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Students, Community Rally to Save Westminster Choir College

(Update: Corrects name of director of choral activities)

Students, alumni, faculty and community members gathered on the campus of Rider University Tuesday morning to rally in support of  Westminster Choir College as Rider’s Board of Trustees met to vote on the future of the institution’s.

“I just learned, grew and thrived at this place, and to see this situation even being considered just breaks my heart,” said junior Jade Blocker, who stood with a sign that read “Hear Our Voices!  Keep Westminster in Princeton!”

The group stood quietly around the plaza in front of Rider’s North Hall, breaking the silence only to join together to sing Peter Lutkin’s Choral Benediction, a setting of “May the Lord Bless You and Keep You,” as board members walked past on their way to the 9 am meeting.  The rally was organized by the Coalition to Save Westminster Choir College and the Rider chapter of the American Association of University Professors to protest the vote.

Last Fall, the board authorized a study to explore options for Westminster’s Princeton, NJ campus, which might include selling the campus and moving its students to Rider’s main campus in nearby Lawrenceville.  Rider President Gregory Dell’Omo said at the time that Rider was facing a projected $13 million budget deficit, and that the university, which owns Westminster, was exploring short- and medium-term strategies to boost enrollment and reduce expenses.

Reading a statement at the rally, AAUP President Art Taylor called the discussion over Westminster rash, and that the related actions “are ill-conceived and have little basis in financial realities.”

“Rider’s current administration sees nothing beyond questionable measures of economic value and has continually diminished the importance of Rider’s educational mission, which includes this music instruction at Westminster Choir College,” Taylor said.

Dell’Omo is expected to issue a public statement shortly after the board meeting ends around 1 pm.

The Westminster Choir was founded in Dayton, Ohio in 1920 by John Finley Williamson, who established the choir college six years later. After first moving to Ithaca College, Westminster relocated to its current home near downtown Princeton in 1932.  The Westminster Symphonic Choir has sung with internationally acclaimed orchestras including the Berlin Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic, performing under the baton of great conductors including Leonard Bernstein, Arturo Toscanini, Robert Shaw and Leopold Stokowski.

Financial difficulties of its own prompted Westminster to seek a new owner in the early 1990s, and it merged with Rider in 1992.  In addition to the choir college, which is part of Rider’s Westminster College of the Arts, Westminster also operates the Westminster Conservatory, which provides community music programs including private music lessons, group lessons for children, and the Westminster Community Orchestra.

Joe Miller, director of Choral Activities at Westminster, said the choir college  has seen “incredible success” in recent enrollment and donations.  Rider celebrated the opening of the Marion Buckelew Cullen Center on Westminster’s campus in October 2014, which included a new performance and rehearsal hall, classrooms and more.   The building was made possible in part through a $3 million gift by the Henry L. Hillman Foundation in honor of Westminster alumna Elsie Hillman.

“The legacy of this school is so important to the world,” Miller told the crowd.  “This is the primary choir of the New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra, with our alumni leading major music organizations all through the world, and our singers singing and leading music, also throughout the world."

“We will do everything that we possibly can to keep singing, and to keep music as part of the American culture.  We feel we have a responsibility to be a leader in our world for music and for American music,” Miller added.

Several people in the crowd held signs indicating that they were part of a multi-generational Westminster family, including members of the family of Helen Kemp, who studied at Westminster and, according to her obituary, was a member of the choir from Westminster that appears on the soundtrack of Walt Disney’s Fantasia under the direction of Leopold Stokowski.  Kemp went on to become a well-known specialist for training young voices.

Kemp’s son, John Kemp, who also attended Westminster, said his choral experiences while at the school included singing Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 under Leonard Bernstein, Pierre Boulez and James Levine. “There is an experience available for students and people who love music that is nowhere else in the world,” said Kemp, who met his wife Mary while at Westminster.

Mary Kemp said Westminster imparted a sense of mission and purpose to its students.   “Having beauty in one’s life makes a difference in one’s life,” she added.

Other signs in the crowd included “Don’t Silence Our Choir,” “Make Westminster Part of the Solution,” and “You Can’t Silence Our Forte.”

Gillian Erlenborn, a junior education major, said she was inspired by both her education and the traditions she found at Westminster.

“That community, and that legacy, and that history is what really makes me want to be here,” said  Erlenborn.  “We can’t have that if we get up and move somewhere else, or heaven forbid if we close - those histories and all of the things that we stand for, especially in this day and age when the arts are getting cut, and the NEA budget.”

Blocker called the choir college a unique place.  “I can’t imagine a world without Westminster. I can’t imagine me without Westminster,” Blocker said.

(Note: By way of full disclosure, WWFM has agreements with Westminster to broadcast several of its concerts, and A Tempo host Rachel Katz is a member of the Westminster Community Orchestra.)

Rachel Katz is the host of A Tempo which airs Saturdays at 7 pm.
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