Mississippi Conference On Church Music and Liturgy - History

 

 

 

Unforeseen Angels in Mississippi

T ucked into the back of the Episcopal Musician's Handbook is a short list of Major Music Conferences taking place in the coming year. Iíve recently relocated to the land of grits and okra so the Mississippi Conference on Church Music and Liturgy seemed an appropriate choice for this August. Summer conferences are perfect opportunities for new friendships to be made, old ones rekindled and at the best conferences, musical skills are enlivened and inspired in a convivial atmosphere. Moving is considered one of the top stress-producing events in one's life; I was hopeful that this summerís conference would provide some spiritual as well as professional rejuvenation. It exceeded my hopes in every way.

Weíve all learned from PBS that American patterns of speech stem from Great Britain and that over time that the British left their mark more thoroughly in the Southern dialect than in any other region of the country. Many of us (even those from the North) will also acknowledge that major Episcopal churches in the South provide some of the most superb and definitive examples of Anglican worship found anywhere today. It was with some trepidation however, that I ventured to a conference location down where the bull frogs seemed to have more "bars" than my little Nokia from Cingular.

Participants for this year's Mississippi conference came from as far away as California and Michigan, and included professionals and amateurs of all ages and backgrounds. There were college students and full time church musicians; university professors and school music teachers; old-timers who'd seen and done it all somewhere else before; those from the Gulf Coast who'd literally lived through last year's hurricane season, and people who just wanted to sing and worship.

Practically speaking, accommodations consisted of hotel-type guesthouses and individual rooms, all built in the 1990's. From a daily supply of fresh fluffy towels, hot showers with good water pressure, wonderfully cooling air conditioning everywhere (always a priority in the South!), to meals even your mother would approve of, including fresh fruit, fresh salads, and a balanced hot plate, the amenities at the Mississippi conference rank up with the very best conferences Iíve attended.

Originally conceived for musicians in smaller churches across the Gulf Coast region, the five-day event now in its 31st year provides a substantial opportunity to discover, reinforce, and edify one's understanding of worship, no matter where you live or work. The conference is not exclusively Episcopalian, and its 68 participants encompassed at least 7 Christian denominations. With an emphasis on liturgical worship and psalm singing, attendees became familiar with some 40 hymns and anthems, learning about liturgy by example and practice.

We gathered for Morning Prayer every day, starting off with a beautiful instrumental prelude provided by attendees and leaders. After this brief time to gather our spirits and souls the day unfolded into a sequence of rehearsals, classes, or discussions on worship and liturgy led by an excellent team of guest clinicians and skilled staff.

This year's conference theme, "Entertaining Angels Unawares: Creating
Hospitable & Faithful Liturgy" was brought to life by Rev.Tom McCart of St. Paul's, Rochester, NY. A priest and an accomplished musician, McCart provided many theological and practical insights into liturgy and worship. He discussed concepts of unconditional acceptance, the responsibility of inviting others to the table, and the right to be elevated above the ordinary. Sharing resources and suggesting methods, McCart invited us to examine our own response to these ideas. In addition, a certified spiritual director was on staff to meet with all who requested it.


Clinicians Richard Webster of Trinity Church, Boston, and John Repulski of Christ Church, Cranbrook, took turns rehearsing the conference attendees and shaping them into a choir, working on music for upcoming services or reading through new anthems chosen by them for review. Webster, who is deservedly becoming an icon in his own right, was singularly adept at turning most every musical potential into a reality. Under his tutelage, singers internalized the concept of word stress, worked on pitch, blend, and intonation at every opportunity, and never once neglected the greater importance of what the music was written for. Webster is meticulous and persuasive, combining gentle humor with an unerring focus on universal choral concerns such as sloppy entrances and cut-offs poor diction, or unsupported tone. In a couple of hours even the most seasoned musicians were more focused and performing at a higher level. By evensong Thursday (two days later), the conference choir produced a vibrant sound with exceptional resonance and clarity.

