Eden's Excellent Ecumenical Adventure
To me, bad sacred music is like poison ivy. It irritates! It distracts! And once you have it, it's hard to ignore. But, in the past few weeks I've had some musical experiences that have been, for me, the aural equivalent of calamine lotion. Ahhhhh! Relief! First, I stumbled upon St. Paul's Catholic Church in Cambridge MA. I was in the Boston area for the weekend, and it was 5pm on a Saturday, and I saw people scurrying into Mass, so I did too. What a wonderful treat! The organ melodies swelled and bounced off of the marble surfaces of the altar and walls. Then, in the pew in front of me I spied Hymns, Psalms, and Spiritual Canticles -- a revered but out-of-print hymnal compiled by the late great Dr. Theodore Marier. Marier helped develop the Ward Method of musical instruction -- the method I learned as a young teacher in Virginia, and still use today. Marier was a devoted supporter of beautiful traditional sacred music and polyphony, and he founded the famous Boston Boy Choir. I met him once at a chant worshop in Washington DC -- very nice, humble man. I opened up the hymnal and read a little of the preface. . . so here was Marier's hymnal. . . being used in his old church. At that moment I realized that this parish was Marier's "lab" -- here was where he composed all of his great melodies, and where he taught beautiful sacred music to generations of young singers! (Eden looks up to Heaven: Dr. Marier, they're doing a great job! I only hope that the upcoming new translation of the Mass doesn't result in the loss of all the beautiful melodies you created.) My friend Douglas, the music director at my former parish in Michigan, is also composing new liturgical music. I thought of him as I participated in Mass at St. Paul's. Dr. Marier had 52 years to work on his compositions; Douglas is on year 5. Alles Gute! ;)
For the second time in my life I attended a synagogue service. Last time, it was the 1980s and I was visiting a local synagogue with members of my Methodist church for a "discovering many religions" youth trip. (All I remember is that the rabbi's parking space had a sign that said "Thou Shalt Not Park Here" and the word shit appeared in the phonetic translations of the Hebrew, which we all found scandalous and amusing. ) This time, I was part of a small chorus that sang for Shabbat Eve service at the lovely Reform Temple Beth-El in Providence. What a happy experience! Cantor Judy Slepowin has an amazing voice and she led both her choir and her congregation with great skill and talent. Three out of four choir members were Gentile voice teachers from Rhode Island, which made it even more fun. The other singers were familiar with the music and the service, but I was sight reading everything. They helped me figure out what to sing, when. I liked being on my toes! There was new music to sing about every minute or so and it seemed to be drawn from many different styles and eras. I glanced at the copyright dates of some of the songs and some were composed very recently, others were obviously very traditional. Some of it was Israeli folk melody and sounded like it could have been sung by Miriam herself. Some was unaccompanied Hebrew chant, and a couple of songs sounded rather modern, almost like they were straight out of a hotel lounge in Tel Aviv. I found it all fascinating, liturgically and musically. Throughout the whole hour, the vibe was undeniably joyful, and everyone participated in the singing and prayers. (Later someone told me that this was an especially good night, that sometimes it's quieter and not as well-attended. I'm glad I was there on such a good night.)
The service was held in a small side chapel, and it was filled. Two new adult members were welcomed into the congregation, and a young boy was recognized because the next day was his Bar Mitzvah. Everyone in the congregation sang at least the first part of each song that Cantor Judy started, and several times they knew the melodies well enough to sing all the way to the end. After the service, everyone stayed to pray and sing as the challah was broken for the reception -- which also included a healthy dose of coffee, chocolate desserts . . .and fruit for the dietetically righteous. I also got a good look at the Rabbi. She's about nine months pregnant, she had stood up for an hour! ;) A sheynem dank and thank you for having me!
Two days later I was in the choir loft of St. Luke's Episcopal Church in East Greenwich RI. I have been teaching voice at St. Luke's for a couple of months now, and it's been a very happy experience to help the choristers develop their voices. A few weeks ago, a couple of my private students brought in a piece they were going to be singing on a future Sunday. It was not just any old choir piece -- it was "How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place" from the Brahms Requiem. I've never heard it performed in a church, and the last time I sang it was freshman year of college. It's a lush, gorgeous, Romantic choral piece. And this choir was going to sing it for Offertory! So, after helping my singers learn their parts, I invited myself to "help out" in the choir loft on Brahms Sunday. I almost cried at the beauty as I sang those arching lines once again. Priscilla Rigg, the music director, had been worried about having enough singers to pull off the Brahms -- lots of singers away for the weekend due to graduations, etc. -- but it worked. The children of the church's St. Cecilia youth choir were robed up and present, too. Priscilla had them sit and listen to the adults as they sang. "You're going to hear something very special today," she told them. She was right.
All in all, May has been an Excellent Ecumenical Adventure! Onward!