In Interview: Notre Dame Folk Choir’s New Director, J.J. Wright

J.J. Wright began as director of the renowned Notre Dame Folk Choir this fall. He recently visited with Pray Tell about his work.

PTB: Congrats on your appointment. Big shoes to fill, following Steve Warner – are you excited, scared, energized, overwhelmed?
JJW: Definitely all of the above. They are big shoes to fill, but it’s also a huge honor to have the opportunity to try and fill them! The transition has, in a way, been extremely easy because of the presence of the Associate Director, Karen Kirner. Karen has been with the choir for 20 years, and in addition to being an incredible player, has been so generous in walking with me during this time of transition. I feel like the most important part of the job so far has been to observe the charism of the choir and to become a great student of the tradition that this group has built over the past 35+ years. In that spirit, I’ll do my best to answer the questions here, but I am still learning about all the interesting facets of the group!

PTB: Tell us about you. What background do you bring to this job?
JJW: Before I did my graduate work, my background was in jazz and classical piano. I always wanted to be able to contribute something to sacred music, but as a young jazz musician, I didn’t see the two paths intersecting. When I heard about the Sacred Music program at Notre Dame, I jumped at the opportunity to study Sacred Music in a formal way, and much to my surprise after I arrived, was encouraged to experiment with ways to thoughtfully meld the two traditions. I went on to finish my Master of Sacred Music and Doctor of Musical Arts in conducting at Notre Dame, and had the great privilege to research and write my dissertation and present my final doctoral concert in Rome while I studied at the Pontifical Institute for Sacred Music and interned with the Sistine Chapel Choir.

PTB: Let’s talk about the choir’s name. “Folk” sounds like Peter, Paul, and Mary, or maybe Ray Repp. But what do you folks mean by “Folk Choir”?
JJW: Well, the way Steve explained it to me is that “Folk” refers to “the people”. This choir was founded with the intention of realizing Vatican II’s ideals of full, conscious, and active participation through sacred music. A critical component of realizing these ideals is to empower congregations to take an active role in worship. The Folk Choir has done this historically by prioritizing music that the congregation can sing with during the liturgy.

PTB: Any conversations about changing the name? Or is the branding well-established and untouchable?
JJW: It’s complicated to think about changing the name when the choir has released eight CDs and an extremely robust publishing series through WLP!

PTB: Who sings in the choir?
JJW:
We have about 65 students in the choir. This year, the members are students from Notre Dame, St. Mary’s College, and Holy Cross College and are almost entirely undergraduates. In addition to our singers, we have a string quartet and a flautist. The students come with all different interests and we have a broad cross-section of majors including engineers, scientists, architects, and designers.

PTB: What’s the drill? How often do you practice, how often do you sing?
JJW: Our main role is to sing the weekly Sunday liturgy at 11:45am in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. We rehearse Tuesday and Thursday nights for an hour and a half each, and Sunday morning before the Mass. In addition, we do several other events throughout the year including a Concert for the Holy Cross Missions, a weekend retreat, and a 1-2 week tour. This year, our tour will bring us to to Texas at the end of May, and the proceeds from the tour will directly benefit the the rebuilding of churches and their communities that were hardest hit during Hurricane Harvey.

PTB: Describe for us the Sunday liturgy the Folk Choir sings at. Does it feel informal, or parishy, or a bit “reform of the reform,” or what? Who comes to it?
JJW: The liturgy we sing for is different every week! It’s in a basilica, which is a really beautiful space, but definitely not informal. We do a lot of contemporary music from many different musical traditions that offer a nice counterpoint to the grandeur of the space. The preaching is top notch, and since we always have a different presider, there is great variety in the tone of the liturgy. The Holy Cross priests take an intellectual, yet colloquial approach in their homilies, which makes the preaching engaging in a holistic way. The congregation is also drastically different each week. During the Fall, on football weekends, the church is standing-room only and there’s a good mix of visitors and regulars each week, which allows for a certain creativity within the form of the Mass.

