Sunday, October 25, 2009

Choir in a Big Church Requires Organization

"Cantate Domino canticum novum.
Sing to the Lord a new song."

We sang it like that. The setting of "Cantate Domino" by James Chapponis has it in Latin first, then in English. The choir of St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church, 2250 E. Stadium Blvd. in Ann Arbor, are a dedicated group of singers who take a lot of responsibility for making the right things happen at the right times during the Mass. In the role of a visiting choir member, The Itinerant Chorister did not hold up this part of this duty very well, being overwhelmed by working out of four different books of hymns, liturgy, and propers (this is an ecclesiastical term for the prayers and scripture readings that are particular to that day of the church calendar). There were also photocopied papers of the the sequence of things to happen and of the psalm to be chanted that day. Choir members have canvas tote bags, most of them maroon and printed with "St. Francis of Assisi Choir", for carrying all of their choir related things. I kept my library under my chair and tried my best to pull out the right things at the right time. Along with the notebook that I have to help in writing the blog, as well as my camera, I was greatly burdened with earthly possessions while worshiping at St. Francis.

St. Francis has roughly 8,000 parishioners, likely making it the largest church in Ann Arbor (I welcome corrections on this point), and they thoroughly filled a large building. The building, stylistically, is the counterpoint to St. Lorenz Kirche in Nuremberg, Germany. While St. Lorenz is a Lutheran church that maintains much of the statuary from its ancient Roman Catholic history, St. Francis is a rather austere brick structure with only a few plain-colored statues near the back. The chancel area was decorated with fall-themed items. Believe it or not, this is also the first place on my tour of Ann Arbor-area churches that I heard any mention of college football from the clergy during the service.

In this service, I got to hear for the second consecutive week about "a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek" (Hebrews 5:6), with less stumbling over that name this week than last. The other lesson was Mark 10:46-52, in which Bartimaeus the blind man yelled for Jesus to help him, and many followers of Jesus told him to be quiet. In the homily by Father John Linden, he asked the parishioners who it is that they find easy to rebuke, and reminded us that was very selective in when to call people to task, and in fact did it when most of the people conventionally considered righteous least expected it.

A few things that struck me during this service were that they had a time to bless all those going trick-or-treating this week, and another time to collect packages of Halloween candy for the less fortunate. Perhaps Halloween candy is not as much a necessity as other things, but one of the great strengths that I see in the Roman Catholic church is their level of care for the earthly needs of people. At other places, on the Sunday before Halloween, they celebrate Martin Luther, and I had to strongly resist the temptation to bring Diet of Worms cake to the Catholic church. Everyone held hands with their neighbor while saying the Lord's Prayer, which for me caused a crisis in which I had to scramble to put down the book in my hands; I had managed to cut down to holding only one book at that time. However, soon after that, I forgot about the fairly large book on my chair and sat right on it. Also, they inducted an adult member through confirmation during the mass--someone I know, as it turned out.

Much of the music in the mass had a modern feel to it, notably the closing hymn, "Lift Up Your Hearts," accompanied by Tom Kean on the organ and Evelyn Scheutte on the piano. The liturgy featured leadership by Cantor Diane Herstein. And this service also featured the bell choir, directed by Ginnie Birchler, playing "Holy Manna" arranged by Margaret Tucker and "Declare the Maker's Praise" by Joseph Daniel.

Going chronologically backward, rehearsal was where the organizational skills of the choir leadership showed up. Director Tom Kean is very methodical about rehearsal, and gives very precise instructions. At one point in the rehearsal, he demonstrated the way that most people had been doing a particular rhythm in one piece of the liturgy and said, "That is so close to being correct." The notes that I took then don't remind me of what the error was, but I think it was the difference between two sixteenth notes followed by an eight note and vice-versa. Tom pays close attention to make sure that members are enunciating their vowels well, even practicing by singing only vowel sounds. And he does a lot of rehearsing only two of the voice parts singing at once, but I think he went through all of the possible pairings at different times. Adding to the level of organization, music librarian Ralph (didn't catch his last name) keeps close tabs on what music is needed and what is out, and it is all put into music packages. This choir has excellent representation by men; at one point while the group were still arriving for rehearsal, I counted 13 men and 6 women.

At an intermediate chronological point, I was to go to the choir's Halloween party on Saturday night. I put on my costume, which was intended to be a wolfman, but because of a not-really-right wig and hair stuck to my face in tufts, turned out to be more of a wolfman-cum-Klingon-cum-hippie, and headed over. However, I didn't have the instructions right, and rang into the actual condo where the hosts live, when in fact it was in the common room across the way within the complex. I had the phone number, but being a reluctant cell phone user, didn't have the cell with me and went out in search of a pay phone. I fought my way through the very crowded Fraser's Pub (about an hour and a half after the football game ended) in all my wolfman-Klingon glory to a pay phone that didn't work. I found another pay phone up the street, but of course had no luck because I was trying to call the wrong place. I found out the problem the next morning, when it was too late.

