Letters From Mr. Sheranian
A Lenten Letter
In recent months, there has been some disturbing news from "across the pond." In December, we learned that the choir of Llandaff Cathedral in Wales was to lose its alto, tenor, and bass sections to budget cuts, leaving the treble boys to sing all the services without support from the lower voices. This was done to save money, as the cathedral is strapped for cash. More recently, there has been more news that the fate of some other English cathedral choirs hangs in the balance, as the powers that be make difficult financial decisions - often (and sadly) on the backs of the choirs that have attracted pilgrims and worshippers for, in some cases, over a thousand years.
In this country, we have noticed a sharp decline in the numbers of church-affiliated boy choirs. When our choir of men and boys was established 125 years ago, there were thousands of boy choirs singing for Sunday services at most Episcopal churches in this country. Over the course of the 20th century, most of them fell by the wayside. As recently as ten years ago, there were approximately thirty choirs of men and boys singing for weekly services at Episcopal churches in the US. Unfortunately, the number of active, thriving choirs of men and boys is now under twenty. The All Saints' Choir is the last remaining Anglican liturgical boy choir in Massachusetts.
I bring attention to this not to alarm or disturb, but to point out the fragility and increasing rarity of a boy choir, and to thank you for your help in nurturing, fostering, and supporting the work of the choir. Recently, we have had some success in recruiting new boys - four new trebles since October. And, I have been very heartened by the response of the congregation. On a recent Sunday, a prospective new treble attended church with his mother, and I was grateful to observe many members of the congregation make the family welcome, voluntarily describe the benefits of choir membership, and to express pride in the choir. It's this kind of support that keeps our choir healthy and thriving. The choir depends on the support of the entire congregation, and I know that is why the choir is thriving today, bucking national, even global trends.
So, thank you!
Since this is the Lenten issue of the Chronicle, I hope you will allow me to suggest a congregation-wide Lenten discipline: more robust and enthusiastic singing of the hymns! Since we are operating with somewhat of a handicap with our current "organ" (as the Estey reed organ in the ante-chancel is our only instrument for the time being), it is even more important that every parishioner open The Hymnal, and raise a joyful noise unto the Lord. Congregational singing is meant to be loud and raucous. I know we are lacking in accompanimental support from our organs, and having an organ to buoy up the singing is helpful, but nevertheless, I call upon each of you to help the choir lift up our voices in sacred song.
Andrew P. Sheranian
A Letter for Christmas
One of the many privileges I have here at All Saints is the opportunity to work with talented young organists. Our rare music program gives young organists a chance to learn the skills of choral accompaniment, hymn playing, and organ repertoire on a week-to-week basis. The position of Organ Scholar at Ashmont is beneficial to three entities: it provides a rigorous musical education to those in the position; it opens a space in our common life for a young musician to assist our music program; but perhaps most importantly, this position helps to foster and develop the next generation of organists and choirmasters in the church. Former All Saints' Organ Scholars have gone on to be organists at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine (NYC), and the municipal organist in Yokohama, Japan; not to mention yours truly here at All Saints! Christian Haigh, our current Organ Scholar, has been with us since August.
Born in Reading in the United Kingdom, Christian was first introduced to the organ during his time as a boy chorister at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford. Christian continued his studies as a Music, HSBC and Choral Scholar at Tonbridge School.
During the 2012-2013 academic year, Christian spent a gap year, first for a term as Organ Scholar at Saint Thomas' Church Fifth Avenue, in New York City (with John Scott), and after that for a term as Organ Scholar of St Paul's Cathedral, Melbourne, Australia.
During his time in Australia, Christian performed alongside groups such as the Australian Boys' Choir and The Vocal Consort, and has made two recordings for the Organ Historical Trust of Australia. He performed several recitals in both Melbourne and Sydney, including venues such as St Paul's Cathedral (Melbourne), St Michael's Uniting Church (Melbourne), and St Andrew's (Sydney). His trip also included a performance of selections from Morten Lauridsen's Lux Aeterna with Morgan State University Choir and the Royal Philharmonic Choir at 24 hours' notice.
Christian has played various recitals in England, including recitals at Winchester and Coventry Cathedral, St Mary's Church (Streatley), Minster Church of St Mary the Virgin, St Mary's Butts (Reading), and The Guild Church of St Lawrence Jewry (London). Christian also performed a recital including the Suite by Maurice Duruflé at St. Thomas Fifth Avenue (New York) and gave a performance in South Africa while on a school exchange there. Last summer Christian performed at the Royal Albert Hall in Nottingham.