PTB: What’s the style range? Do you sing Latin chant, Anglican anthems, world music from Africa and Latin America, or what?
JJW: The style range is pretty diverse. The choir does everything from world music and spirituals, to motets and Anglican anthems. In the past, the choir hasn’t sung much Latin chant, but we do have several pieces of English chant – and some especially beautiful pieces by Chrysogonus Waddell. That said, we are doing a piece of Hildegard von Bingen’s in the Spring!

The core of the Folk Choir repertoire is music composed by the directors of the choir – Steve Warner and Karen Kirner. It’s a really incredible thing to see the way that Steve and Karen have worked with the group as a lab for new liturgical music. The choir has been fortunate to be able to record several CDs and have their own octavo series with WLP – people can get a good sense of the traditional repertoire by checking these out!

PTB: Every new conductor brings new ideas to an ensemble. What new directions do you have in mind for the future?
JJW: I am going to do my best to add my voice to the tradition of the Folk Choir. As a composer, I will continue to write new music, including music for this group. As a conductor, I hope to make the musical experience as compelling as possible for the students. I want to build a culture where the students leave rehearsal and Mass every week feeling challenged, but confident in their ability to grow in their faith and as musicians.

PTB: The connection the Folk Choir has to social justice and outreach to the needy is impressive. Tell us about that.
JJW: There are a couple annual “capstone” events that the choir engages in every year that speak to this question: a concert at Michigan City Prison and the Concert for the Missions. The choir visits the prison in May, offers a concert, and spends time with the prisoners. The Concert for the Missions is a fundraiser for one of the Congregation of Holy Cross’s many missions around the world. This year, the proceeds from our concert will benefit Yancana Huasy, which is based in Lima, Peru and works to serve disabled children who wouldn’t otherwise have care. One of our themes this year is solidarity with those on the margins of our society and our repertoire reflects this. The form of the concert will be a musical Mass, since the Eucharist is where we come together as the Body of Christ. We are currently learning two different versions of the Misa Criolla – the famous one by the Argentinian composer Ariel Ramirez, but also one composed by Chabaca Granda, who was a Peruvian composer. By engaging with and presenting the music of the region, we are able to more authentically enter into and point towards the experience of those whom this concert will benefit. In addition, we’re working on a piece by jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams, entitled Black Christ of the Andes, which is a devotional motet about St. Martin de Porres. Of course, we’ll also include several Folk Choir “classics” that the congregation can sing along with!

I haven’t gotten to experience either of these yet, but I’m looking forward to the opportunity to serve in this way.

PTB: What’s the most inspiring thing that’s happened so far?
JJW: 
The year started out with a great tragedy – Felicia, the mother of one of our choir members, Clare, and personal friend of our family, passed away from cancer. While grappling with such a great loss, it was incredibly beautiful to witness the impact that Felicia had on the South Bend community. Felicia truly modeled what it means to live and die beautifully. The students in the Folk Choir came together to support Clare in a way that I haven’t witnessed before and they offered their song during a Vespers service on the vigil of the funeral. Clare told me after the service how much comfort it gave her to look across her mother’s casket and see all her friends singing the music that has been so close to her heart during her time at Notre Dame.

My children attend a Montessori school that was founded by Clare’s parents. One of the things my children have learned to do at school is affirmations: every week, the children gather in a circle and affirm something positive they noticed about another student over the past week: an act of kindness, an exceptional effort in facing a challenge, an act of service to the classroom community. Just as important as giving the affirmation is receiving it graciously with eye contact and a simple ‘thank you’. In response to Felicia’s example, we have started to regularly incorporate affirmations into our Folk Choir routine. It’s been a special way to walk with Clare during this difficult time, honor this mother and friend, and continue her legacy of education by choosing to encounter the dignity of each person.

Anthony Ruff, OSB, conducted this interview by email.

J.J. Wright trained as a jazz improviser at the New School for Jazz in NYC. and played with the U.S. Naval Academy Band.  He studied sacred music at Notre Dame, studied at the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music, and interned with the Sistine Chapel Choir.  His jazzy album O Emmanuel, based on the ‘O Antiphons’ of Advent, was commissioned by the Notre Dame Children’s Choir and was at the top of the Billboard Classical Charts for eight weeks when it debuted in November 2016. His latest release is Vespers for the Feast of the Transfiguration,  a participatory jazz vespers. He and his wife have three children.

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