The Palestrina Choir
at The Ware Center,
Lancaster, PA (15 April 2015)

Recently I had the rare pleasure of hearing a type of music that has been performed for centuries, but is all too seldom heard today. The Palestrina Choir of Dublin, Ireland, gave a one-night concert of sacred choral music at The Ware Center in Lancaster, Pa. This followed the group's concert the night before in New York's Carnegie Hall.

The Palestrina Choir calls St. Mary's Pro-Cathedral in Dublin its home. As is to be expected, they travel throughout the world bringing this type of music to appreciative audiences including popes and royalty. This travel schedule does not prevent the group from performing its usual liturgical duties at the Pro-Cathedral, which include Solemn Latin Mass each Sunday plus Vespers, Benediction and evening Mass on Fridays.

Its origins date back to 1898 when a boys choir was formed at a Christian Brothers school. In 1903 it was installed in Dublin's St. Mary's Pro-Cathedral. The stated aim of the group is to promote the music of composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina as well as similar composers of polyphonic music.

The traveling choir, wearing simple blue gowns, consisted of 28 boys between ages 8 and 14, plus 14 adult males (many of whom were former choir boys) to provide the tenor and bass voices. True to their origins, they opened with two selections by Palestrina: "Exsultate Deo" and "Sicut Cervus Desiderat." After the adults left the stage, the boys performed Mendelssohn's "Lift Thine Eyes," followed by parts of the Missa Brevis by English composer Benjamin Britten.

The combined choir then did the traditional Irish hymn "Lord of All Hopefulness," a Gaelic hymn "Ag Criost an Siol" and "Deus Meus Adiuva Me," which is attributed to an 11th-century Donegal monk.

Following intermission the audience was treated to three Marian hymns: "Regina Caeli," "Vidi Speciosam" and Anton Bruckner's "Ave Maria." After several hymns from the British Isles, the choir sang two common Eucharistic hymns: "O Sacrament Most Holy" and "Soul of My Savior." The choir director Blanaid Murphy encouraged the audience to sing along, although this was a bit difficult since the Colin Mawry arrangements were unfamiliar to most. The finale was a Mawby arrangement of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

I, like most of the packed audience, sat in amazement at the talent of these young performers. The crystal clarity of their soaring voices and perfect harmony brought thunderous applause after every number. In fact, an appreciative "Wow!" was often heard from the audience.

As would be expected after a performance of this quality, the audience would not let them go quietly into that good night. Loud and long standing ovations brought them back for three encores including a clever rendition of "Dulaman." Murphy said the boys were anxious to sing this particular piece since they hadn't been able to sing it on the current tour. Finally, the exhausted but still exuberant troupe closed with that quintessential Irish song "Danny Boy."

Growing up Catholic and singing in a Gregorian choir in college, I learned to appreciate this genre of music but, sadly, it is rarely heard today except at performances like these. The Palestrina Choir has given me one more reason to pay another visit to Ireland.

by Bill Knapp
25 April 2015