Wake the world with song

Concert is a celebration of religious life


On a dreary Sunday when most of us would rather be napping, about 80 people are gathered at St. Clement Church for a choir rehearsal.

Pastor Fred Link, the man behind the music stand in front of them, knows they could have easily skipped this practice. "This is a tremendous turnout," he says. "I thank you for your faithfulness." In order to be here, "I realize you are sacrificing the Bengals" in the midst of a winning season.

Everyone knows this time is precious. In six weeks, the group will perform at St. Peter in Chains Cathedral. Today, they are learning to blend their voices. And who better to lead them than Fr. Fred, the friar who made Bishop Luers High School a magnet for choir competition during his days as band and choral director in the 1970s.

It’s the second full rehearsal for "Wake Up the World!" a concert to celebrate the Year of Consecrated Life. More than 120 members of 16 religious communities in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati – including 21 friars – have donated their time and talent to the event, named for the apostolic letter in which Pope Francis sought to affirm and energize men and women in religious life.

Most of the year’s other activities – prayer services, seminars, open houses – are educational, informative. This hour-long concert is meant to inspire, to stir the soul, to communicate the joy of devoting one’s life to the Lord.

It’s Fred’s job to pull this together. And he’s loving every minute of it.

Getting started

He surveys his choir, spread out over 14 rows, and asks, "Who here can stand for the hour concert?" With so many gray heads in the group, it’s a fair question. Fortunately, raised hands are in the majority. For even spry retirees like Fr. Warren Zeisler, 91, standing and singing for this long might be difficult. Somehow this logistical challenge will be resolved before the choir assembles at the Cathedral on Jan. 17.

Right now it’s time to warm up. "Let’s start with Salve Regina," Fred says. Singers raise black binders to focus on the Gregorian chant, one of 14 pieces in a program that includes both traditional and contemporary works. "Eyes up here," Fred instructs. "You don’t need words for that."

Directing expansively and mouthing the words, he jabs a finger to emphasize a note or a phrase and pauses for minor corrections. "Make it your purpose to hear each other. If you can’t hear each other, you’re likely singing too loud." Moving on to Panis Angelicus he starts, stops, and smiles at the men. "Basses, did you get that G-sharp?" and without skipping a beat, adds, "I didn’t think so."

He quickly reassures them: "It’s early yet."

Follow the leader

Although it is indeed early, the sound produced by the conglomerate choir is surprisingly sweet and full.

Pleased with what he hears, Fred works each section of singers through rough spots, pausing for an occasional vocal exercise such as, "Zah-zee-zah-zee-zah-zee-zah-zee, zah, zah, zah." He tweaks phrasing with humor: "Get rid of the ‘R’. It’s an awful consonant to sing. In country-western they get right to the R’s. This isn’t country-western."

The attentive singers and musicians, invested in doing a good job, take Fred’s direction seriously. "The attitude of these folks has been really, really outstanding," he says. For brothers, sisters and priests, it’s a chance to do something they love, something for themselves. To them, songs of praise and thanksgiving are more than notes on a line, words on a page.

When their director urges, "Open up your mouth; if you don’t open up your mouth, no sound will come out," they obligingly drop their jaws. Choir members know that singing is easy, but singing well takes effort.

"Let’s look at Sine Nomine ["For all the Saints…."]," Fred says. "On Verse Three there is a first soprano descant that is just glorious. Don’t sing if you can’t reach the high notes. Just keep mouthing the words. Let’s make this beautiful for all the saints."

Course corrections

Throughout the rehearsal, he is generous with his praise: "I can hear that soaring through the cathedral"; "You’re doing this with marvelous clarity." And supportive in critiques: "You have a lovely tone when you come in together"; "You compensated even though you got the words wrong"; "I know you’re gonna get it. You’re very close."

A highlight of this rehearsal is sure to be a highlight of the program. Wake the World with Dawning Joy is a rousing anthem composed by Steven C. Warner and commissioned for the Year of Consecrated Life by the editors of VISION Vocation Guide and the National Religious Vocation Conference.

"This is just a lovely piece of music," Fred says. "You know the text of this is based on the Holy Father’s Apostolic Letter." After the choir delivers a stirring rendition, he says, "Thank you," and predicts, "Not a dry eye in the house" when it is performed.

Even for a group this dedicated, two hours is a lot to ask. Sensing they are weary, Fred reminds them about the next full rehearsal on Sunday, Dec. 20. "I know it’s a tremendously busy time. For those of you who can make it, it’s important that we meet. I know you want this to be as perfect as it can be."

Later he admits, "I’ve enjoyed myself because I see them enjoying themselves. Maybe we could come back for the 150th anniversary of something-or-other.

"I hate to see this choir end."

The response was ‘awesome’

"This is considerably different than working with high school kids," Fr. Fred Link says of preparing more than 120 women and men religious for "Wake Up the World! A Concert Celebrating the Year of Consecrated Life."

To organize the program, veteran choir director Fred met with 10 members of a committee organized by Sr. Marilyn Kerber, SNDdeN, Director of the Office of Religious for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. When they put out a call for singers and accompanists, "People were responding, and I thought it would be awesome to get to 100" participants, Fred says. "As it is, we’ve got almost 125 folks. Having heard them from my perspective, I think people are going to be inspired."

He found 20 of his own brothers willing to help. "I’m humbled by the turnout and energy of the friars," he says. Secretary Fr. Dan Anderson, part of a logistics committee, is writing a narrative for the program. Br. Gabriel Balassone was asked to sing Ave Maria. Br. Gene Mayer is coordinating refreshments.

The free concert is at 3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 17, at St. Peter in Chains Cathedral, 325 W. 8th St. in downtown Cincinnati. Attendees are invited to a reception in the undercroft, where local religious communities will be mounting exhibits.