A Columbus church choir embarks early next month to be the choir in residence for a week at Wells Cathedral in Somerset, England, a rare feat for a parish choir in this part of the state.
Twenty-four singers, one organist, one choirmaster and six spouses and friends representing the St. Thomas Episcopal Church choir begin their residency July 6. The choir will lead a service of Evensong at 5 p.m. Sunday at St. Thomas. It will mirror their Evensong repertoire in England.“It’s rare. Nobody in Columbus, Ga., has ever done this,” said Rick McKnight, the church’s organist and choirmaster for six years.
The journey to England began in 2005. After the choir had sung that summer at the Washington National Cathedral for Georgia Day, McKnight and several others mused on the way home: What’s next?
Thinking of a possible pilgrimage to England — which birthed the Episcopal Church — McKnight was put in contact with Bruce Neswick, then the choirmaster at the Cathedral of St. Philip in Atlanta. Neswick had taken his choirs to England and was familiar with the system - a system in which choirs are invited to audition for summer services while English resident choirs are away for parts of the summer. Neswick suggested Wells Cathedral as a possible fit.
In 2006, the St. Thomas choir made an audition CD at the RiverCenter for Performing Arts and sent it to England.
After the choir received an invitation, they set about the long task of fundraising. Through baking casseroles, singing in area nursing homes and staging a recent “American Idol”-like talent show and silent auction, the choir raised nearly $100,000 over a three-year period. A full third of that went for airfare.
"(Fundraising) stops a lot of people," McKnight said. "Musically, the high point has been we’ve become a better choir. ... It has already increased our competence. And from a religious standpoint, this will be a pilgrimage."
The choir will sing at Wells July 6-12, and also lead Evensong at Gloucester Cathedral on July 8. By way of recent trivia, the Cathedral at Gloucester is where much of the “Harry Potter” movies were filmed. While in England, choir members will also work with British composer Philip Wilby (whose music the choir will sing) of Bristol Cathedral. All these cathedrals are in the southern part of the country.
Wells Cathedral dates back to 705. The present cathedral was erected in 1180. It has maintained a choral tradition virtually unbroken for more than 800 years, according to its Web site. For all that time, boys and men have sung the services, and in 1994 the choral foundation at Wells added a girls choir. The choir sings a wide repertoire of music that ranges from the masterpieces of the Renaissance period to choral works of the 20th and 21st centuries.
The daily witness of the cathedral focuses on the Daily Offices and in particular the service of Choral Evensong, the backbone of which is the singing of the Psalms, according to the Web site. Wells Cathedral Choir consists of 18 boy and 18 girl choristers and 12 men. The history of the choir is at least as old as the present building.
Joseph Golden, a professor of music at Columbus State University and organist emeritus at Trinity Episcopal Church, will accompany the group as organist. McKnight will direct. All told, the group will sing 45 pieces during their week.
“One cannot come away from a choir pilgrimage to Europe without a deep sense of having entered into a centuries-old tradition of worship,” McKnight said. “A visiting choir at places like Wells and Gloucester Cathedrals is but a mere slice of history: we are there simply to help these historic churches keep on keeping on.
“The next question is, what will I envision on the way home?”
The Sunday Evensong this Sunday will be followed by a champagne and strawberries reception.