Choristers fret over fate of Westminster Choir College

The world of professional choir singers has been put on edge by the announcement last week that Rider University intends to sell Westminster Choir College.

Westminster is a renowned music school located in Princeton, about 15 miles north of Rider’s main campus in Lawrence, N.J. When Rider acquired Westminster in 1992, it was already well established in the music word.

“Westminster Choir College is huge,” said Paul Rardin, music director of the Mendelssohn Clulb Chorus in Philadelphia. He never attended Westminster — neither as student not teacher — but attests to its preeminent stature in the choir music world.

“They have one of the great symphonic choruses in the country, and one of the great concert choirs — a smaller ensemble that specializes in unaccompanied music, challenging, difficult, interesting new music,” he said. “So you have this one-two punch.”

Just about every professional choir in the Northeast U.S. will have Westminster alumnus in its ranks. Rardin said members of the Mendelssohn Club have been buzzing with talk about the fate of the college.

Westminster Choir College has been on the same bucolic campus in Princeton for 83 years, since well before Rider University bought it. Rider’s board decided that operating a remote campus for only a few hundred students is too expensive. It intends to sell the college and the campus — together, if possible, but will sell them separately if it has to.

The Princeton Public School District has indicated an interest in just the campus real estate, not the music program it houses.

The possibility that the college might be separated from its campus has raised concerns among alumni. Donald Nally, music director of The Crossing, earned his masters degree at Westminster in 1987. He said one of the unique advantages of the school is everything and everybody on campus is focused on one thing: choir music.

“Why does it have to be on that plot of land in the middle of Princeton? Because of the beautiful spring flowers — which are amazing? No,” said Nally. “It’s because of what Westminster has as a result of its community: the intimacy of isolation. That can’t be replicated. And, in fact, has not been replicated in any other circumstance.”

Nally said a community built around music is particularly important for choir singers, whose ears have to be finely tuned to what their fellow singers are producing.

“There’s a disposition toward the listening that is required of a really great ensemble player or singer. It requires an extraordinary high level of listening, while at the same time you’re singing,” he said.

Rider University has hired the firm PriceWaterhouseCooper to identify potential buyers. It has not disclosed an asking price.

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