Spem in Alium: A phoenix at forty
by Graeme Napier for Vocal Area Network
Posted September 21, 2018

St. John's in the Village--SanctuaryOn a hot and windy night in 1971 a blaze, possibly begun by an arson attack, struck up on what we now call the corner of West 11th Street and Waverly Place. The fire consumed the 19th century Greek-revival church on that corner, which had been the home of the Episcopal congregation of St. John’s in the Village since the 1850s.

There was much debate as whether or not to rebuild a church on this site, given the high value of the real estate in that part of Greenwich Village, even in the 1970s. But, arising like a phoenix from its own ashes, St. John’s Church was rebuilt by a pupil of Frank Lloyd Wright, local architect Edgar Tafel. It was rebuilt as an extraordinarily fine acoustic space with this as part of its mission statement:

-- to facilitate a continuing dialogue between the Christian faith and the artistic professions, acknowledging in this encounter that we share in common the enterprise of interpreting life, of advancing the quest for truth, and of reaching a fresh vision of reality.

It was in 1978 that the Bishop of New York consecrated the new church and blessed its mission among the arts. That was forty years ago this fall, and St. John’s is now celebrating the fortieth anniversary of its consecration. As well as running a 100-seater theater, St. John's has a particular place in the choral music scene here in New York City. It is the rehearsal home of the Greenwich Village Chamber Singers and also of the Stonewall Chorale, the latter having risen from humble beginnings to become an ensemble of national renown. It is a concert venue for many groups including Tapestry, Schola Cantorum on Hudson, Anglica Antiqua and others. St. John's maintains a professional choir, runs two free young-persons’ singing programs under Frank Mathis (baritone) and Gordon King (Organist and Master of the Choristers) and offers weekly piano instruction. It also has one of the busiest concert programs of all Manhattan churches, with over thirty concerts, choral and instrumental, in the September-December period alone. (See listings at www.stjvny.org/arts-at-st-johns-autumn-winter-2018/.) And there are special services, lectures, book-launches and other arts events, too.

At a 40th Anniversary Concert on Saturday, September 28 at 8 PM, what better way to end than with a forty-part motet? Thomas Tallis’s glorious Spem in Alium, of course, fits that bill perfectly. Many a lover of Renaissance polyphony has longed to sing this rarely-performed work. Seven vocal ensembles are coming together to constitute the eight five-part choirs the piece requires. C4 is supplying two of the choirs.

Timothy Parsons, a countertenor at Trinity, Wall Street, but also an accomplished conductor in his own right, directs the Tallis. The opening piece, Bruckner’s classically simple Locus iste (a setting of a text proper to the Dedication of Churches), will also be sung by the same forty voices under the direction of Gordon King. In between, the choirs offer an eclectic mix of music by Cheryl Engelhardt, Jake Runestad, Gwyneth Walker, William Byrd, Alice Parker, Jan Pieters Sweelinck and others, notably including music written in the last forty years since the church was rebuilt. Forty voices marking forty years! For details about the event, visit spem.eventbrite.com.

Fr. Graeme Napier, 12th Rector of St John’s in the Village, is a Licentiate of the Royal Schools of Music and has recently moved to NYC from Oxford, England. As an Oxford-educated Irish-born Australian of Scots descent his interests in music range across many genres!