“Italy is pretty much the top of the heap for the Western church,” Michael Henry said. “Not the Eastern church but the Western church. So lots of famous composers lived and worked and composed sacred music over the centuries in Italy, especially in Rome and in Venice.”
Henry, director of music ministry at First Presbyterian Church in Gainesville, is a lover of sacred music. He and church choir members recently returned from a tour of Italy.
The Coro Sacra (Sacred Chorus) of Gainesville First Presbyterian Church and Shallowford Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, traveled to Italy for nine days this month. Both churches combine their choir groups and perform together and separately. The Gainesville chorus returned just in time to perform for the Palm Sunday service at the church.
Henry said the trip, which took more than a year to prepare and raise funds for, allowed the chorus to visit important sites and historical markers of the Christian church.
Thirty-eight chorus musicians sang in masses and performed concerts at several historic churches within the cities, including St. Peter’s Basilica, a 16th century church in Vatican City; the Basilica of St. Frances Assisi, built in the 13th century; and St. Mark’s Basilica, a Venetian church built in the 11th century. They also toured the cities of Rome, Florence and Venice, with six other family members in tow.
While the chorus might have aimed to please the audience at each location, performing in the venerable buildings was its own pleasure.
“First of all, the acoustics are just marvelous,” Henry said. “But you’re in very historic places in terms of Christianity but also in terms of sacred music. I mean, those of us (who) are into sacred music for our vocation or avocation realize sooner or later that sacred music transcends a lot of boundaries. It’s bigger than denominations. It’s bigger than the local church. Sacred music is a big thing and we like to explore all the many facets of sacred music historically, including present music.”
Henry said the architecture had an influence on the other musicians as well, the significance of each location motivating the singers to do their best — which he said they did.
Some locations, such as St. Mark’s Basilica, were particularly moving for some.
“We’re looking up and seeing all these balconies and wondering what it must have been like hearing (Claudio) Monteverdi’s ‘Vespers’ performed in that space,” Henry said. “Not just him but a lot of other famous sacred music composers. That’s the space they inhabited. That’s where the music was made.”
Richard Halliley, a church choir member and Braselton resident, said performing at St. Peter’s was the trip’s “biggest moment” for him. He said he enjoyed being surrounded by the country’s history.
“It was a beautiful experience. It was sobering, I’d say,” Halliley said. “It was definitely a thrill for myself and all the others to have the opportunity to bounce our voices off of these basilicas that have been around for a long time.”
Halliley said the group easily walked more than 40 miles during their week because every spare moment was filled by visiting other historical sites, such as the Colosseum and the Vatican, or taking gondola rides in Venice.
Michelle Martin, a member of First Presbyterian Church in Gainesville and the featured soloist in the chorus, said she was impressed by the depth of history but also the warmth and intimacy of the ancient churches.
“To see the beauty and the history of those churches was pretty amazing,” Martin said. “I loved absolutely every minute of it, including my sore legs. We walked everywhere, sometimes at a very fast pace because we had so much to see and so much to do. I wouldn’t trade a minute of it.”