Everyone knows if you want to throw an elegant party in town you want to be at Prospect House on campus. In our coverage of last year’s patrons party of Westminster Choir College of the Arts at Rider University — held annually in conjunction with the Evening of Readings & Carols at the Princeton University Chapel, featuring Westminster choirs, organ, and brass — I wondered aloud how the event organizers would top their party at the magnificent home of the Bruce DiDonato and Denise Agness, which takes up about half of Cold Soil Road just past Terhune’s. Well, they didn’t try to top that this year — they took the smart route. After dinner, party patrons could simply walk to the chapel.
As the crowd settled in for dinner in the glass-enclosed dining room, Bob Annis, the dashing dean and director of Westminster College of the Arts, took the podium and spoke eloquently about how Westminster graduates are, in the words of renowned American baritone Thomas Hampson, who recently held a master class at Westminster, “using music to convey a message, to reach people, to touch them — to change their lives.”
He told the story of Ryan LaBoy, a senior music education major, president of the student government, and member of the Westminster Choir. “Last spring the university chaplain came to a student meeting looking for volunteers to lead a choral program in a local correctional facility. Ryan listened with interest and expected someone else to volunteer. But the opportunity was just too compelling, and he ultimately offered to help.
“Going through security and hearing the doors lock behind him the first time was chilling. He quickly recognized the great divide between him — a young man who had grown up comfortably in the suburbs — and the inmates, whose life stories were very different from his. ‘Rehabilitation has been proven to work if people are given a chance to learn new behaviors and change their lives,’ Ryan believes. The first few sessions didn’t go very well — until he found a way to connect through popular music. ‘I’m using music to reach out to them, to remind them of their humanity. For the hour that we’re together there are no divisions between us — we’re all musicians.’ Ryan’s program is doing so well that he’s recruited three new volunteer students who join him each week and will take over when he graduates.”
Annis reminded us of the power that music has “to connect people to their inner spirit and also to each other.”
As if to punctuate Annis’ words, the Lessons and Carols concert — with two performances that both sell out within two hours of the box office opening — seems the ultimate showcase of Westminster’s future music ambassadors. If you know any Scrooges or Grinches, take them to this concert next year and watch the ice around their heart melt to the sound of 320 voices singing John Rutter’s “Nativity Carol,” 300 bells peeling “On This Day Earth Shall Ring,” the poignant strains of a lone cello playing “Greensleeves,” or the reverberating timbre of “L’annee d’or” performed by Ken Cowan on the organ. Nothing save a big snowstorm beats it for getting in the Christmas spirit. Good music can do that, all on its own. In “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” what did the residents of Whoville do to regain their Christmas spirit, sans packages, boxes, and bows? They sang.