Choir's Tour Traces Roots And Touches Audiences
DUNBLANE, SCOTLAND — `THEY bring to their study of music the kind of dedication and determination to succeed that people like John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors brought to their tennis,'' says Dr. George Guest, choirmaster at St. Johns College, Cambridge (England). ``..They have now reached a very high standard indeed, which is all the more remarkable when one realizes that they are all amateurs.'' Dr. Guest knows the choir Gloriae Dei Cantores, from Orleans, Mass., pretty well by now. He is one of several world-class musicians under whom the choir has studied regularly. ``It's been going on for about five years now,'' he says. He visits Orleans, and the choir comes to Cambridge.
The choir is just one of the many activities of an ecumenical Christian group known as the Community of Jesus. The choir was begun in 1975, five years after the community was incorporated. The choir's director, Elizabeth C. Patterson, says that when she and her husband, both music professionals, first came, ``it was a dismal-sounding group of people!''
The Pattersons did not join the community with musical intent. But the community's director asked them if they could ``do something about the singing in church''; it was so ``frightful.''
One measure of what they did can be seen in the fact that the choir turned professional last year (though this, I was told, signifies a standard of excellence in the concert hall as well as church, rather than financial reward).
It also means ``one more motivation ... for telling us to work harder,'' comments the Rev. Hal Helms with a laugh. Reverend Helms is one of the 44 men and women who form the choir.
Guest underlines the point: ``They ... work at not only learning music for concerts and recordings but what one might call the periphery of music,... sight-reading, musical history, analysis, form, and all that sort of thing.''
MRS. PATTERSON says that, when the choir ``came up against polyphony - polyphony is really a European product in the church - we knew there were people for whom this was a living tradition. We sought those people.'' Learning it second-hand or from books, they felt, would not be ``as full of these little life-nuggets, faith-nuggets, that we're looking for.''
The choir is currently involved in its second ``international gateway concert series.'' The idea is to become established in Eastern and Western Europe before touring in the United States in future years. This tour, however, kicked off with Gloriae Dei Cantores' first major concert in America, given in Boston in January.
The European trip started with concerts in England and Scotland - where I heard the group rehearse and perform in Dunblane Cathedral under Patterson's benevolent but exacting direction, with a combination of impeccable vigor, devotional solemnity, and wholeheartedness. Further training in Cambridge was to be followed by two weeks this month in Czechoslovakia and two weeks in Moscow and Leningrad. One remarkable aspect of the Soviet visit is that the choir is performing there both in churches and public concert halls. A member points out what a great opportunity this is to ``touch young people who have been brought up with no faith....'' This is the central point of the choir and its search for excellence. Helms says simply, ``It is tied up with our sense of worship.''
With its growing repertoire of sacred American and English music, the choir ranges from Gregorian chant to certain kinds of modern classical composition. Helms feels he, for one, has been greatly stretched by this. ``It expresses something very deep in the human spirit. We think that, without it, life becomes very flat and prosaic.''
CHANT is particularly important to this choir, as it is to the whole community on Cape Cod. Guest, describing them as ``not in any sense part of an extreme or esoteric kind of religion, simply part of the American Episcopal Church,'' admires the way the Divine Office is chanted in Latin ``right through the day and night - very beautiful and very well-done plainsong.''
Dr. Mary Berry, also of Cambridge, has long trained the community in the chant, and there are friendly links with the Benedictine Abbey of Saint-Pierre de Solesmes in France, recognized for its restoration of the Gregorian chant. Patterson calls chant ``the grandmother of Western music.
Bearing this out, the concert in Dunblane included ``Quatre Motets sur des Th'emes Gr'egoriens Op. 10'' by 20th-century French composer and organist Maurice Durufl'e and ``Three Eucharist Motets'' by American composer Gerard Near.
Helms also emphasizes tradition. He thinks, in view of ``what's happened in music this century'' that ``it's important that people hold onto and claim the great heritage we have, both in the West and East.'' The choir certainly shows respect for other people's traditions and cultures. They will be singing in Russian and Czech this month.
Something of the sacrifice made by participants in Gloriae Dei Cantores is hinted at by one of its members, Christy Haig. Mrs. Haig has left behind her husband and two young children for the three-month tour. Support from the community, she says, is ``what makes all this possible. I know they're being very well cared for.''