Exploring the 'liturgy factory': Jennifer Pascual

Interview and write-up: @EmerNestor

Photographs: @FMarshallPhoto

The position of musical director of St Patrick's Cathedral New York is very much a coveted, and prestigious role — one currently held by Dr Jennifer Pascual. Do date, her list of academic achievements comprise: a Doctor of Musical Arts Degree in Organ Performance from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester (New York); a Master of Music Degree in Piano Performance from the Mannes College of Music in New York City; and Bachelor of Music Degrees in Piano and Organ Performance (magna cum laude), and Music Education, from Jacksonville University in Florida. Pascual oversaw the entire music program for the Pastoral Visit to New York by Pope Benedict XVI, on his April 2008 Apostolic Journey to the United States. She has been on the Artistic Staff of the Boys Choir of Harlem, Inc. since 1994. Membership includes the American Guild of Organists, Conference of Roman Catholic Cathedral Musicians, Liturgical Organists Consortium, and National Association of Pastoral Musicians, where Pascual serves on the Section Committee for Organists. This talented musician is also a frequent broadcaster, recitalist, and clinician at national conventions.

Final Note joined Dr Pascual in the uplifting environs of St Patrick's Cathedral, New York, to find out why she is so drawn to sacred music, and to chat about her role as director.

Having started your musical journey as a pianist, how did you become interested in the world of the organ?

I attended Catholic school as a youth. In elementary school, I was fascinated by the organ played at church. One day the organist was a little late, and I got to play the entrance hymn. When in high school, once the student organist graduated, I was able to play for Catholic Masses, and it was from that point that I was hooked.

Why did you decide to study music at university level?

I knew that I wanted a career in music. I was good at music, and not much else!

Tell us about your Doctoral studies in organ performance at the Eastman School of Music, and your reasons for studying with David Higgs.

It was a wonderful educational time. Eastman is one of the best schools for organ. It has one of the finest music libraries in the country, and several organs to practice on. I was fortunate to have attended Eastman on a substantial scholarship with my music theory background. David Higgs was a wonderful teacher, who always believed that I had the potential to succeed and make a difference. He taught me to always see the big picture, both musically and in life.

What motivated you to follow a career in Sacred Music, rather than develop your early career as a concert pianist and teacher?

I was raised Roman Catholic. Working with people in making music for sacred liturgies has been extremely fulfilling. As both organist and conductor, I have had the privilege of working with hundreds of talented and fascinating people. A concert pianist tends to live an extremely lonely life, spending several solitary hours practicing every day. While mastering any instrument requires hours of daily practice, a career in sacred music requires constant collaboration and excellent people skills.

How did it feel to become the first female director of music in the history of St Patrick’s Cathedral, and what led you to this position?

Regardless of gender, I was extremely honored to have received the appointment as Director of Music. It is only after several years that I have realized that there are not many females serving in sacred music posts of St Patrick's Cathedral's caliber. For that, I am honored to serve as a role model to my female colleagues. It was the late Archbishop Emeritus of New York, Edward Cardinal Egan, who hired me. I was conducting a Christmas concert at St Joseph's Seminary and College (where I later served as Professor, and Director of Music from 2007-2014). Cardinal Egan was in attendance at that concert, and it was at a time that he was looking for a new music director. I accepted!

What are the primary challenges and rewards of such an appointment?

Being such a visible church, it seems that everyone wants to descend upon St Patrick's Cathedral, which is both the biggest challenge and the greatest reward. Everyone wants to perform at St Patrick's Cathedral. It is impossible to allow everyone to have a concert spot or to plan visiting musicians for a limited number of liturgies. So unfortunately, we do have to let a number of musicians down as our extremely small liturgical music staff can only handle so many requests. Also, because we are very visible, things can tend to get political.

Trying to keep everyone happy, from the visiting tourists all the way up to the top boss, is impossible, but we do the best that we can. On the other hand, because everyone does visit New York, periodically I get to see people from all over the country that I would not see otherwise. I have the opportunity to play on a fantastic organ, and get to work with some extremely talented people. It's all about the people. Also, the key to a successful music program is having the support of, and a good relationship with, the clergy. That's not always easy, but it is absolutely necessary.

How does your classical training influence your work as director?

I would not be the musician I am today without all of the training and all of the lessons I received. My theory background helps my understanding of musical forms and structure. I have my main teachers to thank for helping me to become an extremely musical person. That, on top of repetition and years of experience, have made me the musical director I am today.

In this difficult age of the Roman Catholic Church, do you and the music staff of St Patrick’s have difficulty in recruiting new members to the choir?

Professional singers — no. In New York, it is not difficult to find professional singers who are looking for a professional position. However, it is difficult to find someone who has a good, healthy balance of being a professional singer and a spiritual person. Because it is Midtown Manhattan, and not many people (who aren't extremely wealthy) live in Midtown, it is not easy to attract new volunteer singers who are skilled enough to handle the repertoire of the Cathedral Choir. It is an audition-only choir, and people who want to join have to read music fairly well in addition to having a decent voice.

How do you keep the choir members interested in the repertoire, and generally motivated?

