Talk about your signs that happy days may be returning again…I said hopefully.
Just in time for the start of Holy Week, I watched last Sunday as members of the St. James Episcopal choir sang together in person for a service for the first time since last March. And they didn’t care that they were singing in the children’s playground — surrounded by rope ladders and slides.
Socially distanced — and masked — 12 of the choir’s 25 members were just happy to be back together and singing again.
“It’s almost weird. It’s hard to process,” said choir member Aubree Roney prior to the concert.
I’m not saying this is the first choir to perform live before an audience, but those choirs which have can appreciate the experience.
“We have a choir. Yaaay,” one person whispered to her neighbor.
The patio has had limited seating because of the social distancing rules so approximately 50-60 people gathered — many of them seeking shade from the sun which brought temperatures into the high 80s.
It was the same story with the choir — only a dozen members were able to sing Sunday. The choir singers will rotate during Holy Week, with Director of Music Sarah Gonzalez singing solo in the church, located at 1325 Monterey Road.
“Over the past year, we’ve often only worshipped with the congregation online,” said Gonzalez, who explained that the individual voices were brought together technologically. “It’s a completely different feeling when people are physically in the same space worshipping together. That tangible aspect of being a part of something bigger than myself is overwhelming.
“It’s been lonely for me singing by myself into the camera in times we were singing,” she added. “The other choir members seconded that emotion and look forward to rotating as choir members.”
“This is an amazing, gifted group of believers. I look around at them and I see physicians, lawyers and teachers,” said the Rev. Anne Tumulty as she stopped to look at the choir with pride before hustling away to make microphone sound checks and instruct youngsters how to carry the cross and an incense censer.
Some of the members have been with the choir for five years. Some have been there for more than 25 years. All carried that love of music and each other into that patio Sunday morning. I even saw a few secretive hugs instead of elbow bumps.
All were wearing masks — even to sing.
“It’s no fun wearing a mask,” Gonzalez said, “but it is a small price to pay for being able to sing together again.”
Several members referred to themselves as a “family” and Gonzalez is their musical mom.
“She is an incredible musician,” said choir member Marianne Grant. “She knows exactly what she wants. She wants you to do it, and if you do it, it will be magical. She has a way of getting you to the right place without being mean.”
Gonzalez has been the music director at St. James since 2011 and has also worked at the School for the Arts in Orange County since 2009 — the same year she earned her master’s degree from USC in choral and sacred music. She is now director of choirs at the school.
“Singing liturgical music nourishes the soul,” Gonzalez said. “To me it is so beautiful. Singing or conducting it together with others is an authentic, live experience that doesn’t work over Zoom. That sound is something you can’t fake.
“Liturgical music helps us worship in a unique way,” she added. “We feel a physical and spiritual connection of our hearts to God, and we have done it all together.”
Gonzalez began singing in her church in Palatine, Illinois. She — like many of the choir members — loves choral singing.
“There was never any doubt about what I wanted to do,” she said about her decision to make music her career.
Holy Week has always been hard in terms of logistics. And this year, it was sometimes hard-times-two: Who is going to sing when? When will the Easter Vigil begin on Saturday? And how many can come in to the sanctuary on Easter Sunday, which will be the first service back in the church?
“Easter Week is the kind of week when music directors, their choirs and ministers have to muster their energy,” Gonzalez said. “It’s a lot of music — Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday — and there is different music every night.”
But if it is hard on ministers and music directors, Gonzalez said Easter Week has produced some magnificent music.
“Most people have a greater appreciation for Christmas music because of all the Christmas carols they know and love,” Gonzalez said. “But for me, after 12 years of Holy Week being a church musician, the music has similar place in my heart. I love the gut-wrenching melodies in the Passions of Christ and the solemnity of the ancient psalms being chanted in unison by the choir. This is music which is beautiful in its own right. After a week of lamentation, we joyfully triumph at the resurrection and we have done it all together.”
Easter Sunday will always hold special significance for Grant. She had been searching for a church since she arrived in Los Angeles and, on Easter Sunday in 1991, she arrived at St. James.
“I walked in and the choir was singing ‘The Messiah’ and it hit me like a ton of bricks,” she said. “I thought to myself, ‘I have to be in that choir.’”
The absence of live performances before the congregation for a year only reinforces Grant’s love for choral music.
“When all the voices get together just right, it is amazing,” Grant said. “For those few seconds and on the rare occasions when it works like that for an entire piece, it takes your breath away and it really feels like as though we are giving and receiving a blessing.”