The human instruments
Nov 26, 2017 09:26AM ● Published by J. Chambless
The Christ Church Choir at the Christ Church Christiana Hundred is under the direction of musical director Bruce J. Barber II.
By Richard L. Gaw
It is an early Wednesday evening in
November, and the effects of Daylight Savings have turned the parking
lot of the Christ Church Christiana Hundred in Greenville to a
grayish, brooding tint, illuminated only by an occasional light
above. In perfect juxtaposition, however, there is a room that night
at the Parish Center that will soon glow with the light of 18
Not one note has been performed yet. Bruce J. Barber II, the Director of Music at Christ Church, consults with Assistant Organist and Choir Director David Hearn as they prepare to conduct a rehearsal with the Christ Church Choir. One by one, choir members file into the room, but instead of remaining in their seats designated according to their voice ranges – soprano, alto, tenor and bass – they float around the room, speaking to each other the way friends do. The room is dominated by conversation, the flicker of sheet music of many choral arrangements like “I Will Lift Up Mine Eyes” by Leo Sowerby, and the infectious enthusiasm of Barber.
It may be the beginning of Christmas in the stores, but it's the preparation of Advent for the Christ Church Choir, and there is lot to work on. As if set by an imaginary clock, the members of the choir sit down at the same time on either side of Barber, and moments after the second bar of the opening arrangement begins, Barber extends his two index fingers in front of him, and the voices go still:
“You've got the two-four measure going now, but be mindful of the first one,” he tells the choir. “I'm used to this piece in D, but here we are, in B-Flat...The tenors have the passing note, but not too much of the passing note. The bass needs to be a little stronger on the B-flat, so that we can hear that B-flat staying there as well as leaving...One more time, breathing well and singing nicely, cleanly and inward. Go... ”
Barber's hands soon begin to wave above him and then in front of him, in the manner of someone who wants to gather these voices he hears into his chest and hold it there like a gift he gives to himself...but that's not his job, because when arrived at this venerable parish three years ago – and became its director of music two years ago – Bruce Barber's job has been to let these 18 voices in front of him soar.
“What I look for is to hear them listening,” said Barber, who is only the fifth music director at Christ Church since 1890. “You can hear them listening to each other when they become an ensemble, when they turn from 18 individuals into one choir. The moment they listen, a rehearsal goes wonderfully. When they don't do that, the music becomes difficult to pull together as an ensemble.
“This is my job, and when they arrive, I am already here, but for them, they arrive from having taught all day, or they arrive from offices, bringing their day with them, with the need to become an instrument.”
Since its beginning in 1851, the Christ Church Choir has served as the lyrical soundtrack to the rich history of the parish, which was founded in 1848 by members of the du Pont family and the Rev. Samuel C. Brinckle. It began from simple communal singing in the parish's schoolhouse to the addition of professional support, eventually becoming a fully professional quartet and then a sextet.
Construction of the church began in 1851 and was completed in 1856, and when it opened, its new organ was played by Mrs. Alexis du Pont, who played regularly there, until the task was taken over by Mrs. Lammot du Pont, who played the organ for services in the church and in the school.
By the 1920s, the choir grew to include a group of ten singers, who were all paid for their services. Throughout its three centuries of existence, the choir has regularly performed as part of the parish's regular liturgical schedule and has produced a number of recordings that celebrate liturgical arrangements as well as seasonal festival carols and anthems. Their most recent CD, "Lord, Open Thou Our Lips," was recorded in 2014 as part of the 100th anniversary of the choir.
To a visitor or a member of its congregation, Christ Church Christiana Hundred does not announce its presence from a great distance. Rather, it reveals itself slowly, like someone who doesn't want to immediately tell his or her entire story, but there it is, eventually, at the leafy end of Buck Road, standing in quiet fortitude.
“I had come here from St. James Cathedral in Chicago on Huron and Wabash, a block-and-a-half off of Michigan Avenue on the Magnificent Mile,” said Barber, who is only the fifth music director at Christ Church since 1890. “I'm used to big buildings and lots of people. I remember driving down Buck Road and coming to the opening at the end of the lane, seeing this beautiful church and surrounding landscape, and thinking to myself, 'Wow. This is something.'”
It's the same feeling that Soprano Lauren Conrad has known her entire life.
Long before she joined the choir in 2001, her parents had been members of the choir since the 1970s (her father Tom still performs), and said that spending countless hours as a child watching the choir rehearse and perform had a huge influence on her.
“The Hearn family is another family unit here, and we all sort of grew up together, and the church became a part of our being,” she said. “I sang throughout junior high school and high school, and when I told my mother that I wanted to major in music in college and be a performer she began to cry, but I told her that I wanted to follow in her footsteps.”
