Joe Miller, conductor of the Westminster Choir, has selected two pieces from opposite ends of the choral repertoire for the ensemble’s next concert: Giovanni Carissimi’s “Jephte” (circa 1648) and David Lang’s “The Little Match Girl Passion” (2007).
They come from “completely different sound worlds,” Miller says in a telephone interview from his office at Rider University’s Westminster Choir College. The concert, titled “Daughter,” takes place on Friday, March 13, at 8 p.m., in Princeton Meadow Church and Event Center in West Windsor.
Despite the gap of more than 350 years in their composition, the two works share a common theme. “Both are tales of neglected women who endure situations beyond their control,” Miller says. “They are tragic stories.” The victims evoke a feminist response from Miller. “We must keep telling these stories so things will change in the future,” he says.
Both pieces, being oratorios, have similar structures. Each draws on Biblical passages and includes narrative sections as well as commentary and expressive interludes.
“Jephte,” generally accepted as Carissimi’s masterpiece, is based on a passage from the Old Testament book, Judges. Jephte promises that if he is victorious in his battle with the Ammonites he will sacrifice the first person to greet him when he returns home. That person turns out to be his daughter. The Biblical telling ends as the nameless daughter goes off into the mountains, bewailing her virginity.
Choir members Thomas Lynch as Jephte and Olivia Greene as the daughter solo in the leading parts. Supporting solo roles are sung by Mike Williams, Kanisha Felciano, Paige Kenley, Jordan Carroll, Temple Hammen, Will Doreza, Sachi Aoki, Nicola Bertoni, and Jessica Kerler.
“The Little Match Girl Passion,” a 2008 Pulitzer Prize winner, is based on Hans Christian Andersen’s 1845 story. The unnamed main figure, whose father beats her, tries to sell matches on the street. In the cold, attempting to keep warm, she strikes some of the matches. By their momentary flickering, she has visions of warmth and comfort. Ignored by passersby, she freezes to death. Composer Lang notes that his piece sets Hans Christian Andersen’s story in the format of Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion, interspersing Andersen’s narrative with my versions of the crowd and responses from Bach’s Passion. “There is no Bach in my piece and there is no Jesus — rather the suffering of the Little Match Girl has been substituted for Jesus’, elevating.her sorrow to a higher plane,” he says.
Miller goes beyond bare-bones performance for the presentation. In the case of “Jephte,” he has added movement and drama to the oratorio, as well as costumes. While the chorus wears all black, the two soloists are in costume. “Oratorios are not meant to be staged,” he says, “but lend themselves to it.”
“Daughter” performances are scheduled, not only for Princeton, but also for Charleston, South Carolina, where the Westminster Choir has been the resident choir for the Spoleto Festival USA since 1977. An enlarged version of “Match Girl,” including choreography, is planned for South Carolina, where “Daughter” is to be performed on Saturday and Sunday, May 30 and 31.
The Lang composition appears frequently in musical venues. The Institute for Advanced Study presented a riveting performance of “Match Girl” by the Crossing in October, 2014. Ten performances of the work, including that of Westminster Choir, have been scheduled by different ensembles during the month of March in venues including Hong Kong, Germany, Austria, England, Holland, Canada, and the United States.
Asked about the difficulty of handling the divergent styles of the 17th-century Carissimi piece and the 21st-century Lang piece, Miller has no doubts about the capabilities of the 40-member Westminster Choir. “I would be careful with any other choir,” he says. “But the Westminster Choir is able to go in and out of any styles.”
The instrumental support for the two pieces in the “Daughter” presentation illustrates the style differences: “Match Girl” is virtually unaccompanied. “Jepthe” calls for a variety of instruments played by Brad Balliett, Jodi Beder, Rachel Begley, Amy Leonard, Francis Liu, Anne Peterson, Adriane Post, Gwyn Roberts, and Daniel Swenberg.
