Wednesday, October 31, 2012


                                            St Stanislaus Church, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Whenever one attends a Catholic Mass in the ancient rite of the Church one's reaction is generally awe, an awe brought upon by the majesty and quiet reverence of that Rite which in all its essentials dates from the time of Christ.  Sometimes, however, that sense of awe and beauty is broken by something discordant.  The usual culprit is the music, often ill-chosen or badly played, which keeps one's attention away from the central point of the Holy Sacrifice.  There was not, however, a single discordant note at the Wedding Mass of Mr Andrew Thompson and Miss Maria Guenzel held at St Stanislaus Church in Milwaukee on October 27th which this writer was privileged to attend.  At that Mass the music melded perfectly with the solemn actions performed at the altar.  It was an integral part of the Mass.  It was Catholic music.  It was music that didn't take away from the Mass.  On the contrary the work of this choir at that celebration actually enhanced the Mass and permitted the believers to be totally enveloped in the mysteries.

Interior of St Stanislaus

That minor miracle was accomplished by master choir director Lawrence Stich whose good taste, sense of balance and thorough knowledge of Church music mark him as one of the most accomplished kapelmeisters of his generation.  His Palestrina Choir forces were brilliantly led and equally brilliantly accompanied by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra's Lee Erickson, who provided sensitive organ playing, majestic when required and delicately hushed when the moment demanded it.  It is well known that not only is Erickson the highly (and justly) acclaimed choral director for the MSO but that he is also an exceptionally gifted organist.  The combination of Stich and Erickson, therefore, was sure to provide top-notch results. 

And it did.

                                                                                Lawrence Stich

                                                           Lee Erickson

The Mass chosen was Rene Quignard's Short Mass in Honor of St John the Baptist and its melodies haunted the lovely 19th Century church on Milwaukee's South side.  The composition was written in the mid-20th century but its ties to the early Christian centuries are evident.  That continuity is what makes the listener believe that such sounds could have been heard at the time of Christ.  Though modern it is, paradoxically, ancient.  The listener is drawn into the entire history of his Faith.  It is the music not only of the 20th century but of the 13th and the 3rd.  And the 21st.  With music such as this one is connected with his Christian ancestors in every time and in every place.  For sheer beauty, for that odd combination of desolate sadness combined with inner exaltation it would be hard to better the Quignard Mass, and it would be harder still to better the performance given here.  Every moment of the music expresses perfectly where you are at the Mass.

Conductor Stich drew out every nuance of this work.  The composer quite clearly meant his music to meet not only aesthetic but spiritual needs. The Kyrie opens the Mass with a heart-breaking and simple statement: Quignard is asking us in his music to beg Our Lord's mercy, and maestro Stich helps us to implore it.  The actions at the altar combined with this sad Kyrie humble the faithful and offer time for reflection.  But then the mood changes to joy and gladness with the towering Quignard Gloria.  Here the Palestrina Choir shone.  Their voices had that rare quality - yes, let us call it a spiritual quality - which enabled them to give glory to God in true fashion.  [One almost hesitates to say this but there were not a few handkerchiefs taken out of pockets during this moment.]
Maestros Stich and Erickson discussing the score
  The Canon of the Mass is introduced with a gorgeous Sanctus, again brilliantly conducted, sung and played.  It must be stated that the final "Hosannah" prior to the Consecration was one of those unforgettable moments when the Mass and the music which adorns it act as one.  Lee Erickson's organ playing perfectly matched the singers throughout the Mass but especially at this moment.  The church now plunged into silence awaits the sacred moments of the Consecration.  After the unbloody sacrifice is accomplished, Stich's singers and Erickson's playing rise slowly in unison to bring these solemn moments to their conclusion.  Their efforts help the priest bring us right to the foot of the Cross.  And then afterwards there is the Angus Dei before Holy Communion, beautiful solos by soprano Mary Brown and the conclusion of a wedding Mass that would not have disgraced the marriage of a Monarch.
Stich with soloist Mary Brown
This writer has personally heard this Mass performed on other occasions in other venues but has rarely heard it done so well.  Stich's skill in filling the church with sound using only a rather small grouping, as here, was never more vividly on display.  It is a testament to an artist who knows the importance of balance and knows how to coax great singing out of his choir.  He demands a lot of his Palestrina Choir and whether it is by sheer talent or sheer talent combined with a determination to show him they can not be defeated the Choir delivers with tremendous power.  Yes, acoustics play their part.  But there must be something filling that acoustical space.  The Palestrina Choir filled it with the song of Angels.

Memorable too was Lee Erickson's opening processional for the entrance of the bride, appropriately setting the stage for the proceedings.  It thundered so as to highlight the great beginning moments, then gave way to the quiet, haunting Propers sung by the men's schola under maestro Stich.  I would not hesitate to say that in its small way this combination of Stich and Erickson at a Solemn High Wedding Mass echoes the more feted collaborations of renowned classical artists.   

                                                           Rev. Father Benoit Jayr

Though more of a music review we cannot neglect to mention that the lucky Milwaukee couple, Andrew Thompson and his new bride Maria, were equally well-served by a gorgeous and reverently arranged Mass in the historical Gregorian Rite performed by Rev. Father Benoit Jayr, a French priest assigned to the parish.  It is the Rite that nourished the Church for untold centuries and it is the Rite that will nourish the Church once again thanks to certain courageous actions taken by the present Pope.

But a Mass, after all, is about the unbloody sacrifice of Christ on the cross and it is the main focus of the wedding day.  It is the Sacrament that is being administered.  How appropriate therefore that this majestic yet mystical ceremony should be adorned with equally mystical music in another kind of perfect wedding, the wedding between a Solemn High Mass in the historic rite of the Church and the glorious music offered by a talented Choir under the direction of a fine artist.  True Church musicians can enrich the rubrics at Solemn High Mass where the beauty of the sounds they bring can stir the very soul.

And as for the wedding Mass at St Stanislaus on October 27th last,  soul-stirring it most certainly was.


Anonymous said...

Dear Aged Parent/ Eye Witness,

Thank you for this wonderful review. Mr. Lawrence Stich is an accomplished director and I am extremely fortunate to have him leading the music at my parish. I would like to publish a good chunk of your review of his performance in my next parish newsletter to give the folks a good idea of what we have here and where we need to go with our music and choir. Please contact me, and let me know what you think of my proposal. Thanks again and God Bless.

Aged parent said...

Thank you, Anon, for the kind words. Please feel free to use whatever portion of the article you see fit.

Mr Stich is indeed an accomplished artist.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...