The perfect place: Festival Chorale performs Bach Mass at St. Mary’s

April 2014 Posted in Arts, Culture & History
On April 27 members of the Festival Chorale will once again fill  St. Mary’s Church in Mount Angel with music

On April 27 members of the Festival Chorale will once again fill St. Mary’s Church in Mount Angel with music

By Brenna Wiegand

Singing sacred music in a heavenly venue – for the 100 voices of Festival Chorale Oregon, it doesn’t get much better than that.

And, they say, barring the real thing, there’s hardly a more sublime setting for the choir’s 35th anniversary concert than Saint Mary’s Catholic Church in Mount Angel.

“That place has the most amazing acoustics,” said alto singer Nancy Calavan of Stayton. “I mean, you … open your mouth and let the sound come out and you don’t have to push at all, it just sort of sucks it out of you.”

Calavan, a Festival Chorale member since 1986, said it’s a rare treat for both singers and audience.

“Folks can look out and see that gorgeous church and hear music written for that very purpose,” she said.

However, it’ll take more than a wing and a prayer to pull off this year’s Mass in B Minor, BWV 232 by Johann Sebastian Bach – arguably director Dr. Solveig Holmquist’s most ambitious undertaking with the group to date – and they’ve been working at fever pitch since January toward that end.

“We get to do such a wide range of things,” Calavan said. “The Mass in B Minor is the hardest thing I’ve ever done – it’s hard. I mean, people say ‘Oh, well, Handel’s Messiah’ – No, that’s easy compared to this. It’s very complex and it’s with a full orchestra. I mean, how many us get to sing with a full orchestra? It’s just cool.”

Holmquist formed Festival Chorale Oregon in 1979 while teaching music at Stayton High School. It has grown from eight Stayton members to an ensemble of 100 singers from the Mid-Willamette Valley, with a strong contingent from Stayton and Silverton.

Under her direction, the chorus of professional and amateur singers presents a wide variety of masterworks accompanied by symphonic orchestra. They have toured Europe five times, hosted international choirs, sang at Carnegie Hall on several occasions and last June performed John Rutter’s Magnificat at Lincoln Center in New York.

35th anniversary performance
Festival Chorale Oregon performs
Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B Minor

Saturday, April 26, 6 p.m.
First Presbyterian, Salem Sunday

Sunday, April 27, 4:30 p.m.
St. Mary’s Catholic Church, Mount Angel

Tickets: $20; seniors,
$18; students, $5; available
at and at the door.
Information: 503-580-2798

For all that, in her six years with FCO, soprano vocalist and board president Susan Tower maintains her “absolute favorite” performance was at Saint Mary’s in 2012, singing the Stabat Mater by Antonin Dvorak.

“We have a large following in Mount Angel; it’s just about always a full house,” Tower said. “Last May when we performed a bluegrass mass, we had beyond a full house.”

Tower said Festival Chorale has provided her with the “honor of being able to continue to sing and to learn and to work hard” since graduating college six years ago – and with the singular experience of traveling with a choir.

“For me, it’s the challenge of being asked to learn these pieces that I think I can’t learn,” Calavan said, “it’s the challenge and just presenting beautiful music to the people that love you.”

Then it’s the fellowship and mutual support the choir enjoys that means a lot. Tower’s board involvement has shown her that support for the arts is still strong. Choir members purchase their own music and pay regular dues so that ticket revenues, grants and contributions by patrons may be used to provide soloists, rehearsal fees, Dr. Holmquist’s salary stipend and instrumentalists.

There are no auditions; FCO is a “self-auditioning” choir.

“You’re welcome to come pick up the music and see if you can keep up with the rigor of rehearsal pace,” Tower said.

“Usually people come to an understanding: ‘I think I can do this’ or ‘It’s beyond my capacity or capabilities,’” Calavan said. “It’s just, well, you understand in yourself whether you can do it or not.”

Then there are those who don’t care so much for classical music who will join in when the choir is pursuing lighter fare – and that’s fine.

“In the past we’ve done Broadway, Cole Porter, The Beatles – a light, fun concert but we primarily concentrate on the classics,” Calavan explained.

Emily Flanagan of Silverton joined Festival Chorale in 1999 when they did Verdi’s Requiem.

“I love to sing and I like to sing good music with other people who are really good at it,” Flanagan said. “Making music, you just don’t know how much joy you give to other people.”

She finds it relaxing – overall.

“If you like to sing and you’re a good singer, it’s like having a voice lesson every week,” Flanagan said. “You can work up a sweat doing this.”

It’s clear why members were saddened by recent news that they’ll have to find another venue for such concerts.

“We’ve cut back on the number of concerts we’ve had here just because of not being able to really staff the facilities,” Fr. Philip Waibel of Saint Mary’s said. “We’ve had the whole weekend of events and then we have a concert where there may be as many as 300-400 people.

“It’s a fabulous venue for concerts,” Waibel said of the 100-year-old Gothic Revival masterpiece. “It’s just that by about 2 or 3 o’clock in the afternoon on a Sunday the church has been used pretty heavily. We have four masses and 1,300 households at this parish on any given weekend so you can imagine.”

Festival Chorale Oregon will continue giving its traditional Friday of Oktoberfest concert in the church, but that’s the furthest thing from the singers’ minds as they prepare for the April 27 Mass in B Minor.

“I hope the audience leaves having had a meaningful experience; I hope they are moved and are able to just take a couple hours out of their lives to enjoy great music,” Tower said.

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