Besides playing the organ, Christian played clarinet in his school's symphony orchestra, sang in the chapel choir, and accompanied three musicals. Christian is currently an undergraduate at Harvard University and will be spending winter break performing in the Bach Institute for Emmanuel Music.
Andrew P. Sheranian
A Letter for Advent
As we approach the end of the liturgical year, I'd like to report on the choir's activities in the past few months, and to look ahead at the coming year.
The beginning of the choral term coincided with the removal of the chancel organ and of the installation of a protective covering of the C.B. Fisk Organ, Opus 103. This has meant that we have been without a pipe organ since the beginning of September. As a temporary instrument, the church purchased and restored a two-manual and pedal reed organ, built by the Estey Organ Company of Brattleboro, VT. The organ was most likely purchased for use in a small church approximately 100 years ago, and then subsequently found its way to a private home on the South Shore. From this residence, the reed organ was moved to an organ repair shop in Waltham to be restored, and then just in time for the beginning of the choir year, was moved into place on the epistle side of the ante-chancel, where it stands to lead both congregational singing and to provide choral accompaniment.
The reed organ also does an admirable job at playing organ repertoire; but, because of its limited size and tonal palette, the selections of organ repertoire have necessarily been somewhat limited. Also, since the last issue of The Chronicle, the chancel organ chamber has been emptied of its contents; Skinner Organ Company, Opus 708 has been moved from storage in the undercroft to the workshop in Waltham; and restoration work on this beautiful instrument is underway. Working as your musician without a pipe organ is a challenge, I must say. However, when I remember that in just over a year's time, we will have two world-class pipe organs of different styles to help lead worship, it puts everything in perspective.
In addition to the choir's weekly routine of rehearsals and masses, the choir took the "show on the road" a couple of times this autumn. On September 29, the choir traveled to S. Stephen's Church (a fellow Anglo-Catholic parish) on the campus of Brown University in Providence, RI, where the choir sang a service of Solemn Evensong, Procession and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament for the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels. We were grateful for the warm welcome by the rector, Fr. John D. Alexander and curate, Fr. Blake Sawicky, and to our dear friend James Busby (organist and choirmaster) who extended gracious hospitality and accompanied the choir at Evensong.
As has become our custom, the choir also traveled to All Saints' Church in Worcester for Evensong on the Sunday after All Saints' Day. The two like-named churches have enjoyed this collaboration for the past three years, and the two choirs joined forces to sing music of Howells, Bainton, and Radcliffe. Graeme McCullough, the director of music at Worcester, was our host, guest conductor and accompanist. The Worcester Choir will join us again – here at Ashmont – for Candlemas.
To conclude, I would ask for your help with two things.
1: Open your hymnal and sing the hymns heartily! Now that the Fisk Organ is unplayable, I am seated at the reed organ during the singing of hymns. From that vantage point, I can look out at the congregation and see who is holding an open hymnal and who is not. As you can imagine, I want to see every person in the church with an open hymnal during the hymns. As I occasionally say to the boys, "Fake it 'til you make it!"
2: We are hoping to recruit a few more boys this year. With the help of some industrious parishioners, we have a few new probationers coming down the line (thank you!), but we are, as ever, constantly on the look-out for potential choirboys. Boys in Grades 3-6 are the ideal age. If you know of a local family with a boy in that category, please talk to his parents and then pass on their contact info to me. It is an enormous help. Thank you in advance.
Andrew P. Sheranian
A Letter for Michaelmastide
I write to give you a report of the choir's choir camp experiences this past summer. On July 25, twelve choirboys (along with three choirmen and yours truly) traveled from Boston to Essex, NY. Essex is a charming, sleepy town on the banks of Lake Champlain in the Adirondack region. The quickest way to travel to Essex from Boston is to drive up through Vermont to Burlington, and then to take a ferry across Lake Champlain. Once we arrived in Essex, we were greeted by the rector and people of St. John's Church. There we spent three and a half beautiful days with perfect mid-summer weather. Morning rehearsals were followed by healthy lunches. During the afternoons, the boys went hiking, swimming, kayaking, and motor boating. Accommodation was provided by the generous parishioners at St. John's, most of whom live on picturesque, lakeside estates. Each evening, a different family provided dinner for the boys at their beautiful homes; and each evening after dinner, the boys sang Compline for our hosts at dusk. On our last evening in Essex, we sang Evensong for the townspeople; and on Sunday morning, the choir sang the Sunday mass at St. John1s, followed by a lavish brunch. The people in Essex were openly moved by the boys' presence among them, and expressed their ardent desire to repeat the choir camp next summer. We are very grateful to the Rev. Margaret Shaw, rector of St. John's, and all the fine people in the parish for their generosity, kindness, and extravagant hospitality. I am also personally very grateful to Jeffrey Gonyeau, Michael Raleigh, and Trevor Sullivan for taking the time to chaperon the trip and to help with many of the details of the choir camp.
