Despite our long, dark nights in the Pacific Northwest near the winter solstice, our evenings are lightened by an abundance of diverse arts and cultural events—festivals, concerts, theater, and more. This time of year, I’m particularly drawn to European music from the Middle Ages and earlier. Did you know that Seattle has an outstanding medieval choir and a beautiful old cathedral where you can hear them perform?
As a college student in Paris, I fell in love with chamber music concerts at Église Saint Severin, a Gothic church in the Latin Quarter with amazing acoustics. In Seattle, St. James Cathedral on First Hill comes close to replicating that experience, although its architectural style is Renaissance rather than Gothic.
While I de-stress by listening to the Compline service chants on Sunday evenings (broadcast live on KING-FM from St. Mark’s Cathedral), at least once a year I go to St. James Cathedral to hear the resident Medieval Women’s Choir perform. Last weekend I went to their annual holiday concert.
Although it’s a rainy, messy night, inside the cathedral is glowing warm and light. We get there plenty early since we didn’t reserve seats in advance, which leaves us time to wander around and snap photos of the beautiful interior.
Years ago St. James had a central dome, but it collapsed during a snowstorm in 1916. In 1994 the cathedral was renovated to today’s layout.
Before the concert, Bill McJohn tunes one of his two medieval harps. Several musical instruments accompany the choir, which adds a layer of authenticity and complexity to the chorale music. But it’s still a stripped-down sound compared to an orchestra. I prefer this style of music, which makes me feel connected to an earlier, simpler time. (Although I gotta admit, I do like modern plumbing, dentistry, and central heating.)
Tonight’s program features medieval French music from Notre Dame de Paris, a few traditional French tunes, and instrumental interludes composed by the choir’s Artistic Director Magriet Tindemans (shown here with her medieval fiddle during intermission.)
No sound system or amplifiers are needed in St. James due to the fabulous acoustics. The blended voices and instruments fill the space and reverberate through the cathedral, enveloping us in medieval French harmonies that take me back to Paris and, perhaps, the 12th and 13th centuries.
Which, after all, was the intent of this early music.
When You Go
Although the Medieval Women’s holiday concert has come and gone this year, their next concert at St. James is in February 2011. You can still catch an evening of holiday carols and candles with the St. James Children’s Choir (12/19/2010) as well as the annual New Year’s Eve concert (Mozart this year). St. Mark’s Cathedral on north Capitol Hill also has ongoing concerts, but a Seattle favorite is the regular Sunday evenings Compline chants at 9:30 p.m. Here's a map to St. James.