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Cathedral Choir inspires congregation through talent and faith

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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

By Eileen Connelly, OSU

CATHEDRAL DEANERY — On a recent Sunday morning the Cathedral of St. Peter in Chains resonated with sacred music as the voices of the choir rang out in songs of faith and praise.

Currently comprised of 18 professional singers (nine women and nine men), the Cathedral Choir, under the direction of Anthony DiCello and accompanied by organist Blake Callahan, provides musical leadership primarily at the 11 a.m. Sunday Mass, for Christmas, Holy Week and at special archdiocesan events. The choir also sings an annual Advent Service of Lessons and Carols on the first Sunday of Advent and the Tenebrae service the Wednesday evening of Holy Week. Concerts are presented each year, often with orchestra, as part of the Great Music in a Great Space series.

The cathedral choir provides a wide range of liturgical choral music in the church’s tradition, from Gregorian chant through the 20th century. Music choices are “very Lectionary driven,” explained DiCello, who has directed the cathedral choir for 15 years. Other musical selections reflect the particular liturgical season, such as Advent or Lent, or correspond with the Scriptural text for the day.

“There is a certain standard of music we try to express,” DiCello said. “We have a responsibility to carry forth a treasury of church music from history and a responsibility to provide a wide breadth of music. Good music lifts up our hearts and minds and helps us to contemplate all that God has given us.”

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The choir at the Cathedral of St. Peter in Chains performs under the direction of Anthony DiCello and accompanied by organist Blake Callahan. (CT/E.L. Hubbard)

The choir’s members are as diverse as its repertoire and include a lawyer, librarian, marketing professional and pre-med student. Many have extensive experience with other professional choirs and hold advanced degrees in voice or music. Some initially pursued musical careers, but “things change,” DiCello said — marriage, family, jobs.

Membership is open to trained singers by audition. DiCello recruits singers in a variety of ways, including from the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music, other professional local choirs, via recommendations from fellow music directors and through word of mouth.

DiCello asked Sarah Schmid, a soprano, to join the choir after hearing her sing at her grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary Mass at the cathedral. A senior in college at the time, Schmid said, “I was excited, surprised and flattered.”

Schmidt, who holds a master’s degree in choral conducting from CCM, is now a married mother of three and teaches music part time at Queen of Angels Montessori.

“For me it’s the combination of faith and music that makes being part of the choir so special,” she said. “I also love the way the sound reverberates throughout the cathedral. It’s just beautiful.”

Her sister, Amanda Heisler, also a choir member, was recruited as freshman at Ursuline Academy. Heisler, who sings soprano, participated in a number of children’s choirs growing up and admits she was “intimidated” the first time she sang with the cathedral group. After 10 years much of the music is familiar to her, but Heisler, married and the mother of two, said, “Every week there is also something new — new music and different composers. Holy Week is my favorite time. We just sing some gorgeous music.”

Kathy Zenk, an alto, auditioned and joined the choir 2005 after spending 13 years singing at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis. “We have a very professional group here, and it’s been a wonderful three years,” said Zenk, a finance manager at Nestle Purina. “The combined aspect of singing beautiful music and expressing my faith has made this a very special experience for me.”

In his first season with the group, Nathan Tighe, a tenor, was visiting Cincinnati from Boston last year when he heard about an opening in the choir and auditioned. Tighe, who hold both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in trumpet and is in the pre-med program at UC, said he particularly appreciates the Gregorian chant and early church music: “I love the chance to come in contact with such a variety of music.”

Brendan Emig, who sings base and holds a master’s degree in voice from CCM, did solo work for numerous choirs before joining the professional singers at the cathedral. He appreciates the experience of singing “great music with such a great choir.” Emig said he was exposed to “new traditional” Catholic music while growing up and has embraced the earlier pieces the choir performs.

Roger Miller auditioned for the choir in 1994 after his wife saw a notice at CCM that the group needed tenors. Miller, who holds a master’s degree in voice from CCM and works for the Cincinnati Public Library, isn’t Catholic, but has “great appreciation for the liturgy. The music is what it’s all about for me,” he said. “The cathedral is my favorite physical place to sing. I love our repertoire, and Tony does an exquisite job matching the music to the text.”

The choir rehearses weekly, with DiCello holding additional practices as needed in preparation for concerts and special events.

“Choir members wouldn’t be here and be part of such a rigorous schedule if they didn’t want to offer their talents and service in this context,” DiCello said. “I seem to attract people who are committed to expressing their faith through music. It takes skill and dedication to sing the level of music that we sing at the cathedral.”

Callahan, who has served as associate organist at the cathedral since 1994, said he is moved and inspired by the choir. “They’re such a wonderful group. I just sit there and listen to them when I’m not playing, and it’s a very spiritual experience for me,” he said. “I can enter deeper into the prayer when I’m not playing. The choir plays such an integral role in the liturgy. They are very moving.

Father James Bramlage, pastor of the cathedral, praises the choir’s gifts: “They certainly lend a great deal to the liturgical program here. They are the best choir of any church in the area by far. The quality of music they do under Tony’s direction greatly enhances the quality of our liturgies here at the cathedral.”

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