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The Ambrose-Romanos Singers sing in multiple languages and keep old Catholic traditions alive. (Photo courtesy Erik Reuter)
The Ambrose-Romanos Singers are not your average church choir.
First, they sing in Slavonic, English, Latin, Ukrainian and Greek. Second, they combine music from Eastern and Western Catholic traditions. Third, each singer is a professional musician.
Those three elements allow the Ambrose-Romanos Singers to perform many things an amateur choir cannot and also to open the listener’s minds and hearts to varied Catholic traditions they may have never heard about otherwise.
Singers Director Michael Thompson said, “We want people to be able to see the jewel from all its sides, not just one.”
To cement his purpose, Thompson quoted the late Pope John Paul II, who said the church has a West lung and an East lung, and that Catholics need to breath with both.
The Singers give congregants just that chance. “It’s not an opportunity that happens often for people,” Thompson said.
Part of the reason for the rarity of a group like the Singers is the nature of the music they perform. In addition to the challenge of singing in foreign and dead languages, the style is difficult because of how different it is from modern music.
Gregorian chants, for example, are sung in eight different scales, not all of which today’s singer would use on a normal basis. Singing in a new scale requires a musician to not only learn how to listen to and distinguish its notes, but also need to develop new muscle controls.
Another difference is the complete absence of rhythm and percussion from chant—the words themselves carry the music.
“We do what a lot of volunteer parishes can’t do because they don’t have the skill,” Thompson said. “[The musicians] need to develop a new set of vocal tricks.”
And even though most audience members won’t understand Slovanic, which is a parent language like Latin, Thompson said it’s important to be as accurate as possible “because Jesus is the word of God, what we do with words is important.”
Thompson emphasized that the music itself is secondary to the worship aspect of singing.
And, he said, about every other time the Singers perform, someone who understands one of the foreign languages comes up to them after the show and compliments their pronunciation.
In general, the Singers have concerts about five times per year, plus special events like weddings or funerals.
All of their regular concerts take place at St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church. The group has been in “residency” at the church for two years and is beginning its third.
The group has been around since 2001 when Thompson came to Pittsburgh from Chicago to teach music at the Byzantine Catholic Seminary. Until 2008, the group was based at the seminary.
In the Byzantine Church, all masses are held entirely in song, and the archbishop at the time asked Thompson to form a group that would celebrate both Byzantine and Roman Catholic traditions.
The Singers’ next scheduled concert will be Sunday, Jan.10 at St. Peter’s. They will perform a pre-service recital and will move immediately into vespers, which are evening prayers.
These days, Thompson said, finding a Roman Catholic Church with vespers is difficult. “We kind of are champions of the underground music and the underground service.”
The Jan. 10 concert will celebrate the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which marks the end of the Christmas season in Catholic tradition. For the feast, there will be a special blessing of water. Congregants can take some water home with them and use to bless their houses or the sick.
Not all the singers are Catholic, Roman or otherwise. Many of them work in other churches as music directors, but the Singers also employs several college students.
“This is actually an educational tool for younger musicians,” Thompson said.
Because all of the Singers are professional musicians, and because all are busy, they only rehearse for two hours before a performance. Thompson gives each member the music a month before a concert, and everyone learns it beforehand.
They often use recordings to assist in learning pronunciation. Thompson, who reads all the languages in which they sing, transliterates the Slovanic, Greek and Ukrainian for the musicians.
“Most Americans don’t have foreign language experience,” Thompson said. “That’s one of the beautiful things about what we do.”