Sunday, 1:30 pm: I've been in the underground since the morning service finished around 11:30, eating lunch, checking email, and walking to get some exercise as I windowshop in the underground mall. Now I emerge above-ground, since the door to the undercroft (where the choir room is located) is locked; I need to re-enter through the main doors. I hadn't seen the giant CBC truck when I arrived this morning, but the cathedral was already full of equipment, wiring, and lights for the 4 pm service, a worldwide ecumenical celebration of "Christian Unity" that will be televised in Canada and France next week. Historically, this annual service has taken place at St Joseph's Oratory, the huge Catholic basilica on Mont Royal, but this year the organizers decided to start moving it around the city; our Anglican cathedral is the first host, and we are providing the musical backbone.
1:45: the weekly French mass is still in progress, so I slip into a back pew and listen, while looking around at the equipment. Four of my choir friends, all professionals, sing this French mass each week, and I listen to the quartet as they do the Sanctus and Benedictus; it's a messa por quattro voci by Giovanni Cima, from around 1600. The priests consecrate the bread and wine, the quartet sings the Agnus Dei, and the congregation rises to file up to the altar and take communion...I go and get a French hymnal and join in singing the final hymn, and then take a look around. There are big video cameras, coils of heavy power cords, lights everywhere but nothing is on yet, or, it seems, in position. It's hard to know what to expect; I take a few pictures and head downstairs to the choir room.
2:15: I hang up my parka on the coatrack, stash my purse in my locker, quickly brush my teeth in the bathroom, put on some lipstick, and change from my brown ankle boots into the comfortable black shoes I usually wear for singing. They're Clarks, with a slight wedge, and just dressy enough to look decent. I retrieve my folder from my cubbyhole in the choir room, and check the desk for this afternoon's special service music: a responsory psalm composed by our director, an Armenian Alleluia that we'll sing before the Gospel, the special hymn booklet for today with alternating English and French verses and soprano descants for the final verses of several of the hymns. I take my seat and organize the music in my folder in order, slipping the service leaflet, the hymn booklet, and the anthem - a Te Deum by Ralph Vaughn Williams - into the elastic bands. The choir shairs, arranged in semi-circular rows on risers, quickly fill up; I chat with my fellow sopranos in the front row. Christie, a law student, is a bit breathless; she's just come from a dress rehearsal for a play she's in; it's already been a busy day for her since we all sang a full service this morning. Catherine, our second soprano section pro, shows me the score for a Puccini opera she's singing in next month at her college. Carole and Mary, both closer to my own age, are checking their phones.
2:30: At two-thirty sharp, Patrick takes a seat on his stool, glances at the clock, and pulls up the music stand in front of him. Everyone's here; there are about 28 of us today. "OK," he says, "take unto yourselves your service booklets, and let's talk...No procession, we're in the back pews as for Easter and will stay put there throughout..." We make notes as necessary, and then run quickly through the hymns, marking the breathing where necessary, noting lines that should be carried over. We take the most time over the French verses where there are elisions, or not, and voiced/unvoiced syllables that are different from speech. Patrick checks a few questionable spots with the francophones, who make up nearly half of our choir. One of our bass soloists speaks up: "If I can make a small request, on the last verse here, English speakers always tend to pronounce the e in eglise as ay but really it should be more like eh..." We mark everything in our scores. Patrick goes to the keyboard and runs through the descants. "Don't sing, sopranos, save your voices and just follow along," and we do, noting the tricky spots in our heads.
2:45: "All right," he says, "let's go up. Bring your folders, and the handbells for the psalm. We'll be in two choirs, first choir on my right, second on my left, as if we were in the loft."
We go up the stairs quickly and take our seats in the back pews, which bear yellow "reserved" signs encased in plastic holders. A few early birds are already in the congregation but most of the people in the nave seem to be part of the television crew. The lights are on now, and they are extremely bright, shining right in our eyes. Most striking is a camera on a large weighted boom in the center aisle. As we take our places, the cameraman swivels the boom around and the camera flies smoothly into position above our heads. I open my folder and when I look up, the camera, alarmingly, is less than a foot from my face and level with it. Oh my, I whisper, and Catherine and Christie roll their eyes; the camera glides down our row. We smile at each other; one thing singing here has taught me is to roll with whatever happens, and not get rattled. Obviously, today we'll just need to act like nothing is different and keep our eyes on the ball: i.e., the music and director, rather than staring at this floating eye. Actually, the lights are much more distracting and bothersome than the camera.
