Earlier this summer, Trinity University alumni, current students, and faculty came together to create beautiful music in two of the most famous cathedrals in the United Kingdom.
As members of St. Mark’s Episcopal Choir in San Antonio, they spent one week in residency at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh, Scotland, and one week in residency at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, England.
St. Mark’s Episcopal Choir has enjoyed a tradition of choir residencies over the past three decades, traveling an average of about every three years outside the United States. Jon Johnson, director of music and organist for St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, says the audition process for St. Paul’s was the strictest he has ever encountered.
“I began the application process in the Fall 2018. I had to submit samples of our choir’s recordings, list where the choir had been in residency prior to St. Paul’s, submit a sample anthem list of a typical music season here at St. Mark’s, and provide a letter of recommendation written on our behalf from a renowned director of music,” Johnson says.
Johnson heard back from St. Paul’s Cathedral in about two months’ time with an invitation to sing in July 2021. The COVID-19 pandemic put those plans on hold, however, until this summer.
“We had a choir pilgrimage committee, so we shared the news in an email and in person with the choir. The choir was absolutely ecstatic and somewhat in disbelief about the good news; they were ready,” Johnson recalls.
For centuries, Choral Evensong has been sung daily in Anglican cathedrals by their choirs. Each summer, the choirs in the United Kingdom observe a holiday that allows visiting choirs from around the world to serve a weeklong choir residency. Most of these cathedrals have a long legacy of famous English composers and choirmasters who have served in them, composing and performing great choral works in the Anglican tradition.
“Our initial encounter of St. Paul’s was awe-inspiring,” Sandy Ragan ’71 and Andrew Hendley ’92 say. “Many choir members were tearful when we first saw its interior. The beauty of that cathedral, along with its history and tradition, created a desire and responsibility to sing at one’s best.”
“For me, personally, witnessing the mass of congregants from all over the world partaking of the Eucharist was a moving spiritual experience, and hearing the reverberation of our voices in that magnificent space was a singular joy,” Ragan adds.
For each Evensong, the choir sang a different setting of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis. “Belfast Centenary Eucharist” by Philip Stopford was one of the choir’s favorite pieces, and Stopford surprised the choir by appearing and introducing himself after one of the services at St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Ragan and Hendley say that the choir is a tightly knit community, and the Trinity community within it is an added plus.
“We were so proud that our alma mater was well represented,” they say. “We are so grateful to have several members of the Trinity music department in our choir—Professors David Heller, Lydia Beasley, and Jacquelyn Matava. Although Professor Matava was unable to go on the pilgrimage due to her summer schedule, she and Professors Heller and Beasley add to our musical quality and professionalism, as do current and former members of the Trinity Choir.”
Heller, D.M.A., chair of Trinity’s Department of Music, currently serves as artist in residence for St. Mark’s Episcopal Church and was the organist for the residencies at St. Mary’s Cathedral and St. Paul’s Cathedral.
“My favorite part of the experience was having the opportunity to perform on two of the most distinctive pipe organs in the United Kingdom. Both of these instruments have extensive histories. The organ at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh was built by the famous Henry Willis in 1879 and is in pristine condition,” Heller says. “The organ at St. Paul’s Cathedral, one of the largest I have played, has a history dating to the 18th century with numerous rebuilds over the years. St. Paul’s had one of the livest acoustics I have ever experienced as a performer—around eight seconds—and combined with such a magnificent organ, the experience was indescribable.”
The whole experience of performing with the St. Mark’s Choir made for a musically satisfying opportunity for Heller, and reconnecting with and performing alongside Trinity alumni made it even more special.
“I have known many of these people for years, and some of them in my theory classes! It’s always a joy to work together with former students who have established themselves in the life of San Antonio,” Heller says.
Current Trinity students also had the opportunity to be a part of these residencies.
“These are extraordinary musical experiences—something they aren’t exposed to in a college choir. I’m sure they matured musically and personally from the experience,” Heller says.
Although the choir pilgrimage could be grueling with its tight scheduling and repeated performances, Ragan and Hendley believe it cemented how imperative art, beauty, music, and inspiration are for so many, especially coming out of the lockdown days of the pandemic.
“Such a pilgrimage is a ‘mountaintop experience,’” they say. “It’s a spiritual reawakening as choristers combine their best musical efforts in magnificent sacred spaces and in the footsteps of many thousands of pilgrims who have gone before them over the centuries.”
You can listen to the St. Mark’s Episcopal Choir recorded live in St. Mary’s Cathedral here.
Alumni who were involved in Trinity’s Department of Music have the opportunity to perform in the concerts during Alumni Weekend this year by adding the Music Upgrade to the package they choose. To learn more and register, visit the Alumni Weekend website.