Thoughts on Hearing a Westminster Choir Concert

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.

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13 thoughts on “Thoughts on Hearing a Westminster Choir Concert

  1. A few thoughts come to mind: 1) The “Westminster Sound” died the day George Lynn walked off that campus. 2) Regarding Flummerfelt: Dr. Lynn famously said “I wouldn’t buy a can of tuna fish from a fish salesman who doesn’t eat fish.” Flummerfelt was an instrumentalist. 3) It is ironic that the Soprano sound is now like the St. Olaf choir – a bunch of pooting piccolos. In our time, St. Olaf represented the antithesis of the Westminster choral sound. I remember when the St. Olaf Choir visited WCC and our student body sang the “Star Spangled Banner” arr. by Hal Johnson. Those Olaf students were wide-eyed – they had never heard a sound like that. I also remember the memorial service for Dr. Lynn when then current (Flummerfelt) students looked around because they couldn’t figure out where that sound was coming from, particularly the tenors. It was the “Williamson” sound coming from the alumni – a sound which they never heard before.

    I’ve always wondered why no one in charge ever told the voice faculty or the conductors to go to the library and listen to the many recordings of Westminster Choir under Toscanini, Bruno Walter, Stokowski or Bernstein – prepared by Williamson, Martin, Brown and Lynn – and tell them – THAT is the sound we require.
    — Bob Edwards ’68

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    • Bob, I understand how many alumni reflect on their WCC days and think fondly of the “Westminster Sound,” but one must also consider that times, and music, are ever changing. As someone who attended Westminster recently, I can say without a doubt that most (if not all) of the current students are exceptional musicians and human beings who wish to honor their predecessors with as much respect and dignity as possible, while also adding their own interpretations and “flavor” if you will. I’m sure that the first graduates of the school back in 1920 would have found differences in the sound of the class of 1968. While I’m all for constructive criticism, anything that bashes not only the Westminster name and what is has become, but also the current students and faculty who are giving their lives and love of music to this magnificent institution is not only unproductive, but against the equality and tolerance towards all that Westminster teaches

      On another note, who is to say that instrumentalists can’t make great choral directors? I had the wonderful opportunity while at WCC to have a few rehearsals with Dr. Flummerfelt and he was astounding. He gave amazing insight into the Brahms Requiem which we performed that semester that I was unable to receive from any of the faculty choral conductors. I am a pianist, flutist, and vocalist. I refuse to acknowledge instrumentalists differently from vocalists, because we are all providing love and peace through music.
      -Holly Gordon, ’13

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      • To quote you: “I’m sure that the first graduates of the school back in 1920 would have found differences in the sound of the class of 1968.” You are SURE? Really? You are “sure”? Again, you make a statement as fact when, in fact, you have no facts! Mrs. Williamson heard the Westminster Choir under George Lynn and told her daughter it was the finest Westminster Choir she had ever heard. “Daddy would have been proud of George” were her exact words.

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  2. Interesting article, Ralph. It’s great to see that you’re still the same guy you’ve always been — strong and passionate in your opinions. I wouldn’t want that to change.

