The History of Westminster

A New Experiment - Young Singers

In March, 2002 a group of five young barbershoppers met to discuss forming a new chorus, a chorus composed of other young singers, as a means of involving more of their peers in singing barbershop harmony. New director Terry Ghiselli approached the old Westminster chapter with an idea. Since the Westminster chapter’s membership had dwindled to eight active members and they had not competed in almost 10 years, how would they feel about letting a group of young guys create their own chorus under the chapter’s charter? The leadership and current members could not have been happier and offered their support in any way possible. A new experiment was begun – with guidance from elders and yet totally fueled by the youth the seeds for a new era of Barbershop Harmony were planted.

The chorus grew and evolved over the next few years, always both benefiting from and suffering by their core attribute: youth. Musical learning came fast and the high energy performances always thrilled audiences, yet behind the curtain issues of organization, attendance, and funding were constantly dragging and hindering the chorus in realizing its aspirations and dreams. Yet the many growing pains were endured and surmounted, and by the District contest of 2005 the chorus members and the audience alike where amazed at what a force the sound had already become – with potential to ring still truer with more hard work and dedication. Now 45 strong, the chorus won the contest and received excited praises from both local fans and the society abroad.

Turning Ears, Realizing Potential, & Winning Championships

The next great achievement of the Westminster Chorus culminated in the summer of 2006 at the International contest in Indianapolis. Now under the direction of Royce Ferguson, the chorus was riding a new tide of momentum with 56 strong on the risers. Taking the stage with no especial expectations, the young chorus dazzled and touched the giant audience of 10,000 at the Pacer’s enormous basketball stadium in Indy 2006. The heartwarming applause after the soul stirring ballad “The Way You Look Tonight” was bested only by the unending stadium-wide standing ovation after the thrilling up-tune “South Rampart Street Parade”. The indescribable excitement was felt by the entire convention when the young chorus was awarded the second place Silver Medal, coming in only 17 points behind the legendry and indomitable 160 man Vocal Majority chorus from Texas. To be sure a new page was turned that warm summer eve by this joyous band of young singers and the entire society of barbershop lovers the world round felt suddenly assured that one of their favorite art forms would be nobly and graciously carried on to the eager generations to come.

The chorus quickly regrouped after realizing their own potential and widespread fan support to chase the great Barbershop Society dream: a chorus Gold Medal. New leaders emerged and numerous new singers joined – all eager to strike in step at the next summer’s 2007 convention – better organized and better prepared than ever. The chorus embarked on taking a new and fresh approach – a challenge to the status quo would be needed to make musical history. Great mentors and coaches were brought in to help and guide the chorus. The chorus ideal was unanimous: to give the society’s international audience something fresh, unique, and entirely “Westminster”. The chorus arrived 63 strong in Denver – confident yet duly aware of the worthiness of the other competitors. Newly arranged in the Barbershop style, the famous and poignant ballad “Their Hearts Were Full of Spring” was sung with youthful honesty and a depth of heart imparted to the singers by the many mentors who had brought them to this defining moment. The performance was received with awe and standing appreciation from the giant crowd. The chorus then launched into a medley of the familiar “Strike Up the Band” and “Everybody Step” American tunes. The arrangement was all new, the pace was swift, and the original choreography, stomping, and stepping was thrilling to the eager audience of over 10,000. When the moment came to announce the new 2007 champion chorus, the stilled tension in the stadium exploded in shouts and gasps – an exact tie for first place! Both the Westminster Chorus and the Ambassadors of Harmony chorus had received a 95 out of 100 score – marked by twelve total judges. Then after moments which passed like hours, it was announced that in such cases the tie-breaker is the winner of the ‘Singing Category’. The bright, clear sounds of the young and committed group were rewarded – Westminster Chorus was crowned the new 2007 International Champion.

The 2008 year began with new director Justin Miller guiding the championship chorus onward. Barbershop Harmony Society rules mandate that the champion chorus must sit out the international competition for three years after winning. The chorus prepared to return to the International stage in Nashville not to compete, but rather to offer their best wishes to the current competitors and rock the stage again with a ‘swan song’ performance package. To keep the excitement high during this layout period, the chorus leadership acted on an inspiration to host a chapter show unlike any other to date – The Fantasy Quartet Show. Rather than following the traditional mold of inviting a famous quartet to participate on the annual show, the Westminster Chorus held a month long free internet vote to allow long time barbershoppers to choose their favorite gold medalist Lead, Tenor, Bass, and Baritone of all time. A once-in-a-lifetime gathering of favorite champions was assembled for the spring show and the sound was spectacular. Not only was the live audience thrilled by the ringing chords, but also hundreds of fans round the world tuned in for the first ever video/audio webcast BHS chapter show.

2010 was another amazing year for Westminster. This time, they head in to Philladelphia, PA with hope of obtaining their 2nd gold medal. This would not be an easy win as they were about to once again go head-to-head with one of, if not the best choruses in Barbershop history: The Vocal Majority. The songs for the year included an absolutely breathtaking arangement of "It Only Takes a Moment" from the musical Hello Dolly and an equally amazing up-tune "Mardi Gras March" which, interestingly enough, was originally going to be "When the Saints Go Marching In" with just a little bit of Mardi Gras. Over time, it morphed into just Mardi Gras and the chorus defintely loved the song it turned in to. Westminster gave it their all in Philly, setting a new scoring record for the Barbershop Harmony Society. With a score of 1457 put up on the ballad and 1475 on the up-tune, Westminster gathered a total of 2932 points (out of a possible 3000), or a 97.7%. This became the highest score ever scored at an International competition and the score still holds strong today.

