The cornerstone of a great live performance — and what separates it from a canned experience — lies in the exploration of space. While a piece of music can be preserved across a host of formats and passed through generations, it loses the immediacy of experiencing it live, of knowing that at this moment your audience and your audience alone are sharing in your art. With Angels, members of the Westminster Choir focus on the agony of personal loss and the transcendence of spirituality, all while inviting the audience to join them as they fill the sanctuary of St. Matthew's Lutheran Church.
"The whole performance is going to play off of the architecture of the room, so we'll start down on the floor, and as the program goes on, everything will be lifted up toward the sky," says Westminster conductor and director Dr. Joe Miller. "The choir will end up in the loft above the audience. We are depicting this transcendence from earth to heaven in the performance, and the architecture in St. Matthew's is perfect for that."
For this one-night performance, the Westminster Choir will fill St. Matthew's with music from Giovanni Battista Pergolesi's 1736 composition for the Stabat Mater and Gustav Holst's 1911 Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda. Beginning with the earthly, the Stabat Mater is a 13th-century Catholic hymn detailing the suffering of Mary at Christ's crucifixion. Although set to music by scores of composers since its inception, Miller singles out Pergolesi's take as incredibly dramatic and incredibly moving, owing much to its wonderful baroque aesthetic.
Moving from Mary's grieving at the foot of the cross, Angels will rise both thematically and literally as the choir works its way upward to the loft of St. Matthew's Church and the Hymns of the Rig Veda.
"The Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda are these ancient Islamic texts, and they deal with the elements. They deal with sunlight. The first hymn is the 'Hymn to the Dawn,' and it deals with water and the sun rising through the mist," says Miller, who describes these compositions as some of the most heavenly works he knows. "These are about reaching out to nature and to the earth. The last one, the song to the travelers, are about people moving forward in life. It's kind of the midpoint of the program as we leave earthly life and reach toward things that are greater or unknown. Reaching toward heaven."
Also incorporating a composition by American composer Abbie Betinis titled "Be Like the Bird," Angels aims to offer a female perspective on transcendence and the divine spirit of a woman. From the foot of the cross to the wings of a bird, the program ends with a movement describing the arrival into heaven, being sung into paradise by angels.
As the choir moves throughout the church, the acoustics of the performance will shift. Voices will resonate off of different spaces, taking distinct advantage of this unique space. For this reason, the choir will arrive in Charleston with much left to nail down for the show. Having heavily acquainted themselves with these compositions, they will still need to determine exactly how the inner workings of St. Matthew's will respond to these works. But therein lies the excitement and artistry of bringing such a performance to Spoleto.
"You're not going to find many times in your life, even if you are in the musical community, to hear those pieces, especially a piece like the Holst. And that's what is exciting," Miller says regarding the choir's selection of material to present at Spoleto. "We find ourselves always trying to weigh this balance between what is artistic and what is entertaining and wanting to play that balance. There is all this great repertoire and people that want to say things in new ways, something that is trying to be relevant to society today, to draw those ties. I think trying to find that distinctive voice is something that we are always trying to do at Spoleto."