have been lauded in the New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, and in newspapers around the country and around the world. Miller’s debut recording with Westminster, “Flower of Beauty,” inspired American Record Guide to describe the choir as “the gold standard for academic choirs in America.”
Westminster Symphonic Choir is a choir of choice for the nation’s great orchestras, including the Philadelphia Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra, and New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. It has also received invitations over the years to perform with touring orchestras, such as the Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic, and Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Conductors with whom the choir has performed include Leonard Bernstein, Herbert von Karajan, Eugene Ormandy, Leopold Stokowski, Robert Shaw, Arturo Toscanini, and Gustavo Dudamel.
It may come as a surprise that, for all his extraordinary ability as a builder of choirs, Miller did not come from a musical family. His father was a football coach who played on the Maryville Scots at Tennessee’s Maryville College in the first Tangerine Bowl (now the Citrus Bowl) in 1947. He coached also taught at Rule High School in Knoxville, eventually becoming the school’s principal.
His mother worked in the juvenile court system and as a secretary at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge. Oak Ridge National Laboratory is the Department of Energy’s largest science and energy facility and one of the main centers for nuclear development in the world. “It was the plant that built the atomic bomb,” Miller says. “And she also raised three children.
“I’m really the black sheep. I come from a long line of athletes and coaches. We’re a very athletic family but not a very musical family.”
To fill the void Miller gravitated toward and found a musical outlet in church. “I just had a love of singing from the time I was born,” he says. “My very first minister encouraged me to start singing in the adult choir. From the time I was about eight years old I started singing in the church choir, and that’s how I got started.”
Miller earned a master’s degree and doctorate in choral conducting from the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music education and voice from the University of Tennessee.
It was in 2006 that he took over the directorship at Westminster and established the homecoming tradition. In between, he did quite a bit of rambling.
“I taught in Tennessee and Washington State and California and Michigan,” he says. “I’ve kind of lived all over. It’s one of the things that has made me the musician and the person I am today. I feel like I’m a hunter-gatherer. I’m collecting things from all over and, that becomes part of my make-up as a conductor.
“One of the things I love about working with Westminster Choir is developing its international profile and being able to continue that journey, sharing the things that I’ve already learned in my life, but also learning new things by traveling and performing with them.”
Miller may have found a different calling, but that doesn’t mean he has wholly rejected the athletic life. When he is not busy being one of the world’s most influential choral directors, he enjoys getting out of the house. “I love to garden. I love to cook,” he says. “I’m kind of an outdoors person. I love to be outdoors and run and walk. I love living in Princeton. I love all of the commitment to land preservation and green space, and I love getting out into that space and enjoying the community. I really do love where I live.”
Westminster Choir College is a division of Rider University’s Westminster College of the Arts. There have been concerns, and what might be conservatively described as tensions, in Princeton and the broader musical community in recent years, first over Rider’s proposed sale of the college (in July, the university announced that a deal with Beijing’s Kaiwen Education Technology had fallen through), and now plans to integrate Westminster into Rider’s main campus in Lawrenceville. Ongoing lawsuits seek to end Westminster’s affiliation with the university.
Miller is appreciative of all the support the school has received throughout what has been a turbulent chapter in its history. “I know there’s still so much controversy and turmoil,” he says. “There are just so many people that deeply care about the school. And of course, we all appreciate that support and people wanting the school to be successful, and I’m confident that it will be.”
His programming of the homecoming concert, even at a time when it’s uncertain where the choir’s home will ultimately be, demonstrates that it’s still all about the music
“Basically, I hope it’s just a symbol of us moving forward,” he says. “We certainly all feel the gravity in all of our performances right now, in this time of transition, but I think we’re trying to really represent the very best, and kind of the deepest music that we can make, and not trying to pander to anything. We’re just trying to really deepen our roots and represent with this program.”
100th Anniversary Homecoming: Appear and Inspire, Westminster Choir, Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University. Monday, January 27, 7:30 p.m. Free (reservations required). 609-258-9220 or www.rider.edu.