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A Joyful Noise

Martin Baker
Martin Baker

"He is fiery, dynamic and above all, a 'live' player," enthused The Independent of London. The writer wasn't describing Zinedine Zidane, but Martin Baker, acclaimed liturgical organist and Master of Music at London's Westminster Cathedral. This month, Baker will be leading the Westminster Cathedral Choir in a special concert at the Cathedral of St. Paul.

London - "We're part of the English choral tradition that has its roots in the Anglican Church," Martin Baker says, adding, "although it was Roman Catholic before the Reformation."

It's an important distinction. Baker was once appointed to Westminster Abbey, an Anglican church that is well-known to London tourists. Westminster Cathedral is Roman Catholic and located a short distance southwest of the Abbey. The Westminster Cathedral Choir is the only professional Catholic choir to sing daily mass and vespers, a tradition the choir has upheld since it was founded in 1903.

"Our sound and repertoire are quite unique to us," Baker says. "It's a more continental sound, with Italian vowels. It is an openly expressive sound, compared to an Anglican choir."

Baker says this sound and repertoire work well in the context in which the choir sings, given the unique characteristics of the Cathedral. The choir's formation is also different from that of the Abbey choir. The Westminster Cathedral Choir sings in the east end of the Cathedral, in the apse, above the high altar. At Westminster Abbey, the choristers face each other, "like armies waiting for battle."

The characteristic sound of the Westminster Cathedral Choir also stems from the fact that it is composed of both men's and boys' voices. The 10 men in the group are professional singers, and the boys, ranging in age from 10 to 13, attend the Choir School, which is physically attached to Westminster Cathedral.

The Choir School auditions boys at age six or seven. Boys who are selected for the choir spend five years at the school. Some people think of the school as just a music academy, but it is a normal school with an enrollment of about 130 boys spread across five grade levels. Given the rigors of the choir schedule, however, the 30 choristers actually live at the school. "It's a very full day," Baker says. "The schedule doesn't suit everybody, but some boys thrive on it. It's not trendy today, but children tend to like a schedule. We think we're offering them something of lasting quality, to set them up well for the future."

The school gives the choristers the opportunity to tour, and the choir's North American travels include performances in Atlanta, Washington, D.C., New York, St. Paul, St. Louis and Kansas City.

"The boys love traveling to America," Baker says. "It's an experience most of them would never have got until they were much older."

While the boys have expectations related to their performances, the tours give them opportunities to make new friends and experience cultural differences. "We're made very welcome by our American hosts," Baker says. "The boys love going to McDonalds, to baseball games, to the local bowling alley."

And on October 19, they will captivate audiences at the St. Paul Cathedral with a performance that includes music of the ages as well as the premiere of a work by local composer David Evan Thomas. "I hope audiences will be inspired and entertained," Baker says. "But more than just entertained for the evening, I hope we can convey something of the particular tradition of spirituality we have at Westminster Cathedral."

Audience members need not be Catholic-or even religious-to appreciate the performance. "The only audience who would struggle are people who don't like music," Baker laughs, "and they won't be there anyway!"

The Westminster Cathedral Choir Thursday, October 19, 8:00 p.m. The Cathedral of St. Paul.

(This article also appeared in the October 2006 "Plugged In" section of Minnesota Monthly.)