April 20, 2019

Catholic choirs join in song> Faure’s Requiem set

At least for Catholics, November is a time to think about death. There are the feasts of All Souls and of All Saints, and then the pre-Christmas season of Advent, which is about fasting, penitence and prayer.

But you don’t have to be a Catholic to appreciate the beauty of Gabriel Faure’s Requiem, a tender work of celestial movements and a favorite of choruses everywhere. If you’re going to be thinking about death, this is the way to do it.

That’s what Kevin Birch says anyway. As director of music at St. John’s Catholic Church in Bangor, Birch thought November would be the right time to combine about 100 voices from choruses in five local parishes and present Faure’s Requiem to the public. Add to that the acoustics of the Gothic church and the pulsing notes of the 133-year-old E. & G.G. Hook organ at St. John’s, and the concert, which is Sunday, is sure to be a reminder of at least something grand and powerful.

“It sounds wonderful,” says Birch, who has been rehearsing with the singers since last spring. “The dynamic range is from very soft to quite a full sound.”

A requiem — the word means “rest” in Latin — is the Catholic Church’s Mass for the dead, and often has terrifying musical elements. Faure’s Requiem, however, is unusually serene in part because it eliminates the sometimes heavy-handed central section called the Dies Irae (“Day of Wrath”). Other requiem Masses might dwell a bit more on the frightening ideas of hell and purgatory, says Birch, but Faure’s is more consoling and even blissful with its syrupy high violins, angelic sopranos and cherubic harp. It’s a kind of Everyman’s requiem.

It may, in fact, be likely to evoke pleasant, pastel images of French Impressionism or of the Paris church where Faure spent most of his career and where this piece was performed at his own funeral Mass.

“The sound of this organ and the organ Faure had in mind are very close,” says the 32-year-old Birch, who went through 12 years of Catholic school and holds a doctoral degree in musical arts. “The acoustics in this church are also very comparable to a large French church.”

Birch has been playing the organ since he was 12 and is artistic director of St. John’s Organ Society. At Sunday’s concert, however, he will conduct the singers, including bass-baritone soloist Peter Allen of North Sebago, and a 12-piece chamber orchestra. It is the largest group he has directed, he says, and that’s a professional perk for him. But the concert also marks a mission under way in the Catholic Church to bring parishes together for community projects. Singers for the requiem come from St. John’s and St. Mary’s in Bangor, St. Joseph’s and St. Teresa’s in Brewer, and St. Matthew’s in Hampden.

In a letter to the choirs and their directors, Bishop Joseph Gerry of Portland sent commendations as well as blessings for this event. He wrote of Pope Pius XII, who said that art “expresses in human form the infinite divine beauty of which it is, as it were, the reflection.”

“This is especially true of religious and sacred art which is even more entirely bound to God and to the promotion of His praise and glory,” wrote Gerry.

As with many of the concerts at St. John’s, this one is free, says Birch. The production costs just under $1,500, which is spent hiring top-notch musicians. Generally the money for concerts has been made up in donations left by concertgoers, says Birch. He adds: “Some leave a dollar, some leave a 50, and we do all right.”

A lovely meditation on death — that a music lover of any denomination can appreciate, Faure’s Requiem has the potential to offer a bonding experience among Catholics.

“Up until about 30 years ago, Latin was the language of the Roman Catholic Church,” says Birch. “This requiem is sung in Latin. For the older generation, it’s revisiting a beloved old text. For my generation, it’s a wonderful history lesson in the Catholic religion.”

Faure’s Requiem may be about death, says Birch, but it’s also about hope and about the belief — expressed in a well-known Catholic prayer — that there will be eternal rest granted and that perpetual light will shine upon the souls of the faithful departed. And if there’s good music to boot, amen, indeed.

Gabriel Faure’s Requiem, and other choral works, will be performed 7:30 p.m. Sunday at St. John’s Catholic Church, 207 York St. in Bangor.

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