Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Vigor, Energy, Freshness in the Extraordinary Form

Wassim Sarweh plays and conducts from the loft.
Wassim Sarweh must be one of the most brilliantly innovative yet underrated organists and choirmasters in the English-speaking world. I say that because I just heard him play and his choir sing at the Church of the Assumption Latin Mass in Windsor, Ontario. If you have not been, it is worth a trip. It will redefine your understanding of the aesthetic potential of the extraordinary form.It is also a wonderful experience to join this community of happy and liturgically enlightened Catholics in this beautiful parish.

Wassim's singers are all first rate, and his approach to playing the organ was like nothing I've heard before in this context. Forget nostalgia and dated sentimentalism This is something completed different. The celebrant's voice is clear and his Latin diction is perfect. The singing is as precise as it is effervescent. If you attend on the right day, you can even hear the Gradual chant sung in organum with middle eastern musical accents.

Many people know that I'm no fan of accompanied chant, but Wassim took an approach that was enough to make me a new believer at least as regards the people's chants. He didn't use organ on the Mass propers -- all sung from the Graduale Romanum - but rather on the ordinary of the Mass and the credo in particular, since the rest of the Mass ordinary was sung according to a setting by Orlando di Lasso.

Wassim Sarweh with his books
When I first saw Credo III listed, my thought was: too bad that this parish uses this too familiar setting as a fallback. Accompaniment surely can't help. I was completely wrong. Wassim took off following the celebrant's intonation. The speed was vigorous and the text very clear. The harmonies he chose were not like anything I had heard. There unusual modal shifts. There were dramatic volume changes and interesting articulations that heavily informed the singing. There was real word painting going on. The drama ebbed and flowed throughout. As we approached the end, the intensity grew and grew, and my heart began to race. As we finished, I was left with a wild feeling of exuberance, and I wanted to look around and shout: don't we all share a fantastic faith?! I know it sounds silly but music is capable of inspiring such feelings. I never imagined that Credo III could do that.

I asked Wassim where he found such an amazing version. I should have known: he wrote it himself. It is not published. It should be. It should also be on youtube. It would be a revelation for many.

Wassim has an interesting life and history. He immigrated from Syria as a young man, and he fell in love with music, studying it formally for a good part of his life. He is a wonderful singer with a brilliant tenor voice that is capable of singing most alto parts it full voice, which he uses to read any chant in the Gradual right there on the spot. His organ playing is not romantic (there is no "19th century" in any aspect of this liturgical event) but edgy in medieval sort of way. It is confident and vigorous. Incredibly, he is not actually a full-time musician but rather a banker.

I'm equally impressed by the support community that has done so much to make this a wonderful place. The pastor is Fr. Peter Hrytsyk and he is clearly the driving force. But the community is otherwise packed with talent. You know the giant book of sung readings for the extraordinary form? It originated right here with the work of Mr. Michel Ozorak.

It was a great privilege for me and for Arlene Oost-Zinner to sing with the choir on the Sunday when we happened to be there following a parish workshop in Lansing, Michigan. I can't imagine what it would be like to have access to such a glorious liturgical event week after week. If you live anywhere near this parish, it is worth a drive just to see what is possible. More than any "old Mass" I've attended, this convinced me that this really could be the Mass of the future.

Congratulations to everyone involved!