Prepare for Christmas with the Diocesan Choir Print E-mail
Around the Diocese
Written by Richard Jones, For the Catholic Herald   
Thursday, Dec. 08, 2011 -- 12:00 AM

Mary Ann Harr

MADISON -- Mark your calendar, the Madison Diocesan Choir, under the direction of Dr. Patrick Gorman, director of the Office of Worship, presents its Festival of Lessons and Carols Sunday, Dec. 18, a free Christmas concert at the Bishop O’Connor Catholic Pastoral Center with harpist Mary Ann Harr returning as special guest.

Harr, principal harpist for the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, will perform a solo and accompany the choir on selections, including the premiere performance of a hymn arrangement by Anthony Barresi, professor emeritus of music education and choral conducting at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Harr returns as guest

“I am always thrilled with an invitation from Pat Gorman to join him and the Diocesan Choir for Lessons and Carols, as well as other special occasions,” Harr said. In addition to Lessons and Carols, she has accompanied the choir at Chrism Mass and spring concerts. “It is a privilege to make music with Pat and the choir,” she said. “We’ve gotten to know each other and enjoy the comfort of familiarity. I think the choir gets better each time I hear them — which isn’t to say they weren’t wonderful the first time. They were!”

If you go
What: Lessons and Carols
When: Sunday, Dec. 18, 4 p.m.
Where: Bishop O’Connor Center
702 S. High Point Rd., Madison
Cost: Free. Bring a nonperishable food or toiletry item to benefit the Catholic Multicultural Center.
Encore: Saturday, Jan. 7, 7 p.m.
Holy Mother of Consolation Church, 651 N. Main St., Oregon

Gorman said the choir is fortunate to have Harr as a frequent guest soloist. Besides the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, she performs regularly with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Symphony Chorus.

“She’s such a fine musician,” Gorman said. “There’s just something about her that lifts our musicianship up to another level.”

Inspiring and magical

The free concert begins at 4 p.m. in the O’Connor Center chapel, and for Harr, performing with the choir in such a setting is also a treat.

“Being in the lovely sanctuary of the Bishop O’Connor Center is inspiring,” she said. “The light, the sound, and the space all make me feel so good. For the singers, a harp offers much less support than the piano does. However, the harp and voices make a very pleasant combination.”

Taken together, the harp and chorus, season and setting, make for a magical performance.

“I especially like the harp at Christmas time, partly because angels are often depicted with harps,” Gorman said. “And I think it somehow

subconsciously turns our mind to heaven and makes us think of the angelic voices that sing glory to God at the birth of Christ. That is why I am so pleased to have Mary Ann join us again because I think the harp helps us all turn our minds and thoughts to heaven.”

Works performed on harp

For her solo, Harr said she will perform a traditional Irish air, “Muire Bheannaithe,” or “Blessed Mary.”

“Harps and Ireland go together, and this is a beautiful, but not overly familiar melody which adds a little Irish flavor to the concert,” she said.

Among the selections Harr will perform with the choir is “This Little Babe” from Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols. She said the piece written for harp and chorus is always challenging.

“It moves with great speed and complexity,” Harr said. “It is over in less than two minutes, but those are exciting minutes.”

Another is the motet, “Cantique de Jean Racine,” by Gabriel Fauré.

“This is one of the most enduring choral works that I know, and the harp part is continuous and flowing and graceful,” she said. “It is a treat to play this piece with such a fine choir.”

Barresi’s Christmas carol

Harr will accompany the men of the chorus in the premiere performance of Barresi’s arrangement of the Sicilian hymn, “O Sanctissima.”

“It’s really written for piano and men’s choir, but we’re going to have Mary Ann do the piano part on the harp,” Gorman said. “I think it will be quite lovely.”

Since retiring from the UW-Madison School of Music, Barresi has composed a number of pieces for the choir, and the “O Sanctissima” arrangement is a story in itself. What the concert audience will hear began as part of an Italian Christmas carol he wrote several years ago, but the origin extends well beyond that.

“When I as a boy growing up in Fredonia, N.Y, I was the altar boy serving at each Tuesday evening novena at St. Anthony’s Parish,” Barresi said. “Despite our out-of-tune church organ and the loud, but fervent singing of the congregation, the beauty of this hymn shown through. Years later, when I heard it sung again in a little church in Italy, I was so moved that I decided that I would make a translation and choral arrangement of it.”

The initial result was the Christmas carol for mixed choir that Gorman directed the Diocesan Choir in performing several years ago.

“I told him how much I liked this little segment of it,” Gorman said. “So he decided it would sound very nice just with men’s voices. He took it out and turned it into its own little piece.”

Barresi expressed delight in learning Harr will accompany the men in performing the arrangement.

“She is a really talented, sensitive performer who will give added depth to the men’s performance,” he said.

And Barresi had high praise for Gorman, who is approaching his 20th year as director, and for the choir.

“He brings a liturgical understanding of the text to his conducting, which gives the performances a wonderful musical and spiritual depth,” Barresi said. “Last year, we invited the Diocesan Choir to Christ the King Parish in McFarland to present Advent music as part of our Generations of Faith religious education program. The musical presentation was beautiful, as was Dr. Gorman’s brief discussion of each piece and its spiritual and historic place in Catholic liturgy and music.”

Choir ‘jelled’ this year

Gorman said he was pleased with the choir’s performances this year.

“There’s just something about the choir this year that seems to have jelled very quickly,” he said. “The overall tone and diction, and the musicianship has just been very, very good.”

Since 1990, the choir has been performing the festival of Scripture readings and carols. The lessons begin with Adam’s temptation and fall, and they conclude with the birth of Christ. Between readings, the choir will perform, and Gorman will invite all present to join in singing a number of carols. Organist and Assistant Director Glenn Schuster will accompany the choir and assembly.

Donations welcome

While the concert is free, each person attending is encouraged to bring a nonperishable food or toiletry item for the food pantry at the Catholic Multicultural Center. Director Andrew Russell said the center has had to expand its pantry due to increasing economic hardship in the community. He said all donations are appreciated, but the most popular pantry items are sugar, cooking oil, beans, rice, toothpaste, soap, shampoo, toothbrushes, and deodorant.

The choir also is grateful for donations supporting its music ministry. If not the purchase of music and other regular expenses, donations will help fund the eventual replacement of the choir’s well-worn robes. In addition to contributing their time and talent, the approximately 70 members, representing parishes throughout the diocese, pay annual dues to help support the choir.

Located at 702 S. High Point Rd., the O’Connor Center is wheelchair accessible. Gorman and the choir will give a repeat performance of Lessons and Carols on Saturday, Jan. 7, at 7 p.m., at Holy Mother of Consolation Church in Oregon.

Concert dedications

Gorman said both concerts will be dedicated to Dr. Roger J. Folstrom, founding director of the Diocesan Choir. Folstrom was choir director at St. Bernard Parish in Middleton in 1973 when he founded the Diocesan Choir. He died October 17 in Silver Springs, Md.

As the concert approaches, Gorman also remembers Bishop Emeritus William H. Bullock, who died April 3. A strong supporter of the choir, Bishop Bullock rarely missed a performance. If not presiding at Lessons and Carols in the O’Connor Center chapel, Bishop Bullock would be sitting in the front pew with others in attendance.

“I have a picture in my office of Bishop Bullock presiding at Lessons and Carols,” Gorman said. “He’s wearing the vestments he always wore, and he’s standing by theAdvent wreath saying one of the prayers. I like it partly because it’s Lessons and Carols, and partly because he just has such a nice smile on his face, and such a good sense of joy.”

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