Working in harmony
BY TONI CASHNELLI
At the 10 o’clock Mass at St. Anthony Shrine cantor Br. Gabriel Balassone makes an uncharacteristic flub.
Nearby, pianist Susan Quirk covers the gaffe so skillfully that no one is the wiser.
"They have to have a good ear and be ready for anything that happens," Gabe says later, describing what good accompanists do all the time.
In this case, it’s more like telepathy. He and Susan have worked together so often for so long, they can finish each other’s sentences. According to Susan they are so in sync, "I pretty much know what he’s gonna say before he says it."
It’s a partnership that listeners at province gatherings probably take for granted. Susan, who chooses the music and puts the choir through its paces, amplifies and enhances the Sunday liturgy at St. Anthony and often subs for music directors elsewhere. A piano student since the first grade, she was a double major – organ and piano – at Mount St. Joseph and Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music. In 1983, "I was teaching music and religion at Mother of Mercy and playing at Mass at Little Flower. My husband Bob and I were looking for Sunday worship. We started coming to the 10 o’clock Mass" at St. Anthony Shrine. "The woman playing the piano was going to leave," so Susan offered to step in. She’s been there ever since.
Gabe, a choir member from his days at South Junior High School in Niagara Falls, N.Y., studied music at State University in Fredonia, N.Y., and Wayne State in Detroit. His official music ministry dates back to 1970s Duns Scotus, where he was also a faculty member and the librarian. One summer at Meadow Brook Amphitheatre he sang the part of the King of Egypt in a concert version of Aida, alongside performers from the Metropolitan Opera.
Susan heard Gabe sing in 1997 when he moved to St. Anthony Friary to be librarian, music minister, guest master and porter. She was floored when that booming bass came out of his slender, 5-foot-10 frame. "He’s the best I have ever heard. That’s all I can say."
As often as he performs liturgical music, it never gets old. "I never experience, ‘Here we go again,’" Gabe says. "I never approach it as boring. It’s hard to describe" the feeling when one sings. "I don’t get goosebumps."
On behalf of audiences, Susan adds, "But we do."
Asked when he knew he had vocal ability, Gabe twirls the cord of his habit and changes the subject. "I don’t hear myself like other people do," he says. "It’s not about how I sound. It’s the fact that it’s a prayerful experience."
But he is effusive when it comes to Susan. "She’s very patient, easy to like. She’s a fine musician all the way around. In accompanying people, she’s not overpowering; she follows beautifully. When an emergency net has to be thrown, she’s there."
Between weekly Masses, friar funerals and other province events, they have likely collaborated 1,000 times. Asked to sing at functions, Gabe always asks, "Who’s playing?" He elaborates. "Any singer wants to know. There are accompanists, and there are accompanists."
Gracious and accommodating, "He is amazing to work with," Susan says. "His being here has changed my life. We’re like-minded about what we do. I have somebody who understands what we’re about. We both have prayer as an important part of our focus. However we can call people to pray, our medium is music."
A lot of prayers were evoked six years ago when Susan was diagnosed with cancer. In the midst of chemotherapy, "I was playing one Sunday during the Preparation of Gifts [at the Shrine] and my blood sugar crashed." She fell backwards, taking the piano bench with her. While Guardian Gene Mayer called 911, Gabe took charge, stepping up in the best tradition of, "The Mass must go on." Throughout her recovery and a later recurrence of cancer – both bouts successfully treated – "He was like a rock for me. He is deeply spiritual, a very holy man, the best musician I know."
She does, however, have a bone to pick with him. "Things are never written for basses," Gabe explains. "They’re always written for tenors. I always ask for a lower key." As a result, Susan must often transpose, moving the notes into Gabe’s vocal ballpark. He jokes, "She loves it when I ask, ‘Can you put this in a lower key?’"
She counters, "I always say I want him to sing at my funeral – in the keys that are written."
In the video below Br. Gabriel sings "Jesus the Lord" by Roc O'Connor, SJ, at the St. Anthony Shrine in Cincinnati. Piano accompaniment by Susan Quirk.
(c) 1981, Robert F. O'Connor, S.J. And OCP, 5536 NE Hassalo, Portland, OR 97213. All rights reserved. Used with permission.