After mass on July 28, we drove from Essex, NY to Princeton, NJ (through hateful traffic and torrential downpours), where 15 boys and men from our choir attended the Montreal Boys' Choir Course. This is the course that had taken place in Canada for so many years, but was moved to the States because of the fact that nearly all the participants in the course are Americans. This year, the course was held on location at the Lawrenceville School, just south of Princeton. Each year, the course chooses a theme, around which the music and the activities of the week are centered. This year the theme was the Holy Ghost, and we spent a week singing about and exploring the work of God the Holy Ghost. Our main musical challenge was the monumental motet, "Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf" by Johann Sebastian Bach. This week of intensive musical training and singing is transformational for our boys, and is a great way for them to rub shoulders with boys from other choirs who are engaged in the same kind of musical ensemble that they are. The week in Princeton culminated in Sunday Mass and Evensong, which were sung in the air-conditioned comfort of Miller Chapel, on the campus of Princeton Theological Seminary. After 10 days of back-to-back choir camps, the boys (and I!) were ready to come back to Boston!
And now, looking ahead. On Sunday, September 29, the choir will travel to S. Stephen's Church in Providence to sing a service of Solemn Evensong and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament at 5:00 pm. It is particularly fitting for our two parishes to come together in this way, as we share in the catholic expression of the faith. If you find yourself in Providence that day, please make a point to come support the choir.
As always, we are looking to recruit a few more boys (grade 3 through 6) for the choir. If you have a Facebook account, please go the Ashmont Boy Choir page. There you can see pictures and video from the choir camps this summer. Click like and share our recruitment flyer with all your Boston contacts. Please help us spread the word about this unique opportunity for local boys.
Andrew P. Sheranian
A Letter for the Great Feasts
I write to let you know the choir's summer plans. First, some background is in order. Several years ago I was asked to play an organ recital in Essex, NY, a sleepy little town on Lake Champlain, south (and across the lake) of Burlington, VT. The Community Church in Essex hosts a summer organ recital series. During my first visit there in 2011, the rector of the neighboring Episcopal Church invited me to dinner at the rectory, along with the music director of the church and a few members of the choir. They asked about my work here at All Saints, and we began to formulate the idea of starting a summer music camp for our choirboys, hosted by the clergy and people of St. John's Church in Essex. Being a small retirement and vacation community, summer is the time of year when that particular parish is operating at its peak, so the idea of hosting our boys for a choir camp at that time was a welcome one. The final plans are slowly coming into form at the current time. Jeff Gonyeau, Mike Raleigh (our Davison Fellow from the Harvard Glee Club), Trevor Sullivan, and I will travel up to Essex with about twelve of our choirboys on Thursday, July 25. There we will follow a daily routine of rehearsals, musicianship classes, fun activities, outings, picnics, etc. The boys will be hosted by members of St. John's Church, in home stays. Our time in Essex will conclude with an Evensong for the town on Saturday night, followed by Sunday morning mass, at which our choirboys will join with the small choir of St. John's Church.
On Sunday, July 28, after mass, we will depart from Essex, NY, bound for Princeton, NJ, where our choirboys will attend the week-long Montreal Boys' Choir Course in Princeton. As you may remember, Ashmont boys have attended the Montreal Course for the past two years, reviving a long standing tradition of Ashmont choirboys attending summer training courses run by the Royal School of Church Music in America. This year, the Montreal Course has been moved to Princeton, streamlining the travel process and making it possible for more American choirboys to participate in the course. Our boys will join nearly 70 other choirboys and teens from other men and boys choirs in this country for a week of music making, musicianship building, camaraderie, nutritious food, and fun. Some of our boys are already looking forward to working with Mr. Simon Lole (who directed the Montreal Course in 2011), sometime choirmaster at Salisbury Cathedral in England, who will be the Musical Director of the Course this year. Every year, the course chooses a theme, around which all the musical and social aspects of the course revolve. Last year the theme was "The Mass." This year, the theme is "The Holy Spirit." The majority of our rehearsal time will be spent working on Johann Sebastian Bach's monumental motet "Der Geist hilft unsere Schwachheit auf" as well as a few masterpieces of the English Cathedral repertoire.