Next week: Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Choir as Community

"To our Lord we sing returning
Home to our blue-green hills of earth."

The choir of King of Kings Lutheran Church, 2685 Packard Rd. in Ann Arbor, are a group who really enjoy being a group, and I don't think they are faking that. Their rehearsal is filled with a lot of joking around. They have a good time, and even though they sometimes need to be reminded by director Lois Miller of when they should be singing in harmony and when they should be singing in unison, they have more than enough talent and heart to deliver a performance that connects with their small congregation and makes a positive impact.

Without this being my intention, I happened to be with this group on a week in which they had a party, something that they do every month. Therefore, in addition to Wednesday evening rehearsal, on Saturday evening they had a potluck dinner followed by rehearsal. One member said that sometimes they rehearse first, then eat, and I thought, "Wow! They have managed to avoid becoming creatures of habit! This is an incredible group!" The party was hosted at the home of Melissa and Chris House, so the obvious joke was used repeatedly: It's at the House house. Because this choir has a significant representation of the under-40 demographic (although there are also several older members), there were quite a few young children at this party. Following friendly conversation over food and drink, plus singing church music, they pulled out "The Beatles: Rock Band" video game. I was a novice at this, but tried doing my best Ringo, and managed to break one of the special drum sticks that is part of the game set. Later, after several people had left, I was the only one left standing who had a good idea of how to sing "While My Guitar Gently Weeps", so I got that duty. The toughest part was the nonsense syllables at the end.

As in my visit to Northside Community Church three weeks ago, this is a small church, and things are informal. The attire is casual, some people sat sipping coffee and tea, and the sanctuary is designed as an open room with nothing bolted to the floor--seating, altar, lectern, and baptism font are all movable.

Announcements came first in the service, with various people simply standing up in order to be recognized to give an announcement. A short while into the service, Pastor Michael Ryan said, "Are you guys ready?" The significance of this was lost on me for a couple of seconds, but kids started gathering at the center of the room, and it became obvious that the children's sermon was beginning. The question of what things makes the kids feel special or important quickly led to kids telling random stories about what their parents do at work and at home, while simultaneously some girls were whipping their long hair around, and kids were taking their shoes off and crawling around with their shoes on their hands. When shoes started flying through the air, Pastor Michael said, "I'm going to cut my losses and stop," and then handed out Halloween-decorated cups. Communities like this church are able to forgive when things start to get crazy during their church service.

Soon after that came something that I did much in past times as a Lutheran, but not much in recent times--we chanted a section of Psalm 91. Soon afterward came the sermon, in which the disciples James and John wanted to be considered to be the greatest among the followers of Jesus. Pastor Michael said that in the Gospel of Mark, the disciples are often dense, and in this case, they didn't get the message that they had been given, creating a teachable moment for Jesus. The sermon boiled down to people in times of uncertainty going back to their accustomed ways, and asking us to examine what those ways are for us.

One thing that might impress a visitor most at King of Kings is the passing of the peace, in which people shake hands with each other. In this room of maybe about 60 people, it seemed that many of them made a full pass around the room to pass the peace to everyone. This took some time, and was both preceded and followed by liberal use of hand sanitizer. Following that, during the collection of the offering, the choir sang the anthem for this week, "Blue Green Hills of Earth" by Kim Oler and Carl Strommen, with a solo performed by Deanna Hicks.

Emerging trends: small churches have a large proportion of their members singing in their choirs, children's sermons somehow involve shoes, choirs want more members, and something that I had nearly forgotten from my childhood--choirs don't always segregate themselves by sitting in a special area through the whole service.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Itinerant Chorister/Itinerant Scientist in Bayreuth

After returning from Germany, I've had a nasty combination of being very busy as well as sick. I had a cold when I returned, and thought it was getting better during the couple of days that I spent in Ann Arbor. Then I had to travel to Madison, WI, and it got worse. I didn't sing in any church choir this past weekend.

I'm finally getting around to a few more of my experiences in Germany. The real reasons why I was there are work-related, with my duties being in Bayreuth. Bayreuth has two main celebrities from the past. The one who is likely more familiar to most was Richard Wagner. They have the annual Bayreuth Festival that features his operas. The other was Margravine Wilhelmina. She was the Princess of Prussia, daughter of King Friedrich Wilhelm I and lived from 1709 to 1758, and she married Friedrich, Margrave of Bayreuth. They had palaces in Bayreuth called Altes Schloss and Neues Schloss, and nearby outside of town, the Hermitage. They also built the Margravine Opera House. This is a separate, smaller venue than the Festspielhaus in which the Wagner Festival is held. But it is a very impressive building for the rococo decorations (see photos of the front and rear of the house), and as part of the Bayreuth Baroque Festival, they had performances in this location while I was there.

