Saturday, November 22, 2014

Schola Expands the Hilltop's Repertoire

by Gregory Snyder

Franciscan hermit Sister Teresa Gould, the director of the Renaissance Schola at Mount Angel Seminary, has been treating mass attenders to the beauty of Renaissance music for the past 13 years.  In this interview, she describes the joys, the background, and the challenges of leading this group.

Sister Teresa spoke about the Schola’s humble beginnings: "We started about 13 years ago, and at that time the seminary choir was made up of a ragtag group of who had limited experience in music.” Sister Teresa's music background is heavily influenced by the Renaissance musical traditions, so she was excited to bring this old, yet new style to a seminary culture lacking in exposure to it.

In the beginning, about half of the singers were faculty members with only a few seminarians; now the majority is made up of seminarians with faculty, laywomen and a few monks. Sr. Teresa’s original intent was to sing only a couple times per year, but now it has expanded to be a monthly performance schedule here at the Abbey Church.

The group started with about 12 singers, and now it has grown to 27. The number of faculty in the group has diminished, and the number of men with a wide range of experience and talent has also increased.

Sister Teresa’s great love of Renaissance music has opened up to her composers such as Palestrina, Handel, Victoria, Byrd, Gabrielei, Guerrero and Scarlatti along with many others, and she is more than excited to share these musical geniuses with the seminary community. She said, “Renaissance music can and should be used in liturgical settings; it’s not just for community or professional choirs.” It was originally created for liturgy and it should again find its natural home there.

The Renaissance Schola is used throughout the year for Sunday masses once a month, although Sister said she would absolutely love to sing every week and thinks the group is good enough to travel throughout the local area. She notes that it is the limited rehearsal times and conflicting schedules that make it very difficult to sing any more often than they do.

Occasionally, Sr. Teresa gets personal requests from individuals, particularly Father Paschal Cheline, monk of Mount Angel Abbey, who is a fan of the more upbeat Renaissance music. Sister Teresa mentioned, “Even though most people don’t know Latin, they love to just sit and listen to the music, that it is simply a wonderful aid to prayer and contemplation.”

Sister Teresa’s musical background is extensive, both formal and informal.   She explained, “The public schools had terrific music programs and my involvement was intense from the beginning . . . I remember singing three-part harmony in elementary school, moving up to two choir, seven part harmonies in middle school." Piano studies also started young, she said: “I started studying piano when I was seven. My grandfather owned four piano stores and I always got to go to the back and play on them."

She also learned to play the organ with the help of a private tutor, which is very helpful now to the seminarians and monastery community. Having been the choirmaster at Santa Barbara Mission, Calif. and sung in prestigious choirs in both church and community settings, she has had the pleasure of singing nearly all of the major renaissance works.

Some of the challenges of the Schola she said are that “while it is great that there is an excess of men available it is always a challenge recruiting women, as it's very hard for them to fit their schedules in with the seminary schedule, and opportunities for practicing as a group are few.” What Sister Teresa would love most is about four more women to join the group to round out the balance.

The Renaissance Schola looks for people who have at least some singing ability, who can hopefully sight read notes and count, but most of all mesh with the existing group, “Since we only have two rehearsals before we perform each piece, it is really important that people practice on their own in preparation for the rehearsals” explained Sister Teresa.

Frank Villanueva, a seminarian for the Diocese of Honolulu who is in his fourth year with the Schola explained why he loves being part of the group: “I just have a passion for music and a love of harmony and singing a cappella is something I could do for hours.”  He said that while he grew up singing in many different musical groups, his exposure to Renaissance music was very limited, so this yearly opportunity to expand his repertoire is an honor.

Stephen Cieslak a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Portland who is in his first year with the Schola talked about his impression thus far: “I love the music and appreciate the style and the effort it takes to perform pieces as complex as these.”

This year, Sister Teresa is the most excited to sing "Ave Maria" which will be performed on May 3, 2015, in the Abbey Church. All are welcome to attend.

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