By R.M. Campbell
There was much celebration on First Hill New Year’s Eve, but no tin horns, merry pranks or silly hats. It was a concert at St. James Cathedral one of many notable traditions of the church. It was filled, as always, to the brim well before curtain time at 11 with people anxious to bring in the nbew year with something more powerful than the usual partying.
Programs vary from to year, always utilizing the impressive musical forces of the cathedral. I am not quite sure how they manage a concert of this complexity, with multiple masses on Christmas Eve and Christmas day, also to full houses. Although those services are religious celebrations, they are filled with music, both instrumental and vocal. The church itself is an inspiration of harmonious beauty, especially at Christmas with its dozens of scarlet poinsettias outlining the central altar, along with white roses and paperwhites, handsome tall and erect, and, of course, greenery, as well as the organ loft at the back of the church. The handsome gold-like sculpture hanging from the dome, scattering light in wonderfully random ways, and slim red banners on various columns are curiously reassuring and interesting.
This year the music was devoted to Mozart. St. James musicians do a lot of Mozart, including his “Requiem,” incorporating the work into the liturgy. Alfred Einstein, the great Mozart biographer, calls the composer’s church music “‘Catholic’ in a higher sense — namely , in the sense that it is pious as a work of art, and the piety of an artist can consist only in his desire to give his utmost. . . . the Catholic quality of Mozart’s church music . . consists . . in its humanity, in its appeal to all devout and childlike hearts, in its directness.”
The evening began and ended with Marian hymns, the “Regina coeli” (K. 276) and the “Magnificat” (K. 379). The earliest piece was the “Missa brevis” in D Minor (K. 65), written when Mozart was 13, coupled with a “Missa brevis” in C (K. 259). There was a hymn, “I sing the mighty power of God,” sung by the audience, standing” and several psalms set to music.
There was much to admire in the musicians led confidently by James Savage, music director of St. James since 1981. Even in occasional turbulent waters, Savage kept a cool and calm hand. The chorus, Cathedral Cantorei, is a professional group drawn from various church vocal groups. There were all sorts of soloists. The Cathedral Chamber Orchestra of some 11 musicians accompanied the singing. Adding firepower as well as support and subtlety were organist Joseph Adam and Clint Kraus, who played the harpsichord and piano, and lent his voice to the chorus here and there.
Almost until Midnight, the concert was a straight-forward concert. Then the church fell silent and dark, waiting for that hour when one year disappears and another arrives. At that precise moment, as the Space Needle erupts in a fantastic display of fireworks, St. James’ tower bells — named Thomas, Michael, James, Francesca, Anthony and Raymond — ring in the New Year. That was followed by Kraus’ playing the Adagio from Mozart’s E-flat Piano Sonata (K. 282), evoking quiet “charm with grace,” It was a sublime moment.
St. James is a splendid place to be on New Year’s Eve, but get there early.