In other news, we have recently formed a Choir Recruitment Committee, to address the most pressing concern of the music department. Our goal is to recruit five new choirboys before the end of the choir year on June 9. If you know of boy, grade 2-6, please reach out to me (617-436-3520, or firstname.lastname@example.org) with his and his parent's contact information so I can follow up and invite him to join the choir. Our Choir of Men and Boys is perhaps the most distinctive element of our common life, and yet, unless we join together and recruit now, its viability will be put in jeopardy. The choir needs your help. Please speak to your friends, relatives and neighbors about this unique opportunity for their sons. Thank you in advance.
Andrew P. Sheranian
A Holy Week Letter
During Lent, the choir has been busy learning some new choral repertoire for Holy Week. Many of the anthems and motets will be familiar to the congregation, but the mass settings are for the most part "new" to us.
On Palm Sunday, the choir will sing a mass by Herbert Howells in C minor. If Charles V. Stanford is to be considered the composer who defined English church music in the 19th century, then Herbert Howells is his parallel in the 20th. Deeply affected by the death of his son at an early age, Howells' music is infused with a melancholia that so typified the political turmoil and devastation of the last century. His Communion Service in C is written for unison voices, and includes an independent organ part rich in harmonic interest.
Because of the unique nature of the Maundy Thursday liturgy here at Ashmont, (which dictates that the organs be silenced after the singing of the Gloria in excelsis), the choir has usually sung a "hybrid" mass setting in the past: i.e. Kyrie/Gloria sung to a setting with an organ accompaniment, and the rest of the mass sung an unaccompanied setting, usually from the Renaissance. Philip Stopford's Keble Missa Brevis provides a clever solution to this particular liturgical pickle, because the only accompanied movement of this mass is the Gloria in excelsis! Stopford is a British composer, born in 1977, and was organ scholar at Keble College, Oxford. It is to Keble College that this mass setting is dedicated, and was premiered there in 1997 at a celebration of Corporate Communion. Perhaps the most unusual treatment of the mass text occurs in the Sanctus/Benedictus. The choir, singing in eight parts, repeats the word "Holy" while the trebles sing the text of the Sanctus. However, it is the composer's treatment of the Hosanna that is particularly thrilling. You'll have to come to mass on Thursday to hear it. Spoiler alert: the boys sing a lot of high notes!
The mass setting for the Easter Vigil was sung here first in Advent of 2012; however, because it was Advent, the choir did not sing the Gloria. This mass was composed by Josef Gabriel Rheinberger (1839-1901). Rheinberger was born in the tiny alpine principality of Liechtenstein, but spent most of his musical career in Munich, where he was professor of composition at the conservatory. Cantus Missae, opus 109 (composed in 1878) is scored for unaccompanied double choir. Most choral music is written in four parts: this setting is written in eight. Cleverly crafted, it is a delight to observe the two choirs on either side of the chancel handing the musical material back and forth. Having twice the number of vocal lines imparts a sumptuousness to the texture that brings a rich and luxurious quality to the declamation of the mass text. This setting formally harks back to the great Renaissance masters such as Palestrina and Victoria; however, in harmonic and melodic structure the Cantus Missae is unmistakably the work of an unpredictable Romantic. The work is dedicated to Pope Leo XIII: indeed, it found such favor with the Pontiff that Rheinberger was made a knight of the Order of St. Gregory by papal brief.
On Easter morning, the choir will sing a mass composed in 1776 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, for use at the cathedral in Salzburg, Austria. The Archbishop of Salzburg at the time was adamant that even Solemn Masses be kept under an hour in length, making these settings perfectly suited for use in modern liturgical settings. Missa Brevis in C "Organ Solo Mass" is similar in structure to the "Little Organ Mass" by Haydn that was sung here on the Fourth Sunday of Lent. In the Latin Mass, the Benedictus qui venit was sung while the celebrant continued with the Eucharistic prayer at the altar: this allowed that particular movement to be longer than the others. Mozart uses this movement to display the talents of both choir and organist. Its effervescent atmosphere and limpid vocal lines are perfectly suited to the joy of the Easter celebration.
Finally, I conclude with a plea for help. It is my goal to recruit five more treble boys (grade 3-6) between now and the end of the school year. If you know any private music teachers, school teachers, coaches, social workers, nannies, or anyone else who might know boys, please talk to them about the choir. Mention our newly formed relationship with the Harvard Glee Club. Point out the opportunity for a free music education, grounded in the English Cathedral tradition, and the chance to sing with some of the finest professional singers in Boston. Invite them to attend one of our weekly rehearsals or to a mass. Give me their names and contact information. Together we can reach this goal. Thank you in advance.
Andrew P. Sheranian