The Beat Magazine reviewed Saturday night’s performance of Missa Gaia / Earth Mass:
Understanding of and familiarity with a Mozart or Palestrina mass is one thing; then there is Paul Winter’s Missa Gaia or Earth Mass, which is an exhilarating admixture of liturgical and esophical norms, celebrating Gaia, a heathen deity and now symbol for all that is part of this planet’s primordial causality. For some, a mass that celebrates a Greek goddess is nothing short of sacrilege and might be better suited in a pagan/druidical setting rather than inside St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York City on Mother’s Day, for example, where Winter’s mass had its origins. Paul Winter is the chief architect of this opus while depending on friends for their musical contributions including those of organist and composer Paul Halley, who spent some of his younger years in Canada.
KSS finished off its subscription season with a heartfelt presentation of Missa Gaia / Earth Mass last night. Scroll down to enjoy some photo memories from the concert. Above and below, Karen warms up the choir before the show.
Before the music starts, Karen introduces this phenomenal work, which celebrates planet earth an all the creatures on it.
And the music begins…
Guest soloist Paul Grambo rocked the house with the energetic Beatitudes.
Other stellar musicians included pianist Steve Holowitz, sax player David Wiffen, Margaret Stowe on guitar, Steve Clark on bass, and organist Ronald Fox. Percussionists Rob Larose and Alfredo Caxaj thrill the crowd in Ubi Caritas, below.
The incomparable Denise Pelley held the audience spellbound with her moving interpretations of Mystery and His Eye is on the Sparrow.
At least one audience member was overheard to say “I don’t want to leave,” after the concert was finished.
Special guests from Salthaven Rehabilitation and Education Centre, our partner for this concert, were waiting to greet our patrons at the after-concert reception. Below is a barn owl – rare in this part of Canada – and his young handler.
Brian Salt, founder of Salthaven, introduces another “animal ambassador,” a red-tailed hawk. During the winter he visits schools and service groups, educating people about the amazing work that Salthaven does.
Another raptor guest enchants concert-goers, below. Founded 25 years ago, Salthaven rehabilitates sick and injured wildlife, and is currently working on a capital fundraising campaign for a new, $2.5 million clinic that will allow them to admit virtually all the animals that they get calls about each year. They are currently able to admit only about 20% animals that are brought to their attention.
Please visit the Salthaven website – www.salthaven.org – to learn more about the vital work that this organization does. Be sure to check out the photo gallery of patients, and read the many heartwarming stories of animals rescued, treated and released back into their natural habitats.
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.”
I first heard Missa Gaia / Earth Mass in 1999 or 1998. I was singing in another of Karen Schuessler’s choirs at the time, and Karen invited me to a Missa Gaia dress rehearsal because I had never heard the work before, and I couldn’t make it to the actual concert.
I was spellbound.
I joined KSS as an alto for the 1999-2000 season, and one of the highlights of my musical life has been learning and performing Missa Gaia, and participating in the KSS Missa Gaia recording. This work, which celebrates our relationship to the earth and all its creatures, almost defies description… but I’m going to try.
Canticle of Brother Sun
The concert opens with Canticle of Brother Sun, which uses the words of St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals and the environment. “All praise be yours through Brother Sun, all praise be yours through Sister Moon…” The chorus paraphrases a quote from the book of Job in the Bible: “Ask of the beasts, and they shall teach you the beauty of the earth.” To this day, every time I hear the text, my eyes fill with tears.
What also struck me about this song, and many of the others in the Missa Gaia suite, was its uptempo fusion of jazz and world beat-inspired rhythms. If, when the song ends, you wish it would continue, don’t worry – it’s reprised at the end of the show. The following video gives you just a sample its charms:
If Canticle of Brother Sun got my toes tapping, the beginning of the Kyrie initially stunned me. The silence is pierced by a recording of a wolf howling. A saxophone then plays the exact same notes – making haunting music of the animal’s call! The wolf howls again… and this time a tenor’s voice sings the notes, to the Greek words kyrie and eleison, which mean “Lord have mercy.”
In the Christian mass, the Kyrie underscores humankind’s need for redemption; in Missa Gaia, Paul Halley’s Kyrie poignantly underscores our fellow creatures’ plight at our own hands. Towards the end of the song the music swells after an instrumental solo, and every time I sang this part, I felt a sense of urgency at our planet’s future.
