•Last Sunday, on an afternoon when the sun’s appearance defied the past few days of torrential rain, the WPI Festival Choir joined hundreds of other singers in the annual performance of Paul Winter’s Missa Gaia, or Earth Mass, at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.
Tomorrow, Oct. 10, at 4 p.m. at First Baptist Church, they will share that experience, performing the piece for the Worcester community for the 15th year. Alumni singers, other singers from WPI, community choruses, and both student and alumni instrumentalists will be part of the concert.
“We have invited anyone who has sung with us in the past 15 years [to participate],” says John Delorey, director of choral music at WPI, who initiated the connection between WPI singers and Missa Gaia in 2001.
Written in 1980, the Earth Mass reflects Paul Winter’s belief in “integrating world music with songs from the wild to celebrate the whole earth as a sacred space,” notes the Grammy-winning saxophonist’s website.
The piece incorporates the recordings of the voices of birds, marine life, and animals, blending with instrumentation and vocals and accompanied by dancers.
Missa Gaia premiered in 1981 at the Cathedral as part of the Feast of St. Francis and the Blessing of the Animals. It involves 500 voices as well as the Paul Winter Consort. The tradition now continues annually on the first weekend in October, with the musical service followed by the Procession of the Animals and an outdoor fair.
Delorey has been involved virtually from the beginning. A senior at Vassar in 1981, he was invited by his art history professor to visit the Cathedral, where people in the neighborhood had just completed repairs on one of the towers. They stayed to hear the performance.
“I was smitten,” he says of his reaction to the piece. He also recognized one of the conductors, realizing that he had sung with him as a child in the Berkshire Boys Choir. He returned the following year to participate himself.
Several years later, when he was directing a community choir in Worcester, he brought his group down to participate.
By the time he came to WPI in 2001, Delorey had been to New York six times to take part in the performance at the Cathedral, and it made sense to involve his new students.
He took 60 of them to the city for the first time that fall, a month after 9/11.
In addition, he began to perform the piece with them in Worcester.
To do so, he first had to write a score, reconstructing chords, words, and melodies for what had only been choral directions on pieces of paper. He now owns the rights to the score.
“It took me an entire summer,” Delorey says. “It was a really fun experience for me as a musician.”
WPI was the first venue where the piece was performed without Paul Winter.
Since then, the music program has grown exponentially, and the number of students traveling to New York has doubled, to 125.
It is, Delorey believes, a magnificent experience for them.
“[The piece] has real karma,” he says. “It’s jazz but West Coast jazz. There is African percussion, dancing. It’s a big party for a church service. It’s a great thing for the kids to do.”
Delorey believes that this year’s, the 35th, was the best performance ever.
“It was phenomenal,” he says. “There were 6,000 people, 2,000 cats and dogs. It had been raining all weekend, but we came out of the cathedral and there was glorious sunshine.”
The “huge spectacle” that is the New York experience will be “a little more playful, more intimate” in Worcester this weekend, he says.
Though he usually hires professional soloists, this year Delorey is using 12 students instead. In addition, Zachary Chadwick ’05 will solo on the soprano saxophone and James Haupt ’05 on the piano.
“It’s a very fun piece,” he says, “and very easy listening.”
Tickets are $10 general admission, $5 for students and seniors, and free with a WPI ID.