Advent Vespers at Monastery of the Holy Cross

Chorale opted for an Autumn concert this season, rather than a Christmas concert.  Competing with all the other performing groups out there, plus other holiday-related activities, can really wear a group (and its management) down.  Promotion, always a major expense and energy-drain, becomes enormously costly when aiming for the holiday crowds; and even when one puts in the money and the work, a group still loses singers, as well as audience, when so much is going on.  There are pluses and minuses to jumping into the holiday fray; after ten years of doing so, Chorale tried something different.  And we were immensely gratified by the success of our Northern Light concerts:  unfettered by seasonal concerns, we were able to program a new, unusual, and sophisticated repertoire, and our audiences were large and enthusiastic. Just as important, from a programming point of view, we had sufficient preparation time, and now have an additional three weeks in which to rehearse our winter concert, before the holiday break hits.

But we do not ignore the season altogether.  Each Advent, a subset of Chorale’s membership participates in an Advent Vespers liturgy at the Benedictine Monastery of the Holy Cross, in Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood.  Far from being a “holiday celebration,” the vespers liturgy is a living, cyclical aspect of monastic life, and features concerted music at those points for which it was originally composed, rather than as “concert music.”  At Holy Cross, both monks and choir sing in a mixture of Latin and English, and the repertoire ranges from Gregorian psalm tones to complex, highly sophisticated choral polyphony.  This year’s repertoire includes service music and motets by Victoria, Byrd, and Palestrina, all composers active at the close of the sixteenth century.  At several points during the service, Chorale and the monks will sing antiphonally, taking alternating verses of the psalmody and the Magnificat.

The event bears little resemblance to Advent and Christmas commemorations one is likely to find elsewhere in our area.  Far from feeding the listeners’ desire for excitement, comfort, or nostalgia, the liturgical framework, the music, and the chapel building itself (one of the best acoustic spaces in the region) inspire reflection, soul-searching, and a sense of timeless peace—the moment one enters the chapel, one becomes a participant in something older and more sacred even than Christianity itself:  the mystery of the numinous, in sharp juxtaposition to our daily cares and concerns.  The monks enter quietly, each at his own pace and in his own way, yet all of them similar in their lack of hurry, lack of concern, lack of tension; those who come to listen and participate from the pews, as well, seem to leave off their hustle and bustle as they enter the space, and sit quietly, without impatience, as the liturgy unfolds.  We musicians learn our music in advance, with appropriate tension, fear of failure, concern for correctness and stylistic appropriateness--   then we, too, succumb to the ritual of the liturgy, the unfolding of the event, as one rarely does when singing for an “audience.”

People do not beat down the doors to attend this Vespers; there are no posters, no advance ticket sales, no reservations, no ushers to seat you.  The monks, and Chorale, have enough of a following that the chapel is comfortably occupied—but even this doesn’t seem to matter:  the glory of this music, sounding as an integral part of this liturgy, at this particular season, has beauty and purpose and life on its own.  One senses that the world changes, is quietly shocked into a better place, through this “incarnation,” this focusing of our gifts during this ritual, whether anyone hears it or not.   I personally find myself upheld in profound, quiet beauty , supported and nourished by the totality of the experience--  I am sorry to leave the building afterward, to reenter Advent and Christmas and the business of music as we know it;  I linger until the monks finally nudge me out the door, telling me they have to be up and functioning early the next morning and need their sleep.

I tend not to invite friends to this event.  I fear the austerity and simplicity will disappoint them, and that their disappointment will stand between them and the experience itself.  I expect that people who know what they are in for, will come, and that that is enough.  Then, each year, after it is over, I am sorry I did not let people know-- so, consider yourselves invited.  Sunday, December 4, 5 p.m., Monastery of the Holy Cross, 31st and Aberdeen on Chicago’s South Side.