Music is an ‘active spirituality’ for Cathedral choirs

CHARLESTON — The music coming out of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist can be heard around the world. At least it seems that way thanks to the vision of Mark Thomas and the voices of the adults and children who sing in the choirs.

Thomas is the director of music ministries and organist who has made it his goal to do a major project each year with his musical wards. The Cathedral girls’ chorus will release its first compact disc in November, “Mary at the Cross.” This follows last year’s release of “Oratio” performed by the adult choir.

“Mary at the Cross” features the 25-member chorus with string ensemble and chamber organ. The highlight is the “Stabat Mater” by the 18th century composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi. The 40-minute work is considered delicate and complex and is usually performed with soloists but Thomas took the challenge on with the girls’ chorus. They chose the composition after the group visited Rome last year as part of the International Pueri Cantores music festival for students. Pueri Cantores is the official student choral organization of the Catholic Church for singers ages 7-18. The girls were exposed to choirs from all over the world. After being moved by performance of the “Stabat Mater”, they performed it themselves at the Cathedral early this year.

“It is most impressive,” Thomas said.

The CD will also include his original pieces, “Ave Maria,” “O Nata Lux” and “Jesu Dulcis Memori”. The chorus is accompanied by string players from the Charleston Symphony Orchestra and the Cathedral associate organist Larry Long.

The CD was recorded at the Cathedral on their own equipment like “Oratio” which was released before Christmas last year. The groups are also working on a combined CD for all Cathedral choirs and a pipe organ solo. Thomas described the upcoming CD as a ‘holistic music program.’

The girls’ choir will participate in the American Federation Pueri Cantores, a choral festival sponsored by the Archdiocese of Atlanta, the Diocese of Savannah and the Diocese of Charleston next month. It will take place at 3 p.m. Oct. 22 at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Savannah, Ga.

Thomas founded the girls’ choir in 2000 and it became the second principal choir for the Cathedral. They have performed before thousands at the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, participated in the New Year’s Day Mass celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI at St. Peter’s Basilica and will return to the International Congress of Pueri Cantores in 2007. This time in Krakow, Poland.

The Cathedral choir has also made its mark. The group will perform in a “Music for All Souls” concert at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 3 featuring “Requiem” by Maurice Durufle. The piece lasts 45 minutes.

The concert ties into the liturgical year and rounds it out, Thomas said.

The adult choir will take a musical tour of Italy in November which includes singing at Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican and in Venice. Thomas believes the groups need to experience liturgical music from its source.

“You have to do it every so often to see your musical lineage,” he said. “It’s a spiritual injection. I try to make these tours spiritual retreats. Music is not the end of it. You can wander around these churches and pray, but when you sing, it’s an active spirituality.”

Suzy Gibson, whose daughter, Emily, sings in the choir, said that Thomas has been a blessing to the music ministry at the Cathedral.

“We all see him as a gift,” she said.

Gibson said her daughter’s visit to Rome changed her life.

“All of those girls understood more about their Catholic heritage when they returned,” she said.

For more information about the Cathedral music programs call the office at (843) 724-8395 ext. 225.