Category Archives: Church Music

Working with the resources at hand

I first heard Messiaen’s “Quartet for the end of time” in a live performance at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY many years ago.  If you don’t know the piece, it can be difficult listening for the first time.  Written in a POW camp during WW II, it is scored for violin, clarinet, cello and piano and is an eight movement meditation on passages from the Book of Revelation.  I remember reading in the program notes at the time that Messiaen composed the piece with that scoring because those were the instruments and players available at the time.  The result is quite an accomplishment.

This morning’s prelude at our 11 AM Eucharist was “Quiet City” by Aaron Copland.  Copland composed the piece as incidental music for Irwin Shaw’s play of the same name. The play was a flop and never made past the previews, but Copland rewrote the music originally scored for trumpet, sax, clarinets and piano and created an orchestral version for trumpet, English Horn and strings that has become a mainstay of the repertoire.  

While we have many fine musicians who play regularly at our Sunday Eucharists, including a fine oboist who doubles on English Horn, we don’t have a trumpet player with the technique or stamina to tackle “Quiet City.”  We do however, have a fine clarinetist and a great pipe organ, so several years ago, we decided to work with the players we had on hand and substitute the clarinet for the trumpet and the organ for the orchestra.  Once again, the result is quite an accomplishment.

My point here is that as Parker Palmer says, you have to wait for the “way to open” if you want to get anywhere.  Would it have been better to substitute a different piece?  Easier, perhaps, but not better.  The music draws people in, whatever the instrumentation, the same way that the organ music of Bach draws people in despite differences in organs and registration.  I have a happy congregation and two happy wind players.  Life is good.

Coming soon: Ballade for English Horn and Organ by Leo Sowerby

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The St. George Voices in Concert

The St. George Voices performed well in their annual concert Sunday for an appreciative audience.  The repertoire included music of the Renaissance, jazz, pop and contemporary choral music, all sung unaccompanied. From the opening “Sing we and chant it” by Thomas Morley to the closer, Billy Joel’s “And so it goes,” the Voices acquitted themselves admirably, navigating the differing styles and historical periods with finesse, great intonation and all around musicianship.  Great job everyone!

You can listen to a recording of the concert here:

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The Best Concert Ever!

We’re still recovering from our first full concert with choir and orchestra at St. George’s. You can listen here: 

Here’s the rep:

     “The Beatitudes” – Arvo Paert

     “Kyrie in D minor” K 341 – W. A. Mozart

     “Kyrie and Agnus Dei from Mass in D” – Antonin Dvorak

     “Magnificat in G minor” – Antonio Vivaldi

Singers and orchestra all performed spectacularly for a large and appreciative audience. This concert is proof that talented dedicated volunteers can perform at a professional level and achieve great musical results. Besides the Beatitudes, I was particularly pleased with the choruses from the Vivaldi and the Dvorak Agnus Dei.  Working with these musicians is a great joy for their director.  We continue to grow artistically, spiritually in ministry, and more fond of singing and playing together.  Kudos to all.  And now, on to Lent and Easter…

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The Post Christmas Report

It’s been a few months since my last post, but like tithing, regular posting is something we’re working toward.  It’s been a thrilling fall at St. George’s for the entire music program.  Our first ever program-wide music retreat in August was followed by a well attended session of Choral School in September, several spectacular combined choir performances, new jazz ensemble arrangements and a tiring but wonderful Christmas Eve.
St. George’s has the most eclectic music program that I know of. We have jazz, Celtic, classical, chant and Renaissance music covered in our four musical services and we do them all well. We have talented singers and players who devote a lot of time to their art in support of worship. The result of their efforts is a program that continues to grow year after year, both in numbers and musically.
The highlights for me are many, but I am particularly gratified by the dedication of our singers of all ages, who are not afraid to take on insanely difficult repertoire at my suggestion and spend long hours perfecting it.  Our major works over the last few seasons include Vivaldi’s “Gloria,” Respighi’s “Laud to the Nativity,” Saint-Saens “Oratorio de Noel,” and Arvo Paert’s “The Beatitudes.”  This is not stuff for the faint of heart, and given that we are a 100% volunteer ensemble with no paid singers or section leaders, it is also a prodigious accomplishment by talented musicians with a great love for their ministry.
On Christmas Eve, St. George’s parishioners and guests were treated to three musical services: at 4:00 a children’s Christmas Pageant, at 7:00, a 30 minute prelude for choir and jazz ensemble, featuring a brand new arrangement of “Sussex Carol,” and at 10:30, the Saint-Saens Christmas Oratorio for soloists, choir, string orchestra and organ. In addition the choirs performed a stunning anthem by Stephen Paulus, “A Savior form on High,” accompanied by synth harp and soprano sax at the early service and oboe at the later one. Everything went exceedingly well, although some of us were caving in on ourselves from fatigue by evening’s end.

