KSS recently asked former Missa Gaia / Earth Mass choristers for their favorite memories of this unforgettable work. Here are some of their responses:
“I remember our first Missa Gaia/Earth Mass performance in 1994, how thrilling it was to sing this work and how much it touched the audience. I also remember what happened at the end of Return to Gaia. This movement is a soprano sax and organ duet intended to evoke the wonder of the Earth as seen from space, and the safe return of the spacecraft back to Earth. It was not quite a soft landing. At the climax of the piece, with George Laidlaw on sax and Angus Sinclair on organ, holding down notes with all ten fingers and both feet, the organ completely ran out of air. That’s when folks at Wesley-Knox decided it was time to have the organ rebuilt. (It was rebuilt, quite magnificently, in 1996.)”
“Missa Gaia was the first memorable work I sang with KSS. The choir was called The Village Singers then. I have enjoyed singing it more each time – particularly our times away in Detroit! It brings everyone together!”
“I first heard Missa Gaia when the then Village Singers performed it in St. Thomas. I immediately fell in love with the piece, and approached Karen after the concert to ask her if the choir was ever going to do it again. She said yes, the following year in May as well. I asked when the auditions were – had to join the choir to sing this fabulous piece of music. Been there ever since! My favorite part to sing is the Sanctus and Benedictus… love the rhythm!”
From a chorister who is also a member of Wesley-Knox United Church:
“My favourite parts of Missa Gaia are the organ solo and the choruses where the audience participates – they always seem too short. The organ piece is fairly long, as I recall, and it builds from quiet to very loud and powerful, like a huge thunderstorm, and then gradually passes back to peaceful reflection. I guess because the organ is an integral part of Wesley-Knox, and because the organ was re-built and enhanced during my time there, it represents the power and the solidity of our church and congregation.”
From a husband and wife who have sung Missa Gaia several times:
“The first time we performed Missa Gaia, the organ had just been restored and the piece about the trip to space was spine tingling, as the organ swelled to its crescendo. That is something I’ll never forget. My favorite piece is Agnus Dei. The music is so moving and beautiful as it moves majestically thru the piece. When we went to Detroit, the bass section of their choir were intially quite blasé about the whole thing. But as they filed out at the intermission I heard them say, ‘This is really something, isn’t it?’ We both love to sing Missa Gaia, and have been holding our breath that we could do so again. Hurray!”
“My most memorable performance was at St. Peter’s Cathedral Basilica in downtown London. Several parishioners at the Basilica had become convinced that Missa Gaia was a pagan, not a Christian work, and they picketed the concert. Karen was a bit upset with this, but we told her not to worry. We told her you couldn’t buy publicity like this. The concert, which featured liturgical dancers choreographed by London’s Anna Douthwright and Carla de Sola from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, was a sellout.
“Another memorable performance was at Christ Church Episcopal in Detroit. A few days before that concert, Denise Pelley’s son, Jason Edmonds, had been killed in a tragic car accident. Denise still sang the concert. All we could do was marvel at her inner strength.”
“I sang Missa Gaia at least three times, including once in Detroit, plus the recording session at St. James Westminster. The most memorable detail about going to Detroit was that Denise Pelley travelled on the bus with the choir just three or four days after the funeral for her son, Jason, who had been killed in a traffic accident in London. Denise’s tremendous will and spirit overcame obvious sorrow and allowed her to perform her role in a moving, convincing performance. What a wonderful person!”
“I heard Missa Gaia and simply had to perform it. I especially remember the time in Detroit after Denise’s son died, and being awestruck by her strength.”
Karen Schuessler founded the Village Singers (later renamed the Karen Schuessler Singers) specifically to perform Paul Winter and Paul Halley’s Missa Gaia / Earth Mass – an ecumenical suite of songs written in a fusion of musical styles that was originally created for the blessing of the animals service at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. KSS first presented Missa Gaia in May 1994, and is reprising it for the final concert of our 2010/2011 season. Karen recently answered some questions about what attracted her to Missa Gaia in the first place, and how the work has continued to affect her in the years since that first performance.
Do you remember the first time you heard Missa Gaia / Earth Mass?
