Vincent Cheng conducts the St. Michael’s Choir School alumni and MOSAIC choirs in rehearsal accompanied by Gordon Mansell on piano. Photo courtesy Gordon Mansell

Choirs unite for a sacred music mission at Holy Land

  • February 7, 2019

Sacred music meets the most sacred place in the world next month as the MOSAIC vocal ensemble and the St. Michael’s Choir School (SMCS) alumni choir embark on their first performance pilgrimage. 

From March 12-24, both choirs will be travelling across the Holy Land to perform in sacred sites of some of the most beloved stories of the Catholic faith. Twenty-four choir members will be joined by nine other pilgrims as they visit Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth and many other towns of biblical significance. 

“It just brings new dimensions to what it means to sing and what it means to feel (sacred music),” said Vincent Cheng, conductor of St. Michael’s Choir School alumni choir. “It’s one thing to sing ‘Ubi Caritas’ in a church or in a hall or in the city, but then when you experience this song ... and connecting it with different parts of the world, in the Holy Land.”

Cheng, who will be conducting both choirs during the performance pilgrimage, said a taizé song like “Ubi Caritas” can take on a whole new life when sung where the Wedding at Cana is believed to have taken place. This is the site of Jesus Christ’s first miracle, where Mother Mary implored Jesus to help the newly wedded couple by turning water into wine. 

Ubi Caritas” is a Gregorian melody set to a common antiphonal response, “Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est” (“Where love and charity are, God is there.”) It is usually sung at Eucharistic Adoration and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.

“Every time we hear that story at church, in readings, it’s linking it with the story of the music,” said Cheng. “Since we haven’t set foot there yet and we haven’t experienced that site, what we’re going with is sort of imagining what it would be like…. But the present experience that you get when you’re there and you’re singing it will be totally different.”

Members from both choirs have been rehearsing together since April last year. As the dates come closer, the excitement in the rehearsal room grows more and more every week.

“I know talking to many of them, they can’t believe that it’s almost already here,” said Gordon Mansell, founder and artistic director of the MOSAIC choir. 

Each member is paying their own way for the trip. As a group, Mansell said they have talked about their own commitment not only as a performer on a concert tour, but as pilgrims visiting the origins of their Catholic faith. 

The MOSAIC vocal ensemble was formed in November 2011 out of the Our Lady of Sorrows Ecumenical Choir. Members range from ages 26 to 65 years old. Many are retired music teachers with the Catholic school board or alumni members of the SMCS. Members also include notable sacred music composers Stephanie Martin and Susan Hookong Taylor, the latter of whom wrote the theme song for World Youth Day 2002 in Toronto.

 The SCMS alumni choir is part of the SMCS alumni association, which aims to strengthen the bond between alumni and the choir school. Many of the members have been singing together for 40-50 years, since they first met as students.

Some other highlights of the pilgrimage’s repertoire include a tenebrae written by Msgr. J. E. Ronan (founder of St. Michael’s Choir School) to be sung at the Mount of Olives in the Church of All Nations. “Angelus” by Albert Alcaraz will be sung at concerts in Jerusalem, Nazareth and Bethlehem. 

In choosing the music, Mansell said he reflected on the Lenten season of their retreat, as well as the biblical stories attached to the sacred places they will visit. 

“When you have this opportunity to walk the steps that Jesus walked, to be where all the biblical stories are and when you have the opportunity to be there, but then to actually sing the music that reflects this, it hits you at a different level for sure,” said Mansell.

Mansell got the idea for a performance pilgrimage after the MOSAIC choir’s Italy tour in 2013. The group was invited to perform in Florence, Assisi and Rome. The choir performed as principal choir at St. Peter’s Basilica, including one Mass in which Pope Benedict XVI was celebrant. 

Members of the SCMS alumni also performed during the Italy tour, but this trip to the Holy Land is the first time that the alumni choir is officially named as part of the tour. 

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