This Sunday: Come Say So Long to a Great Musician

I was very saddened to learn that Neil Weston, our music director and organist at St. Stephen Martyr parish here in the Nation’s Capital, is going to be leaving us shortly.  Neil and his family are moving out to Ohio, which would obviously make the commute to St. Yuppie’s, as those of us in the know often call it, rather too difficult.  I wanted to mention his departure to encourage those of you who will be in the D.C. area this weekend to come along this Sunday, August 17th, to the 11:00 am Mass, so that you can hear why he will be sorely missed.

To get a sense of why we are going to miss him so much, you can visit my Chirbit site, which features surreptitiously made audio recordings of Neil and our choir at Mass over the past couple of years.  While the audio may not be fantastic, Neil and his singers and musicians most certainly are.  Several of the audio files manage to impart that, even in these less-than-stellar recordings.  And below this post you’ll find an embedded video, properly recorded by someone else, of Neil in action at St. Stephen’s.

When Neil first arrived at the parish, I realized immediately how very lucky we would be to have this educated, extremely gifted Englishman among us.  I was absolutely blown away by his abilities as a musician, his extraordinarily good taste, and his skills in directing our already very good choir to sound even more amazing.  He balanced out the tried-and-true with pieces both ancient and modern that were unfamiliar, but which quickly became new favorites, as I would note the name of the piece for future reference.  For a parish which is not very large, and a choir which is not very large either, the level of musicianship which I would hear on a weekly basis was simply extraordinary.

And of course what is even better, for those of us who are Catholics, is that the music has done its job beautifully.  It inspires us in moments of rejoicing, penitence, and contemplation, rather than simply being an add-on or an afterthought.  Unlike at a concert, the goal of the church musician is not to entertain, but to cause hearts and minds to be lifted up to matters Divine, as an aid to transcending the affairs of this world and focusing on the next.  In this, over the last several years, Neil has managed to bring me, and I daresay many others, into deeper prayer and a closer relationship with God, as we worship together.

In any case, Catholic or not, please do come along this Sunday at 11:00 am for Mass, and you will get to hear what I am rather poorly attempting to write in this post  St. Stephen’s is very easy to get to from anywhere in the D.C. area.  The Foggy Bottom Metro station is a 3-minute walk away, many Metrobus routes pass in front of the church itself, and there are a number of places to park in the surrounding neighborhood.  For more information on how to arrive, visit the “Directions” page on the parish website.

As of right now I haven’t heard who will be replacing Neil on the organ bench and in front of the podium up in the choir loft.  Hopefully it will be someone who appreciates the taste of the parish for the 11am on Sunday (no “City of God” or “And the Father Will Dance”, please.)  Whoever they are we’ll do our best to support them, I’m sure, but they will have very, very big organ shoes to fill, because Neil has been absolutely matchless. Godspeed and God bless, my friend.




Eventide by Voces8: Transcendence at Twilight

EventideIn Eventide, the beautiful new album on the Decca Classics label from British choral group Voces8, the listener is asked to pause, as the lengthening shadows begin to stretch across the floor ahead of nightfall.  Through a sampling of old and new musical compositions, the men and women of Voces8 and the musicians accompanying them demonstrate considerable polish and talent.  Yet more importantly, by calling us to adopt a reflective mood as daylight departs, they evoke a sense of timeless stillness, which many of us could benefit from seeking out more often in our lives.

Beginning with the first track, a “Te Lucis Ante Terminum” by Thomas Tallis (1505-1585), Voces8 make clear that this musical reverie is going to be of an echoing, ethereal quality.  “Reflexionem” by British composer Patrick Hawes (born 1958), and featuring the outstanding cellist Matthew Sharp, does exactly what its name implies.  I could easily imagine myself in the pew, after having received the Eucharist, and listening to this piece as I focus my attention on things above, while at the same time reflecting on things below.

The real standout of the entire album is “Second Eve”, by the young Norwegian composer and Julliard alum Ola Gjeilo (born 1978).  Using the Ave Maria wand references from other Marian texts, the pieces references historical singing styles but nevertheless feels contemporary, in the best sense of that word, layering melody with harmonies and counterpoint in ways that are somewhat unusual, but beautifully performed by Voces8.  There is a combination of sweetness with a sense of anxiety in the first half of the performance, which turns unexpectedly into something more triumphant and aspirational by the end.  This piece deserves to become better-known among both ecclesiastical and secular choral music directors.

