Much hype emanated from the Westminster Choir about its lofty standards of performance prior to its recent visit to Christ Cathedral in Garden Grove. After its first-ever concert there Jan. 18, it must be reported it did not meet those standards—it SURPASSED them, thanks to the artistic leadership of conductor Joe Miller.
And the audience, giving the college-age group a lengthy standing ovation that coaxed not one, but two encores, agreed.
“They gave a virtuoso concert,” said Randi Larsen, who sings in Christ Cathedral’s adult choir. “I thought their blend was exquisite and beautiful and they captured the spirit of the music with depth.”
Indeed, the Princeton, New Jersey-based choir, coming from Westminster Choir College on its 2020 100th-Anniversary Western U.S. tour (Orange County being the fourth of five stops), was full of animation, not only giving meaning to the words but swaying and clapping to the music.
“He knows how to program for the choir, for the audience, for the venue,” said Marshall Onofrio, dean of Westminster College of the Arts at Rider University, referring to Miller, who programmed the entire first half to go without stop through eight old and new works and movements.
The centerpiece was the three-movement “Hymn to St. Cecilia,” Op. 27, by Sir Benjamin Britten. St. Cecilia is the patron saint of music; feast day: Nov. 22. However, Miller interspersed this hymn with other works, so one heard it one movement at a time. It soon melded into the soundscape of the surrounding works, so that this all sounded as one long piece.
The choir made Arnold Schoenberg’s early “Friede auf Erden” (Peace on Earth), Op. 13 (tonal, though chromatic), sound like a fitting end to this first half. The second half was more conventional but no less artistic.
“This commitment to excellence, which has been at the core of this choir for 100 years,” Onofrio continued, “was instilled by its founder, John Finley Williamson, who wanted to bring this excellence to the world.”
The concert began (opening movement of Pawel Lukaszewski’s “Responsoria Tenebrae”) with the choir utilizing the acoustics of the cathedral to the fullest (final chords sung in the lobby reverberated tremendously inside the cathedral). This led to Michael Ostrzyga”s “Canticum novum,” a slow procession down the aisles filled with whistling, whispering, vocal tremolos, audible breaths and overtone singing. In all these, the choir proved bold, risk-taking—and musical.
And all of which brought back memories for John Romeri, Director of Music Ministries and Organist at Christ Cathedral, who organized the concert on the cathedral’s end and is one of six alumni of Westminster Choir College working at the cathedral.
“The college is an amazing place with an amazing history singing worldwide,” said Romeri, who received an Alumni Award (Class of ‘74) from the college a few years ago. “It has a lush, rich, wonderful sound that Dr. Williamson taught that’s the legacy this choir maintains to this day.”