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Christmas without music? Churches find a way

In a normal year, Phil Hines takes a deep breath, puts his hands on the keys of the 135-year-old organ, and begins playing.

The opening notes of “O Come, All Ye Faithful” echo from some of the organ’s more than 2,200 pipes, creating a thriving herald who welcomes worshipers to St. James Catholic Church in Louisville, Ky. , Christmas Eve.

For church music season, it’s the Liturgical Super Bowl, an event planned months and months in advance. The voices of 36 choristers mingle with the organ, trumpet, baritone horn, violin, cymbals and thunderous timpani, while 400 faithful, tightly played by jowl, join.

Some arrive an hour earlier to get a seat.

In December, in Saint-James and in churches across the country where the joy of Christmas is channeled through music, the celebration is of course different.

Given the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 300,000 people nationwide, all Mr. Hines, the 63-year-old church music director, can think of is how bad the night ‘he looks forward to the whole year has become dangerous.

A soprano’s solo can now bring not only good news.

The cough of parishioners, which formerly only punctuated the music, could constitute a danger to public health.

But it was impossible for Mr. Hines, who survived a soloist with laryngitis and an ice storm that blocked backing vocalists, to cancel Christmas.

“I will bring the message of the birth of Christ to people as I can,” he said.

So this year, Mr. Hines has shaped his “quarantine quartets” – groups of four who will sing at St. James’s Eve and Christmas Day services, accompanied by a violinist and percussionist, masked and socially distanced. in the choir above the sanctuary.

Its 32-year-old flautist and trumpeter, former principal of the Louisville Orchestra, will follow from home.

“And I don’t blame them,” Hines said. “But that meant I had to put on my thinking cap.”

This is the mission that music directors across the country face this Christmas. While the normal year presents the challenge of deciding between “Joy to the World” and the choir of Alleluia, this season the question is how to celebrate the birth of Christ without creating a potential event for wide dissemination.

Some churches, like Trinity Church Wall Street in Manhattan, are reducing choirs and orchestras that might have over 80 members to single-digit choristers for the services they run without congregations. St. John’s United Methodist Church in Augusta, Georgia recorded 85 current and former choir members singing the song of John Rutter Individually “What Sweeter Music”, along with three violinists and a cellist playing inside their homes, to create a video that will be shown on a pre-recorded service on Christmas Eve.

Middle Collegiate Church in New York’s East Village, whose shrine was destroyed in a fire this month, recorded video that now includes footage of a dancer circling around the shrine 16 hours before the blaze – maybe the last person inside before it burns – and dance outside the blackened skeleton of the structure. “It will make you cry every tear,” said Reverend Jacqui Lewis, the church’s senior minister. The church will also air its 2018 Christmas special on CBS on Christmas Eve.

But Reverend Gary Padgett, the pastor of St. James in Louisville, said that even with all the pre-recorded concerts and worship services available, it was important for the church to film its own music in the house. “I have always felt that if a member could see their own building, their pastor and the people they know playing music they are used to hearing, it helps to find part of the tradition, ”he said.

Mr Hines said he hopes those who show up – whether it’s 100, 50 or 10 scattered in a space limited to 125 people – connect with the simplicity. “It’s a different sound,” he says. “But if the people watching still feel like they are celebrating the birth of our Lord and the music has helped them do so, that, for me, will be a success.

Father Padgett said that Mr. Hines’ encyclopedic knowledge of liturgical selections is unmatched, but more than that he is resourceful. When her soloist had laryngitis, Mr. Hines found a way for her to sing – by transposing the work by three semitones. (“Imagine a cross between Beverly Sills and Bob Dylan or Tom Waits,” he says.) For this year’s service, he rewrote bass and tenor parts for violas and sopranos so that it would work with backing vocals who have agreed to sing. He outfitted his choir with masks from special singers from nearby Bellarmine University. It will rely on the pipe organ to fill in the missing instrumental parts.

“It’s like the Whos are all gathered, and the Grinch is looking down and he couldn’t understand why they are still singing,” he said. “Of course, they could hold hands, and we can’t. But we can still sing, even through a mask.

Not everyone who is part of the tradition can do it. Jerry Amend, 75, the recently retired principal trumpet of the Louisville Orchestra normally performed five Christmas services over a 24-hour period. It will be, he says, the first Christmas he has spent at home since 1962. His mother-in-law is in a retirement home and two people in his unit have died from the coronavirus. “I love to play, but it felt risky to me this year,” he said.

Mr Hines has reduced his all-volunteer choir to 14 this year – less than half of its normal 36 members, but an outsized spirit, he notes. They have been rehearsing every week, four or five at a time, since the second week of November, distributed in the choir loft with individual desks.

Joe Sullivan, 56, said the church was his second family while telecommuting as a meteorologist for the National Weather Service for the past nine months. The weekly rehearsals have helped him stay connected at a time when in-person interactions are scarce. “It’s one of the few things that keeps me feeling normal,” he said.

Martina Gregory, 63, said that the passion of the music director of everyone in the congregation called “Pip” was contagious. Her daughter works in the emergency room at the University of Louisville hospital and has witnessed the toll of the pandemic firsthand, but Ms Gregory is convinced that the precautions – everyone present will be masked and the benches will be disinfected after each mass – will keep it safe.

“We sing, by golly,” she said. “I just hope we don’t have to do this again for Easter.”

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