Westminster Choir wrung tears from the crowd

Choral Dreams

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In more than a decade of covering Westminster Choir , I (and my thesaurus) have long since run out of superlatives to describe their singing — as I realized anew after Friday afternoon’s WC concert at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke & St. Paul: the first of their two festival appearances (identical programs). Make that three gigs, if you count their additional choral-orchestral concert next Monday night.

As they have in recent years, these fabulous singers conspired with Dr. Joe Miller, their director, to come up with an extra-memorable way to begin the concert — and, again, they succeeded. They divided their forces into two sub-choirs: one positioned about halfway down the main aisle with the other at their normal performing position at the church’s front. Thus configured, they launched into The Spheres, from contemporary tunesmith Ola Gjiello’s Sunrise Mass. The number is hypnotic and overlaps choral lines with a sort of “fade-in/fade out effect” that’s designed to evoke floating about in the cosmos.

I was seated roughly halfway between the two groups, so — glory be — I got to hear it in stereo! Then, as the rear choir rejoined their colleagues up front, a quartet of low voices intoned what sounded like a brief bit of medieval organum: one step removed from ancient plain-chant. Once reunited, the entire bunch then serenaded us with a gripping motet by another top contemporary composer: “All Power is Given unto Me,” from the Strathclyde Motets of James MacMillan. All of the preceding numbers were Latin settings.

Then it was on to a pair of terrific German-language pieces, beginning with one of the wonderful (and difficult) motets of J. S. Bach: his Praise the Lord, All Ye Nations. You couldn’t help but pick up on the intermittent smiles on the singers’ faces (when their open mouths allowed them) and the swaying of their bodies as they negotiated the piece’s tricky counterpoint. Bach’s fugues may be complex and brainy, but they’re great fun to sing (and to hear). This piece that was instrumentally supported by a basso continuo ensemble consisting of double bass, a pair of cellos, and keyboard set to organ sounds.

We next heard I am Lost to the World, by Gustav Mahler (arr. Clytus Gottwald), an impressive piece in which assorted solo voices faded in and out of the rich and dreamy choral textures.

From there, almost everything else was sung in English. Also, I noticed that there were no music folders in the musicians’ hands — and, sure enough, they ended up singing the entire concert from memory, something I can’t recall them ever doing before. The first three pieces in our native tongue were by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Have you ever heard a choir pretending to be a train? The afternoon’s novelty was To a Locomotive in Winter, a piece that the choir commissioned from Finnish composer Jaakko Mätyjärvi, who’s getting lots of attention these days from choirs everywhere. Setting a poem by Walt Whitman, it’s a marvelous piece of choral impressionism. Not only could the listener pick up right away on the train-sounds, but you could even hear cunning vocal evocations of chilly wind and falling snow. The crowd loved it. So much for the misguided notions of those who maintain that there’s no real music being written nowadays.

The final set contained three diverse selections that belonged, more or less, to the folk song category. The only non-English piece was the middle one: “Magpie Chatter,” a Pushkin setting by Georgy Sviridov. This one served as the concert’s comic relief, with singers popping in and out of the constantly “chattering” chorus to deliver solo peeps and squawks.

Before that, we got the lovely Alice Parker/Robert Shaw arrangement of Annie Laurie, deftly conducted by the choir’s assistant conductor, Michael Fuchs. The final number was — what else? — a spiritual … and there’s nothing quite like the deep emotion, spiritual ecstasy, and sheer beauty of a good spiritual. We heard Set Down Servant, a potent choral depiction of heaven’s joys. Soloists Marcus Jordan and Kevin Bertin added a touch of idiomatic authenticity. Hankies fluttered as many listeners, overcome by the music’s emotion, dabbed away tears.

Our raucous standing O (these guys never fail to get one) earned a sweet encore of I’ll be Seeing You in All the Old Familiar Places, the great popular song of farewell by Sammy Fain. And they followed that with their customary parting blessing: The Lord Bless You and Keep You, with sevenfold amen.

After that, there was hardly a dry eye in the house. Great choral singing does that to you — and choral singing just doesn’t get any greater than this.

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