I try to change the repertoire from time to time. Because the church lectionary is on a three-year cycle, the Sunday readings are not the same every year. The choral repertoire I choose is based on these readings. There is a vast repertoire to choose from — from Gregorian chant all the way to contemporary compositions. We never run out of music to do! The nature of the cathedral is extremely busy. It is a liturgy factory. There is always something to do, something to sing for. While there is a yearly rhythm to the place, there are a number of unexpected liturgies that we have to plan that keep all of the musicians motivated in our mission.

The balance between congregational participation, and the performance of high-quality repertoire has long since been an issue within the music of the Catholic Church — how do you find a happy, and convincing middle ground between the pair?

This is tough. It is most challenging when most of the people we see on the weekends are tourists. I try to choose congregational hymns that are familiar and singable by the congregation. It is through the special archdiocesan events, that bring people together for a common reason, that I have found congregational singing to be strongest. On any given Sunday, I have mostly congregational hymns and sung Mass parts, yet I also have the cathedral choir sing two motets and a choral Mass part. This way, people can actively participate by singing, yet also participate by actively listening, and in turn, internalize the music and sung texts to help them to pray.

Within the American Sacred Music domain, do you admire any composers in particular?

Names that immediately come to mind are Morten Lauridsen, Samuel Barber, Ned Rorem and Eric Whitacre. I also always try to promote the music of my friends and colleagues such as Dr Peter Latona (music director at the Basilica National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC); one of my late teachers, Mc Neil Robinson II, who taught at Manhattan School of Music and was a lifelong Catholic; and Luke Mayernik — an up-and-coming composer, who is a fantastic organist and improviser.

In terms of organ repertoire, where does your spirit rest?

French Romantic music is my favorite. However, I see myself as being adaptable to whatever circumstance arises...and if a particular repertoire is requested for a certain concert, I am happy to oblige.

Tell us about your involvement in Pope Benedict’s visit to New York in 2008.

I planned and conducted all of the music for the Masses at St Patrick's Cathedral, the Yankee Stadium, and the Ecumenical service at St Joseph's on the Upper East Side. I also planned most of the sacred music for his visit to St Joseph's Seminary. It took 6 months to plan, find arrangers, hire and contract the orchestra, acquire the permissions to perform, broadcast and reprint congregational music for the visit. It was extremely time-consuming, but it was the greatest honor of my career so far. Now, I am planning the music for the September visit of Pope Francis!

What did the experience of performing in the IX Festivale Internazionale di Musica e Arte Sacra mean to you, both as a Catholic and a musician?

Rome is the center of Catholicism. A friend of mine calls it, the "Real Holy Land". Even though I have been to Rome over 10 times, and some of those times were for musical reasons, it was extremely special to be able to take the St Patrick's Cathedral Choir to Rome to perform in this festival. Everyone had a great time, but several found it to be a spiritually rewarding experience. One of the choristers even converted to Catholicism after that experience. Watching the expression on the faces of my choristers, who had never been to Rome before, and seeing the inside of St Peter's Basilica for the first time was thrilling. Our Rector also came on the trip with us, so it was spiritually rewarding for me. The best part was having Mass right near St Peter's tomb. It was a simple Mass with no organ and no pomp and circumstance, but we were right next to the tomb that housed the bones of the person appointed by Christ to build his church. I wouldn't be doing what I do, and wouldn't be where I am now, if it were not for that important part of history.

What motivates you?

Deadlines! Important events coming up, and wanting to do the best job possible to make the best musical experience for everyone...from the musicians to the listeners.

When you're not busy with life in St Patrick's, how do you like to have fun?

I love to travel and eat. I don't have very much time away from the cathedral, so when I do try to get away, I get away in a big way. Many times I have to travel for concerts and conferences, and I am fortunate to often take my husband and two-and-a-half-year-old daughter along with me. But, I also try to take the time to travel with them for leisure. It really is the only way to get away from everything sometimes — going really far away. I am also Filipino by background. One of the biggest regrets of my life is not being able to speak the language. I do understand the language, so I try to watch Filipino movies and the Filipino cable channel in order to keep internalizing the language and the culture — at least through television and movies.

Are there any great choral works that you would like to tackle in the immediate future?

I am always pushing for ecumenism. I try to include at least one or two pieces of sacred music from other churches, such as the Greek or Russian Orthodox Church. Western sacred music came after Eastern sacred music and the older I get, the more I would like my choristers to be exposed to not just the choral greats, but choral music of other churches. Otherwise, we've never tackled Jean Langlais' Messe solennelle. We have performed the Masses of Louis Vierne and Charles-Marie Widor, but I would like to have the cathedral choir perform some of the lesser-known choir and organ works of these composers. St Patrick's Cathedral is so fitting for this type of music, and we have a Gallery Organ, and a Choir Organ to make it work.

What's next on the horizon?

In August, I will be going to Ireland for the first time on Timothy Cardinal Dolan's pilgrimage to Knock. I will have a small schola of volunteer singers with me to do the liturgical music for some of the Masses that Cardinal Dolan will offer. I hope that some day I will be able to go to Ireland to tour as a concert organist after this pilgrimage trip.

I also have an upcoming October series of concerts in Vladivostok, Russia. It will be my third trip to Russia for organ music. I will be one of the dedicatory organists for the first pipe organ to be built in Far Eastern Russia. The pipe organ was built by the Diego Cera Pipe Organ Company, based in Las Pinas, Manila, Philippines, which is my mother's hometown.

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