Monday, November 18, 2013

Catholics, Gays, Russians and Rachmaninoff

My mother was a devout Catholic until a priest told her she must exercise self control rather than birth control, and she told him to go to hell. This was in the early 1960s after doctors had explained she would probably not survive another Caesarian section, which is how she had given birth to her four children. After leaving the Holy Roman Church, she still yearned for the spiritual, so as a family we tried out one congregation after another, starting with Presbyterians and ending with Episcopalians. What I remember most strongly from those early churchgoing experiences was the seemingly endless, excruciating boredom, reinforced by a precocious skepticism that had me mentally filing Jesus stories in the same fantastical category of adult lies as Santa and the Tooth Fairy.

Last Friday evening, I went to St. Ignatius Church, the formidable, 99-year-old Jesuit stronghold high on the hill on Fulton Street. The visit was for a concert by the San Francisco Choral Society and the Golden Gate Men's Chorus, and unfortunately the experience brought back the painful ennui and discomfort of churchgoing like some poisonous childhood madeleine.

The toxic denunciations of gay marriage by current San Francisco Archbishop Archbishop Salvatore Joseph Cordileone were also an insistent background during the concert, partly because the Golden Gate Men's Chorus above started as an elite offshoot of the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus in 1982. The latter group have long struck me as musically ghastly, so the professional quality of the Golden Gate ensemble under conductor Joseph Piazza was a wonderful surprise. Still, it was strange listening to the men perform liturgical music at an institution that officially disapproves of them. The group sang a Gregorian Chant, Randall Thompson's Alleluia, a lugubrious hymn by Nickolai Golvanov, and best of all, a minimalist tinged Hosanna by Dan Forrest, who was most recently the Department Head of Music for Bob Jones University in South Carolina. This was the Protestant educational institution that banned interracial dating until the year 2000, and whose leader, Bob Jones, Jr., was quoted saying: "Catholicism is not another Christian denomination. It is a satanic counterfeit, an ecclesiastic tyranny over the souls of men....It is the old harlot of the book of the Revelation, 'the Mother of Harlots.' All popes are demon possessed."

The major work on Friday's program was Rachmaninoff's 90-minute All-Night Vigil from 1915, sung a capella by the combined forces of the Golden Gate Men's Chorus and the San Francisco Choral Society, conducted by Music Director Robert Geary. The singing was lovely but unexpectedly bland, with the chewy, slurring consonants of the Church Slavonic text missing for the most part. A major exception was the Russian tenor soloist Kirill Duschechkin whose voice was thrilling and idiosyncratic, making one wish the evening had been designed as an operatic showcase for him. The dreary succession of Slavonic hymns also set me to wondering about the Russian Orthodox Church, which was cruelly repressed during the Soviet Twentieth Century. They now seem to be doing their 21st Century best to get back into the gay and lesbian repression game themselves, in concert with Russian right-wing politicians.

After my mother's death, my sisters came across the surprising news that her final spiritual group had been a small collection of ex-Catholics who worshiped together at a meeting room in a gay community center in San Luis Obispo, California. My mother didn't particularly enjoy having a gay son because she desired grandchildren above all, so the irony of her being part of a renegade Catholic group at a gay center at the end of her life seemed perfect somehow.

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Catholic Songs