I first heard a recording of it at a spiritual retreat. The retreat leaders encouraged me to perform it, not realizing that I needed the score (which did not exist at the time) and a large choir to do it. They kept asking me about it, though, which in turn kept me hounding the composers of the work to write up a vocal/piano score, which they eventually did.
You had to create much of the instrumentation from scratch, didn’t you?
I had to keep bugging one of the composers, Paul Halley, to ask if the scores were available. When they were, they were only the piano notes and the choir parts — no chord charts, nor parts for any of the other instruments. We had to make that all up. They also sent a tape of the animal sounds that we had to figure out cues for.
When you were assembling the first soloists/musicians, how did you find people?
I asked around. Ed Hysen suggested Denise Pelley, and told to me contact Bill Zadorsky at CCH (Catholic Central High School) to get her number. Bill was very careful on the phone to make sure that I was a safe contact for Denise.
Steve Holowitz somehow found out that I was planning to do it, and called me to introduce himself and, having heard the work, to offer to help in any way he could. He also offered his new Madrigal Choir at Lucas Secondary School to sing in it, which they did. I believe Steve also suggested the other musicians at the time, or at least gave me leads to them.
When performing this extraordinary work, were there any glitches that you ran into in the first few performances?
Actually, there was a big glitch with the organ in Return to Gaia. The old Wesley-Knox organ did not have enough wind when we did the performance. The whole thing sank in pitch. I went into shock! That was the impetus to rebuild the organ, and two years later it was the splendid instrument we now have.
What was it like to finally bring Missa Gaia to life?
I’ve always felt that we were being blessed in putting the work together and performing it. I still feel that way. Its importance just keeps increasing.
KSS recorded Missa Gaia / Earth Mass in 2000. What was the recording process like for you?
It was my very first recording. I was mainly stressed from bringing together three choirs that day with no rehearsal, with all the musicians in the room together, having to keep to a tight time schedule, and not really being sure about the ins and outs of the total process. There was no way to separate the instruments from the choir on that recording, so all the post-production decisions had big compromises in them. St. James Westminster was a great recording venue for this style on that day, however.
Do you have a favorite piece (or pieces) from the work? What do you always look forward to?
I love the way it unfolds. I love the way it is all-embracing. I love listening to – and not conducting – Steve playing Return to Gaia and Denise singing Mystery. Someday I’d love to just sit and listen to our performance of Missa Gaia, which I believe is very moving, and let it wash over me, but I can’t. That being said, it is a true honour and an intense joy to be at the centre of creation for that work at that moment.
The underlying ecological theme of Missa Gaia has perhaps never been so timely.
I agree with that. There is an urgency I sense about performing it today that wasn’t there even six years ago.
How do you see the relevance of the work in the contemporary world, and what do you hope to accomplish with this and future performances of Missa Gaia?
One outcome that I would love to see from the performance is having people hear it and then being led to connect the dots between our earth and our choices. I believe we can turn things around, but it won’t be easy. But then, living with a feeling of impending doom about the future is not easy either. It all comes down to our choices, and in that way, each one of us is empowered to make a difference.
Our upcoming concert, Going to the Rock!, features music of Newfoundland, and as always, the KSS choristers have some favorite songs that they’re looking forward to performing.
Says one singer, “Sarah (arranged Jonathan Quick) is a fun classic, and Make and Break Harbour is a beautiful, poignant song that captures the plight of many Newfoundland fisherfolk and their families, written by Canada’s father of folk music, Stan Rogers.” Listen to Rogers performing his own song in the video below.
Says another singer, “She’s Like a Swallow (arranged by Edward Chapman) is a beautiful choral piece.
