By Martha Holmen
“Lord, I cry to thee, give ear to my voice when I pray thee.” So begins – in Finnish – Gate of Heaven, the recently released CD from the choir of St. James Cathedral, Toronto, its first recording in more than two decades.
Featuring 19 choristers, all of whom sing at the 11 a.m. Eucharist and 4:30 p.m. Choral Evensong every Sunday, the album takes listeners on a journey through the church year. It begins with Advent and touches on Christmas, Epiphany, the Transfiguration, Lent, Holy Week, Easter and Remembrance Day, with choral pieces ranging from 16th-century Belgium through to 21st-century Canada. It also includes the premiere recordings of several works.
Recording a CD has been one of Robert Busiakiewicz’s goals since starting as the cathedral’s director of music in 2015. “It was quite clear that the amount of talent in Toronto is enormous. It rivals any of the great cities in the world in terms of musical talent, not least in church music,” he says. “I thought we should not only say that Toronto is filled with brilliant music, but we should prove it.”
With the financial support of a generous parishioner, the music department started putting the pieces in place to make it happen, a process that took several years. The nature of the singers’ contracts was changed to create a stable group that would be available for four consecutive weeks to make the recording, and Mr. Busiakiewicz found a technician and a producer.
Choosing a venue proved to be particularly challenging. “Although there’s lots of brilliant churches in Toronto, most of the greatest churches are on main roads,” he says. The noise from honking horns, a passing streetcar or a subway running beneath the building can easily ruin a recording. “You’re looking for a quiet church with a good acoustic with a decent organ, which is actually a pretty tall order.” Eventually, he and Ian Sadler, the cathedral’s organist at the time, settled on the chapel at Royal St. George’s College.
With the logistics taken care of, Mr. Busiakiewicz turned his attention to choosing pieces that would represent the breadth of music heard at the cathedral every Sunday, a diverse repertoire from across centuries, continents and traditions. “I hope that when people come to St. James, they get quite a lot of things that they recognize, but they’re also challenged musically and challenged in terms of their aesthetic, challenged to think about the gospel in a different way,” he says. “What does Pentecost really sound like, the rushing wind and the fire? What does ‘Holy, holy, holy’ really sound like when the cherubim and seraphim sing that? It’s perhaps not the most sweet sound; it might be something a bit more in your face.”
Both with Gate of Heaven and Sunday by Sunday, Mr. Busiakiewicz is passionate about sharing church music with a broad audience. “There’s a perception about church music that it’s boring and dusty,” he says. “I think church music can do everything to all people. It doesn’t matter what you need, if it’s mystery or bombast or lament or feeling joyful – whatever it is you need to feel or represent, I believe that choral music can do it better than many other forms.”
He also believes choral music can provide a way for people of no faith or different faiths to start exploring Christianity. “I think Evensong is the perfect way to start the conversation, to say, look, there’s something about life that is beautiful, that is challenging, that is deeper than my nine-to-five job or my time at the gym.”
Mr. Busiakiewicz encourages listeners to approach Gate of Heaven with a curious mind, following along with the text and reading the liner notes that provide background about the composers and their works. “Listening is a weird thing in today’s society. We have music that’s played in elevators, that’s in the background. It’s very rare that we listen to music intentionally,” he says. “With this music, I think it does require something of you as a listener.”
Copies of Gate of Heaven are available for purchase at the Cathedral Centre or online, or digitally through the iTunes store, YouTube or Spotify. For more details, visit stjamescathedral.ca/gate-of-heaven.