Westminster Choir College sings, not shouts, in protest

Jody Doktor Velloso, a Westminster Choir College alumna, sings selections from operas at the Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton, NJ, January 31, 2017. Hundreds of performers are holding a 24-hour marathon concert performance to protest Rider University's planned selling of the WCC campus in Princeton and moving the music school to the Rider campus in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. (BEVERLY SCHAEFER / For the Inquirer)

PRINCETON — A protest of harmony began Tuesday morning, as alumni, students, faculty, and friends of Westminster Choir College launched a 24-hour series of performances in demonstration against its parent university.

Rider University, which has faced declining enrollment and an increasingly stressed financial situation, is studying whether to close Westminster’s longtime campus in Princeton and move the music school to the university’s main campus in nearby Lawrenceville.

No decision has been made, a university spokesman said, but the idea of losing the tightly knit conservatory environment has alarmed members of the Westminster community, who in many ways see themselves as separate from Rider.

Tuesday, they banded together to protest through music: Some sang, others performed on organ, piano, guitar, and harp.

“It’s not your typical protest, but it is a protest. This is us — students, faculty, alumni — standing in solidarity with Westminster Choir College and demonstrating to the community at large the value that music has to offer and the value that Westminster in specific has to offer,” said Kimberly Reinagel, 24, a first-year graduate student studying vocal performance and pedagogy. “So it’s not a protest with picket signs or cheering crowds or anything, but it is, I believe, just as poignant.”

Camera icon Beverly Schaefer 
Kimberly Reinagel, a first-year Westminster Choir College graduate student, signed up to perform in the 3:30 to 6 a.m. time slot during the 24-hour marathon concert in Princeton.

As Reinagel described her hope for the protest — “people are going to realize the intrinsic value of the school” — the sounds of an organ came floating through  Nassau Presbyterian Church, where the performance  was held.

“There are so few places like Westminster,” said organist Shea Velloso, 31, who studied at the school over two summers and whose wife, Jody Doktor Velloso, is an alumna. She sang after Velloso played; they took turns caring for their daughter during the performances.

Setting the tone for the day, Shea Velloso, music director of United Methodist Church in Milltown, Middlesex County,  played hymns and “light-hearted pieces.” There was little anger or outrage on display. Instead, performers said, they were building community, showcasing the school’s importance, and reaching out to the rest of the world.

“I want them to leave feeling uplifted,” Velloso said.

Camera icon Beverly Schaefer 
Shea Velloso, former Westminster Choir College summer student, plays the organ at Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton.

Westminster Choir College students, alumni, and faculty have expressed a range of emotions in recent weeks. Rider president Gregory G. Dell’Omo said in two Dec. 1 meetings that the private university is considering selling the 23-acre Westminster campus and moving the school to the Lawrenceville campus, sparking concern about the music school’s future. The university’s board of trustees is heading the study and will make the final decisions, advised by senior Rider administrators, the university has said.

Alumni quickly mobilized,  forming the Coalition to Save Westminster Choir College in Princeton. Rider’s faculty union slammed the idea of moving Westminster to the Lawrenceville campus, saying, “Rider’s administration seems more interested in the opinions of accounting staff and consultants than the opinions and input of committed faculty, parents, alumni, donors and students in the Rider community.”

Rider administrators say the study is ongoing.

“Today’s musical marathon showcases what’s best and most unique about Westminster Choir College. As we’ve said before, we respect and appreciate everything that students, alumni and others are doing. Please know that we are listening and have heard everyone's concerns,” university spokeswoman Kristine A. Brown said Tuesday in a statement.

“We continue to ask the entire Rider community for their patience and understanding as the board of trustees works to make a fact-based decision in the coming months,” she wrote.

Critics of the idea point out that Westminster has had a relatively stable enrollment of about 420 students. The school offers majors including music performance, education, and theory and composition.

Last school year, the university as a whole enrolled slightly more than 5,000 students, down 1,000 from six years prior and the lowest in at least two decades. In 2015, Rider planned layoffs and academic program closures to cut costs before reaching an agreement with the faculty union.

Westminster students, alumni, and faculty worry that their intimate conservatory environment could be subsumed by the larger liberal arts campus.

“It’s just not going to work in a big university atmosphere,” said Sharon Alexander Daikeler, 68, of Ewing. Alexander, who graduated from Westminster in 1971, sang the Beauty and the Beast title song and the Cole Porter song “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.”

Her performance was followed by Brittany Walker Rumph, 26, a first-year graduate student studying vocal performance.

“It made me feel really connected to the community,” said Rumph, who performed two arias that are part of her go-to repertoire.

The performance protest was scheduled to end at 11 a.m. Wednesday.