Last night was the second night of the Jubilation/Elizabeth Stuart Choir Festival V, and appearance of the Mary Queen of Peace Chamber Choir, the Little Choir That Could. In the end, we couldn’t, but we gave it our best shot.
It had been pretty stressy going in. The Thurs. rehearsal was a workout; I had throat discomfort the next day. When you’re 1-2 on a part, there’s not much of a lifeline if you fall off the tightrope, you can hear every little imperfection, there were the usual suspects adding stress. Even warming up downstairs, we were changing things like performing pitch (though thankfully, we finally had the notes in hand).
Then upstairs to hear the competition. I’d heard 2 groups on the radio the night before and wasn’t worried, but tonight’s competition was stiffer, alarmingly so. Hudson UCC was pretty damn good… fine blend, dynamic range, diction and rhythm. And I sat there thinking, “We are screwed.” Their gospel tune rocked pretty hard for a bunch of white folk from the ‘burbs. Processing to the back to that tune seemed a bit too much like a victory lap for me.
Next up was St. Noel Willoughby, in their first competition. They were big – about 70 – and also good, though not as consistent as Hudson, with some blend issues in the men, mushy diction and the occasional intonation lapse. And they HAD enough men, unusually for an OF Catholic choir. And the very able accompaniment of the amazing Eric Charnofsky.
And then it was our turn, and we sang at about 96% of potential. There were a few little lapses, but no disasters, and we were VERY well received by the audience. Praise afterwards, from other choir members, about our diction, our voices, expressivity, and repertoire (especially the Iain Quinn Vidi Aquam, which had been a controversial repertoire choice, particular for the closer. It’s beautiful, but pretty crunchy harmonically, and not at all a “big finish”.) All this we heard from people while we waited for the judges. Fr. Doug showed up, which meant a lot to me. It is SO important to have the pastor in your corner, if you’re going to do traditional Catholic music.
Finally the judges came out, they got people shushed and cut back from the station, and they brought Robert Page up to read the results and give out the prizes. He was saving the winner for last (they don’t rank anyone else). So they named off yesterday’s choirs, then Hudson, which I somehow didn’t notice. Then #5, Mary Queen of Peace. Oh shit, we didn’t win. Shocked silence in the room as it dawns on St. Noel that if we’re #5, they’re the winner. BIG applause for us, and then of course big applause for St. Noel. After things quieted down, we approached Dave onstage. We’d gotten some amusement from Hudson’s choir motto, because Dave’s motto for us had been, “If you don’t win, you’d better find another choir director to go home with.” So Majersic said, “You SUCK! I’m quitting!” and I said, “OK, Hudson IS closer to home.” He was amused, and was happy with our performance.
I don’t know how the judges judged, and how subjective the process was. In purely objective terms, I thought Hudson was the better choir. But I’m really glad that a Catholic choir won, because most of them suck so badly (when they exist at all). And their repertoire was middle-of-the-road, which is an improvement on so many parishes. We got judged harder because we were obviously professional…but we predicted that going in. We just weren’t professional enough, what with that bass with the breathing issues (that would be me). I don’t feel very bad about being beaten by a choir 10x our size. And I’m not sure how we compared, since what we did was so different from anybody else. Our program was 50% Renaissance, and 50% Latin (not the same 50%), and was radically traditional-Catholic except for the obligatory African-American piece (and the Stainer maybe, though it’s hard to define a setting of John 3:16 as sectarian) and we were the only group to perform exclusively a cappella. We got to show the world the best of what happens musically at MQoP… which is mainly why we did it. That, and making some money to pay us with.
There were choirs (at least half) who brought instruments besides piano with them. Do they usually have that in their services? Was it an attempt to curry favor? I don’t know. I was amused by St. Noel’s flute piece though. It’s funny; flutes had never been part of the Catholic church music tradition, and were actively discouraged in Papal documents (which means they WERE used occasionally) — until Vatican II. Now they’re everywhere, the sackbuts and violins of the 21st century. Now, I don’t have a problem with that, as they don’t have those noisy theatrical lascivious associations for me, and the V2 docs are more permissive in that regard. I should have a problem, maybe, as flutes, harps and drums are the primary neo-pagan instruments. I just note that it’s yet another 180 from tradition.
So, it’s over…and there’s planting and composing to do.