The video below features a 1982 recording of the Kyrie:
The Beatitudes is probably one of my favorite pieces from the entire show. A moody introduction gives way to complex gospel harmonies interweaving with a male vocal solo, and the song ends with multiple repeats of a driving, double-time refrain.
More than anything else, it was the clapping that originally attracted me to this gospel tune. There’s a stunning moment right at the end when the instruments cut out and the choir continues a capella, accompanied only by its own clapping. I was thrilled when, after joining the choir, Karen chose me to be one of the designated “clappers.”
During our 2000 recording session, Karen went to listen to the result after the first take of Beatitudes, and came back with the pronouncement that the claps were too loud, and not precise enough. (It’s not as easy as you think to clap and sing synchopated rhythms at the same time!) The ranks of the clappers were reduced to five, and we were given strict instructions to keep a close eye on each other during the next take, to make sure that we were in unison.
I was standing in the front row with the rest of the clappers behind me, so I half-turned to include them in my peripheral vision, and sang the entire take from memory, never taking my eyes off the hands of one of the tenor clappers. Karen immediately disappeared to the temporary “recording booth” set up in our recording venue, St. James Westminster Anglican Church, and came back with the good news: That take would do. Good thing, because all of that clapping had left my hands raw.
The video below is the only recording of the piece that I can find on YouTube. Most of it is much slower than our own performances and recording, but it gives you an idea of the excitement of the ending:
Mystery is a haunting folk song by an American physician, Jeremy R. Geffen – an integrative cancer care specialist whose holistic practices are informed by the healing traditions of the world, including Ayurveda, Tibetan Medicine, yoga, meditation, and other approaches to health and self-awareness.
The lyrics speak of the divine in a way that can be embraced by many faiths:
But when I listen deep inside, I feel you best of all.
Like a moon that’s glowing white, and I listen to your call.
And I know that you will guide me, I feel you like the tide
rushing through the ocean of my heart that’s open wide.
As sung by Denise Pelley, the song is a highlight of Missa Gaia for many listeners.
Return to Gaia
An instrumental piece, Return to Gaia, is another audience favorite, since it features the full power of the venue’s pipe organ. The song is meant to suggest the thrill of seeing dawn creep across the face of the earth as viewed from space.
“The Earth was small, light blue, and so touchingly alone, our home that must be defended like a holy relic. The Earth was absolutely round. I believe I never knew what the word round meant until I saw Earth from space.” Aleksei Leonov, Russian astronaut
“My first view – a panorama of brilliant deep blue ocean, shot with shades of green and gray and white – was of atolls and clouds. Close to the window I could see that this Pacific scene in motion was rimmed by the great curved limb of the Earth. It had a thin halo of blue held close, and beyond, black space. I held my breath, but something was missing – I felt strangely unfulfilled. Here was a tremendous visual spectacle, but viewed in silence. There was no grand musical accompaniment; no triumphant, inspired sonata or symphony. Each one of us must write the music of this sphere for ourselves.” Charles Walker, US astronaut
Sanctus and Benedictus, and Promise of a Fisherman
Sanctus and Benedictus features the eerie song of the male humpback whale. Hunted nearly to extinction in the 19th and 20th centuries, the humpback whale has made a comeback in the world’s oceans, but is still at risk from entanglement in fishing nets, collision with ships, and underwater noise pollution from offshore drilling.
Both Sanctus and Promise of a Fisherman use the joyous rhythms of Brazilian music, and I’m afraid I could never stand still whenever I sang either of them. One of the things I love most about the animal calls and the music of Missa Gaia is that they seem to permeate every cell of your body, so that you leave the concert feeling fundamentally changed.
The video below shows a live performance of Sanctus and Benedictus:
Without a doubt, Ubi Caritas is one of my all-time favorite choral pieces ever. I have had the pleasure of singing it not only several times with KSS, but also with a mass choir in a South London choral festival, and at the Church of St. Timothy in North Toronto with the incomparable Joe Sealy Trio.
Ubi Caritas begins with a well-known Gregorian chant, which fades to a quiet piano solo that swells and ebbs like waves on a lonely beach. Then, in one of those quintessential moments that composer Paul Halley is known for, the mood turns on a dime with the introduction of African drumming, and the chorus comes back in with a traditional African chant. Many times I have thrilled to watch percussionists Rob Larose and Dale Brendon intently ply the skins of their drums as the song builds to a thundering crescendo, accented by the counterpoint of the Latin and Yoruban singing.