Since the instrumental score of “Jephte” consists of a continuo line — a prescribed bass part — and melodies are absent, Miller devised instrumental parts. “I re-created the piece with orchestral doublings,” he says. “I wanted to add texture to the choral parts and to stay true to the style of the oratorio. The parts that I devised are open to ornamentation, especially at cadences [musical points of arrival], and to exemplify certain emotions. That improvisation is up to the players. We’ve hired skilled players familiar with the style. I don’t know what they will do. We’ll play around and explore at rehearsals.” Participating instruments include theorbo, a plucked instrument in the lute family; portative organ, a small portable organ; harpsichord, baroque bassoon, string instruments, and recorders.
Unlike “Jephte,” “Match Girl” calls for minimal instrumental intervention. “Basically, it’s a cappella,” Miller says. “The prescribed percussion instruments are used for effect.”
In “Match Girl” single players in each of the four vocal sections — soprano, alto, tenor, and bass — use a designated instrument. Sopranos are assigned a brake drum and sleigh bells. The brake drum — your car has one of these — is obtained from a Philadelphia percussion rental business. The alto section uses crotales — “small round brass discs” that Miller says makes “that sound like a bell, ring like a glockenspiel, and make a high ‘ping.’” A tenor plays a glockenspiel, making a sound more delicate than the crotales. The bass section uses a bass drum and tubular bells (chimes).
“Jephte” opens the “Daughter” program. “I wrestled with the order,” Miller says. “‘Jephte’ is bigger and more sonic than ‘Match Girl.’ But ‘Match Girl’ is so atmospheric that I couldn’t imagine going to anything else after. ‘Match Girl’ has to be the thing left in the mind of the audience.”
Miller was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1965, to a father now retired from teaching and from coaching football, and to a mother now retired from her work with neglected children for the Tennessee juvenile court. He was six years old when his immediate predecessor, Joseph Flummerfelt began his 33-year tenure at Westminster in 1971.
Miller’s instruments are piano, trombone, and French horn. He first studied singing as an undergraduate. After earning a bachelor’s degree in music education and voice from the University of Tennessee he earned master’s and doctoral degrees from the College-Conservatory of Music, University of Cincinnati.
From 1994 to 1999 Miller was director of choral and vocal activities at California State University in Stanislaus, 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
Miller arrived at Westminster in 2006. He is chair of the Conducting, Organ, Sacred Music Department and director of Westminster’s choral activities. As director of choral activities he manages the eight or so ensembles at the school, tending to the schedules of all the ensembles, including those directed by other conductors. He conducts both the Westminster Choir and the Westminster Symphonic Choir.
The 40-member Westminster Choir is selected from the 190-person Westminster Symphonic Choir, consisting of juniors, seniors, and graduate students at Westminster Choir College. Beyond the college community, the Westminster Choir and the Westminster Symphonic Choir are probably the best known of Westminster’s choral groups, appearing repeatedly with distinguished orchestras. The Westminster Symphonic Choir performs with the Philadelphia Orchestra in Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” Wednesday, April 1, and Friday, April 4, and Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass” Thursday, April 30, through Sunday, May 3.
Miller is reluctant to talk about his legacy at the school at present. “I’ve tried to go back and strengthen the original mission of the choir college,” he says. “Choral music is the heart of the institution. It’s a matter of making music together, building a community that is always learning and growing. The greatest professional excellence stems from doing things together. It’s a matter of putting people first.”
“Choir is not the only thing we do. But it’s the heart of what we do. Everyone takes from that; everything comes from the community. Sacred music continues to be a strong part of Westminster’s mission.”
“I want to do more than present music in just a stand-and-sing way,” Miller says. “I want to break barriers.” If it had occurred to him, he might have said, “There’s more to singing than “park and bark.”
Daughter, Westminster Choir, Princeton Meadow Church and Event Center, 545 Meadow Road, West Windsor. Friday, March 13, 8 p.m. $15 to $20. 609-921-2663 or www.rider.edu/arts.