    If you’ll permit, I’d like to offer a few reflections of my own, as a student who was in the immediate post-Lynn era. I sang in the Westminster Choir under Elaine Brown (who took us on tour but Warren Martin rehearsed us) in 70-71. We still definitely had the post-Williamson influence on tone, and we “let go” on everything. And as a result everything sounded like Brahms (including our Palestrina), and it wasn’t uncommon at all for us to flat 1/2 step or even more in the course of singing a selection. When Flummerfelt came in my senior year I didn’t audition for the choir, due far more to the tough experience of the tour the previous year (it was a grind) than to Flummerfelt himself. That said, as a Pate student and as one sold on the “Westminster sound” at the time, I was resistant to the change that Flummerfelt was bringing. I remember hearing the Westminster choir on tour about 5 years after I graduated. They opened with a series of Renaissance pieces, and I marveled at the clarity, intonation, and transparency of the melodic ideas in the point-of- imitation style motets. It was beautiful, and something my own Westminster Choir never could have pulled off (no disrespect at all to Elaine). At just about the moment I was starting to miss that old Westminster sound, they sang selections from the Liebeslieder Waltzes, and there it was! The tone was as full and rich as ever. And that’s when it hit me: that the tonal concept should be adjusted to the period and style of the music! That’s an idea that certainly wasn’t revolutionary at the time, but was alien to schools like St. Olaf and Westminster because of their “signature sounds.” (The odd thing is that, from what I understand, Williamson himself evolved somewhat in his tonal concept over time, due to various influences, such as hearing the Russian choirs in his travels there. But apparently because of his charismatic personality, his students would take whatever tonal philosophy he espoused at that time as the “gospel” that should be utilized for all time.) So I give Flummerfelt a lot of credit for bringing Westminster “kicking and screaming” into the mainstream of choral thought at the time — something long overdue, in my humble opinion. And ironically, Ken Jennings and Anton Armstrong (a doctoral classmate of mine) have done the same at St. Olaf. Yes, in a way it’s sad to see the “signature sound” go, but it’s not really gone. It’s just applied judiciously to the styles of music that invite it.

    One other thing to note regarding your comments about “straight tone” singing. (By the way, when I’ve heard the Westminster Choir and others using what you would call straight-tone technique, I would argue that it’s a minimally-vibratoed sound, not a straight tone. If you heard the two consecutively, you’d hear the difference.) The choral music that is very well-received today utilizes a more tightly-packed harmony, with any and sometimes all of the scale degrees of a key being sung simultaneously. Composers such as Whitacre, Lauridson, Eric Barnum Eriks Esenvalds, Ivo Antognini and others fall into this category. To sing their pieces with the “Westminster sound” would be a disaster, because the full vibrato on chords that tightly packed would not allow the listener to discern the different pitches of the chord. It would sound like mush.

    Now I obviously wasn’t there to hear the concert you described, and had I heard the Poulenc along with you, I might have agreed with your opinion. But I have heard the Westminster Choir under Joe Miller’s direction, and the other choirs at Westminster during alumni week a little over two years ago, and the sound is still impressive and vital! But so is the musicianship, the intonation, the sensitivity to melodic ideas and contrapuntal layers, and tone adjusted to style — aspects that I now feel were left somewhat lacking in the old Westminster choral sound. And, as someone who has been active in ACDA and who has attended his share of ACDA conventions, I think Westminster is greatly appreciated and respected by that organization. I also feel that if MY Westminster Choir were to sing for them today, that probably wouldn’t be the case.

    This is just my own perspective, and I’m not writing this to try to rebut your own take on the state of WCC, but only to offer a different view. Music is an art with all of the various subjective opinions that go with any art form. That’s what makes viewpoints about it so contentious and fascinating at the same time. Hope you feel the same.

    Again, as always, I love your passion for music and appreciate hearing your viewpoint. Hope I’ll see you at a future WCC alumni gathering.

    Chuck Livesay – ’72

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    • Thanks Chuck. And conversely, one could always count on your levelheadedness, a characteristic of which I have always respected and enjoyed. I agree with much of what you say here; and, in fact, touch on that in my essay. It’s pretty big and sometimes when one is finished reading they forget the positive things I had to say such the pitch accuracy, musicianship. As I said: “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.” among other things. I’m not so dogmatic as insist that everything be the “old sound;” my concern is as I stated: “…this [straight-tone] type of choral singing has its limitations, just as singing in full vibrato does. A balance must be found.” I just wish people would give things a little more time to digest and think about something they read and not react to confoundedly emotionally.

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  3. Hello Ralph,

    I figured I might as well chime in here as a recent graduate from the Choral Conducting master’s program at WCC. I don’t usually leave open public comments in this way, but since Westminster is something that is so dear to me, I feel impassioned to enter the discussion, but to also give you a chance to respond.