"All right," Patrick says, getting up onto the podium - a wooden box upholstered with slightly threadbare floral needlepoint -- "this is your Vaughn Williams...Adrian, are you ready?" He looks up at the organ loft where the assistant organist and organ scholar are waiting. "Yes, we're all set," comes their answer. At the downbeat, the organ begins, and a few measures later the choir enters in unison, "We praise Thee oh God..." The Vaughn Williams Te Deum is a great big English anthem, written for the enthronement of an Archibishop of Canterbury in the 1920s; a showpiece. We sing the first page of music, all in unison, and then the choir breaks into rather glorious harmony, and people in the nave start turning around to watch.
The anthem goes well; Patrick only stops us a few times to practice tempo changes, reinforce dynamic markings, and make sure his conducting directions are precisely coordinated with the organists who can only see his movements reflected in a mirror. Then we sing part of the psalm, which has verses and a repeated refrain, punctuated by handbell chords. A handsome man stands smiling at Patrick's elbow, and introduces himself as the tv director. He compliments the choir, and asks about the bass soloist who is chanting alternate verses of the psalm. Patrick suggest that Normand come out into the aisle; the director gestures to the cameraman who checks his shot and angle for a zoom onto the soloist's face; we do the same thing for the Alleluia, when Carole, the cantor for that piece, moves into the aisle. The animateur - a French term for a sort of master-of-ceremonies who leads congregational singing and responding (is this a Quebecois Catholic tradition or a more general Roman Catholic practice? I'm not sure, but there's been such a person at every Catholic service I've ever attended) also comes by to introduce himself and offer a few words of praise and appreciation.
3:20: We're finished with the rehearsal, and need to get out of the nave before the congregation arrives. "Bring your folders," Patrick tells us, "and let's go down and talk again." We leave our water bottles under the pews, file downstairs, avoiding the minefield of cords and boxes of lighting equipment, and take our seats again, while Patrick reviews a few last minutes details. "The crew is fascinated by your handbells," he says, wryly. "You sound excellent, as you have all day today. So just relax and do your thing. Sorry about the lights, we can't do anything about that. At 3:45 you should all be robed and in your seats upstairs; I'll see you up there after the Prelude. Mary will be checking your surplices so don't leave this room without stopping to see her."
3:30 After bathroom breaks and a bit more milling around and chatting, we all head into the locker rooms to put on our robes. The cassocks are heavy, and bright red; a white dickey goes underneath, at the neck, and a long white surplice, gathered into a round yoke, goes over everything and weighs as much as a bedsheet. The women discuss how many of their clothes to leave on or take off; most of us remove our sweaters and strip down to bras and camisoles; even though it's a cold day, and the church was very cool this morning, now it's warmer, and will be even more so when filled by the expected crowd. I notice a bit of nervousness and uncertainty among some of the younger or less experienced members, but in general everyone's cool; we joke around and make light of it as if this is just a normal day, and everyone seems to relax. I run a brush through my hair and touch up my lipstick, and take a look in the long mirror as I leave the dressing room; the stupid dickey is centered, the surplice sitting straight on my shoulders and unwrinkled in back. I pick up the folder from my chair and grin at Normand, who stands stiffly, arms out, next to Patrick's desk while Mary (a fellow-soprano and our wardrobe mistress,) who's perfectly positioned to block the way out the door so she can check every one of us, rolls a lint-remover over the folds of his surplice and adjusts the neck. I'm next, and pass the examination quickly; I head out the door and up the stairs, taking a few deep breaths to quiet down and settle myself into performance mode.
3:50 My friend V., acting as one of the sidesmen (the English term for church ushers/greeters), is graciously shepherding people into the empty pews adjacent to the central aisle and the enormous boom-camera; for some reason they hadn't been filled by the other ushers. I see my husband come in and sit on the far left; he turns around to see us, brilliantly illuminated by the high lights, and smiles.
