Katherine Kersten: Music that offers a glimpse of heaven

St. Agnes Catholic Church in St. Paul is one of the last places on earth to hear some of the grandest music written, in glory to God.

Commentary

Tonight at St. Agnes Catholic Church in St. Paul, 60 singers will assemble in the choir loft for midnight mass. Violinists, oboists and trumpeters -- many from the Minnesota Orchestra -- will tune their instruments.

Then, as Christmas arrives at the stroke of midnight, the glorious strains of Mozart's monumental Coronation Mass will rise in the baroque splendor of this onion-domed, gilt-and-marble church in Frogtown, as bells peal in the frosty air.

Worshipers and visitors will have to pinch themselves to remember they're in Minnesota, and not in a cathedral in Vienna or Munich.

A chance to hear the Coronation Mass -- among the grandest music ever written -- would seem a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to many Minnesotans.

In fact, the Twin Cities Catholic Chorale performs classical-era masses of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and others at St. Agnes at 10 a.m. almost every Sunday from October until June.

Though the music is magnificent in the concert hall, says director Robert Peterson, it's different and more meaningful in the context of the Latin mass. There, it's performed to give glory to God -- just as its composers intended it to be.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart would surely be astounded to learn that, in 2010, St. Paul, Minn., is one of the last places on earth where music lovers can still experience his music this way.

"A handful of European churches perform these masses in a worship service on rare occasion," says Peterson. "But we do 30 of them a year."

"If music is supposed to lift up your soul, to give you a glimpse of heaven, this music will do that," says parishioner Keith Kostuch, who was incredulous to discover St. Agnes' cultural treasure when his family moved here recently.

"When the chorale, the organ and the orchestra power in on some of the numbers, it's chilling -- you just get goosebumps. I've seen visitors weep. They're moved and enthralled -- overwhelmed, really."

The chorale's singers, all talented amateurs, range from a gifted high school student to a senior medical doctor. Some members actually moved to the Twin Cities to join, says Peterson. The vocal soloists and instrumentalists are top-rank professionals.

Peterson became the chorale's director in 2005, when its founder, the Rev. Richard Schuler, retired. Schuler was a distinguished organist and musicologist, as well as St. Agnes' longtime pastor.

He launched the chorale in 1974, after he and the church choir returned from a European singing tour determined to reproduce the orchestra-accompanied Latin masses they had heard in famous churches there.

Peterson, who conducted choirs at Edina High School and Macalester College for decades, was bowled over when he first heard the Chorale in 1999.

"I was used to having three months to rehearse my choirs to perform a work of this scope. I couldn't imagine preparing a major work in one week, then putting down my baton to get ready for another the next week, and so on for 30 Sundays."

St. Agnes is the perfect setting for what one chorale fan calls "the greatest hits of Western civilization."

The church building, begun in 1909, was lovingly constructed by Austro-Hungarian immigrants who came to work on the railroad and lived in Frogtown, close to the tracks.

They modeled the church on Kloster Schlaegel, a monastery near Aigen, Austria. It's filled with old-world beauty and craftsmanship: a gorgeous marble altar, Tyrolean statues, and Stations of the Cross in German.

The experience of perfectly harmonized art, architecture and music can transport visitors.

"It's like taking your music history textbook and opening it about the years 1750 to 1800 -- the height of the classical era," explains Peterson.

"Everything is integrated. There's Latin in the choir loft and on the altar, and reverent rituals that have been part of the church for centuries: candles, bells, incense, vestments and altar servers, and the ninth-century Gregorian chant of the 'Schola Cantorum' which sings the 'proper,' or parts of the mass that change daily.

"It all comes together to help people appreciate this great mystery," Peterson concludes.

Both Catholics and non-Catholics can appreciate the results. The chorale includes Catholic and non-Catholic members, and the church has greeters who help people unfamiliar with the Latin liturgy to feel at home.

No work provokes more emotion than the great "Mass in E Minor" by Heinrich von Herzogenberg. This huge work, composed in 1894, was once presumed lost, but a complete score turned up in the mid-1990s.

Performed by more than 100 musicians, the music almost lifts listeners out of their pews. The chorale is the first to perform it in North America.

"People today have a real thirst for the transcendent," says the Rev. John Ubel, St. Agnes' current pastor. "I believe the way in which we celebrate the Eucharist here speaks to that."

But each Sunday's performance costs several thousand dollars. The chorale is primarily supported by donations to its nonprofit, and may die unless new donors are found.

Tonight, the chorale will give its only real concert of the year. At 11:15, before midnight mass, it will perform traditional carols you'd likely hear in a church in Bavaria.

"When I conduct the chorale, I feel a real connection with God," says Peterson. "When I finish the last 'Dona Nobis Pacem,' I feel a sense of peace and completeness. The music helps me to pray in a different way. I hope it's the same for others, and that they are brought closer to God by this great music."

"As Monsignor Schuler always said, 'To sing in church is to pray twice.'"

Katherine Kersten is a Twin Cities writer and speaker. Reach her at kakersten@gmail.com.

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