By Father Aaron Williams
NATCHEZ – On July 29, 2022, the choir and parishioners of St. Joseph church in Rayne, Louisiana arrived in Natchez to take part in the inaugural Basilica of St. Mary Choral Festival. The Basilica’s director of sacred music, Max Tenney, who also serves as director of music for Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, was approached by Father Brent Smith, pastor of St. Joseph in Rayne, to inquire about available conferences for his choir and musicians to receive formation in choral singing and the church’s vision of sacred music.
In other regions of the United States, groups such as the Church Music Association of America and the National Association of Pastoral Musicians provide brief conferences designed specifically for parish musicians, but no such conferences or resources are available in the South. Tenney proposed that, instead of encouraging Father Smith to send his musicians to a distant conference, the Basilica in Natchez host a private weekend of formation for his entire choir, which would rehearse along-side the Basilica’s own choir.
In a matter of about a month, a committee of volunteers from Natchez sprang into action and planned a three-day conference including musical workshops, tours of antebellum homes and historic sites, and good food for the combined attendance of over forty singers. The weekend culminated in the combined festival choir singing for the 10 a.m. Solemn Sunday Mass. The Basilica was packed to capacity with many visitors from other parishes and even non-Catholic churches in the area that had seen advertisements about the choral display planned for the Sunday Mass.
The choir prepared an impressive repertoire including choral works of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Marco Frisna and James Chepponis, as well as Gregorian chant and classic English hymnody. The weekend left an impression of the beauty of sacred music on all the attendants and many of those who were present for the Sunday Mass.
Owing to the success of this weekend, St. Mary Basilica looks forward to planning a second Choral Festival for the summer of 2023 which will be open for registration for other interested choirs and musicians. The program will include a similar schedule of workshops and historic tours, but also time for informative conferences on the Catholic vision of sacred music. It is hoped that this festival will become a recognized source of musical formation in the Southern United States, and an opportunity for networking among Catholic musicians. Information on next Summer’s conference is forthcoming toward the end of 2022.