For 21 years — always seen from behind — Alice Lipson’s flowing, braided hair has been the “face” of Staples choral music.
Next fall, the director’s hair will be much shorter. And male.
Justin Miller has verbally accepted an offer to succeed Lipson — retiring after 35 years in the Westport school system — as director of Staples’ choruses, choirs and Orphenians.
He is only the 3rd choral director in the past 51 years. From 1959 to 1989, George Weigle held the post.
It is a position of great tradition — as Miller well knows. A Westporter from 1st grade on, he sang for Lipson between 1998 and 2001.
It is a position of great importance t00 — and Miller is up to the task. Not yet 30, he is a founder, past president and current musical director of the Westminster Chorus. Last year they were crowned international champs — winning the “Choir of the World” Pavarotti Trophy in Wales — while in 2007 they earned an international chorus gold medal.
In Wales they beat out choirs from major American universities, and accomplished European choirs. One judge called them “musical butter — soft, inviting and delicious.”
The chance to return to Staples — where he acted in “Chorus Line” as a freshman, toured Scotland with “Pippin,” and led the now-legendary barbershop group the Testostertones — lured Miller east from California, where he now teaches.
“Westport is a really special community,” he says.
“As a student teacher, and through festivals I’ve been a part of, I’ve learned it’s hard to find an entire town that is as involved in the success of its high school as Westport is.
“There are strong programs in other places, but there’s something special about Westport. It’s why I wanted to come back.”
He double majored in choral directing and music education at Chapman University, then began work on his master’s.
Miller has found success out West. In addition to Westminster, he was part of 3 international chorus championships with the Masters of Harmony.
Though young, he has held choral leadership positions for years — directing, as well as handling budgets and preparing for competitions.
Miller traveled to Westport over his spring break from Tesoro High School in Orange County to interview with teachers and administrators, and teach a freshman chorus class. Fortuitously, superintendent Elliott Landon was in Los Angeles during our own spring break, and interviewed Miller there.
How does he feel about replacing Lipson, a legend?
“I can’t replace her,” Miller says. “She’s been there so long, and so much of the program is representative of her.
“There are things I’ll do differently, because we’re different people. But luckily I was in choir and Orphenians. I know her style. Hopefully I can make it a smooth transition.”
One difference: He hopes to introduce “modern composers, who are rock stars in the choral world,” into the repertoire.
He would like to enter more festivals and contests, and sing for other schools and choral directors. “Their feedback on what we’re doing is important,” Miller says.
He may also incorporate his Testostertones experience into the curriculum, organizing small ensembles with contemporary music.
And he might reintroduce Fine Arts Nights — a Lipson innovation — with evenings of musical theater, pops and classical music.
“Alice had the benefit of coming from a middle school,” Miller says. “I don’t know many people at Staples any more.
“I look forward to getting to know the juniors and seniors. The more a choir feels like a family, the more quality work we’ll be able to do.”
As Alice Lipson passes her choir family on to Justin Miller — the next leader, and young enough to be her son — she knows the next Staples chorus generation is in good hands.