    First of all, I understand that many of the current WCC students and recent alumni have taken a very emotional response to this article. I know that this kind of reaction may be very frustrating to you, considering the fact that you really are trying to start a critical discussion here, rather than simply defame the choir. This being said, I don’t blame them for this emotional response–these students have worked incredibly hard on something, and they have poured their heart and soul into that program by traveling across the country with it. I remember that by the end of tour, that tour program became a part of us all. When someone makes any attack on that, it can feel very personal, even though I’m sure that was not your intention. But, I digress…

    While I can’t speak for current members of the choir or current students at WCC, I thought I might give a little insight as to what parts of your response were hard to settle with me personally. I am not really interested in discussing your take on “straight-tone” vs. vibrato, because I believe that you made your point well, and any comments I had to the contrary were addressed very eloquently by Chuck Livesay above. Besides, this is an ongoing discussion had by so many different people, and what you said is and important argument to consider.

    What struck me as off-putting–and perhaps misinformed–were the comments about our current faculty, both in the conducting and voice department. While I understand the point you are making about preserving the traditional Westminster approach to teaching, I don’t think it’s fair to make a negative judgment on the quality of the faculty just based upon their prior connection to the school. Our current faculty has proven themselves through their teaching as world-class quality, and they have done an impeccable job of balancing Westminster’s deep-set traditions while also striving to constantly improve and adapt our programs and philosophies with the changing times. I believe that a school, just like any other institution, should strive to constantly grow instead of digging its philosophical heels into the ground for the sake of tradition. I also believe that outside perspectives and insight serve to strengthen the school, not weaken it. Yes, tradition is very important, especially to a place like Westminster, but I truly believe the current faculty IS in fact reverent to our strong tradition. Many of my longtime mentors went to Westminster years before me, and when we discuss the different practices of the school, while many have changed and evolved, many remain very much the same to this day. Joe Miller has an impeccable amount of respect for those who built on the school before he arrived, and everyone I know who worked with Joseph Flummerfelt has said the same of him. To say that they are a part of the reason that Westminster no longer has a unique sound (a point with which I personally disagree) is unfair. In fact, these are two people who have contributed to Westminster’s rich history and contributed to their unique and signature sound, which is always evolving. People who have studied with them are a part of their legacy and a part of Westminster’s legacy as a whole. There is no reason that we should cast doubt on their ability to contribute to Westminster simply because of their prior connections to the school before being hired.

    Additionally, I have to respectfully disagree with your comment that Rider and WCC are seeking to exclude alumni from joining the faculty. Sometimes, a WCC alumnus/alumna may not be the right choice for the school. I sat in on two separate student panels for new hires last year, and in both instances, I believe the administration made the correct choice based on candidate lecture performance, pedigree, experience, intention, and student response. There were some alumni who were turned away–but, speaking as a student who sat in on each sample lecture, alumni were not always the right fit. In my experience, this has been true for every school I have attended, and it is currently proving true for the school I currently teach at. Yes, there is some intrinsic value to being an alumnus or alumna of a school when it comes time to hiring; however, if another candidate proves to be stronger in all other categories and garners a more positive student response, then they are the right choice.

    Now, I don’t know who the alumnus is that you are referring to when you speak about Chapel Choir, but I will say this: Amanda Quist, Chapel Choir’s current conductor, has been such a remarkable leader of that ensemble, providing students with the strongest possible foundation of vocal technique, musical skills, and reverence for the school’s tradition and mission. I worked with her closely being one of the Graduate Assistants for Chapel Choir in my second year of study, and I can vouch firsthand for her dedication towards creating a sense of musical and choral community that is unique to WCC. Needless to say, the choir sounds incredible every year under her. Diminishing her impact on the community at WCC because of her lack of prior connection to the school is very unfair.

