MADISON -- At its Lessons and Carols concert Sunday, Dec. 21, the Madison Diocesan Choir will give a premiere performance of "Blessed Are You," a setting of the Beatitudes the choir commissioned in tribute to Dr. Patrick Gorman's 15 years as its director.
Bishop Robert C. Morlino will preside as Gorman and the choir continue their festival of Lessons and Carols in the chapel of the Bishop O'Connor Pastoral Center, 702 S. High Point Rd. The free concert begins at 5:30 p.m. with a reception to follow.
Glenn Schuster, organist and assistant director, will accompany the choir, as will Mary Ann Harr, principal harpist with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and the concert's featured artist.
All except the bishop will give a free repeat performance at 7 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 3, at St. Henry Parish in Watertown. Both sites are wheelchair accessible.
"Blessed Are You" was written by a composer from the Madison area, William Beckstrand, currently director of music at First Lutheran Church in Duluth. Raised in Stoughton, he earned a degree in music from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Beckstrand also wrote "Prayer of Saint Francis," a favorite of choir members and audiences since the choir performed it four years ago and included it among recordings on its first professionally produced CD, "Music for a Cathedral."
When asked to compose a piece based on the Beatitudes in honor of Gorman, Beckstrand eagerly accepted the challenge. Like Gorman, he prefers the setting in Luke Chapter 6, Verses 20-23, over that of Matthew 5, 3-11.
"It's not real easy on All Saints Sunday to find settings of the Beatitudes, so I was enthused about coming up with my own," Beckstrand said. "Everything I've ever come across is from Matthew. I've never been able to find anything that I liked from Luke, and I've always preferred that version."
Matthew says blessed are the poor in spirit, whereas Luke simply says, blessed are the poor.
"Luke makes no bones about it, blessed are the poor," Beckstrand said. "I've always gravitated more toward that text because I think blessed the poor in spirit sort of gets us off the hook. We can be filthy rich, and we don't have to worry about it. Luke says, no, blessed are those who are poor, period."
Unlike "Prayer of Saint Francis," which Beckstrand wrote virtually in one sitting a day or two before a funeral, "Blessed Are You" took much of the summer at his remote Owen Island retreat in the Lake Superior waters of Canada.
Accessible to choirs
The challenge in composing the piece wasn't the text, he said. The Beatitudes from Luke are shorter, so that made it relatively easy, apart from the last lines. "The last four lines are basically the text from Luke, but rearranged into a little bit of a metrical version," he said.
Rather, the difficulty was in composing something accessible, a piece that many church choirs could sing. "I wanted it to be . . . also kind of be a gift on their behalf to the larger church."
Beckstrand said his goal is to write music that is simple, but not simplistic. "Composition for me is always a process of winnowing down to what I finally think of as the simplest version, and what's left is what I hope is inevitable, like it's always been."
As with all his original scores, "Blessed Are You" includes the date and place he finished it: August 12, 2008, Owen Island.
"It's a huge gift," Gorman said. "I'm especially glad for this setting, because there really are very few good settings of the Beatitudes for choir that are accessible to church choirs."
The composition is especially fitting for Lessons and Carols, he said. "There's a prayer at the beginning of Lessons and Carols that the bishop says that I've always been touched by because I think we sometimes forget some of these things," Gorman said. "The prayer . . . says, 'And because He particularly loves them, let us remember in His name, the poor and the helpless, the cold and the hungry, the oppressed, the sick, and those who mourn'."
Gorman said the prayer speaks of the Lord's love for the poor. "There was . . . this special bond between the Lord and the poor and the oppressed. I don't know that it necessarily means that we have to be poor. But I think it means we need to remember that all of these people are especially loved by the Lord, and then we need to especially love them, too, and figure out how we show that we love them in a concrete way."
The O'Connor Center performance provides an opportunity. As with previous concerts, each person can remember the poor by bringing a nonperishable food item for the food pantry at the Catholic Multicultural Center.
Gorman has yet to meet Beckstrand, but he is impressed with him as a composer. "He's very gifted," Gorman said. "Not to put him on a pedestal, but he reminds me a bit of an iconographer. People who draw icons usually fast and they pray and the icon itself is considered to be their prayer. So it's a very holy, artistic endeavor."
Idea born abroad
Gorman described both the commissioned piece and "The Prayer of St. Francis" as moving.
"They seem to somehow touch the singers in a special way," he said. "They certainly have touched me in a special way. With all the pieces we do, I'm often touched, but with these, at a different level. I don't think I'll ever forget singing 'The Prayer of St. Francis' at Dachau."
During their 2007 tour of Germany, Switzerland, and Austria, the choir visited Dachau, Nazi Germany's first concentration camp, where 30,000 prisoners died. The choir sang "Prayer of St. Francis" in the courtyard of the Carmelite convent adjoining the camp, an emotional experience.
During that tour "Blessed Are You" had its beginnings. In talking to board member Mike Flottmeyer and several choir members, Schuster noted Gorman's upcoming anniversary and suggested the choir commission a piece.
"Mike thought that was a wonderful idea, spread the word around," Schuster said. "They asked for contributions, and one thing led to another." Said Flottmeyer, "It was definitely met with great enthusiasm."
Schuster spoke to Gorman's wife, Denise, who suggested the Beatitudes. On the choir's behalf, he asked Beckstrand to compose a piece. At the close of the Lessons and Carols last year, Maggie Dohm, choir president, surprised Gorman in announcing the commission.
"Denise will tell you I'm often very uncomfortable getting gifts, and I ordinarily don't speak about them much," Gorman said. "But I was just riding on a cloud for weeks after this. I'm just especially touched by the whole thing, that the choir would do this."
With Gorman directing, the choir of more than 70 members, representing parishes throughout the diocese, will premier "Blessed Are You" a capella in the O'Connor Center chapel on December 21.