On weekends, when the sun begins to set and the skies dim, voices and musical instruments are heard in South Florida’s churches and temples glorifying and worshiping the eternal God.
In elaborate musical presentations of professional orchestras and adult and children’s choirs brought together by a variety of Christian congregations, the public can contemplate God and pray with open hearts.
Renowned musical groups such as Seraphic Fire, The Bach Society and Miami Orchestra are featured in these concerts, along with well-established children’s choirs like the Miami Children’s Chorus, Florida’s Singing Sons Boychoir and the Girl Choir of South Florida. Most of the concerts are free or have a nominal price, and are offered as a cultural gift by the churches to rich and poor alike.
“People are discovering a wealth of musical expression,” said Donald Oglesby, artistic director and founder of the Miami Bach Society, an entity encompassing orchestras, choirs, vocal soloists and instrumental bands. “The churches wish to attract more people, and the artistic organizations seek to increase their audiences and serve the community better.”
The performances at the churches seek to strengthen the tradition of presenting concerts in the sanctuaries and praying through music at liturgical services using old and new melodies.
“Music has always been part of the church since the early times. Jewish scriptures speak of singing and playing instruments,” said Kenneth Willy, music director of St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Coral Gables. “We are now making it more accessible to more people. Anyone can come to church and listen to marvelous music.”
The compositions cover a range of musical genres. They resurrect creations from centuries or millennia ago: psalms and hymns, and include a universe of composers, from the anonymous ones at the dawn of Christianity to great composers like Mozart, Bach, Handel and Beethoven. The performances not only feature majestic organs and delicate violins, but also drums, guitars and maracas, combining classic and baroque compositions with modern elements.
The voices in the choirs range from sopranos, tenors and basses to the angelic expressions of children who, as St. Augustine said, exude the truth of the heart and prompt feelings of piety.
This Christmas season has been particularly active, with a broad offering of musical programs produced by the churches and concerts performed by community groups. The Bach Society presented Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio at the First United Methodist Church of Coral Gables. The work, which vividly expresses the exuberant joy and intimacy of Mary with the baby Jesus, has caressed thousands of hearts.
Seraphic Fire, nominated for two Grammys in 2012, performed The Messiah, the famous work by Georg Friedrich Handel, at St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in Boca Raton; All Saints Episcopal Church in Fort Lauderdale and at various temples in Miami. The Civic Chorale of Greater Miami continued the vocalist tradition of this concert at the Old Cutler Presbyterian Church in Palmetto Bay.
Last week, hundreds of parishioners of the Church of the Epiphany in Southwest Miami-Dade packed the sanctuary for the Catholic church’s Christmas Festival, where they celebrated the miracle of the incarnation with the music of Vivaldi, Handel, Schubert and Gounod, accompanied by a magnificent Italian pipe organ. The program featured the church choir performing with an orchestra of guest professional musicians.
Alicia Aixalá has been a member of Epiphany’s choir for more than two decades, and contributes to the concert series that has transformed Epiphany into a cultural center in Southwest Miami-Dade under the leadership of Monsignor Jude O’Doherty.
“You can also pray singing. I find peace,” said Aixalá, who eagerly awaits choir rehearsal every Thursday. The ministry of music in the church, she added, is committed to rescuing antique melodies written to accompany liturgical services and that today are heard primarily in concert halls.
“There is great power in music to express that which is most important in our lives,” said the Bach Society’s Oglesby, who is also a professor at the University of Miami’s Frost Music School.
“That is especially true during holidays. Author Victor Hugo said, ‘Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to remain silent.’ ”