Sacred Music Symposium held in Vancouver area delves into beauty of tradition

Father Lawrence Donnelly leads an introductory lesson on Gregorian Chant during the B.C. Sacred Music Symposium in August 2019. (Photo by Sheena Devota, B.C. Catholic - Canadian Catholic News)

By Sheena Devota, B.C. Catholic

[Aldergrove, BC – Canadian Catholic News] – A conference on liturgical music was “the answer to all my questions and my prayers,” said Jongkyung Kim, director of the young adult choir for the Vancouver mission parish of St. Paul Chong.

The B.C. Sacred Music Symposium, held Aug. 2-4 at Sts. Joachim and Ann Church in Aldergrove, featured high-level speakers and interactive workshops focused on making Mass music more beautiful. Kim, a choir director for five years, said she also discovered community and a shared connection over love for sacred music.

Prior to the symposium, her education and training in sacred music were lacking, she said. Despite years of training in classical music and serving the Church since her childhood, monophonic music and sacred polyphony were short chapters in Kim’s extensive education.

When she learned about the symposium, Kim signed up for a professional choral workshop by Mark Donnelly, a Catholic best known as “Mr. O Canada” for singing the national anthem at Vancouver Canucks games.

She also got a chance to sing in a performance on the final day of the symposium. Those experiences, and others, provided opportunities for her to reflect on worship and the aim of music in the liturgy. “It was a true retreat for me.”

Kim’s assistant choir director, Paul Kim, also found himself deeply changed by the conference. Mass at their parish is held in Korean, with young adult choirs singing contemporary and traditional polyphonic hymns from their culture.

“The symposium actually changed my opinion on sacred music,” he said. “Prior to attending it, I had been leaning toward contemporary songs composed in modern times, but I have grown a strong appreciation toward antiphons and 16th-century songs sung in Latin since.”

A highlight for Paul was singing during Sunday Mass on the closing day of the conference. “It was a unique experience that has changed me and will be with (me) until the end.”

Other young adults also discovered beauty, connection, and a welcome challenge at the second annual sacred music symposium.

Samuel Stagliano, a member of St. Clare of Assisi Parish in Coquitlam, signed up for the workshops as a beginner. “Learning to chant and going through the do-re-mi (“solfège”) method was challenging, and that is something that I really enjoyed. I had to work hard, and there is something good about that.”

St. Helen’s parishioner Daniel Ma attended the inaugural symposium last year and returned to it again this year, finding it a fruitful experience a second time.

“Sacred music is integral to the liturgy, not incidental,” he said.

While the advanced workshop allowed him to practise polyphonic motets, he acknowledged not every parish choir has the capacity to work on complex choral hymns. However, “Gregorian Chant is definitely something that choirs of any size can sing. The melodies are relatively simple and beautiful and it helps to create a meditative and holy environment where the faithful can meditate on the mysteries of our faith.”

Some young adults, like Ramon Trigo and John Ray Catingub, were thrilled to practise music that the Catholic Church has been singing for a very long time. Sacred music “uplifts my soul in an ethereal way,” said Catingub.

It “comforts me to know that these are the chants that my ancestors would have heard, whether in a simple parish church or a towering cathedral.”

The classes, workshops, and Masses involved several generations of participants, including children already familiar with sacred music.

Katherine Pelletier, a new member of the choir at Sts. Joachim and Ann parish, observed that while each person was on their own journey toward learning more about liturgical music, “everyone possessed the spark of attention and the desire to be part of the great movement towards beauty in the liturgy through music.”

More than 130 people attended the symposium at Sts. Joachim and Ann Parish this year. A high point for Kim was keynote speaker Msgr. Andrew Wadsworth, the head of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, thanking the musicians whose hard work to provide excellent music for liturgy often goes unnoticed.

Carolyn Smillie, a member of St. Helen’s, said she has noticed a local revival of interest in sacred music.  “The resurgence in interest in liturgy is because sacred music offers a much-needed respite from the ugliness often found in the world. It’s hard not to be uplifted when listening to and participating in sacred music. It’s good for the soul!”

“Make Every Sunday Matter” is one of Archbishop J. Michael Miller’s four current priorities for the Archdiocese of Vancouver. It includes improving music in the liturgy, and the symposium for the last two years has aimed to address just that.

In his opening address, symposium executive director Ryan Bjorgaard said music chosen for the conference was “uniquely Catholic” to give choir directors, singers, and musicians “a chance to experience the music in its proper context, how it’s supposed to be used – not just something you listen to as a piece of art, but as prayer.”

Father Lawrence Donnelly, the pastor of Sts. Joachim and Ann, offered those at the conference an introduction to Gregorian Chant as well as texts and resources for participants to use back at home.

“Music can turn a barn into a cathedral, or a cathedral into a barn,” he quipped.

New this year was a panel discussion on common obstacles faced by parish musicians. Several panellists and participants agreed the support of a pastor is fundamental in improving the quality of music in a parish.

Mass was celebrated both in the Ordinary Form on Saturday evening, and Extraordinary Form (also known as the Traditional Latin Mass) on Sunday morning of the symposium.

Pieces sung at each Mass included Gregorian chant as well as polyphonic compositions from Palestrina, Orlando di Lasso, William Byrd, Vaughan Williams, Theodore Dubois, and Mark E. Donnelly. Choral groups of all levels – from beginner to advanced – took turns participating in the Masses with songs they learned over the weekend.