Other noteworthy tracks are the deeply atmospheric, majestic, and beautifully performed “Os Justi” by Bruckner (1824-1896), Franz Beibl’s (1906-2001) well-known Camelot-era “Ave Maria”, and closing out the album, a different “Te Lucis Ante Terminum”, this time by an unknown Medieval composer.  This final track becomes more complex as it proceeds, as more voices are layered in.  The recording eventually returns to the simplicity and silence with which it and indeed the album itself began, reminding one of the instructional words in the Order of Mass for Holy Thursday, “All depart in silence.”

If you are a choral singer, choir director, or musician yourself, I suspect that several of the pieces and composers on this album will be unfamiliar to you, making this an opportunity to add to your repertoire.  For those seeking music for meditation and prayer, you will find the album very helpful, in that it is not an obtrusive work.  Rather, as the album’s title implies, there is a recognition that one needs to slow down and refocus at the end of the day.  And dare I say it, those of you who simply need something playing in the background, to study or work by, will find this recording softens an anxious mind and heart, in order to better focus on what needs doing.

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If you’re interested in the chance to win a free copy of “Eventide” by Voces8, I’m hosting a giveaway courtesy of Decca Classics.  You can enter to win by following this link, and providing me with your name and email address – one entry per reader, please.  You may enter any time between now and Midnight Eastern tomorrow.  The winner will be selected at random, and announced here on the blog this Friday, June 20th. Best of luck!

Voces8 Group Photo

The members of Voces8

This Week’s Giveaway Winner – And Next Week’s Chance to Win!

Thanks to the dozens of people who entered for a chance to win a copy of The Little Oratory: A Beginner’s Guide to Praying in the Home.  I’m pleased to announce that the winner is Mrs. Katie Kolodzy of suburban Atlanta, Georgia!  Hope you enjoy this terrific resource, and thanks to Sophia Institute Press both for asking me to review this very helpful and informative book, as well as allowing my readers a chance to receive a free copy.

Setting up a little oratory of your own really isn’t that difficult.  I’ve had one of my own for years, as I described in the book review; you can see the top of it below.  This part of the oratory features an image of Christ Pantocrator in the middle, displayed on an easel directly beneath the wall sconce.  Christ is flanked by wooden statues of Saints Peter and Paul, and all three are from Spain, made in the Romanesque style which dominated Western art history from roughly 1000-1150 A.D.

Flanking the statues of the two saints are gilded images from Italy of two angels playing musical instruments, which are taken from the work of the early Italian Renaissance painter Fra Angelico.  In front of the image of Christ Pantocrator is a contemporary Easter egg on a gilt stand from Russia, portraying a traditional icon of the Madonna and Child.  And surrounding all of these objects is a selection of some of my favorite family photos.

Chances are that you already have items like this around the home, that you could bring together into one place to serve as an oratory.  The images of Jesus, the angels, and the saints are there to remind me of the goal, as it were, of where my life is supposed to be heading.  And the family pictures, particularly since I don’t get to see my family as often as I’d like, remind me to pray for them, and to commend them to God’s care.

Putting together something like this, in a way that is meaningful and helpful for your prayer life, is something that really anyone can do – and if you’re not sure how to start, then “The Little Oratory” can definitely help you in that regard.

Now, for those of you who missed out this time around, next week I’ll be reviewing and hosting yet another giveaway! This time, courtesy of legendary recording company Decca Classics, we’ll be taking a listen to the new release from Voces 8, “Eventide”, which will be released in the U.S. on June 24th.  A British a cappella octet made up of six men and two women, the group performs a wide range of music from the Renaissance and Baroque periods, all the way up to the present-day.   Wednesday of this coming week, you’ll be able to check out my review, and enter for a chance to win a free copy of their new CD.

Once again, my thanks to Sophia Institute Press for this week’s giveaway, and especially to my readers for your patronage of this site!