With his emphasis on global music, conference clinician John Repulski provided a nice counterpoint to Webster. His eclectic choices of anthems broadened the horizon for many and kept our ears, eyes and voices awake and alert; his choral warm ups were fresh and appealing. Repulski also provided a provocative video about the future of music in the Episcopal Church. His keyboard skills were a highlight; his class on improvisation was very positively received, and his postlude at Evensong (Chant Heroique by Langlais) simply stunning.

Webster composed the conference's annually commissioned anthem for the Feast of the Transfiguration, this year "Given to the glory of God and in thanksgiving for all who have come to the aid of the victims of Hurricane Katrina.Ē Written in a galant 7/8, "Christ Upon the Mountain Peak" was enjoyably challenging and exciting to sing. Choristers who were not the best readers quickly grasped the new material through Webster's impeccable rehearsal technique and concise compositional language. The anthem's initial motive, an aptly rising major seventh was treated to a diverse sequence of underlying harmonies and rhythms and complimented by a substantive yet deft organ accompaniment. The result was a captivating mix of earth and sky for the singer and listener alike.

Rounding out the conference were satellite sessions devoted to accompanying hymns at the organ, keyboard improvisation, and a session on learning how to craft good descants that even your sopranos can sing. Webster, well known for his work with girls' and boys' choirs, discussed and demonstrated how to build and maintain a choir program with a model treble choir graciously provided by conference organizer and all around hostess extraordinaire, Ellen Johnston (Johnston has been in charge of the Mississippi conference for over twenty years; the success and smooth running of the event is a testament to her expert organizational skills). Additional choral reading sessions led by staff members provided examples of music suited to all varieties of choir skill levels; coaching in vocal technique was available from one of the professional singers in attendance, and there was also an opportunity to view a video of first hand accounts and images from the devastation caused to so many churches along the Gulf Coast last year.

Social opportunities were abundant, with impromptu gatherings outside on the veranda or in the lobby, as well as scheduled socials with wine, chocolate, and champagne. Conference leaders were approachable, circulating during meal times and social gatherings, making everyone feel at home. The final evening's cabaret, put on by the attendees, was clever and extremely funny, yet also included performances with the kind of skill and fortitude one usually expects only on a professional stage.

Cliff Hill Music provided a large display and order center that was open around the clock. One could shop, practice, or gather at any time in air-conditioned peace and comfort.

Each in attendance will long remember the final service Sunday morning August 6th at St. Andrew's Cathedral in Jackson. The historic setting of the gothic-style structure provided a superb environment in which to conclude a full and rich week of music and worship. A fine brass and percussion ensemble accented Webster and Repulski's exciting service music arrangements and successfully complimented the high caliber of the conference choir. McCart delivered an excellent homily, and Webster's "Overture" from the Baroque Suite for Brass & Organ was a fitting finale.

I left before the farewell luncheon provided by the Cathedral after the service, due to a prior commitment. During the mad dash home, coming perilously close to missing my own concert rehearsal that night, I remained up in the clouds on which I'd floated since the morning and had to ask what it was that produced the feelings of transfiguration from within. Was it the gracious southern hospitality? The exceptional clinicians? or the fellowship of colleagues opening up to each other during a week of concentrated worship and study? Whatever it was, my soul was transformed and consequently remains indebted to the Mississippi conference.


 

---The author is Suzanne Purtee, Director of Music, Church of the Nativity, Huntsville, Alabama. The article above has appeared in The Mississippi Episcopalian and The Journal of the Association of Anglican Musicians. Parts will be excerpted in the music issue of The Living Church. Suzanne recently moved to the Church of the Nativity, Episcopal, in Huntsville, AL, from the Philadelphia suburb of Cherry Hill, NJ, where she enjoyed ten years as a Presbyterian Yankee along with a healthy supply of Jersey corn and tomatoes; she also served as Dean of the Southwest Jersey Chapter of the AGO. Admittedly addicted to summer music conferences, Suzanne ranks the Mississippi conference up at the top of her list of summer adventures.
 

 

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