Westminster returns home for ‘Serenity of Soul’ performance

By Jake Tiger

John Finley Williamson founded the Westminster Choir College (WCC) 103 years ago in Dayton, Ohio’s Westminster Presbyterian Church, a building specifically made to house Williamson’s choir and students.

Now, the college grapples with its recent relocation to Lawrenceville, New Jersey, and the problems that came with it, but for a fleeting moment in Dayton, Westminster was home.

After COVID-19 derailed its centennial celebration in 2020, the Westminster Choir returned to Dayton on March 12 for its first “Serenity of Soul” concert, and a meaningful reunion with its “Mother Church.”

“Being there is … a helpful reminder that [WCC] has moved twice before,” said Associate Dean Jason Vodicka in an email to The Rider News. “Knowing that the mission of the college has been implemented in other places, knowing that the core purpose of Westminster can be carried out wherever we are, has been helpful to me during the last several years.”

The choir’s performance at the Westminster Presbyterian Church was the first of five shows in the series that features excerpts from a variety of choral pieces, ranging from folk to gospel in what WCC professor James Jordan, the choir’s conductor, called a “salad bar approach” to composition. 

“It was more emotional than I thought it would be for all of us. It’s kind of sacred ground,” said Jordan. “For me to stand on the same podium that Williamson stood on, and for the choir, it was quite an emotional experience.”

The concert was the choir’s first time back in Dayton since visiting in January 2018. The choir was supposed to return in Spring 2020 for the WCC’s 100th anniversary, but COVID-19 halted any tours for the college until its recent “Serenity of Soul” series.

“My favorite part of the experience was meeting the congregation and staff of Westminster Presbyterian,” said sophomore music education major Emilie Beals in an email to The Rider News. “They treated us like we had always been and would always be family, shared stories of our school’s beloved history and welcomed us home with loving arms.”

The church itself was tailor-made for the Westminster Choir, featuring hallways on either side of the sanctuary that branch off into practice rooms and studios.

At Rider’s Lawrenceville campus, WCC has persistently struggled with finding proper facilities for its staff, students and faculty, with rooms in Omega House and the Fine Arts building being repurposed just to give Westminster students a place to practice, and instructors a place to teach.

“I do think that it is still a challenge to get students to come to a school where the rehearsal facilities are not attractive,” said Jordan. “It’d be like going to a school for athletics and not having a decent gym.”

After the concert in Dayton, the choir performed at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio, on March 14, and at the Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh on March 18.

The choir also has two more “Serenity of Soul” concerts planned for later in the semester, performing at Rider’s Gill Chapel on April 15, before heading to Washington, D.C.’s Saint Peter’s Church on Capitol Hill on April 16.

According to Vodicka, WCC plans to revisit Dayton on tour approximately every five years, just as they had done prior to the pandemic, while also connecting with other parts of the country in an effort to aid WCC’s dwindling enrollment.

“While Dayton is an important place for our history, touring is ultimately about ensuring our future — connecting with new audiences who may not know about us, and singing for high school and college students who may be looking for a place like Westminster,” said Vodicka.

Jordan specifically listed Texas and Florida as likely locations for future tours, due to the Choir’s contacts with major universities and churches within those states, but any exact dates or locations are yet to be determined.

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