All Souls Day is an ancient feast day in the Roman Catholic Church in which those on earth pray for the faithful suffering in Purgatory. The Mass for the Dead has been part of All Souls Day since the 14th century. The texts were written to offer "expressions of consolation" for the present and hope for the future. St. James Cathedral, a church which couples spirituality with the power of music in remarkable ways, observes the day by incorporating one of the great and sublime requiems of the past 250 years into actual liturgy of the Mass of All Souls.
Mozart’s much celebrated "Requiem" is often heard in this context, So too the requiems of French composers like Faure and Durufle. These works, in general, were intended for the concert stage, but they achieve an additional kind of resonance when they are set in the manner of St. James.
Given the sophistication of the cathedral’s music program – headed by such exemplary musicians as James Savage, music director, and Joseph Adam, cathedral organist — and the care given to its aesthetic life, in general, it is not surprising that the mass/performance was as compelling and moving as it was. The many people who filled the church to the brim came not only for its religious import but also for the music, along with the architectural glories of the cathedral. There is nothing else like it in the city.
St. James is both traditional and modern in its imagination. The old rites are preserved in striking ways and the new evoked in a manner that makes it part of the whole. Indeed, one of the enormous attractions of something like All Souls at the First Hill church is how organic it feels. There is no suggestion that we are not living in the present yet the long history of such observances seems just as real.
There is little that was spoken, the major exception being the telling homily of The Very Rev. Michael G. Ryan, pastor of St. James. The rest is music, almost entirely of Durufle, and chanting. The organ is given a major and diverse assignment, capably carried out by Adam. In addition there are the Cathedral Choir of nearly 80 voices and the Women of St. James Schola, about 25 voices, spread out in the apse. In addition were some good vocal soloists, including Lisa Cardwell Ponten and mezzo-soprano Kathryn Weld, as well as superb instrumentalists like cellist Page Smith, harpist John Carrington and percussionist Matthew Kocmieroski. These large musical forces were expertly led by Savage.
It was no small thing to coordinate the whole business in order to make it seamless and inevitable. Anything else would be awkward. Nothing was out-of-place at St. James. The mass, the music, the chanting progressed on an even keel. Always, there was beauty of tone from the singers and apt punctuation and accompaniment from the instrumentalists. The Introit, readings, acclamations, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, etc. were handsomely woven together. One could follow the well-designed program in its many detail or absorb the whole matter in a single wave of sensation. .