- The Washington Times - Monday, April 14, 2008

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Rehearsal assistant David Mathers brought his lapel microphone up to his mouth for a throaty demonstration of the German word “dich,” putting particular emphasis on the guttural “kh” sound at the end.

“We really want to hear that,” Mr. Mathers said toward the end of a 2½-hour choir practice. “The Holy Father’s from Bavaria.”

The comment caused chuckles — the singers know the pope is German.

Still, getting all the details just right for Pope Benedict XVI — down to every last syllable of a hymn in his native tongue — is serious business for this group of D.C.-area Roman Catholics. The 250-person choir will be singing at Thursday’s papal Mass at Nationals Park.

Chosen from more than 500 people who auditioned, the group gathered for the first time March 10 at St. Mark the Evangelist Church in Hyattsville. A week earlier, they had received the 134 pages of sheet music, mostly for songs they had never heard before.

“What a gift to be able to see the pope,” said Steve Dameron, a 51-year-old tenor from Morningside, “even if it’s from the back.”

Of course, this group won’t just see the pope — they will be his musical accompaniment. Their singing will be part of the experience for the 46,000 people who will pack into the new baseball stadium. Many more will watch the Mass on television.

Tom Stehle, pastoral associate for liturgy and music at Our Lady of Mercy parish in Potomac, is serving as music director for the papal Mass. He worked for months to choose the right music for the elaborate event, which also will feature performances by opera stars Placido Domingo and Denyce Graves. Along with familiar works like Mozart’s “Ave Verum Corpus,” the program includes international folk songs, gospel and music by contemporary composers.

In addition to the main choir, Mr. Stehle is coordinating a 65-person “intercultural choir,” which will sing in French, Spanish, Zulu and other languages; a 175-voice children’s choir; and an 80-person gospel choir.

“I wanted to use all of the creativity and imagination I could and also make it a very prayerful experience for everyone,” Mr. Stehle said. “At the root, it’s the prayer. It’s not the spectacle; it’s not the historic event. … It’s really about prayer, and what Catholics do every Sunday, essentially.”

This Mass presents some unique challenges, however.

For instance, Mr. Stehle was concerned that choir members would not be able to hear the full sound of the group in the stadium, where there are no walls or a ceiling for the music to resonate from. To compensate, he devised an unusual seating arrangement.

In most choirs, the sopranos sit together as a section, and likewise for the altos, tenors and basses. In Mr. Stehle’s arrangement, smaller groups of sopranos are interspersed with smaller groups of altos, tenors and basses. The hope is that the arrangement will help each singer hear the whole choir.

That arrangement has its own challenges, as singers must be able to carry their parts without relying on those around them. It also complicates communication. At the start of the rehearsal, Mr. Stehle explained that if he signals to one group of sopranos, then all the sopranos should take it as their cue, regardless of where they are sitting.

Will it work? “The proof of the pudding is in the eating,” Mr. Stehle said with a smile.

The test won’t come until the day before the actual Mass, when the choir will have its only opportunity to rehearse in the stadium.

The music itself is challenging, many of the singers said.

“We don’t sing anything younger than 150 years old at our church,” said Susan England, music director at Our Lady’s Church at Medley’s Neck, who also is singing alto in the papal Mass choir. A reporter’s call the week before the first rehearsal interrupted her practicing.

“Expectations are high,” Miss England said, adding that it had been hard to find time to learn the music.

“I have a family and a business, so maybe I should pray about it,” she joked.

The rehearsals are intense. There are no breaks, except for brief opportunities to stretch while announcements are made. At the first one, the group rehearsed a Gregorian chant, the spiritual “Plenty Good Room” and works by contemporary British composer David Ogden and the 20th-century black composer R. Nathaniel Dett.

The German lesson was for the well-known hymn “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name.” The choir is singing several verses in English and one verse in German.

“The hymn was originally in German and brought here by German Catholic immigrants,” said Mr. Mathers, director of sacred music at St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Church in Fredericksburg, Va. “So singing it at the Papal Mass was a natural.”

Mr. Stehle is a stern taskmaster. “I hope you study this at home,” he told the singers at one point during the first rehearsal after they had gotten off track.

However, he conceded afterward that he was impressed with the group.

“We asked them to do a tremendous amount in just one week — and much more than some people are ever called upon to do in their own parish. And they did a wonderful job,” he said.

Still, Mr. Stehle said he didn’t want the choir to relax, particularly during the two-week break from rehearsals because of Holy Week. The choir is meeting a total of seven times before performing, including the dress rehearsal.

It is a labor of love for the singers, culled from parish choirs and other music groups throughout the Archdiocese of Washington, which includes the District and five Maryland counties.

“I know it’s going to be one of the most exciting things that ever happened to me,” said Cheri Nagel, 61, who converted to Catholicism with her husband in 2000.

“It’s a highlight for me personally right now because I lost my husband in December,” added Mrs. Nagel, a secretary from Kensington. “So this is something so positive, it’s something wonderful to happen, and I know that he would be proud of me. I know he is proud of me even now.”

For his part, Mr. Stehle said he hopes the music won’t just be beautiful but will inspire people to join in.

“Unlike anything that might happen in that stadium ever again, you might have 46,000 people singing their hearts out, which would be an amazing thing. That doesn’t happen during the ‘Star-Spangled Banner,’ you know?” Mr. Stehle said. “So that’s what I’m looking forward to, to hearing the whole stadium just erupt, and have the pope go: ‘Wow. This is the American church. This is a beautiful thing.’ ”

AP writer Jacquelyn Martin contributed to this report.

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