Music, in all its splendor, elevates the soul and casts a glimpse of the divine; and indeed, anybody who has heard the choir at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception perform during Sunday Mass would likely attest to this truth.
For those who are not regular attendees of the Cathedral, this Christmas season affords an opportunity to come and enjoy the tremendous talent of the Cathedral choir whilst delving deeper into the mystery and wonder of the Nativity. On Sunday, Dec. 12, at 3 p.m., the Cathedral’s annual Lessons and Carols returns after a brief hiatus last year due to the pandemic.
All are invited to attend this free Christmas concert, and attendees will almost certainly leave with a newfound appreciation for both sacred music and the musicians who perform it. A teaser of what to expect is available to view below, and the Cathedral Basilica’s YouTube channel features video recordings of previous performances from the cathedral choir.
At the Cathedral Basilica, much of the success of the music ministry there is owed to Director of Sacred Music Phil Bordeleau, who enters his fourth season at the Cathedral this year. Bordeleau is a seasoned musician and conductor who previously worked for Cathedrals in Little Rock, Ark. and Fort Worth, Texas.
With over 20 years of experience, Bordeleau’s approach to sacred music and conducting the Cathedral choir is rather straightforward: to make sure everything they do is a success.
“The nice thing about cathedrals is they always have what they need, to get what they want,” Bordeleau told the Denver Catholic. “We have beautiful acoustics. We have a magnificent pipe organ. We have the funding to have good music staff. So my job is merely to discern what we’re really good at and then choose music, whether it be simple music or terribly complex music, that we can achieve and the ability to know how long it’s going to take to get each one of these things achieved.”
This process involves much more work than one might think and goes far beyond simply singing hymns out of a hymnal. The choir will convene to practice for two hours every week, and Bordeleau must ensure that each practice is as efficient as possible so they are properly prepared to sing at Sunday Mass.
“I run a very tight ship in terms of everything is known all the way through,” he said. “I want every singer to know every note so that it’s seamless.” Furthermore, because of the cathedral’s reputation, “we tend to get singers that are self-selecting to be part of [the choir],” Bordeleau said. “It’s not for everybody. It’s demanding.” Bordeleau said that more than half of the choir singers are volunteers, while the remaining singers are on-staff at the cathedral, most of whom have a master’s degree in voice.
As the mother church of the Archdiocese of Denver, the cathedral is necessarily set apart from the other parishes of the archdiocese in a very particular way. From a musical standpoint, this means that the cathedral’s liturgical music should feel elevated and even more transcendent than that which would be heard at any other parish. As such, when attending Mass at the cathedral, one will hear a variety of different music types, including Gregorian Chant, traditional hymns, polyphony, classical and choral music.
Of course, the cathedral is also home to a glorious pipe organ, which, aside from voice, is the centerpiece any liturgical music performed there. The reason for this is not only liturgical, as the pipe organ is the Church’s preferred accompanying instrument, but also practical and historical.
“The fact that we have a pipe organ suggests a certain kind of music that we’re going to hear in a room as large as the cathedral, and with as much echo as the cathedral, it precludes certain styles of music that work better in rooms that are either smaller, have more amplification or have more control over the speakers so that people are having it fed right close to their ear,” Bordeleau said. “We don’t have that environment. We want natural sound to be what typically is being heard, and thus we look back to the historic models. What was the sound that would be evocative of a cathedral space? Environment is one of the largest factors on what kind of music is going to be a success in this space.
“One of the other things that makes the cathedral unique is that we tend to sing the what we call the propers: the intro antiphons, the Communion antiphons,” Bordeleau explained. “I always look historically at what would be the reference texts that any of these things are drawn from? So it’s not just singing hymns out of the standard hymnal, it’s the texts that the Church has given to us as the primary choice when starting the Mass, as the primary choice for communion.”
Each Sunday at the 10:30 a.m. Mass, the cathedral choir blesses the congregation with their incredible talent and supports the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass to make it even more of what God intended it to be: a glimpse of heaven. And during the Dec. 12 Lessons and Carols concert, the cathedral choir will showcase their talents against the backdrop of the holiday season to bring some much-needed Christmas cheer to those whose ears will listen. No matter the occasion during which one experiences the cathedral choir, Bordeleau insists that their mission remains the same.
“Music should reach the worshipper wherever they are and elevate them. And that’s the primary job, I think, of music to be just music. When the Church decided to set all of this important text to music, it knew what it was doing,” Bordeleau concluded. “The music here at the cathedral for many people is of a style that they have never experienced before, and I think that certainly speaks to the fact that it needs to be heard. Not everybody is in a position to produce it, but I think everybody is in a position to go hear it. Nothing changes your life more than hearing music that affects you.”
Lessons and Carols at the Cathedral Basilica
Sunday, Dec. 12
More info: denvercathedral.org/concerts