“I also enjoy the challenge of “Drunken Sailor” – the timing & harmonies are so much fun, and the arrangement is an amusing rendition of an old favourite!” Concert-goers will likely recognize the song when they hear it. Drunken Sailor is a capstan shanty, or sailors’ working song. Raising the anchor on a ship involved winding the rope along a giant winch (capstan), turned by sailors walking around it. Capstan shanties are typically more “smooth” sounding than other types and, unlike many other types of shanties, frequently have a full chorus in addition to the call-and-response verses. Listen to the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Maken introduce their version, below:
“I like the Moocher and Me because of it’s catchy and lilting tune,” says yet another singer, “and the Feller from Fortune (arranged by Harry Somers) for the fun!” Check out this video of the University of Illinois choir singing the same arrangement of Feller from Fortune that KSS will be performing:
In addition to the Newfoundland songs, KSS will also be singing a set of varied pieces that we’re preparing for our visit to Festival 500 in July. One of the singers’ favorite songs comes from this set: “Each time we sing I Thank You God (arranged by Gwyneth Walker), it seems to have a unique impact. The lyrics work hand-in-hand with the instruments (voices & piano), drawing us all together to share this poignant message.” Listen to the 2002 NMMEA All State Womens Choir perform this piece, here:
Reverend Canon Don Ford is the rector at St. John the Evangelist Anglican Church, London. A native of Newfoundland, he will be interweaving the evening’s music with spellbinding stories from his colourful homeland.
“When I first met our storyteller, Don Ford, he offered to tell me the history of Newfoundland, which he knows very well. I was mesmerized for a solid 20 minutes by his passion and the depth of his understanding of what the people went through to exist there, and the love with which they hold their culture – their lifeline in a sea of change.
“Our audience will enjoy the music in Going to the Rock! The smiles will open hearts and minds to hear an inspirational message of courage and achievement of a people who have gone through challenging times.
“Folk music is the true music of the people. It grew from the soil and the difficulties of a simple agrarian existence – in the case of Newfoundland, a simple fishing existence. It speaks of the timeless themes of humankind: love and survival. It is the story of all of us – both joyful and poignant.”
The lively bow of B.C.-based Celtic fiddler Jennie Bice will have toes tapping at the next KSS concert, Going to the Rock!, featuring songs from Newfoundland in preparation for our trip to Festival 500 in St. John’s this July.
What does the music of Newfoundland mean to Bice?
“I had the privilege of performing with my band Prydwen at the Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival a number of years ago. I have always loved the music of Newfoundland; it was joyous and raucous and inclusive. It meant gathering with folks you loved around a piano and belting out ‘I’s the B’y’ and ‘The Squid Jigging Grounds,’ and blowing through a pile of fiddle tunes. It was the very essence of ‘happy.’
“When we performed in Newfoundland, the music took on an even deeper meaning. I was a bit nervous about playing fiddle there, all the while surrounded by incredible Newfoundlander fiddle players, but we were very well received, and ended up being invited to many kitchen parties where you quickly realized that absolutely everyone there plays music. The jam sessions would continue till daybreak, and start up again somewhere after lunch. Music is always present, and participation is assumed.
“The music of Newfoundland, once discovered, will always keep a spark of happy in your heart.”
Fiddler, violinist, singer, composer and educator Jennie Bice is at home in many musical genres. From frenzied boot-stomping Irish craic, country & eastern, roots and rhythm styles, to world fusion, rock, jazz and blues, Jennie shines on every stage she meets.
Bice began playing fiddle at the age of four around the family piano, and never stopped. Currently recording and performing on the west coast of Canada with Boris Sichon, Back Door Slam, Tim Readman, Copper Sky, The Streels, The Craic, and many others, Jennie also loves taking time out every once in a while to teach workshops at a few of B.C.’s fantastic
A producer, engineer, and teacher at Annwyn Studios, Bice is devoted to musical exploration and artistic inspiration. KSS audiences will find her an absolute delight to watch.
Karen recently answered some questions about Going to the Rock!
What is the theme for this concert?
The theme is the exploration and celebration of the music and culture of Newfoundland. In addition, it’s the preparation for the choir’s participation in Festival 500 in St. John’s, Newfoundland in July.
How did you choose the theme?
We needed a public performance of our concert set that we are performing for the Festival, and so we decided to expand on the Newfoundland theme all the way around.
How did you choose the guest artists?