What I saw was apparently a fairly obscure work called "L'Huomo" by Andrea Bernasconi, with libretto by Margravine Wilhelmina herself. The title translates as "The Man." The Man was played by a woman, as was one other male character. The lowest voice part of any of the solo roles was a countertenor. It started out as a story of two people in love, and placed in a highly circumscribed world, with only themselves along with supernatural beings. As such, it reminded me of one of my favorite musicals, "The Fantasticks." But the man was taken away by temptation and the woman by force. Then it stayed this way for way too long, the second act being sort of a slow-motion chase scene, and finally the two got back together again and the chorus came out with sunshine masks on their faces, and the show ended. This story was probably not very exciting even in the 18th century, but it really was an experience to go and see the show there.

My accommodations were at the Hotel Goldener Anker, built in 1753 and still under ownership by the same family. It is only a few doors up from the Margravial Opera House. One photo shows the room key with the ornate fob affixed to it at a 90-degree angle, making it too cumbersome to carry in your pocket. The other photo shows the 18th century-style uniform that the staff wear, with the rack behind where one leaves the key when not in the hotel.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Gottesdienst in Nürnberg

"Nun danket alle Gott,
Mit Herzen, Mund, und Händen."
"Now thank we all our God,
With hearts and hands and voices."

[Note to those joining from Sorry that I didn't get the piece posted there until late, because I didn't have all my instructions down. The piece here, minus photos, was posted on Sunday. I am now back in Ann Arbor (8 pm Monday), albeit jetlagged.]

Here in Germany, they call it Gottesdienst. Sunday church services are known as "God´s service." Today, I attended what seemed to be a rather normal service in a building that is well outside my normal experience. St. Lorenz Kirche has a distance of perhaps 50 yards between the organ console near the front and the main set of pipes in a loft in the back; it requires about a sixth of a second for the sound to get back to the organist. Nevertheless, other than the language and the building, truly almost everything was familiar to me.

First, why am I here in Nuremberg? Actually, there is a certain amount of confidentiality surrounding this trip. Suffice it to say that it is for reasons related to my day job as a climate scientist, with a couple of extra days of enjoyment added on.

Back to die Kirche. My German is very rusty and was not all that good to start with, particularly in the area of listening comprehension. But between having a few days to get in some practice, and the pastor at this church, whose name I didn´t hear or read, speaking in slow and clear German, I understood far more than in any other context on this trip. St. Lorenz started as a Roman Catholic church from its construction, which started in 1250, and retains much of the decoration, statuary, and iconography that is associated with that tradition, but it switched to the Evangelical Lutheran Church at the time of Luther´s Reformation. The feel and tone of the service was much like that of a modern congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, even featuring a female pastor. Despite the stories that are told of large European churches standing nearly empty on Sunday mornings, the pews were nearly filled today, including quite a few younger people. There was also the baptism of an infant named Hanne Siegler, if I heard correctly.

The choirs at St. Lorenz rotate duty from week to week. This week the service featured the Bachchor (the link is entirely in German; try using this to translate), touted as having over 100 members, although I don´t think there were quite as many today. It is led by Kantor Matthias Ank. Their part in the service was extensive. Keeping with the theme of things in Nuremberg being familiar, they sang the above-quoted "Nun danket alle Gott," by J. S. Bach, familiar to me both in German and in the English translation. They also did "Jesus Bleibet Meine Freude," known in English as "Jesu, Joy of Man´s Desiring" (Bach again) and, in English, "O Taste and See How Gracious the Lord Is" by Vaughan Williams.

Viel Dank zur St. Lorenz Kirche für den Besuch. Ich hoffe wieder zu besuchen.

I hope to add a few photos to this later. Watch also for posts of my experience in Bayreuth (I went to the city of Richard Wanger, but saw an obscure Italian baroque opera), and traveling in business class. Next week, I will be in Madison, Wisconsin, and might try to post on my experiences there.

Grusse aus Nuernberg

This will be a very quick draft post regarding a concert last night at St. Lorenz Kirche in Nuremberg before going to the Sunday morning service there.

I heard the Braunschweiger Domchor (cathedral choir of Braunschweig) in the cavernous space of St. Lorenz. I am quite certain that they are a largely, if not completely, amateur church choir who are on tour. They do some tough music (toughest harmonically was probably the Nystedt that they did) and do it with precise diction, not sparing the consonants in the least. A few organ pieces were also provided by the resident organist of St. Lorenz. The most moving part for me was actually the encore, at which point the choir finally put down their books and sang a little more directly to the audience.

This is coming from the public terminal in the lobby of the NH Hotel in Nuremberg. As a touch typist, I am having a little difficulty with the fact that on German keyboards, the positions of y and z are reversed.

Coming up, a little more about the Braunschweiger Domchor, Sunday service at St. Lorenz, the Bayreuth Opera House, and The Itinerant Chorister/Itinerant Scientist flies in Business Class. Also, later than that, photos.