Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Brilliant Usus Antiquior of Windsor, Ontario

Wassim Sarweh plays and conducts from the loft.

Wassim Sarweh must be one of the most underrated and yet brilliantly innovative organists and choirmasters in the English-speaking world. I say that because I just heard him play and his choir sing at the Church of the Assumption Latin Mass in Windsor, Ontario.

If you have not been, it is worth a trip. It will redefine your understanding of the aesthetic potential of the Usus Antiquior. It is also a wonderful experience to join this community of happy and liturgically enlightened Catholics in this beautiful parish.

Many people, and without broad evidence or experience, imagine that the older form of Mass to be chock full of filiopietistic gestures, sights, and sounds, perhaps broadcasting a message along the lines of: “away with the modern world and its corruptions and up with the simple clarity of days gone by.” They therefore look down on those who would seize on permission to use the 1962 Missal in an attempt to put liturgical expression of a romanticized view of the past. In this way, many of the strongest objections to the extraordinary form end up being cultural rather than doctrinal.

I wish all these people could attend the 2:00pm Mass at Assumption. Wassim's singers are all first rate, and his approach to playing the organ was like nothing I've heard before in this context. Forget nostalgia and dated sentimentalism, this is something completed different. The celebrant's voice is clear and his Latin diction is perfect. The singing is as precise as it is effervescent. If you attend on the right day, you can even hear the Gradual chant sung in harmonized organum with middle eastern musical accents.

I'm no fan of accompanied chant, but Wassim took an approach that was enough to make me a new believer at least as regards the people's chants. He didn't use organ on the Mass propers -- all sung from the Graduale Romanum - but rather on the ordinary of the Mass and the credo in particular, since the rest of the Mass ordinary was sung according to a setting by Orlando di Lasso.

When I first saw Credo III listed, my thought was: too bad that this parish uses this too familiar setting as a fallback. Accompaniment surely can't help. I was completely wrong. Wassim took off following the celebrant's intonation. The speed was vigorous and the text very clear. The harmonies he chose provided a new tonal template for the piece. There unusual modal shifts. There were dramatic volume changes and interesting articulations that heavily informed the singing. There was real word painting going on. The drama ebbed and flowed throughout. As we approached the end, the intensity grew and grew, and my heart began to race with delight. As we finished, I was left with a wild feeling of exuberance, and I wanted to look around and shout: don't we all share a fantastic faith?! I know it sounds silly but music is capable of inspiring such feelings. I never imagined that Credo III could do that.

I asked Wassim where he found such an amazing version. I should have known: he wrote it himself. It is not published. It should be. It should also be on youtube. It would be a revelation for many.

Wassim has an interesting life and history. He immigrated from Syria as a young man, and he fell in love with music, studying it formally for a good part of his life. He is a wonderful singer with a bright tenor voice that is capable of singing most alto parts it full voice, which he uses to read any chant in the Gradual right there on the spot. His organ playing is not romantic (there is no "19th century" in any aspect of this liturgical event) but edgy in medieval sort of way. It is confident and vigorous.

Wassim and Arlene Oost-Zinner
He has a rare combination of talents: organist, cantor, choral director, liturgical expert. It was obvious too that he is an inspiring leader of people as well - a skill that is just a crucial in this context as any other. Incredibly, he is not actually a full-time musician but rather a banker - a decision that is probably influenced by economic factors more than anything else. We can all hope and pray for a time when a person like this can afford to pursue his avocation as his full-time profession.

I'm equally impressed by the support community that has done so much to make this a wonderful place. The pastor is Fr. Peter Hrytsyk and he is clearly the driving force. But the community is otherwise packed with talent. You know the giant book of sung readings for the extraordinary form? It originated right here with the work of Mr. Michel Ozorak, who is a parishioner at the parish (and a sweet and humble man).

It was a great privilege for me and for Arlene Oost-Zinner to sing with the choir on the Sunday when we happened to be there following a parish workshop in Lansing, Michigan. I can't imagine what it would be like to have access to such a glorious liturgical event week after week. If you live anywhere near this parish, it is worth a drive just to see what is possible. More than any "old Mass" I've attended, this convinced me that this really could be the Mass of the future.

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