The video below includes the piece in its thrilling entirety:
The evening comes to a close with a prayer from the traditional Christian mass: “Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace.”
In this song we hear the call of the harp seal – the animal which Moravian missionaries in Labrador used to explain the concept of the Lamb of God to the Inuit, who had never seen sheep. Seal hunting continues to be a controversial animal rights issue, and images of seal pups mercilessly bludgeoned for their pure white fur during annual seal hunts are forever burned into our cultural memory.
There are songs I haven’t mentioned: For the Beauty, Sound Over All Waters, Blue-Green Hills of Earth… each with their own moments to savour and hold dear. Missa Gaia is a work designed to transform its listeners (and its performers), then release them into the world to spread the energy of life and hope. I’ll be sitting in the audience on June 4, eager to hear the animals speak once again. I hope you will join us.
Michelle Lynne Goodfellow has been KSS’ Director of Communications for the past two years. She was also a chorister for our 1999-2000 and 2008-2009 concert seasons.
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.
London jazz singer Denise Pelley has been performing Missa Gaia / Earth Mass with the Karen Schuessler Singers since our first presentation of the work in 1994. Denise brings a special energy to each concert, and her soulful solos are audience favorites. We recently asked her for some Missa Gaia memories.
Do you remember the first time you heard Missa Gaia?
Missa Gaia was my introduction to Karen Schuessler in the mid 90s. She had contacted me about performing with the choir. Up until that point in time I hadn’t done a lot of performing with choirs, so I welcomed this exciting opportunity. As I listened to [Paul Winter's] recording I was quite intrigued by this piece which tells a story of how precious our Earth is.
Do you have any favorite songs from Missa Gaia?
It’s hard to choose a favorite because I really do love all of the songs, but two of my favorites are Ubi Caritas and Mystery. I love listening to the choir on Ubi Caritas, how it starts so gentle and free with the men’s voices, the haunting piano going from minor to major. It reminds of the feeling of darkness and despair turning into hope and celebration. All the modulations in the song remind me of different chapters of life’s journey. When the song is finishing, with the choir singing Hallelujah, I liken it to the singers saying thank you for the journey thus far.
Mystery is a very moving piece for me, especially after the loss of my oldest son Jason in January 2000. Singing has always been very therapeutic for me, and it was instrumental (and continues to be) in helping me to deal with his death.
“But when I listen deep inside, I feel you best of all
Like a moon that’s glowing white, and I listen to your call
And I know that you will guide me, I feel you like the tide
Rushing through the ocean of my heart that’s open wide” (text from the song Mystery, Missa Gaia / Earth Mass)
Do you remember any specific audience reactions to the MG concerts you’ve done with KSS?
We have performed Missa Gaia many times since the first time in 1994, and I find that every audience is mesmerized by the message this whole piece tells.
What keeps bringing you back to do this work again and again?
My trips to Sudan, my visit to a Trinidadian orphanage and a maximum security prison, the loss of loved ones, the birth of new little ones – all of these chapters influence my presentation of music. It is my chance to share a story. And I have the wonderful opportunity to incorporate these feelings into Missa Gaia.
I will never tire of Missa Gaia. The music is beautiful, moving and enjoyable to do. The story will be relevant forever.
The wolf, the whale and the loon return! Join us for this wonderful celebration of Creator and Creation with expanded choir, vocalists Denise Pelley and Paul Grambo, the KSS Missa Gaia Jazz Ensemble led by pianist Stephen Holowitz, the Wesley-Knox pipe organ, and a host of animal voices…
Missa Gaia / Earth Mass was originally created by Paul Winter and Paul Halley for the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York City. Dedicated to St. Francis, it was first performed on Mother’s Day, 1981.
It is an unusual work. Essentially a suite with sections supplied by various composers, Missa Gaia / Earth Mass is both ecumenical and ecological. The Alaskan tundra wolf supplies the theme for the Kyrie, and the humpback whale for the Sanctus. The sound of the harp seal can be heard in the Agnus Dei. Some sections are informed by Gregorian chant, others by gospel or jazz, and still others by music from Africa or Brazil.
Despite this diversity, there is a common theme: the Earth, our home, is a gift quite undeserved – a miracle of grace. This being so, it has become our responsibility to take care of it and all that is in it. The video below explains a bit about Paul Winter’s Missa Gaia performances in New York.
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