Congratulations to all for your hard work and dedication. I love my job!

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Westminster Conducting Institute Day 6 and 7

James Jordan and JV

Friday morning began with Sabine’s final warm up of the week, as she had to return to Germany to play her Sunday church service.  Mark Moliterno gave a short lecture on yoga practice, followed by an hour of yoga postures.  It felt good to stretch after hours of sitting.  We had two sessions of conducting in class to prepare for the master class in the afternoon.  Lisa got to conduct the Saint-Saens Ave Verum a-cappella for James Jordan and Weston Noble.  I got another opportunity to conduct Ubi caritas, and Robin concluded her beginning conducting class by conducting one verse of Randall Thompson’s ” The Road Not Taken” from Frostiana.

Lisa with Weston Noble

The master class began at 3:40 and lasted until 9:30 PM with an hour dinner break.  That’s a lot of singing.  The entire class and conductor comments were recorded for an upcoming DVD about the Conducting Institute. We were back at it Saturday morning at 9 AM and finished up at around 1:30 PM.  The choir sounded great and as a bonus I got Jim Jordan to work with me on some of my conducting skills, most of which invloved breathing with the choir and clarifying gestures.  Mary and Hurley arrived late Friday and got to hear lots of great singing. 

This is one of the great music workshops in the country.  It’s a gift to be able to attend.  Look for lots of new and interesting repertoire in the fall.

Benedictamus Patrem…….

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Westminster Conducting Institute Day 5

After warm ups this morning, we had a yoga lecture by Mark Moliterno, creator of the YogaVoice Program, which uses yoga philosophy and practice to improve singing and overall health and well being. I had the pleasure of taking a five day YogaVoice Class with Mark while I was on sabbatical last summer, and felt the best I have in a long time.  After a brief explanation of Yoga concepts, we spent some time with breathing techniques and a few stretches.  Mark will be back tomorrow to introduce more postures and concepts.

Lisa conducted the Saint-Saens Ave Verum in its entirety today, and got some great feedback from Weston Noble.  Robin had an epiphany in James Jordan’s class while he was explaining the Laban method. (Press, press, glide, float) Laban developed a system of movement analysis that is most helpful to conductors.  I conducted “Ubi caritas” this morning and it went very well.  I just spent several hours memorizing the piece and practicing in front of the mirror.  The schedule tomorrow includes warm ups, yoga, two sessions of conducting class and the first session of the conducting master class, which will run until 9 PM.  I won’t be conducting until afternoon on Saturday, and Lisa has decided to just sing and not conduct.  It’s been a great week.

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Westminster Conducting Institute Day 3

Robin with Weston Noble

“It’s impossible for the breath to escape the body without opinion.”

– Nova Thomas

Our second full day at the institute began with more vocal warm ups with Sabine.  There followed a lecture on the breath as the inspiration for great singing by Nova Thomas, associate professor of voice at Westminster, and James Jordan’s collaborator on “The Musician’s Breath.” We were introduced to several breathing exercises and techniques for improving fluidity and movement of the breath. In addition, Nova spoke about the concept of inhalation as inspiration and exhalation as expression.

I got my first chance to conduct in class, a great setting of the Ubi caritas text by Paul Mealor that was featured at the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton in 2011.  Our class is very supportive of each other and a pleasure to work with. I got some great constructive comments from Gary to add smoothness and expression to my conducting.

Lisa got to conduct for her class as well, and got some great feedback from Weston Noble on her technique.  Robin also got to conduct in class for the first time, although she has a bruised arm after a piano jumped out in front of her.

This evening’s lecture was a two-part affair, beginning with James Jordan’s discussion of conducting observation as a learning tool, followed by Gary Graden’s workshop on choral improvisation.  A 40 voice choir improvising melodies on a scale all at the same time is something to experience.

I came up the stairs from my classroom in the library earlier today to find Weston Noble sitting in the lobby.  I took a moment to thank him personally for the wonderful comments he made after my conducting master class last year.  His response was: “Moments like that are what keep me going.”  I think they may keep all of us going.

Quotes of the day:

“I’m a Presbyterian. I’m happy to sit in the back pew and clap on 1 and 3.”      – Bruce Chamberlain

“Coloratura sopranos are their own species. They’re the Chihuahuas of singing.” – Nova Thomas 

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