Easing our way to the Misa Tango

Inheriting a talented choir as a newly appointed Music Director in a suburban parish, sounds like a dream come true. And it is, in many ways. 

But finding ways to challenge and excite experienced choristers can put the pressure on you. Here are a few of my reflections as we commence rehearsals for our biggest celebration of music so far during my tenure as Musical Director for the Patronal Feast Day – St. Oswald’s Day.

Hello, I’m Daniel, the organist and Music Director at St. Oswald’s Church in Glen Iris. If you’re not familiar with my blog, welcome. I try to regularly post stories and reflections about my experiences here to entertain and share the things I learn. You can subscribe if you want to.

St. Oswalds (that’s him above) is a parish with a proud musical tradition. It’s full of kind and encouraging people with refined musical tastes and a high level of musical literacy. Many have sung at a professional standard, some for their entire life and there are subscribers and devotees to many of Melbourne’s finest ensembles.

When Dr Gordon Innes passed away recently, his wife Kerry found an original composition dedicated to St. Oswald’s Choir by the Australian composer Colin Brumby with a very lovely letter:

The late countertenor Max Riebl sang at mass once here a few years ago, the great organist Calvin Bowman was in the seat before me, and the concert flutist from ANAM, Rachel Lao was a guest soloist this year. 

Am I overwhelmed? Well it is daunting to be honest, but as you would expect in a church community, there is much forgiveness for wrong notes and encouragement to practice and improve. Do I feel inspired to achieve new musical heights? Yes, absolutely. 

Enter stage right: the Misa Tango or Misa de Buenos Aires (2006) by Martin Palermi. The latest music project for me and St Oswald’s Choir. 

This relatively new work draws on Latin dance cross-rhythms and a music tradition which is very different to the Anglo/Germanic one most choirs are very comfortable with. I chose it because I couldn’t find anything like it in the existing repertoire of the choir, The work is a traditional setting in Latin, very lyrical but quite dramatic in SATB with solos in each part. 

As Peter, one of two very talented basses at St. Oswald’s Choir who have both sung with Melbourne’s premier semi-professional and professional choirs, describes:

‘The mass, which is very exciting, was written by Palmeri to celebrate the enthronement of Pope Francis, who in an earlier life was a well-known tango dancer in Argentina.’

Here are some of the lessons I have learnt so far that might be helpful to you, if you’re in a similiar position or just enthusaitic about music in your parish.

Don’t forget your purpose – It’s mass, not a music concert. 

In a way this takes the pressure off the music team a little bit. Music is meant to enhance and focus our celebration at mass not overtake the service. 

For me, this means a bit of rearranging the order of movements and in some cases being brutal about what works for your parish. For example, I normaly move the Benedictus to be sung during communion as it usually has a quiet and reflective mood appropriate for during or post. Also, Anglican and Catholic traditions do vary a little so that needs to be taken into account. 

Don’t forget you can always recycle your work: present a full ‘concert version’ in the original order or select movements for future masses so that all your hard work doesn’t just disappear after you’ve accomplished your original goal. 

Give it a go – I had the (not so) great idea of hot-housing the original presentation of the Misa Tango earlier in the year as a celebration during the Season of Easter. 

‘Hot-housing’ consisted of three full length rehearsals in the seven days leading up to Sunday. In the end, it was too much with too little rehearsal time. Winter, illness, and choir members on holiday meant numbers were down. 

Our Vicar Glenn, made the excellent comment that in a way we had overcome the first barrier trying something new: fear of failure. And he was right. We now had a taste for the music, a desire to do it again and better, and those who weren’t there may have even had a little FOMO. 

Church communities aren’t concert hall critics. They understand the effort and work involved and are happy to park their exacting expectations of excellence when we fall short of our own high standards knowing that we learn and grow as a community together. 

Edit, re-score and transpose music – Fess up. We all do it. 

Composers might hate the idea of it but modifying the score without tampering with the essential musical elements and spirit are important to accommodate the diverse resources and skills we find ourselves working with.

A classic example is This is the Record of John by Gibbons. I reduced the score to the solo part and simplified the choral parts, then played the viol consort parts on the keyboard. Viola!

This is easier with works out of copyright of course. My approach is always block sections, or movements are easier to move around but you will find tricky sections, expositions, which can either be edited out or sung by those with the technical skill or enthusiasm to pull off those passages. 

Be open to the talents that present themselves – Setting the bar a bit higher than normal comes with its own stresses for MD’s, so make sure you have solid support from the music leaders in your group. Send them the score or recordings of the work in advance and always check in with choir members along the way. 

Be prepared to modify your vision or scrap your project altogether if the feedback you’re getting is that the group isn’t enjoying the music or the learning process. 

That said, when challenged many will rise to the occasion and at St Oswald’s we’ve even had an increase in chorister numbers as music lovers from inside and out of the parish have heard about the Misa Tango project and want to be involved. 

This is amazing. 

But don’t forget to reward your local loyals with solos or special parts, if possible. Make the newbies as welcome as possible and remember, if you can, reward professional musicians or those with musical training with gifts, including money if you can afford it, or special thanks and mentions. Appropriate acknowledgement of the investment that goes into training and educated music folks encourages them to value and keep up their skills. 

Engage the broader community – Engaging the Latin American, Tango and Argentine communities in Melbourne seemed pretty obvious for this project. The warm and supportive responses I have received have been encouraging and enthusiastic. Here are just a few examples:

  • The Ambassador from Argentina in Canberra sent their best wishes for the sung mass.
  • A professional singer expressed his support for the Misa Tango explaining his mother was from Buenos Aires. 
  • Talking about the project to a local waiter, turns out his wife is from Argentina and wants their kids to come and listen to a bit of her culture. 

And I’m hopeful that the residents of the newly established Buenos Aires Apartments in South Hobart will join us online in solidarity for the namesake. 

Music is essential to culture both in religious and secular settings. It can unite us in so many different ways.

Advertise, advertise, advertise – People only know what you tell them. Put up posters, do a letter box drop. Write a blog article. Sharing is not just caring, it’s essential so that people don’t miss out on the product of all the hardwork and goodwill of the Music Ministry in your Parish.

On that note, Misa Tango will be sung at mass for St Oswald’s Day on Sunday, 7 August at 10 am. St Oswald’s Anglican Church is at 100 High Street, Glen Iris. If you’re a singer or musician, contact me on danielpebrace@gmail.com or 0412806034 for an advanced copy of the score and rehearsal details.

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