Home in Princeton after six performances in Florida, the Westminster Choir deepens its roots in the community by repeating its touring program for Princeton audiences with a free program. The concert takes place on Monday, January 24, in Richardson Auditorium on the Princeton campus. Joe Miller, director of choral activities at Westminster Choir College of Rider University, and architect of the project, conducts. “This program is a gift to the community,” he says in a telephone interview from his home before he left for Florida. There is no charge, but tickets are required.
The last time Westminster presented a major free concert was in 2000 when Joseph Flummerfelt conducted the Westminster Symphonic Choir performing Brahms’ Requiem at Richardson. Needless to say, it was packed.
The Westminster Choir is selected by audition from students at Westminster Choir College (WCC). It has been the chorus-in-residence for the annual Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, South Carolina, since 1977. Judging from the blog of choir member Daniel Garrick, the Florida tour was a refreshing experience. Garrick reports that, in addition to delighting audiences, choir members managed to swim in the ocean, as well as visit theme parks during the week in Florida.
The program is titled “The Cloud-Capp’d Tower.” The name comes from the setting by Ralph Vaughan Williams of text from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” which includes the much quoted phrase “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.”
Miller explains that the program is text-driven, being based on settings of great poetry. Its only performances are in Florida and at the free concert at Richardson.
Did he have difficulty choosing pieces? “Omigosh!” Miller exclaims. “There were so many things to choose from.” When David Osenberg asked him the same question in an interview on WWFM, he said, “There was an incredibly long laundry list of pieces that I wanted to do.”
The program includes two premieres. One, “To a Locomotive in Winter,” by Finnish composer Jaakko Mantyjarvi, is set to a Walt Whitman text and was commissioned for the Westminster Choir in 2010. The other, by chorus member Kieun Steve Kim, uses “The Human Touch,” a poem by Spencer Michael Free, which conductor Miller likes to read to groups with whom he works. The text praises the importance of human contact.
Inspired by the poem, Kim set it to music and left the piece on Miller’s desk. “I didn’t tell him beforehand,” Miller says. “But I brought it up as an interesting new piece at a choir rehearsal. Not everybody noticed that the composer was a member of the choir.” Graduate assistant conductor of the choir and choir member Michael Fuchs conducts the piece at the concert. Because of the simplicity of Kim’s piece Miller programs it immediately following the complex Mantyjarvi piece for maximum contrast.
The Mantyjarvi piece has 16 parts and is the most difficult piece on the program, Miller says. “It has an East European flavor; the writing for men is in a low register. When I discussed the commission with the composer beforehand, I asked for a piece with a dramatic quality to it and sent him recordings of the choir. I didn’t tell him which text to use, and Mantyjarvi came back with a setting of Walt Whitman. The text has to do with our region of the country. It’s a poem of industrial romanticism; Whitman was enamored of trains. The piece will be done at Spoleto this year.
“Mantyjarvi is one of the most brilliant young composers writing choral music today,” Miller says. “He was a translator for the Finnish government and speaks about 11 languages. His music has an epic quality. Sometimes he uses simple ideas in very sophisticated ways.”
As he talks about the program, Miller helps us see the world the way a leading choral conductor looks at it. “There is a trend for contemporary choral music to have a greater level of sophistication than before,” he says. “The quality of choirs in the United States is growing and so is their sophistication. The U.S. is catching up with the rest of the world. The quality of instruction in the U.S. is improving.
“Jazz and minimalist components are common, but each contemporary piece on our program is idiosyncratic,” Miller says. As an example, he cites a piece with a Latin biblical text from “The Strathclyde Motets” by James MacMillan, who was born in 1959. “The MacMillan hearkens back to 15th century Scotland,” Miller says. He finds another example of uniqueness in “The Spheres” from Ola Gjeilo’s “Sunrise Mass.” Born in 1978, Gjeilo uses only the Greek text “Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison” in the piece. Gjeilo says, “I used a kind of overlapping fade-in/fade-out effect, to give a sense of floating in space, in darkness and relative silence, surrounded by stars and planets light-years away.” Miller notes, “The piece is completely atmospheric. It will transport the audience to a different world with its timeless quality.”
Miller believes that choral singing has the capacity to move both listeners and performers beyond the confines of the concert hall. “The choir that can make all the individual lines speak has the greatest transformative power,” he says, referring simultaneously to Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden,” to Gjeilo’s “Kyrie,” and to the Mantyjarvi commission. All three pieces are polyphonic and integrate multiple melodic lines in one composition. “Such pieces take the listener to different places. The many different layers, woven together, form a blanket of sound made up of individual parts.
“Both the audience and the performers are able to meditate when it’s done right,” Miller states. “Such pieces have the power to make you stop and be in the moment, taking time for repose and reflection. That’s becoming increasingly hard in our society.”
Miller is particularly sensitive to what he calls “pure intonation.” Except for the Bach “Lobet den Herrn,” all the pieces programmed are sung a cappella, without accompaniment. The Bach motet is accompanied by cello, double bass, and keyboard — instrumental underpinnings that stress the fundamental bass line.
‘Pure intonation is most possible with a cappella singing,” Miller says. “A choir can tune notes to suit the piece and produce expressive intonation.” Keyboard instruments, with their fixed pitches, are unable to enhance a piece by shading pitch. “The piano is always out of tune,” Miller says.
“The expression ‘That struck a chord with me’ refers to vocal music,” Miller says. “When a chord is struck in the purest way, it has the power to evoke feeling.”
This year’s Florida tour is part of WCC’s long-term plan for making its presence felt throughout the country. “We go to different regions each year,” Miller says. “The school reaches out to the country and the world. Last year we went to California and the west coast; the year before, we went to the midwest.”
Florida was a promising destination this year, according to Miller. “We have a large contingent of alumni in Florida and were hoping that others from the southeast would come,” he says. “In addition, the Florida Music Educators Association was meeting in Orlando, and invited us to sing for the conference. We would have gone to Florida even without the invitation.”
As director of choral activities at WCC, Miller oversees eight ensembles. He is the founder and conductor of the Westminster Chamber Choir, a program that exposes professional-level choral and vocal artists to challenging works for two weeks each summer on the Westminster campus.
Miller, 44, was born in Tennessee and was appointed to his position in 2006 after a three-year search. He succeeds Joseph Flummerfelt, who came to Westminster in 1971 (U.S. 1, November 8, 2006). Miller has conducted choirs in California and Michigan.
Miller was raised as a pianist and has played trombone and French horn. In addition, he has performed as a vocal soloist.
“Joe” is Miller’s official first name. For a very brief period he tried to follow the counsel of an advisor who thought that “Joseph” sounded more professional. The informal Miller soon abandoned the practice. “Joseph Miller wasn’t me,” he says.
Westminster Choir, Westminster Choir College, Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University. Monday, January 24, 7:30 p.m. “The Cloud Capp’d Towers: Poetry and Choral Artistry.” The program features “Three Shakespeare Songs” by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Ruckert Lieder by Gustav Mahler, and works by J.S. Bach and Georgy Sviridov. Register. Free. 609-258-9220 or www.rider.edu/arts.