I only spent one year in Princeton, NJ, attending graduate school at Westminster Choir College where I obtained my Master of Music degree in Organ Performance, but I daresay it had more influence on me as a musician than did five years of organ lessons in high school, a summer studying with French virtuoso Marcel Dupré, and four years at the University of Southern California majoring in Organ Performance. My organ teacher at Westminster, Joan Lippincott, had a profound influence on my teaching style and I find myself quoting “Joan Lippincott-isms” every day!
I must admit my reasons for attending Westminster in 1972-73 were less than inspiring. I believe I was quoted in the school newspaper as saying “I could get my master’s degree here faster than anywhere else,” meaning a summer plus a full academic year. We were in the first graduate class since Westminster restarted the graduate program after being dormant for a time.
The music conservatory was founded in 1920 by John Finley Williamson in Dayton, OH at Westminster Presbyterian Church. According to Wikipedia, “graduates came to be known as Ministers of Music, a term coined by Williamson and still used today by many church music programs.”
In 1932 the school relocated to Princeton, NJ and was known for its many performances with the New York Philharmonic and Philadelphia Orchestra. One of the reasons I was attracted to the school was that at the time I enrolled, there were approximately 400 students, of which an astounding number—150 were organ students. There were 40 pipe organs on campus, many of them located in the basements of the residence halls.
All undergraduate and graduate students, myself included, were required to enroll in choir, and it was at this time I was in the chorus under the late Robert Shaw where we performed Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and under the late William Steinberg, who conducted the Westminster Choir in New York (sorry, I don’t remember what work we sang—it’s been too many years!)
In 1991, the school merged with nearby Rider University but “Despite promises that Rider would maintain the Westminster Choir College campus in Princeton, two years later, Rider President J. Barton Luedeke began exploring a move which would relocate the choir college campus to Lawrenceville, New Jersey, to be with the rest of Rider University.” My first question was, does this mean they are going to move all those pipe organs?”
“On March 28, 2017, after months of speculation following an announcement by Rider that they were considering moving the Westminster students to the Lawrenceville campus and selling the Princeton campus due to huge financial problems, it was decided by the Board of Trustees that Rider would, instead, attempt to sell WCC to a new affiliate partner. A timeline of 12 months was established with hopes that a buyer would be found in the upcoming year. There is also hope that the new owner will keep the campus on the Princeton property though there is a possibility that the campus could be moved to the investor college.”
In June, a coalition of former WCC board members, students, parents and donors filed suit against Rider University, “Save Westminster Choir College,” to stop any move of the choir college from Princeton. Rider University had announced that Westminster no longer fit into its long-term strategic plan. The decision came as the university faced a potential $13 million shortfall by 2019.
On Tuesday, October 31, 2017, all full-time Westminster Faculty and Staff received layoff notices from the University. You can read the article in Inside Higher Ed, which reveals that “an international buyer intends to employ faculty and staff in the future, but Rider (the present owner of WCC) issued the layoff notices in case the deal falls through.” Even though all the professors that I had at Westminster have either died or retired, it still hit me with a jolt.
How incredibly sad. There are a number of Westminster Choir College alumni living in Hawaii, including myself, all contributing to the Hawaii music scene: Nyle Hallman, organist emerita of Central Union Church, still active in her 80s playing weddings on organ and harp (her late husband, Roy Hallman, was also a Westminster grad); Susan McCreary Duprey, director of the Kona Choral Society and Windward Choral Society; Karol Nowicki, director of Karol’s Karolers and director of the Honolulu Chorale and St. Clement’s Episcopal Church; and Leon Williams, who enjoys a busy and successful career as a baritone. [UPDATE: A bunch more people have reminded me that they are also Westminster Choir College grads in Hawaii: Blythe Kelsey-Takemasa, Education Coordinator of Hawaii Opera Theater, as well as her husband; Maya Hoover, voice professor at the University of Hawaii and Martina Bingham and Blair Boone-Migura, both voice lecturers also at the University of Hawaii! Anyone else?’
The following picture was taken during the rehearsals of our 2004 performances of Bach’s St. John Passion, showing all four of the people in the photo as proud Westminster Choir College graduates. Leon Williams sang the role of Pilate; David Newman was brought in as the bass soloist; Susie McCreary Duprey sang in the chorus; and I played organ continuo.