In 2013, the Westminster Chorus prepared to earn their 3rd gold medal. Having won the honor to be International Champions twice prior, the decision was made to push the envelope in terms of what it meant to be a Barbershop Chorus. The music team turned its sights on one of the most difficult and powerful pieces in the history of Musical Theatre – “Soliloquy” from Roger and Hammerstein’s Carousel. The story about a man finding out that he is going to be a father, sharing his hopes, dreams, and fears with the audience seemed to fit the chorus perfectly, especially when you consider that a number of the singers had recently had children, or were expecting. The innate drama of the song was enhanced by the incredible arrangement by David Wright. That song was paired with a lighthearted medley of “Happy Days are Here Again, Get Happy, and Shakin’ the Blues Away.” The arrangement, which arranger Aaron Dale titled “Get Your Happy Days On,” was meant to represent a happy-go-lucky fellow just before he received the news that he was going to be a father. The convention took place in Toronto, CA. Although the Westminster Chorus was the favorite going into the contest, hometown favorites Toronto Northern Lights grabbed the victory by a margin of 2 points and Westminster walked away with the Silver.

2015 brought more excitement for Westminster. After earning the silver in Toronto, The Westminster Chorus was hungry to achieve another gold medal and reclaim the title of International Chorus Champions. The music team searched long and hard for music that the chorus would not only sing well, but songs with a message that the members of the chorus would truly buy into. A ballad was chosen where the men could sing about their deepest hopes and dreams, and an up-tune where they stand up and fight for those dreams. Those songs were “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” from Disney’s Cinderella, and “Seize the Day” from Newsies. David Wright and Aaron Dale, the same arrangers used in 2010 and 2013 were called upon to pen the arrangements of these two wonderful songs. David would arranged the ballad, and Aaron would conquer the up-tune. The chorus looked to find new coaches to expand the artistic horizons of the ensemble. They turned to friendly rivals Toronto Northern Lights presentation coach David McEachern to help them reach new heights in presentation and theatricality. Acclaimed vocal coach and award winning Barbershopper Tony DeRosa was brought in to further in enhance the already stellar “Westminster Sound.” Great friend and arranger Aaron Dale also helped to bring artistry and musicality to new heights. The chorus also worked with great friends Dr. Chris Peterson, Dr. Greg Lyne, and the architect of the “Westminster Sound,” Royce Ferguson. The convention was in Pittsburgh, PA and was the sight of one of the greatest rematches in Barbershop Harmony Society: Westminster Chorus vs. the Ambassadors of Harmony. The two groups last saw each other in competition in 2007, where the two groups tied. In the end, it was the Broadway caliber performance of the Westminster Chorus that prevailed.  The combination of their two songs earned a 97.5, oh so close to that record they set back in 2010.

On the World & Non-Barbershop Stage

In July 2009 the chorus traveled to Wales, UK to compete in the prestigious Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod Festival. The Westminster Chorus was named the 2009 ‘Choir of the World’ Pavarotti Trophy winner. Click Here for more info.

In 2014, Westminster was invited to participate in the Western Division Conference of the American Choral Directors Association in Santa Barbara, CA.  To be invited to this event is a massive honor, and to make the experience all the more humbling, we were the first performance of that conference which took place from February 17-20, 2014.  It is fairly unusual for a Barbershop ensemble to participate in ACDA events like this, and unfortunately there are still members of the Choral community that look down upon Barbershop.  Westminster hoped to be able to help change that Barbershop stigma and felt the best way to do that was to not only sing Barbershop music at the best level possible, but also sing choral music with quality comparable to the best choirs in the world. In order to accomplish these hefty goals, they collaborated with some of the best choral composers working today.  The first song performed was “Tenebrae” by Richard Burchard and then “Gagòt” by Sydney Guillaume. These were followed with “Sure on this Shining Night,” a beautiful choral setting by notable barbershopper Jay Giallombardo. They then hit them with their most recent BHS contest up-tune, “Get Your Happy Days On” by arranger Aaron Dale, and concluded with their spectacular closer, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Grammy award winning arranger Ben Bram. Westminster had hoped to receive a warm reception from the typically reserved crowed but instead received two standing ovations, including a standing ovation that lasted until each man had exited the risers. The best part was when the applause swelled as the final man left the stage. Afterward, the reception from the choral community was overwhelmingly positive.

Conclusion

Regardless of what their individual preference of music includes, members of the Westminster Chorus come from all walks of life for one purpose: To sing at a very high skill level and enjoy the company of young musicians who share this goal. The Westminster Chorus is great with gratitude towards the many mentors, family, friends, loyal fans, and generous supporters who have helped build the chorus to realize our musical performance dreams.

The New Westminster Chorus is the performing group of the Westminster, CA Chapter of the Barbershop Harmony Society. W!