Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Other Choir School

I tell you, sometimes the implausibly wonderful happens and it seems like a miracle. This is the best way to describe the Madeleine Choir School attached to the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City. It opened it doors in 1996 and today is a full-scale K-8 school. It stands as a thriving, growing, principled, and brilliant educational institution that is educating a generation of singers and musicians for true performance in Catholic liturgy in line with the oldest tradition and entirely in keeping with the highest ideals of the Roman Rite.

The miracle part is surely due to the intense prayers of all those for whom this is a dream come true. But in addition to the prayers, there is the wonderful support of the Bishop and the intense work of a great staff. There is of course a central hero to the story, and his name is Gregory Glenn. Simply put, this institution would not exist without his incredible dedication. He was trained in organ and then gained experience at the Basilica of the National Shrine.

Glenn came to what must have seemed to be an outpost in 1990. Since then, he has been wedded to this institution the way people embrace a deeply held and passionate vocation. He is there for every liturgy, every situation, every decision, every selection of music, and knows every student by name. He has overseen every improvement in the physical structure, is on-call 24/7 to handle every problem, and stands constantly ready to teach, play, and sing. He embodies a level of commitment that an institution like this has to have to get off the ground.

But look what he has built over this twenty-one years! The Madeleine Choir School is the only other institution of this sort in the United States outside of Boston. The kids are singing and reading music from the earliest grades, and are always at liturgy for Mass and the sung office. They are singing complex polyphony from all ages of Church composition and know the Graduale Romanum like monks. Just like other kids, they learn reading, math, history, and all the rest, and play soccer at recess, but the very core of the art program is the music of the Church.

It’s both old fashioned and completely new and fresh - a beautiful thing to behold. Any Catholic parent who would see this institution in person would think exactly what I thought: these are the luckiest kids in the country. Surely they are.

I received an email just as I was writing this article that reads as follows: “All of the work of the Church Music Association of America, the journal Sacred Music, and the are important. But why are we all waiting until people are 30 years old and reading this material to be inspiring them? Imagine children attending a school in which they studied these things in class while, interspersed through the day, the Mass and the appropriate Office hours were chanted. Things would make sense to these children in ways that I don't believe are widely experienced (if at all) in today's world.”

This is of course precisely right. The children are the future. Children’s choirs are great and important. Every parish needs such a choir. But even better is the idea of the choir school itself. At Madeleine, the kids are doing exactly what the correspondent suggests. They are leaning, living, breathing the musical life of the Church. The payoff for the Church is gigantic even if years down the line. This institution is going to be sending out the best singers and musicians throughout the country to populate our parishes, and they will be incredibly skilled and focused on doing liturgy the right way.

What’s fantastic too is the model that Gregory Glenn provides for them. What strikes me about him is his super pleasant demeanor, his upbeat spirit, his effortless charm, and his very authentic humility. Here is a real servant of the Church. He is not a complainer. He is not the type who demands “his way or the highway.” He is a realistic doer who thinks about the long term, and is willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done. If that means talking to prospective donors for hours, day after day, year after year, that’s fine. If that means going early to unlock the doors for workers who are painting the room, that’s fine too. If it means giving up vacations and breaking other engagements to organize an unexpected funeral, that’s just part of the job.

Of course it helps that he is directing music and running the school from one of the most beautiful cities on the earth, and in one of the most impressive cathedrals in this country. The interior is not vast but it is extremely well done. The colors are dazzling and bold, reflective of real spiritual imagination. The organ is excellent. The facilities for the school itself are fine and getting better all the time. The town itself is super supportive: Salt Lake is one of the most artistically minded cities in the country. He has even managed to build outstanding relationships with other faith communities in the city without giving up that core Catholic mission.

In this type of work, the schedule is packed from morning to night, essentially forever. It’s Mass every day, plus lauds, vespers, and benediction on Sunday and holy days, and there are many events in between. And then there are the concerts that the choir provides for the donors and the entire community. The repertoire is vast and constantly changing. The core is of course Gregorian chant, and Glenn is very broad minded and liberal about its performance practice. He sees chant as the Word of God expressed in the most beautiful possible way.

Of course the children sing beautifully too.

The annual Sacred Music Colloquium of the Church Music Association of America is taking place in this Cathedral, June 25-July 1. It will feature concerts by the Choir School, tours, and close engagement in this wonderful world that has somehow not been entirely noticed by the national scene. Everyone who attends is in for a great treat, even a life-changing experience. This seems like this right spot for life changes. The Madeleine Choir School is already changing many.
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