Our choristers, Kevin and Daphne Bice—true lovers of all things Newfoundland—have a daughter who is a professional Celtic fiddler out west who is a fabulous entertainer and who has jammed with the best of them in Newfoundland. Bringing her back to London was a natural choice. Her friend, guitarist Greig Cairns, and she have worked together several times over the years, so it made sense to bring him on the concert too.
Kevin and Daphne were also the contacts for Newfoundland storyteller Don Ford, who is a friend of theirs.
Are any of the pieces special favorites?
Favorites of mine include Feller from Fortune, a Canadian choral favorite which is a cracking arrangement of a well-known Newfoundland folksong. It’s crazy and funny and smart and surprising and satisfying all at once—really a great piece.
I also love The Banks of Loch Erin, which is a wistful, haunting melody brought from Scotland and made Newfoundland’s own. It’s exquisite.
Then I like Drunken Sailor. The timing keeps changing which reminds one of a tipsy sailor stumbling on a ship deck in the roll of the sea—lots of whooping, and just delightful.
A piece that is a stunner from our Festival 500 concert set is I Thank You God by Gwyneth Walker. She set the well-known poem by e. e. cummings and created a resounding affirmation of life and creation—the cosmic Yes. It’s thrilling.
We are also doing Lux Aurumque (Light and Gold) by Eric Whitacre, which has become famous as the Virtual Choir piece. We sang it on our last concert and it got a tremendous response. You can actually hear the “light” shimmering.
We’re also performing a splendid arrangement of Stephen Sondheim’s Send in the Clowns, his most famous song, that is an original interpretation of a great solo with a lot of room for emotional expression.
Back to the Newfoundland songs, there are three (Sarah, The Moocher and Me, The Landfall of Cabot) which are just hilarious, full of antics and gossip and back-chat and Newfoundlandese (terms known only there). As we sing them, Jennie Bice will weave her Kitchen Party fiddle throughout, pick up the theme, and get everyone wanting to dance in the aisles!
Curious about the music featured in our upcoming fundraising cabaret, Beatles and Friends? Artistic Director Karen Schuessler was looking through the KSS repertoire for fun, upbeat music, and rediscovered our Strawberry Fields concert (June 2007), which has the distinction of being our most popular concert ever.
She also loves two other songs on the program: Battle of Jericho and Let Me Fly. They’re high-energy spirituals from our Road to Freedom CD. We haven’t done them for a couple of years, and they’re great songs!
John Lennon’s Imagine is another great favorite of Karen’s. “The text is child-like in its wonder and clarity of a better world. And as Einstein said, ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge.’ If we can imagine a better world, then we’re half-way there!”
The cabaret is Saturday, February 12, 2011. The evening will feature music of the Beatles, and include specials guests Jazz on Broadway (Steve Holowitz, Amber Cunningham and Paul Grambo). There will also be a silent auction, complimentary food and a cash bar. The cabaret is being held at the London Ukrainian Centre, 247 Adelaide Street North. Silent auction opens at 6:30 p.m. and cabaret begins at 8:00 p.m.
To purchase tickets, click here to navigate to our Concerts and Tickets page.
KSS was featured in an article in the London Free Press today.
“To illuminate a season-opening concert, the Karen Schuessler Singers are revisiting one of their favourites.
“‘The title of the concert itself comes from the last piece on the program – Voices of Light by Paul Halley,’ artistic director Karen Schuessler says of Saturday’s program at Wesley-Knox church. ‘It’s an ecstatic interchange between piano, choir and flute. The last time we performed this piece was at our 10th anniversary concert. The music carries you along, and it builds and builds.’
“UWO Don Wright music faculty professor Fiona Wilkinson guests on flute. She has recorded the Halley work with the Guelph Chamber Choir, directed by her faculty colleague Gerald Neufeld, on its Christmas-themed album Good Cheare.
“‘It does sound like pinpoints of light,’ Wilkinson says of the beautiful, demanding work. ‘It’s so fast, the technique, that it does sound like points of light popping through the upper register.’”
Visit this space often for a wealth of background information, research and interviews about our upcoming concerts, as well as cool stuff that we've found on the Internet related to music and choral singing.
p.s. You can leave comments on our blog posts! We would love to hear from you!