COSTA MESA — A group of 14 Norbertine priests from St. Michael’s Abbey collaborated with the Pacific Symphony Orchestra for three “Cathedrals of Sound” concerts Oct. 23 through 25 at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, performing their signature Gregorian chant.
The Norbertines paired with the celebrated organist Paul Jacobs and later joined the Pacific Symphony to punctuate Ottorino Respighi’s richly textured work, “Church Windows.”
It was the second appearance with the symphony for both the Norbertines and Jacobs.
The unusually programmed concert actually was presented in three parts. As concertgoers arrived in the hall, the Norbetine fathers performed chant selections, alternating with Jacobs and backed by special lighting to enhance the contemplative nature of the music.
“They set an incredibly peaceful and contemplative and meditative atmosphere in the concert hall, which helped prepare all the audience members who had been white-knuckling up and down the 405 to get into a different frame of mind, one in which they could later enjoy two great works that were both steeped in the tradition of Gregorian chant,” said Pacific Symphony Music Director Carl St. Clair.
The score for “Church Windows,” the main selection in the first half of the program, does not call for singers, but St. Clair made a creative decision to include them, with what he said was great success.
“‘Church Windows’ is a tone poem in a series of four movements [that represent] four pictures, all inspired by stained glass windows—The Flight Into Egypt, Saint Michael the Archangel, The Matins of Saint Claire and Saint Gregory the Great,” said St. Clair. “I got the idea that since the works were so rooted in Gregorian chant that we should begin and interweave between the movements some appropriately selected liturgical text and prayers that we would have the Norbertines sing to link them. And it worked beautifully in the concert hall.”
The priests served a similar function in 2010 when they performed with the orchestra and “helped contextualize and frame Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, which is dedicated to the greatness of God,” said St. Clair.
“The longtime Pacific Symphony conductor said the Norbertines acted as an unusual and positive catalyst. “They’re tremendous,” he said. “Their presence just changes the concert hall from a normal place where concerts happen to a place where you can really experience spirituality in music.
“They have a unique identity in their sound. And what they’re doing when they’re chanting is the human singing voice, but actually they’re praying. It’s prayer through song. The message, then, for me, comes from a different place.”
The priest-singers actually provided a preview of coming attractions in the first chant they performed: a setting of the Introit. It is the same Introit setting that is employed in the first movement of Maurice Duruflé’s “Requiem,” which was the work on the second half of the concert and featured the singers of the Pacific Chorale, baritone William Berger and mezzo-soprano Elise Quagliata.
St. Clair said the first concert in the series “was very spiritually uplifting. I received so many comments [later] saying how deeply spiritual it was. People really felt they were at something more than just a concert.”