    I guess my overall point is one of promoting loyalty and respect not just for Westminster’s past, but for its present and future. No current faculty member should feel belittled or lessened because they do not have a Westminster education under their belt, and no current student should feel as though they aren’t getting a legitimate WCC education because they aren’t studying under Williamson. Westminster Choir College has stood the test of time, but it has also evolved and grown into something that I believe our founders would be very proud of, even if it is in a different place than it once was. The world is an ever-changing place. Music is no exception. The school is in an excellent place, and our reputation stands strong on a national level, thanks to our dedicated and talented faculty, and the faculty who came before them. They have all contributed endlessly–both those who had strong connections to WCC and those who did not. I am proud to call myself an alumna, and I will continue to send my students to Westminster to get a world-class choral education.

    I hope that my take on all of this has been helpful to you, and shed light on another perspective. While I disagree with you on certain points, I do appreciate that you care enough to write such a detailed response to a concert, and I also appreciate that you still go to these concerts to support our wonderful school.

    Cheers,
    Nicola Bertoni ’15

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    • Here is the simple point: The current sound of the choir is not up to the standards set by Williamson. To repeat a comment made earlier, I do not understand why not one single person in authority doesn’t tell the current faculty to go to the library and listen to the recordings of Westminster Choir as prepared by Williamson, Martin, Brown and Lynn – the sound that was so valued by Toscanini, Bruno Walter, Stokowski and Bernstein – and demand that that sound be restored. The sound of the choir dropped dramatically with the departure of George Lynn. There simply is no comparison. There is no excuse for the LACK OF VOCAL DEPTH and maturity of sound in the subsequent choirs.

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    • Nicola, I agree wholeheartedly to your response. It is elegantly worded. If I may add one thing to your part on chapel choir and Amanda Quist, it is to say that Sun Min Lee, my chapel choir director and Dr. Quist’s predecessor, was a graduate of Westminster as well, and she was wonderful. She used all of her education from both Korea and WCC to influence her teaching style. Everyone who studied under SML was inspired to improve their musicianship far beyond what we thought was possible walking into Westminster with little idea how beautiful it really is to make music there. Amanda Quist definitely has added to that. I left Westminster after the fall 2011 semester for very personal reasons, but the most memorable and impressionable moments of WCC surround my private lessons with Jim Goldsworthy (I was a piano primary), and all of my vocal opportunities. I hope alumni of Westminster are proud of what we have all accomplished there. Like we both have said, music and the world are ever changing and it is imperative that everyone keeps that in mind. I know in the past 3 years that I have not attended the school there have been some drastic changes, but the school and its legacy live on in a wonderful amalgamation of the school’s history and future.

      Holly Gordon, ’13

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      • You need to check your facts. There are hundreds of WCC grads who were prepared for concerts with Bernstein under George Lynn. Beethoven 9th, Berlioz Damnation of Faust. THE MAHLER 8TH. and others. We sang the unofficial premiere of the last movement of the Chichester Psalms at graduation with Bernstein present where he gave the charge to the seniors. You need to learn history, as well as the vocal production that earned Westminster Choir its unrivaled reputation.

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      • Oh, one more point: Bernstein recorded the Poulenc Gloria and the Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms with Westminster Choir. It was one of Columbia records biggest sellers. No “straight” tone required!

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  4. I’m a music teacher on Long Island. I was hoping to take our chamber choir on a field trip to hear a WCC concert. Should I have second thoughts? Would you recommend a different experience for high school students, many of whom are seriously inclined to study vocal/choral music in college? I don’t know if Yale ISM would put on a comparable choral performance, or who else in the remote area is worth traveling to see. Thanks.

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    • Hello Miguel,
      Sorry to take so long in replying. I’ve been thinking about your request; and, I would seriously consider Montclair State University. It’s pretty close by and Heather Buchanan is doing “stunning work,” as a friend of mine would say. Check it out. I Hope this helps

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