Now it’s time to ‘do the good’

  • June 28, 2023

I have just returned from a week singing under the California sun. Not favourite lyrics from the Beach Boys though, but Gregorian chant and Renaissance motets. Along with 74 other choristers, choir directors and organists who attended a Sacred Music Symposium hosted by St. John the Baptist Parish in Orange County, I return to my home parish eager to put into practice what I have learned.

Sponsored by the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, the sixth-annual (interrupted for two years by the pandemic) conference brought together professional church musicians and composers with 75 singers and musicians, most of them amateur but a few who are professionals in their own right.

For five days, the rise and fall of plainsong and the intricate harmonies of Renaissance polyphony spilled out over the grounds of the host parish. After mealtimes, groups of singers would perch on the school picnic tables, set up their cellphone metronomes and keyboards and count out the tricky rhythms of a 16th-century setting of the Salve Regina.

Living out the admonition to “practice what you preach,” faculty and conference-goers sang together in daily, communal prayer. Compline was sung on the first three nights of the symposium. On the Thursday evening before the close of the five-day event, Fr. David Friel, Vocation Director of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, presided a Solemn High Mass at which the participants formed the choir and sang the conference repertoire in the context of the liturgy.

The participants had travelled from all over the globe, Canada included, to attend the conference, and they ranged in age from high schoolers to grandparents. The parishes where they sing and conduct represent the full gamut of Catholic liturgical life, both Novus Ordo and Latin Mass parishes and a handful where both forms are celebrated.

In addition to the rehearsing of an ambitious repertoire of sacred music, including pieces by William Byrd, Palestrina and Luca Marenzio, conference participants were given an opportunity to attend workshops on beginning and advanced conducting, sacred music composition and chant accompaniment.

The workshops and rehearsals were led by an impressive line-up of musicians, Richard Clark, Albert Calabrese, Charles Weaver, William Fritz and Kevin Allen, all well known in the Catholic liturgical music world.

For many, one of the highlights of the conference was singing a new setting of the Confiteor, a prayer of the Mass that forms part of the penitential rite, composed by Chicago-based Allen. A prodigious composer of music for the Roman Rite, Allen has completed close to 25 Masses and 300 motets. For comparison, Palestrina, a Renaissance composer, composed 250 motets.

The director of the symposium, Jeff Ostrowski, Director of Music at St. Vitus Parish in the San Fernando Valley, is also the driving force behind Corpus Christi Watershed, a comprehensive online resource for sacred music.  

The ambition and goal of the team behind both the website and symposium is to support and encourage the cultivation of a rigorous and beautiful musical culture in parishes by drawing upon the rich tradition of Catholic sacred music.

In his keynote address, Fr. James Fryar FSSP, told attendees that in a darkened and increasingly morally confused world, “the good things you do in the choir is some of the best good in the world.”

At the conclusion of the symposium, it was clear that all involved were ready to head out to “do the good.”

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