Sacred Sounds, Old and Newby Gerald Renner - Hartford, CT Courant Religion Writer
Move over, you monks in Spain who surprised the world with an international best-selling album of Gregorian chant.
The Congregation of the Passion, a Roman Catholic religious order, has high hopes of hitting the charts this Fall with its recording of Advent and Christmas music.
Sixty-four people from all over the country, including priests, nuns and lay people, have recently spent a week at Holy Family Monastery and Retreat Center in West Hartford making the album.
They worked 10 to 12 hours a day, Sunday through Friday, rehearsing and recording choral music that is traditional and contemporary, from sixth century Gregorian plain song to 20th century rock.
The album, titled "Every Knee Shall Bend," is the community's second collection of sacred music. The first, "Love Casts Out Fear," was issued two years ago and sold 8,000 cassettes and 4,000 compact discs. With that experience to build on, they have higher hopes this time.
The productions are under the musical direction of Fr David Cinquegrani, 35, a member of the order. He composed and arranged much of the music along with Alex Belair, a musician from Avon.
Cinquegrani, who has a master's degree in sacred music, used to teach at St. Joseph College in West Hartford until he left to study for the priesthood in 1990. He was ordained last year.
In 1992 the Idea
The idea for the album was suggested at a national "chapter," or meeting, of the order in 1992, and Cinquegrani jumped on it.
The Passionists, who have a rich monastic tradition of chanting their prayers each morning and evening, are well-trained in Gregorian chant.
"This is a natural," Cinquegrani said recently during a break in rehearsal in the retreat center's roomy chapel.
The Rev. Terence Kristofak, the retreat director, said, "This is evangelization for us. I have visions of people in their cars after work putting this in their cassette players to calm down."
And for young people, Kristofak said, "Music is their prayer."
The choir is made up mostly of men, including 22 priests, although there are four women soloists. They are backed by musicians playing an array of instruments as needed, including an electronic keyboard, a flute, a trumpet, a violin, hand bells, cymbals and drums.
One priest is not a Passionist Father but a diocesan priest from Memphis, Tenn., Cinquegrani's brother, Bruce. His dulcet bass voice, not family connections, got him the job, his friends insist jokingly.
At rehearsal one day that week in the chapel, in the suffused light of stained-glass windows and below a colorful wall-to-wall mural of the Last Supper and the Crucifixion, Cinquegrani mounted a platform to direct his casually dressed perfomers.
At one point, when he wasn't satisfied with their rendition of the word "gloria," he had them try it again. And yet again. Finally, they seemed to have gotten it but, suspicious, Cinquegrani told them to mark their copy in some way to make sure they wouldn't forget the next time.
His attention to detail is why his colleagues describe him as a "gentle perfectionist." They like the way he gets the best from his singers and musicians, many of whom he personally recruited.
They all volunteered, many after Cinquegrani heard them singing on retreat and asked them to participate. The retreats draw about 8,000 people a year. The Passionists say Holy Family is the second largest Catholic overnight retreat center in the country, second only to one in Malvern, Pa.
David Bowen, a captain with the Meriden Fire Department, was among those who sang for the first album after Cinquegrani heard him on a retreat. He didn't have to be asked twice to return for the new recording. Bowen, like many in the choir, took a week's vacation from his job so he could participate.
A Week's Vacation
"Some people question taking a week's vacation to do this, but I couldn't think of anything else I'd rather be doing," said Andrew Niedzielski of Wethersfield. An actuary by profession, Niedzielski is part of a folk group that sings at Mass at St. Mark's Catholic Church in West Hartford.
Richard Szulczewski of Plainville, a music teacher in the Cheshire public schools, said a spirit of community developed among the singers during the week.
Sometimes when they get a song just right, Niedzielski said, "It affects us. We're practically in tears. It's so touching."
Sister Joanne Nicgorski, a Franciscan nun who teaches music at Loyola University in Chicago and one of the four women soloists, said she was thrilled with Cinquegrani's arrangements. He was one of her students at Loyola.
"You will hear 'Silent Night,' but you have never heard it sung this way. You will recognize it but it will be unique," Nicgorski said.
Cinquegrani hand-picked Nicgorski and the three other women soloists: Julie Hill of Scranton, Pa., who has known Cinquegrani since she was his 10-year-old music student; Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister Patricia Scalese of Scranton, who knew Cinquegrani when he taught there; and Giselle Molloy of Middletown, who has sung with Cinquegrani on various occasions.
Proceeds from the album will be used to support retired Passionist priests, said retreat director Kristofak. As in most religious orders, the members are aging and few young men are electing the priesthood. Last year, Kristofak said, 14 Passionist priests died and only one new priest was ordained.
"We probably couldn't do this on our own as Passionists," Cinquegrani said. Collaboration between priests, nuns and lay people "is sort a metaphor for the church these days. We do it together and we are rich because of that.
(Reprinted with permission from "The Hartford Courant". )top of page
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