Westminster Choir Brings "Path of Miracles" to Life

Anne Sears

It’s 7:15 p.m. backstage at Charleston’s Gaillard Theater as the Westminster Choir prepares for an 8 p.m. performance of Joby Talbot’s Path of Miracles at the Spoleto Festival USA. The Festival’s staff put the finishing touches on students’ hair and makeup while some singers review the score one more time in the midst of the pre-performance buzz. 

Suddenly the stage manager’s voice booms over the backstage intercom, “Westminster Choir — please check your rocks. The house opens in 10 minutes.”

Check your rocks? Haven’t heard that admonition before a choral concert.

But this isn’t your usual choral performance. It’s the first time Talbot’s evocative choral portrait of the fabled Camino de Santiago in northwestern Spain, a spiritual milestone for pilgrims from around the world, is being staged. 

Talbot’s choral masterwork, written for 17-part unaccompanied ensemble, is in four movements, each situated in a city along one of the most popular routes of pilgrimage, from Roncevalles through Burgos and León before ending in Santiago. Since it was commissioned by British ensemble Tenebrae in 2005, Path of Miracles has been performed primarily in sacred spaces, and the Westminster Choir followed that tradition in May at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Trenton.

The performance at the Spoleto Festival USA took a different approach when the Choir presented a staged version, directed by John La Bouchardière, at Charleston’s Gaillard Center. 

The path to the performance was rigorous, with the choir members devoting much of the second semester to learning and memorizing the challenging piece, whose text is in English, French, Greek, Spanish, Latin and more. Before he traveled to Princeton for three days of rehearsals on the Westminster campus in May, La Bouchardière asked each singer to be prepared to portray an individual who might be walking on the Camino.  At the first rehearsal, they described the person they were representing and why they were walking the Camino. The responses ranged from recovering from a serious illness to seeking solace from grief to dealing with financial ruin: 40 completely different people and life circumstances.

The Rocks

At the early rehearsals, the choir members were also introduced to an object that might represent each individual’s reason for journeying on the path — a large rock that they were to carry as they sang and traversed the stage during the performance.  For the rehearsals in Princeton, black plastic bags filled with sand served as somewhat softer substitutes. Their real rocks — different sizes and weights — were waiting for them when they arrived in Charleston, S.C. for a week of rehearsals for two Festival performances.

Path of Miracles represents the pinnacle of a 21st-century choral work,” conductor Joe Miller told the Charleston Post & Courier before the first performance. Director of choral activities at the Spoleto Festival and at Westminster Choir College, he continued, “It’s very demanding, it’s very spiritual and it’s very, very exciting to be able to do a stage production. It was written as more of a concert work and we are actually fleshing it out, so it will be the first of its kind in the world.”

For the final production, choir members entered the stage from the audience and retrieved their individual rock from many scattered across the staged. They began each performance in costumes that represented their individual characters, and as they kneeled, walked, crawled and hobbled across the stage with their burdens, they were gradually transformed as they loosened they hair, shed their colorful attire and were clothed in white and grey.

Susan Galbraith, reviewed the performance for DC Theatre Scene and wrote, “Joe Miller is a fearless artist. His bold leadership and trust in these young singers enabled his choristers to forego the “stand and deliver,” score-bound habits of their genre and ‘walk with him’ on this special journey. Not only did the singers need to memorize their parts, no mean feat, but follow his baton’s bid from any part of the auditorium and sing in any body position. Miller constantly challenged them in the process and inspired them to work confidently, well outside their comfort zone. 

“In this work, he found an able, indeed brilliant partner. Stage Director John La Bouchardière was himself a chorister in the Anglican tradition, one that carried him from young boy to manhood. He was able to coach the Westminster Choir members in a preparation that required both arduous physical as well as vocal discipline from the group but also called on each member to dig emotionally into his or her private storehouse. So singers became, if not trained actors, fully engaged artists.”

This was Westminster Choir’s second experience working with La Bouchardière. In 2014 they collaborated on the first staged performance of John Adams’ El Niño, which The New York Times described as “superb. Meticulously prepared, the chorus was remarkable for its precision, unanimity and power.”

Choir members agreed that performing Path of Miracles was one of the most demanding and rewarding experiences of their lives.  Choir member Betsy Podsiadlo echoed that sentiment and said, “John La Bouchadière went above and beyond with each individual choir member to make sure every action we made was motivated, married to text and meaningful to the audience. He showed us the future of choral music and opera: the abandonment of a wall between audience and performer.”

Performance photos: William Struhs, The Spoleto Festival USA
Backstage photos: Anne Sears