Tour 'in the footsteps of Bach' enriches L.A. Cathedral Choir

-- The Tidings / May 2007

Story & Photos by Bill Stephens

On Friday morning November 11, Los Angeles Cathedral Choir began rehearsing Bach songs in Leipzig Germany's St. Thomas Church. Here, Johann Sebastian Bach is buried and composed his finest choral works. 

"Twenty minutes into our rehearsal, many of us had a LOOK  WHERE  WE ARE!  moment of realization," said choir member Peggy Cribbs. They were moved to be singing Bach's music in Bach's church. 


The L.A. Cathedral Choir was in Leipzig for the First Annual International Bach Choir Choral Festival, along with three other select choirs from England, Japan, and Korea. Bach is famous for his sacred music and was music director of eastern Germany's Leipzig.

This was the first tour for the ethnically and age diverse L.A. Cathedral choir, which  sings Sundays downtown. Under L.A. Cathedral Music Director Frank Brownstead they prepared months to master Bach's complex music in German. Choir sections held break-out practices. Choir members practiced during summer recess and rehearsed with individualized Bach CD's. Singer Melanie Heyn learned German.

“This choir had never done Bach before,” said singer Martha Cowan. “So it was a stretch."

Brownstead: “This choir is only three years old. We thought the tour would help us improve and grow because we're putting ourselves out there as church and Los Angeles ambassadors. You learn from other choirs, gain confidence, and get to know the others in your choir. I expect a growth spurt after this tour." 


After Friday morning rehearsal, the choir walked to a welcoming reception. Festival organizers brought together the four choirs to foster international friendships through music and raise money for Bach manuscripts preservation. At the reception, the choirs sang individual pieces. 

That night, the L.A. Choir performed at modern St. Trinitatis Catholic Church along with the Japanese at the Friendship Concert, featuring musical pieces of friendship and national culture.  The L.A. choir sang American folk songs and spirituals, sacred songs, and Bach's challenging "Lobet den Herrn." The audience responded well. 

At a post-concert reception, Japanese choir members asked L.A. choir’s Steve Smith about one of their songs. Soon, Americans, Japanese, and St. Trinitatis' host choir were leaning over song sheets together in a spontaneous cross-cultural celebration. Says singer Alana Jennings: “It showed how you can cross boundaries with music."


After a Bach-oriented city tour, the L.A. choir sang three Bach pieces the next evening at St. Thomas Church for the Festival Concert. They joined the other choirs for two final Bach songs, including Dona Nobis Pacem ("Grant Us Peace"). The audience applauded enthusiastically. 

Said L.A. choir’s Chris Walker: “The applause for four global choirs singing Bach was special.”

Singer Joy Devlin, a Bach devotee, called singing Bach at St. Thomas with all four choirs "heaven on earth.”


Sunday morning the L.A. Choir traveled to Berlin to sing for the Mass at historic St. Hedwig's Catholic Cathedral. Berlin is L.A' s sister city. The L.A. choir sang several pieces in German and Latin and the congregation warmly applauded. L.A. Cathedral's pastor Monsignor Kevin Kostelnik concelebrated the Mass with the German Cathedral priest.

Singer Gordon La Cross was inspired by the Berlin appearance.  “I was a soloist. And I sang better than normal.”


On Monday, L.A. Choir members

toured Dresden, then arrived at Leipzig's St. Nicholas Church, where Bach's music was often performed in his time. The church was is also the site of Monday night Peace Prayers, which by in 1989 spawned candlelight street processions for peace and freedom that eventually led to German unification. 

As part of the Peace Prayers, each choir sang  a selection about friendship among nations and peace. The L.A. Choir sang "Caritas et Amor" and joined with the festival choirs. During the Peace Prayers Monsignor Kostelnik praised the people of Leipzig for their grassroots peace and freedom movement which started here. He said he recently paid an emotional visit to Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Park, which reminds that peace must reign. He urged the audience to "Let peace begin with us."

The L.A. Choir then joined in a candlelight  procession to the Bach statue at St. Thomas Church, where the choirs sang together to end the festival.

Brownstead found the final night moving because the Peace Prayers are a continuation of the events that in the 1980s led to German unification.

Afterwards, the four choirs congregated for a farewell dinner and casual singing.  Said Peggy  Cribbs: “It was an enjoyable cultural exchange."

From the festival came the possibility that the Korean choir may perform at L.A. Cathedral in the future. 

Said Brownstead: "Our people grew, and  we represented L.A., the U.S. and Catholics well. Connecting with the Koreans was special."

Kay Paietta: “I liked the camaraderie and  walking in the footsteps of Bach. We learned new music for this event and grew as a result.” 

Lauren Flahive: “A choir needs to do concerts. Traveling together promotes bonding, which leads to better music. The experience will improve us, and it re-confirmed why I'm a musician.”

Mary Bauer: “The trip was enriching. I liked seeing other traditions and meeting people from other parts of the world. Music is an international language.” 

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