Thursday, April 5, 2012

Beautiful Polyphony from Lyceum Schola Cantorum




How far do you have to go to hear beautiful, stunning polyphonic music of Catholic tradition? Certainly you can find it in New York. Or Chicago. Or San Francisco and Washington, D.C. It turns out, however, that If you live anywhere near South Euclid, Ohio, you are in luck. There is a co-ed high school there called The Lyceum. This school has a choir that will take your breath away.

I’ve just listened to their new CD, which you can buy at their website or perhaps by writing the school. I urge you to do so. This material is remarkable for particular reasons. The tuning and balance is exceptional, as are the interpretations. But more than that, what strikes me about the singing is the spirit. Spirit is something difficult to put your finger on, hard to describe. It is something you feel and sense. And you really do sense it in a big way here.

What is that spirit? In a word, it is love. These are high schools kids who are unbelievably fortunate enough to be an environment that really believes in this music. Every note is sung with love. It is love plus an appealing freshness, like the spring rain or new flowers in a garden. The colors are bright and enthusiastic about life and art. It comes through in every piece, from the opening chant (Ave Verum Corpus) to the last choral piece.

There is marvelous material here. It shows you what is possible. The dream can be achieved. The living reality of wonderful Catholic music sung by young people is something of our world and our times.

No doubt that the results here owe much to the director, who is James Flood. He must be a very humble man because I had a hard time even finding his name on the schola’s website. It turns out that he is a classical guitarist who studied at the prestigious Peabody Conservatory and runs the Foundation for Sacred Arts. Whatever it is that gives a person that spark of genius to build a great choral program, Mr. Flood certainly has it. He has managed to turn a random group of high school kids into a world-class liturgical choir right in the the heart of America. Incredible.

On this CD, the choir sings what a parish schola today might be called “standards” but which are nearly unknown by most parishes today. Palestrina’s “Sicut Cervus” has a calm feel but that brightness of spirit that characterizes all the music here. Mozart’s “Ave Verum” is expertly rendered. the two pieces by Christopher Tye schooled me in how to take this fairly simple music and extract from it a profoundly elevated message. The Pergolesi piece “Surrexit Christus” is new to me but joyful throughout, with that special harmonic spin that only Pergolesi can provide.

Two pieces bear special mention here. The first is William Byrd’s “Ave Verum Corpus,” which is widely and rightly regarded as a true masterpiece from the composer and of this period. It requires a great deal of maturity to manage its long lines, cascading entrances, and shifting moods. I waited to hear this because I knew that it would call on every resource from young singers. It turns out that the Lyceum Schola Cantorum managed this just fine, with great discipline and careful attention to phrasing and dynamics.

The second piece is the one that I initially thought didn’t belong: Handel’s “Hallelujan Chorus.” My first thought was: do we really need to hear this yet again? After hearing it, my answer is: yes! If you can believe it, they bring something new to the piece. The pull back from the over-the-top hysteria that is usually employed here. They are subtle and careful, maintaining an integrated blend throughout. And of all the pieces that exhibit that signature freshness and fun, this is the one that does it best. I’m glad they decided to put it on -- even though it is a piece that arguably comes from a Protestant milieu. The truth is that this is not a liturgical piece; it is a theater piece. And there is nothing at all wrong with putting a theater piece at the end of a CD. It’s like a encore of a marvelous production.

I see now that the Lyceum is private Catholic academy that specializes in classical studies. So we have Latin and Greek and French taught here in many grades. The literary emphasis is classical. No doubt that doctrine is taught with an eye to orthodoxy. The faculty is stable and very impressive. In short, this is the kind of academy that is not supposed to exist today, because the whole of modern education seems to be structure to drive such places out of existence. And yet here it is stands, against all odds, teaching a great group of kids all that they need to know to have wonderful lives of faith.

In so many ways, this CD is a tool of evangelization. It shows what is really possible in our times. Even for a beginning schola, this production provides an excellent model.

I had to laugh when I read this comment from Fr. Samuel Weber: “I really didn't know what to expect when I heard that a high school choir would be providing the music for the liturgy, but when they opened their mouths to sing the Kyrie I was amazed. They were unbelievable. Hearing the Lyceum Schola Cantorum while celebrating the Mass was a very moving experience for me.”

Yes, I can easily imagine that he was shocked!

As for the CD, it turns out to be extremely difficult to produce a good recording. It might seem easy to outsiders, but it is far from that. Every mistake shows up and repeats itself on each listening. You hear imperfections that you don’t hear in live presentations. The digits rendering the sound waves are merciless and unforgiving. But the Lyceum Schola confronted the challenge and conquered it completely, leaving us a beautiful artistic creation that can inspire others.

The director, the singers, the administrators of the school, and all the parents who support these kids all deserve a big thank you from anyone who imagines a world in which such things are more common.