I’ve been thinking about a concert I recently attended given by the Westminster Choir. This is the elite touring choir that, as the folks at Westminster Choir College of Rider University say (Ugh! I still can’t get used to the idea that Ray Robinson had the insolence to convince the board to negotiate the sale of a first of its class music school to a second rate university after dragging it it down into financial ruin), is the core of the larger and more public Westminster Symphonic Choir, which most people hear as the choir performing large scale works with an orchestra such as the upcoming Gustav Mahler Symphony #8 with the Philadelphia Orchestra this spring.
The Westminster Choir is an excellent choir by most standards of what is currently the current vogue in choral singing. And that’s what bothers me — the current, or should I say dominant, vogue in choral singing in which choirs, no matter what their make-up or the period/style is, sing with no vibrato, particularly in the women’s voices. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not so dogmatic as to insist that straight tone not ever be used — I don’t think Monteverdi should sound like Verdi. Which is why I found the William Byrd Miserere mei, Deus particularly compelling. The problem lay in the 19th and early 20th Century works specifically the Brahms “An die Heimat” from the Op.64 Three Quartets, the wonderfully lush Aftonen of Hugo Alfven (of Swedish Rhapsody #1 fame) and the Debussy Trois Chansons. What I find disturbing is when romantic music (yes, including the Debussy since they were written in 1898) such as this is given the English boy choir effect they lose their richness and warmth. Typically it’s the sopranos which are the primary (but not the only) culprits for the harshness, sometimes brittleness that results from singing in this manner.
Most glaring, however, was the Poulenc Mass in G Major. Now, the Poulenc Mass is a fiendishly difficult piece. The tessiturae have a tendency to be high particularly for sopranos and baritones, who seem to be considered more as second or third tenors having to sing E’s and F#’s frequently. Notwithstanding, the men sounded fine. For some reason it’s okay for men to sing in full voice but not so much the women. Even then, since the range for the altos isn’t quite so demanding their vocalism sounded more natural. Unfortunately, the sopranos have to deal with an uncommonly high tessitura and are therefore more exposed. And that is my point: singing this music with an English Renaissance vocalism can come off hard and quite literally tiresome to the listener. The listener gets this uncomfortable feeling (empathy) during high notes, and is at best just a hard, cold sound. One doesn’t sense that singers are singing from above the note but are reaching for it. No matter how well placed their breath the effect is anything but a beautiful sound. The Mass in G is not a piece to be sung in the “straight tone” manner. I really don’t care what the justification is, this type of choral singing has its limitations, just as singing in full vibrato does. A balance must be found. I’m sure Joe Miller thought that he was achieving this balance; but it’s pretty clear that he reflects the overwhelming prevalence toward straight-tone on most, if not all, choral singing. The rest of the concert was made up of a lot of inconsequential, highly unmemorable pieces, with possible exception of Ev’ry Time I Fell the Spirit as arranged by William Dawson; which significantly was one of the few moments where the choir had the opportunity to “sing out” so to speak. But, full throated singing shouldn’t be relegated to just loud pieces.
I really just wanted to concentrate on the choral sound of the Westminster Choir, but this “Angel Band” and “Tapestry of Voices” thing was at best kitschy and more than not, simply obnoxious with all the overtones of the current trend in “pop” style church music. This whole idea of having people write down what they’re supposedly feeling at that moment and then photographing them for inclusion into some collage back at the WCC campus smacked of not just a little disingenuousness. I mean, seriously, who is going to write down “irritated” or “depressed” or “pissed off” and then have their photograph taken for public display? Then there was the “Angel Band” with the “fiddle,” banjo, guitar, and electric bass with its faux Appalachian flavour and the little interludes where members of the choir would take some of these photos and put them into a bowl before the audience; some singing in their pop, soul, or “broadway” style of singing. I was not impressed with either the singing or the phoney sentiment. I suppose it was fitting that the setting was a Catholic church.
Back to the choral sound. Westminster used to represent a unique concept of choral singing. It’s a type of choral singing which requires a certain physicality; choral singing which requires a particular type of vocalism: one which uses a full vibrato (though not always), and a solid diaphragmatic attack. It’s the kind of singing that a performance of the Beethoven Missa Solemnis Op.123 with the full New York Philharmonic only needs a choir of 80 — as opposed to 180 or more — voices. It’s the kind of singing in which the overtone produced makes a piano’s strings ring sympathetically. It’s the kind of singing in which one soprano can float a pianissimo G over the entire Symphonic Choir with enough overtone to sound like an entire section. I heard none of that at the concert. With the rather ironic exception of the Byrd, which, even with the period style had a warm, yet crystalline beauty, and the very delicately handled Stephen Paulus Hymn to the Eternal Flame which bookended the Byrd, that rich tone, that overtone I mentioned earlier, was seriously missing in Poulenc. The Dawson was closer but still seemed a bit thin compared to when George Lynn would to a spiritual.
This special sound (whether you like it or not) was cultivated, perfected if you will, over many years by WCC’s founder John Finley Williamson; and was maintained its continuity by his students who also made up the majority of the voice faculty and the entire conducting faculty. A student, whether a voice major or a voice minor (EVERYBODY had to study voice) could go from a choir rehearsal to a voice lesson or class and get the same training; each was an extension of the other. Such is not the case today. Beginning with Ray Robinson replacing George Lynn (who presciently resigned in 1971) with Arthur Sjogren as the touring choir conductor, and then hiring Joseph Flummerfelt the following year to head the conducting department, therefore leading both the touring and symphonic choirs, foretold the beginning of the end to the Westminster tradition of choral singing and conducting.
Today, out what is ostensibly 32 voice teachers (practically, if not all of which are adjunct) only five have had any Westminster training and only two of those from teachers who learnt from a Williamson student. Of the 5 members of the choral conducting faculty — the foundation upon which WCC was built — NONE are Westminster grads. Is it any wonder that the Westminster Choirs no longer have the sound that was unique to Westminster Choir College? In fact, I personally feel Rider U and its little musical toy WCC have made a conscious effort to exclude Westminster grads of more traditional training from the conducting faculty. Why else would they pass up on a more than qualified and devoted Westminster alumnus with more than sufficient experience and a solid Westminster background for some one who has had absolutely no prior connection with the school to be the conductor of the Chapel (freshman) Choir, the choir upon which all other Westminster choirs had been (not now) built?
Nevertheless, let me reiterate: the Westminster Choir I heard at that concert was very good. Musicianship was superb, intonation was as close to immaculate as a 40 voiced primarily a cappella choir can get, especially in meeting the tonal challenges presented by the Poulenc Mass. Nevertheless, it could have been better; particularly the sopranos. Too many times when singing those A’s and B’s the sound was not a beautiful sound, but piercing. Not shrill or screechy but hard and and lacking warmth. A little more focussing of the breath with some natural vibrato would have gone a long way to making those fortissimo moments a little less brittle and more sumptuous.
I realise I’m in a decided minority here, the odd man out so to speak. But, that’s okay with me; as an organ student at WCC (it was still an independent school then), I was essentially the only unabashed Virgil Fox devoteé among a very purist minded organ department. But now the pendulum has swung back in the organ world where not everything needs to be played on an Arp Schnitger type instrument. Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening anytime soon in the choral world, especially at my old Alma Mater.