Pews filled to overflowing: it’s a sight rarely seen in churches these days, including in the parishes of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City. But several parishes, blessed with churches with great acoustics, have been able to draw many visitors through partnerships with university and community choral groups and orchestras.
St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church
Since 2006, the combined Utah State University choirs have performed annually at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in Hyde Park and chamber choirs have recorded several award-winning, internationally recognized CDs there.
The relationship between the parish and university began when Dr. Cory Evans, director of choral activities at USU, reached out to the parish shortly after the church was built to inquire about performing there. He received a warm reception.
“This space is beautiful acoustically,” Evans said. “We can now sing the music that is meant to be performed in these sacred spaces. We are very careful and respectful of the venue and make sure we perform appropriate beautiful sacred music there.”
The university had more than 700 people attend their Winter Songs concert at the church on Nov. 29. The concerts make people aware of St. Thomas’s in the community, Evans said.
The acoustics of the building are not an accident: Architect Ray Bertoli and a liturgical consultant worked to make it happen.
Designing for good acoustics involves balancing between the need to hear people speak and the need to hear the music, Bertoli said.
While the acoustics of the church are considered superior, for many there is a more important benefit in performing there.
“You can’t walk in there without feeling the dignity and mystery of the place,” said Lynn Thomas, coordinator of USU’s department of music organ program. “That has an awful lot to do with the spirituality of the music our students experience in the space.”
St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church
There has been a long relationship between the Utah Valley University choirs and St. Francis of Assisi Parish, said Reed Criddle, director of the university’s choral program. Choirs from the university usually perform at St. Francis of Assisi in Orem two or three times a year, in addition to an annual concert.
“We love to perform there because the choir sounds so good,” he said. “They truly sound angelic and twice as big as they are. We think it is important for UVU students, their families and circles to experience different sacred spaces like St. Francis.”
When the church was constructed in 2012, great effort was put into ensuring the acoustics of the building were exceptional, Pastoral Coordinator Julie Boerio-Goates said.
Choirs from Brigham Young University also perform at the church.
“St. Francis is such a blessing to us,” said BYU Director of Choirs Rosalind Hall, adding that being able to perform at the church offers choir members, most of whom are not Catholic, the opportunity to perform sacred music in the space for which it was intended.
Cathedral of the Madeleine
The Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City is also a sought-after performance place for many groups. In addition to the cathedral’s own Madeleine Festival of the Arts & Humanities held every year, other groups like the Utah Chamber Artists, Salt Lake Children’s Choir, Lux Singers and American Festival Singers regularly perform there.
Hosting the different groups is an extension of the cathedral’s traditional role as a place where the community can meet, said Father Martin Diaz, the cathedral rector. The cathedral has an 8-second echo, making it a particularly powerful venue for the performance of sacred music, he said.
“The idea of a concert, by any group, where the audience’s minds and hearts are lifted up – that’s what we call prayer, that’s what we call a relationship with God,” Fr. Diaz said. “We do our job by helping people get closer to God. If they are filled up with music, if people are engaged and thoughtful, we’ve done our job.”
For parishioners and the Cathedral Choir, “the acoustic is the musical instrument of the singing congregation,” said Gregory Glenn, director of liturgy and music. “It is like the body of a great violin, the mechanics of a great brass instrument or the fine soundboard of an excellent piano. The acoustic celebrates, enhances and encourages the song of congregations gathered in our mother church.”
St. Ambrose Catholic Church
At St. Ambrose Parish in Salt Lake City, the acoustics of the church are “quite stunning,” Director of Liturgy and Music Christopher Huntzinger said.
“The liturgy speaks to all of our senses, one of which is sound,” he said. “It surrounds you and becomes part of your whole experience. In a live space like ours, which really helps to emphasize the sacred, it’s a very welcome experience. It’s like the heavenly choirs join with the angels.”
The church is so popular with community choral groups that the parish receives so many requests to serve as a venue they can’t fulfill them all, Huntzinger said. Among those groups are the Salt Lake Choral Artists and the Salt Lake Singers; both have regular concerts there which can draw hundreds of people at a sitting.
The Salt Lake Singers hold all their concerts at St. Ambrose Catholic Church. The group’s founder, Jane Fjelsted, said it’s not just the acoustics that draw them.
“As a non-Catholic, I walk into that sanctuary and there’s a sacred spirit there,” she said. “I feel like the sacredness of the venue lends itself to the sacredness of the music.”
Salt Lake Choral Artists Director Brady Allred said it has been a wonderful collaboration with St. Ambrose Parish over many years. With the changes made to the sanctuary during the recent renovation, “the acoustic is even more beautiful and resonant now and it has such a beautiful organ there that we love to do our Christmas concerts there,” he said.
Holy Family Catholic Church
When the current Holy Family Catholic Church was constructed in Ogden, then-pastor Fr. Patrick Elliott wanted a sacred space that had “fabulous acoustics,” said Dr. Myron Patterson, the parish’s organist and director of music. The quality of the acoustics are “a result of his determined effort and vision to create a sacred space as many of the churches in England have,” Patterson said.
The acoustics encourage parishioners to sing, which “makes such a difference in the vitality of the liturgical life of the parish,” he added.
Sotto Voce, an a capella quartet made up of former Madeline cathedral choir members, performs at the church twice a year. Sotto Voce member Brent Carter said Holy Family is “about the perfect size in terms of making it a great place to sing.”
The concerts allow the community to come and hear quality music, to be edified and to enjoy the church in a different setting other than religious meetings and gatherings, Patterson said. In addition to drawing the community in, having these groups perform at the church can be a blessing to Holy Family parishioners, he said.
“It gives them the opportunity of hearing music that can be uplifting, giving one the sense of a greater power over all of us,” he said. “We hope that the music brings some bit of spirituality to those who listen.”
Hosting the concerts “is an excellent way of reaching out to the community in evangelization without being heavy-handed about it,” he said.