A Tempo: Westminster's Readings and Carols Performances Shine Light Amid Clouds of Uncertainty

Dec 15, 2017

Four years into his studies at Westminster Choir College, senior John Franek was still finding himself caught up in the emotions and spirit of the school’s annual Readings and Carols as he prepared to chime the “basso profundo” D2 bell that rings in Joy to the World, the final carol on the program.

“Once they were on the final verse of Silent Night, that’s when I really got chills,” said Franek, following last Saturday afternoon's performance, knowing he had just one final Readings and Carols performance later that evening. “If anything, the very first thing I felt was just how realistic that moment was. It’s so grounding, it’s just full circle, where I’m walking underneath the chancel where I was once singing in the Chapel Choir as the senior holding the bell. I know tonight, I think tears are on the way for me, at the very least.”

This year marked the 25th anniversary of the Princeton-based choir college’s Readings and Carols, a collection of seasonal works and inspirational readings modeled on A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from Kings College Cambridge. There was also an additional sense of heightened emotion, as uncertainty hovers over the future of the school, whose parent, Rider University, is searching for a buyer for the renowned choir college.

Established  in 1992 by professor James Jordan, now head of the Westminster Conducting Institute and conductor of the Westminster Williamson Voices and Westminster Schola Cantorum, Westminster’s Readings and Carols has forged its own distinct repertoire, featuring a number of contemporary works by composers including Paul Mealor and James Whitbourn.

“This is for the entire school to sing,” said Jordan, reflecting on the event’s evolution over the past quarter century from a program highlighting the chapel choir to one that involves all the school’s choirs and bell choir. “It’s a time when the school sings together, and it binds the community together in a way that actually was not in the plan.”

This year’s program included readings on the themes “gathering,” “peace,” and “giving”; performances of Whitbourn’s Missa Carolae: Introit and Kyrie by the Westminster Schola Cantorum, Symphonic Choir, and several soloists, I Wonder as I Wander arranged by Steven Pilkington and sung by the Chapel Choir, and Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride by the Bell Choir; and the carols O Little Town of Bethlehem, O Come All Ye Faithful, The First Nowell, Silent Night and Joy to the World, in which the audience joined in.

Emotions always run high for this performance, which Jordan said is one of, if not the, highlights of the school’s musical year. Over time, the program has grown to feature three performances, all of which this year filled the Princeton University Chapel, one of the largest university chapels in the world. The students who sang represented at least 27 states, as well as countries including Brazil, China, Israel, the Dominican Republic, Canada and the UK. The audience included many of their parents, who traveled to hear the program, as well as local Princeton-area residents for whom the event has become a beloved tradition.

“My daughter told me before we came, ‘Don’t bring a Kleenex box, bring a chamois,’ and I thought, oh, okay, this will be nice, it will be wonderful,” said Margaret Boone of Newark, Delaware, describing her first Readings and Carols experience last year. Her daughter is now a sophomore. “She was right about the chamois.”

It’s been a difficult year for the Westminster community. Just over a year ago, as students were preparing for last year’s Readings and Carols, Rider President Gregory Dell’Omo announced that the university intended to merge the choir college’s programs with Rider’s Lawrenceville campus and sell the Princeton property in an effort to reduce costs, gain some revenue from the sale and reduce the university’s deficit. After an outcry from Westminster parents, students and alumni, the university’s Board of Trustees voted to begin the search for a partner who would be willing to buy both the choir college and its campus; if no buyer emerged, the Trustees said, they might still have to sell the college and the campus separately.

A coalition of parents and alumni has since filed suit, claiming Rider doesn’t have the right to sell the property, which was originally part of Princeton Theological Seminary before it was deeded to Westminster. Westminster merged with Rider in 1992, at a time when Westminster was facing its own financial struggles.

The choir college traces its history back to the Westminster Choir, created in 1920 by John Finlay Williamson at the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Dayton, Ohio. The Westminster Choir School was founded in 1926, moved to Ithaca College in 1929 and then relocated to its current home in 1934. Over the years, its choirs have sung with major world orchestras including regular appearances with the New York Philharmonic and Philadelphia Orchestra, received Grammy nominations for its recordings, and performed under the baton of world renowned conductors such as Leonard Bernstein, Eugene Ormandy, and its own longtime conductor, Joseph Flummerfelt.

This past August, Rider announced that it had narrowed its search to an international partner. Although Rider has not named the potential buyer, it has said it is based in Asia and intends to continue running Westminster as a non-profit music school.

“We don’t know when the announcement will be made,” said Rider spokeswoman Kristine Brown. “We are closer, and that is because both the university and the partner are working very diligently together to get to a point where they have agreed upon a term sheet” outlining the details. The university had earlier said it would make an announcement in December.

The Coalition to Save Westminster Choir College and other supporters are concerned with preserving and continuing the choir college's legacy. Aside from legal filings and communications between legal teams, coalition member Constance Fee said there has been little if any information coming from the university.

“Things are kind of at a standstill, almost. I haven’t heard of any, any news of any activity that was anticipated,” said Fee, who is also president of the Westminster Alumni Council. “Our questions for our organization concern the land use, the 1991 merger agreement, making sure that the stipulations in that agreement are carried through to whatever new contractual arrangements are made, that that land is protected, and Westminster remain on that campus. That’s what we’re standing firm for with our lawsuit.”

Parents and non-senior students have also expressed concerns over whether they will be able to graduate with a degree from Westminster. Brown said even if an agreement with the current partner falls through, Rider will continue to operate Westminster next year, allowing students to graduate with a Westminster degree. Westminster is continuing to accept applications for new students.

“The potential buyer of Westminster wants that to happen,” Brown said. “They are looking to continue running the choir college, and having the faculty and certainly the students there is important to them and important to that plan.”

For the students at least, Readings and Carols provided a welcome oasis of peace, a way to pour their talents and passion into a program that perhaps more than any defines the Westminster experience and displays the fruits of its legacy.

“I have faith and trust that this place is going to last, especially after a night like tonight,” said freshman Destiny Elazier, who is from Carmichael, California. “If it doesn’t last, that would be such a shame, and I know that can’t happen. It’s too beautiful to mess up.”

Brianna Braun, a freshman from Langhorne, Pennsylvania, agreed, adding that she applied even knowing about the possible sale. “It didn’t stop my decision in coming here, because music continues, and Westminster has such a solid foundation that there’s faith and hope that it’s going to continue.”

A Tempo this Saturday at 7 pm will feature a look at this year's Readings and Carols.

(By way of full disclosure, WWFM has agreements with Westminster Choir College to air its performances throughout the year, and A Tempo host Rachel Katz is a member of the Westminster Community Orchestra, a program run by the Westminster Conservatory, which is part of the choir college.)

The Classical Network will broadcast Westminster's Readings and Carols Monday, December 18 at 8 pm as part of Celebrating Our Musical Future, and again on Christmas Day at 3 pm.