4:00 We sit without talking; the church is nearly full of visitors from various churches all over Montreal; ahead of me are two robed brothers from an unidentified Order; I also notice a young nun with a beatific smile, possibly from Saint-Sacrament on Mont-Royal, in a light blue habit and muslin headscarf. On the exact hour, Patrick starts the prelude - this 4:00 pm service, as usual, is broadcast throughout Quebec. When he finishes, the animateur takes the pulpit and welcomes everyone, and then the organ begins the first hymn, playing through one verse; we sing; the camera comes flying in and then follows the liturgical procession entering single file behind the crucifer and candle-bearing acolytes, stepping carefully to avoid the boom and camera. For a brief moment this ecumenical procession reminds me, irreverently, of a costume party: in addition to Anglican and Roman Catholics priests in their mostly-black robes, we have Monseigneur Lepine, Catholic archbishop of Montreal in his red cape and skullcap; a Greek Orthodox priest with the traditional flat-headed black headpiece and flowing robe; members of the Salvation Army; an evangelical pastor in a snow-white satin suit; pastors of the Methodist and Lutheran and United Churches; and even a Native American leader in full feathered headdress.
I can't spend time looking though, except for a few peeks; I have to concentrate on the unfamiliar French which is printed not underneath the musical score, as in a normal hymnal, but in stanzas on the facing page, a format which makes it doubly difficult to get the syllables in the right place. The hymn finishes; as the first act in our ecumenical worship, the animateur, in both languages, asks us to pray with our Native brothers and sisters as we turn to face the four compass directions. "Please note, we're not participating in a pagan practice," he adds, "but a celebration of God from whom all creation comes." We hear drumbeats, and then a sonorous bass voice from beneath the nodding feathers: "tournez vers l'est" -- we all turn halfway to our right, and the service begins.
5:30: Tired, amused, we file out of the back pews before the congregation starts to leave. When we reach the downstairs hallway, one of the students exclaims, "That was the weirdest service EVER!", and soon everyone is busy talking at once while we return the music to sorted stacks on the desk and put away our folders before unrobing. "I realized at one point I was staring right at the camera," says one young woman. "I was mesmerized by that little red light it had on the side!"
There had been little recognizeable Anglican liturgy in the service, designed by an ecumenical committee as a well-intentioned mixture of various traditions, giving space for each of the visiting clergy to participate, with plenty of congregational responses. Monseigner Lepine had preached the sermon, delivered in its entirety in both languages. There was no communion -- the service was comprised of prayers, litanies, and hymns, all evenly bilingual. Delegates from each represented denomination brought shiny, colored shopping bags up the aisle as "gifts we receive from each tradition" were enumerated by the animateur: we Anglicans had been noted for "the gift of diversity." The air of unrehearsed informality felt unfamiliar and, at times, awkward: readers stumbled through the scriptures and prayers; the archbishop went first to the lectern and then realized he was in the wrong place to deliver his sermon; the animateur broke in repeatedly to offer directions. And at the very end of the service, as we finished the final hymn, the congregation broke into applause!
Midway through the service, a gospel choir from an evangelical church had performed a praise song from the chancel steps, and as the song gathered intensity, the choir began clapping and then lifting their arms to praise the Lord. The animateur good-naturedly followed suit from his station in the pulpit, and soon part of the congregation was stamping and swaying and lifting their arms, while the rest of it stood smiling, moving in time to the music, perhaps, or else standing stiffly, waiting for such an embarrassment of emotion to end. I just hoped the cameraman wouldn't have the bright idea of swinging around to show a shot of our choir while they were singing -- and I don't think he did.
5:45 On the way home, I find myself thinking about how seamlessly we usually manage to transition from a parish church community, with a few visitors, as we are on most Sunday mornings, to this other function of formal cathedral host of large, grand events. It feels as if our community is somehow nested within that larger function, with certain experienced people knowing what to do, among them clergy who can plan and carry off complex liturgies in front of a large crowd often unfamiliar with Anglican traditions; a team of servers who can perform the necessary tasks of carrying symbols and books and candles and moving wine and water and bread to the right places at the right time; lay people who act as greeters and ushers and element-bearers; lectors who can read scripture and prayers clearly, with gravitas and few errors, in either language; professional vergers who prepare the building, the altar, and the seating before each service, keep everything clean and repaired, and are responsible for watching for interruptions, intrusions, or anything disruptive or unexpected; and, of course, musicians who can handle whatever the occasion calls for, without lengthy preparation. It's a huge responsibility, actually, and I not only marvel about how much work and experience go into it, but how I've quietly learned and accepted a role in this ongoing liturgical drama, too, over the past six or seven years. On this day celebrating Jesus's baptism in the Jordan River by John the Baptist, maybe it's appropriate to note that it hasn't been a sudden immersion or change, or even a particularly conscious decision, but rather, as the Zen Buddhists would say, like getting wet in a fog.
Ralph Vaughn Williams, Te Deum in G, English String Orchestra with the choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Stephen Darlington, conductor, 1989.