By Cathleen Leitch
Have you ever been so moved by a work of art that you couldn’t breathe? Did your mind freeze up as you listened to or observed this one encompassing thing? This is the feeling brought on by the latest Westminster Choir College CD “James Whitbourn: Living Voices,” which premiered at #22 on the Classical Music Billboard charts.
The classical album, recorded by one of Westminster’s audition choirs, Westminster Williamson Voices, locks you into an ultimate sense of nostalgia and remembrance of tragedy, heartache and grief.
Whitbourn composed a clearly sorrowful album appropriate for its release less than a week before the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11.
“Its allure for me as a conductor and for my singers is its deep honesty, authenticity and its ability in a very direct and meaningful music language to communicate life’s truths,” Westminster Williamson Voices Conductor James Jordan said.
Jordan wanted to record his own version of the longest and most recognizable track, “The Son of God Mass,” since the choir performed the 25-minute piece in New York on the first anniversary of Sept. 11.
Unknown to the conductor or the choir, Whitbourn was attending the show and introduced himself afterward by simply saying, “I’d like to introduce myself — I’m the composer.”
Since then Whitbourn has visited Westminster on several occasions to teach master classes and perform as a visiting artist. It was this close association with Jordan and the school that brought the album to Princeton.
Naxos, an international classical music label, produced and distributed the CD.
“[Naxos] went to the composer in London and asked him about producing another recording of his music,” Executive Producer Anne Sears said. Sears is also Director of Westminster Choir College External Affairs.
“They asked him who he would want to serve as the choir, and he immediately suggested one of the choirs from Westminster,” Sears said.
James Whitbourn came to the States as the producer and worked closely with Westminster Williamson Voices to produce the disc.
His presence allowed him to design the way the choir would perform the album and how it was recorded. The composer, the students and the conductor were able to improve their connection by getting to know each other as musicians, thus enhancing the music.
“In the case of ‘Living Voices,’ the connection I have with James Jordan and with the Westminster Williamson Voices is part of the sound I hear,” Whitbourn said in an article published this month in International Record Review.
The recording process was completed in only three nights in April at the Princeton University Chapel. The choir began practicing and even performing some of Whitbourn’s works during the Fall 2010 semester.
“It was stressful. We were trying to do a lot in a period of three days,” Voices pianist Jonathon Lakeland said. “The nice thing is that each track on the album sounds so fresh, like it’s the first time any of them are singing it, when in reality it may have been the sixth or seventh time and it may have been 10:40 in the evening when everyone was exhausted.”
All of the performers, including Ken Cowan on the organ, Jeremy Powell on soprano saxophone, Westminster Choir College seniors Jonathon Lakeland on piano and Jacob Ezzo on percussion, and 40 choir members played in one room, giving the album a distinct flow.
Almost all 20 tracks are based on poems or prayers. The album’s spiritual overtones are heard in the ominous high pitches of the saxophone and organ.
Each piece has its own personality; some tracks are fast, some feature only vocals, some are in Latin and some have bright, welcoming sections juxtaposed by powerful and deep organ tones. However, all are based off of one distinct theme: remembrance.
“ ‘The Son of God Mass” and ‘Requiem Canticorum,’ the two anchor pieces on this recording, provide for the listener deep spiritual and human journeys into not only life and living, but the role of loss and remembrance in the human experience,” Jordan said.
These journeys bring listeners to a mournful place where they can remember lost loved ones or feel the pain of those who have.
“It built me up as a musician just because I know how a CD works now and all the hard work that goes into it,” percussionist Jacob Ezzo said. “The experience made me remember why I do what I do and why I wanted to become a singer.”