Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Latin Mass at St. Patrick in San Francisco

Sanctus sanctus sanctus dominus deus sabaoth Pleni sunt caeli et terra gloria tua. Holy, holy, holy lord God of hosts, Heaven and earth are full of your glory.

Two things that were new to me: Singing as part of a regular series of weekly Latin mass, and singing in a church building with a placard on the outside that reads, "This building has been seismically retrofitted to reduce the risk of death or injury in the event of a major earthquake..."

The tradition of having mass in Latin does not go back to the days of Jesus, but does go back to the days of Constantine, and spread along with Christianity. Discontinuing its general use was part of Luther's reformation in the 16th century. For Roman Catholics, its general use ended much later, as a result of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. However, St. Patrick Catholic Church, 756 Mission St. in San Francisco, is still working hard to keep this tradition alive. Another thing that was new to me and will require a lot more practice: they actually use Gregorian musical notation, both on some sheet music and in the book with the order of worship.

My job brought me to San Francisco for the American Geophysical Union conference, and after some attempts at contacting other churches at which to sing on December 20, I found that St. Patrick is very close to the conference site, the Moscone Center. However, I was able to attend the pre-mass rehearsal and only the first 15 minutes of the mass, after which I needed to leave to catch a flight back to Michigan.

I was welcomed by a very small but mighty all-male group of singers--the photo shows the entire group plus the organist. Chris is the interim director, although it seemed that there was a large amount of direction by committee, especially trying to bring me up to speed with the music in a short amount of time.

I'll again define some terms that came up in a previous post. In liturgical talk, 'ordinary' used as a noun refers to the parts of the mass or worship service that are always used, or nearly so. This choir didn't bother rehearsing these, as they already know them. 'Proper,' used as a noun, means things that are used only for one Sunday, the fourth Sunday in Advent in this case. The main thing that we did that was a proper was a Gregorian chant based on Isaiah 45:8 and Psalm 18. We also did a setting of 'Ave Maria' and rehearsed a plainchant of 'Veni veni Emanuel' or 'O Come O Come Emanuel,' as well as some singing in English, whose title I didn't get around to writing down.

In retrospect, a particular feature of my experience at this church was that a lot of action occurred in a short amount of time, so that within the first 15 minutes of the mass, I heard a lot of music in Latin. 'Veni veni Emanuel' was skipped altogether without my even anticipating that it was coming; I think that Christmas is coming this week anyway.

Also quite unusual was the physical setup of the choir. St. Patrick is a rather large and elaborate Catholic church. The balcony in the back covers the entire width of the building, but is quite shallow and bare. The main thing there is the organ console with the organ pipes above. There are a couple of additional small benches there, but they weren't used. Instead, the small choir crowds around the organ console, in part because the main source of light in the balcony is lamps placed on the console. A short person would have difficulty looking over the top of the console to see their music.

The Latin Mass Choir of St. Patrick is a small group with much musical talent, who are very dedicated to a niche style of worship that connects people back to the church of about 1700 years ago. Although there was a respectable turnout of parishioners for this mass, this group is struggling to keep their tradition alive.

Another humorous experience occurred on my way to this church on Sunday morning. I passed by the Macy's store on Union Square in San Francisco, and people were gathering outside the door. It became apparent that they were evacuating because of an emergency. Pretty soon Santa Claus made good his escape, too, and after another minute or so, I started hearing the sirens of a fire truck.

Latin Mass at

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Leaping into a challenge

Des sich wundert alle Welt:
Gott solch Geburt ihm bestellt.

At this the whole world wonders,

That God has ordained such a birth.

The choir of First Baptist Church at 517 E. Washington in Ann Arbor has several very important assets--a good director and back-up director, an excellent accompanist, and the financial wherewithal to pay section leaders and hire a small orchestra to accompany them on this particular Sunday morning. Nevertheless, for a group of amateur singers, taking on a challenging piece can feel like driving toward the precipice of a cliff, hoping that it will all work out. With the work of singers and instrumentalists and some help from commentary by Pastor Paul Simpson Duke, it all did work out, and served as spiritual preparation for Christmas.

The commercial sector sometimes helps to confuse churches regarding the difference between Advent, the time of anticipation and preparation for Christmas, and Christmas itself. Choral performances by groups in advance of Christmas, sometimes well in advance, also contribute to this. But First Baptist today built their entire service around the Advent music of "Savior of the Nations, Come," or in German, "Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland."

I sat in the choir loft at the rear of the church, close enough to reach through the grating and touch the organ pipes, albeit at risk of the swell box baffles closing on my hand. The service started with a prelude based on "Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland," with the oboe stop singing it right in my ear. I have attended this church before, and have heard much talk about the skills of organist Joel Hastings. He definitely showed the organ who is boss today. Some of his organ work might be described as antics, and brought big smiles to the faces of the university students who were brought in as the orchestra. One example is that he twisted the cliche of modulating the key up a half step when going on to a new stanza; instead, he did it going into the refrain of "Angels We Have Heard on High." If you are not a professional musician and don't get the musical joke here, you're excused.

In addition to being played as the prelude and offertory, "Savior of the Nations Come" was also sung as a congregational hymn and served as the theme of the centerpiece of this service, the cantata "Nun Komm der Heiden Heiland" by Johann S. Bach, BWV 62, which took the place of the sermon. Under the baton of Brandon Straub, the cantata featured an aria performed by tenor section leader Kyle Tomlin and another performed by bass/bari section leader Brian Rosenblume, as well as a duet recitative performed by soprano section leader Bonnie Kidd and alto section leader Lucy Thompson, along with two movements from the full chorus.

In his commentary that introduced and interjected into the cantata, Pastor Paul Duke drew on the theme of connections to Christian believers of past eras--this tune dates back to a Latin hymn of the 4th century, then was set in German by Martin Luther in the 16th century and made into a cantata by Bach in the 18th century and is still with us. He noted that Bach always wrote at the end of his pieces "S.D.G.," the song of the angels of Christmas, for "soli dei gloria" or "to God alone be the glory." He highlighted the theme of wonder that occurs throughout the cantata, and pointed out the juxtaposition of Jesus as a baby and as a heroic athlete or warrior--"Be strength to us who are weak, Our human weakness make strong! We honor this glory And draw near now to your cradle." This is reflected in the bass aria by the full-throated vocals accompanied by a high-pitched whisper on some flute stops of the organ, as well as a dancing obbligato on the cello, performed by Madeline Huberth.

This performance was preceded by a Thursday evening rehearsal struck through with anxiety. The Bach score is not easy, and there were plenty of kinks to work out at the beginning of rehearsal. Working through the seemingly conflicting goals of knowing what you should be singing right now and watching the director to know exactly when you should be doing it is a problem that dogs all choirs, and is generally solved simply by working--repetition and getting serious about knowing your part. A lot of that was happening at this rehearsal.

Because Mr. Straub was absent for another musical commitment, rehearsal was led by Bonnie Kidd, who also does choral directing at Huron High School and at the middle school level. This background shows in her style of talking and leading a rehearsal. She is someone who does not so much command attention as cajole attention, such as when she corrected pronunciation by saying that the German article "dem" is pronounced just like the misogynistic term used by the sailors in Rogers and Hammerstein's song "There is Nothing Like a Dame."

At the end of rehearsal we sang and ate cake to celebrate the birthday of choir member John Reed (photo), the former Dean of the University of Michigan School of Law, and who also spent some years directing this choir. Friday was his 91st birthday.