Bassist David Schueck, who has been a member of the choir since 1989, has known Conrad she was a little girl, and now sits across from her at rehearsal. There is pure magic in the cohesiveness between members, he said, and it happens the moment they are introduced to a new piece of music.
“I sight read it and take it home and dissect it on my own, and then bring it back here and rehearse it with the group,” he said. “Slowly, the piece gets more exciting. We all listen to one another, and eventually, we reach a stage where we have a shared musical experience.
“This is truly a collaboration,” he added. “It's getting 18 people all on the same page. We can't do that with politics. You can't do that with religion. What a crazy, exciting thing to have happen, especially in today's world.”
“I just love to watch them learn and grapple with and chew on something that's tough or challenging or new, and being able to lead them through it is a really fun thing to do,” Barber said. “Perfection is never a player in the game of making music. The moment you strive to be perfect is when a slip will happen. Rather, it's striving to offer your very best. We've gotten used to perfect recordings that are absolutely without blemish, and that's not the way live music happens.”
For several years, the Christ Church Christiana Hundred has invited the greatest English choral conductors to work with the Christ Church Choir as musicians in residence, such as Sir David Willcocks, James O'Donnell and John Rutter. While being able to work alongside such musical dignitaries has proven to be an incredible experience for the choir, it led Barber to a conversation with Church Rector Ruth Beresford.
“I asked Ruth, 'Don't you think it's time that the Christ Church Choir become the Musicians in Residence in England?'” Barber said.
From August 14-25, 2018, the Christ Church Choir will travel to England for the first time, where it will be Musicians in Residence at Bristol Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, singing daily Choral Evensong and the Sunday Eucharist. Accompanied by Barber and Christ Church Rector Ruth Beresford, the choir will also allow for as many as 45 “pilgrims” – either members of Christ Church or the general public – to be a part of the pilgrimage.
“Every year, I have led a choral pilgrimage that hasn't included the choir, so this time, to be worshiping with our choir will transport this journey to another level, that will provide an even richer experience,” Beresford said. “The pilgrims will get to see some places of worship and history in England that have helped influence who we are as a congregation. A pilgrimage is always about seeking God, and this takes us to places where those who came before us have also sought God.”
In the large picture of the mission Christ Church Choir, it's not about the music or the performance Barber said. It's about serving God.
“Everything else we do here springs from our identity as being a worshiping community, whether it' s outreach or mission trips, and music is integral to all of that,” he said. “It will remain an integral force in the future of this parish. That's what the founders really felt about the role of music in this church and in the life of our parishioners.
“There is a lining up of things here at Christ Church that I have rarely experienced anywhere before,” he added. “There is a commitment that extends to all of the staff and is seen in the synchronization that I have with Ruth. There is the beautiful organ in the church...and then there are the human instruments of the Christ Church Choir. These people are among the nicest of anyone I have ever worked with. In a way, they have become my family.”
Lauren Conrad sits in a comfortable chair in a room at the Parish Center, moments from the start of rehearsal. Her time, she said, is measured now in appointments on the calendar – a chock block regiment of places she needs to be. She has been a music teacher at Concord High School for the past 12 years, and is also pursuing her doctorate in Educational Leadership at Wilmington University. And yet, when she arrives at the Christ Church to sing, it's to do something she loves, with people she loves.
“I think the number one component of what keeps me here is experiencing the family atmosphere among the choir,” she said. “That's pretty rare for a group of professional musicians. Typically, we are hired to perform a task, and we come in and perform that task, and then we go home. We are here because we love the music and because we love each other. I think that it helps solidify our music making.
“Music, as cliché as it may sound, is the universal language,” Conrad added. “You don't have to have common ground in terms of your political background or your religion, the languages you speak or your ethnicity, but if you can find a home in music, then everyone belongs.”
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Congregation members and the general public are invited to attend the upcoming
Advent Lessons in Carols
with the Christ Church Choir
Sunday, Dec. 10 at 5 p.m.
Christ Church Christiana Hundred
501 E. Buck Road, Wilmington, DE
Join the Pilgrimage
The Christ Church Christiana Hundred is making room for as many as 45 guests to accompany the Christ Church Choir next year, during their Musicians in Residence pilgrimage to Bristol Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, from Aug. 14-25, 2018. Registration for the trip is now open, on a first-come, first-served basis.
To learn more about joining the trip, visit the Christ Church Christiana Hundred website at www.christchurchde.org, or call Rector Ruth Beresford at 302-655-3379.