By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — Happy holidays? Merry Christmas? Feliz Navidad?
Hold your horses, says Dr. Mario Pearson, director of music at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.
There is nothing wrong with getting into the holiday spirit as soon as the leftover Thanksgiving turkey is put into the freezer. But first comes Advent, with its own rich traditions of prayerful anticipation and spectacular spiritual choral music that has nothing to do with winter wonderlands or frosty snowmen.
For the sixth year in a row, on the second Saturday evening of Advent, Pearson and the Cathedral’s professional-level choir, the 12-voice strong Schola Cantorum, will present “Light to the Nations — Advent Lessons and Carols” at 7 p.m. Dec. 8 at the Cathedral, 11th and Broadway in downtown Kansas City. And the best part? It is free, the Schola’s Advent present to the diocese.
The event is turning into a special Kansas City tradition, with last year’s performance of interactive and familiar Advent hymns interspersed with classic choral music sung by the Schola packing the Cathedral.
This year, however, poses a different challenge, Pearson said. The date is also the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, one of the holy days in which the obligation to attend Mass is not waived when it falls on a Saturday or a Monday.
In order to be observant, Catholics will need to attend Masses for both the holy day and the Third Sunday of Advent.
But Pearson said he is also confident that it won’t deter anybody from coming to church just one more time to relish the beauty and majesty of Advent music that will range from the Renaissance to today.
“We will drive 45 minutes to enjoy a good meal at a restaurant,” Pearson said. “We should not deny ourselves this opportunity to experience the best music in the world.”
As audiences have learned since the first Advent performance in 2007, the “Light to the Nations” performance also offers an opportunity to take a deep breath, relax, and get back into the season of prayer and preparation for properly celebrating the Nativity of the Savior, Pearson said.
“The spirit of Advent is the spirit of excitement and anticipation,” he said.
“It was so great last year to see parents bring young children. They really get it, and they want to step up to the challenge of being counter-cultural” against the hustle and bustle of shopping and parties.
Pearson said the audience will still have plenty of time for all that on Dec. 8. The performance will last about an hour and will include a wide array of the greatest Advent music from a variety of eras and Christian traditions.
“If they liked it last year, they will love it this year,” he said.
The program will open with “Holy Radiant Night” written for the Russian Orthodox liturgy by Alexander Gretaninoff, an early 20th Century composer.
Then it will reach back to the Renaissance for 16th Century works — Orlandus Lassus’ “Magnificat” from Belgium, and Tomas Luis de Victoria’s “Condite Alma Siderum” from Spain.
Then it will be back to 19th Century Germany, with Josef Rheinberger’s “Rorate Coeli” before turning to the Italian Renaissance for Giovanni Palestrina’s 16th Century, “Alma Redemptorist.”
The performance will conclude with two pieces from the 20th Century and one from the 21st.
“There Is No Rose,” was composed by the late Robert Young, director for years of the Southern Baptist-sponsored Baylor University until his death in 2011. “This Truth Is Sent from Above,” is a traditional English hymn sent to choral arrangement by the great British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.
And the performance will close with the audience begging for more — the hauntingly delicate “O Magnum Mysterium,” from Norwegian composer Ola Gjielo, who at age 35 has already become a leading beacon in modern choral composition.
That work will also feature a violin solo by Schola member Coleen Dierker, Pearson said.
“I am just a huge fan of his (Gjielo’s) work,” Pearson said. “He’s got interesting ways of treating harmonies. For me, ‘O Magnum’ is like a lone voice in the desert singing, ‘Prepare for this great mystery we are about to experience.’”
Pearson said the Schola Cantorum will once again put together the entire concert with just one dress rehearsal together. Each member, however, has been given the music and has learned it on their own, and knowing their talent, Pearson knows that they will be well prepared.
“We always do well. We have very talented people,” Pearson said.
“These are people very interested in great choral music,” he said. “We all function as a collaborative pool of talent, and I value everybody’s talent.”
Pearson also mentioned one more “star” of the show — the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception itself which is rapidly earning a deserved reputation as a premiere venue for classical spiritual music.
“It is a great space and great music seems to have found a comfort zone there,” he said.
In fact, he urged those who enjoyed the Advent concert to mark their calendars for one more date, a few weeks later, to complete a Christmas season of great choral music.
Allegro, Kansas City’s premiere children’s choir, will perform its annual Epiphany concert at 3 p.m. Jan. 6 at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.