Nov. 24, 2015

Leo Nestor
Leo Nestor

How long have you worked at CUA?
The happy association actually began in 1984, when I came to Washington from Los Angeles as music director at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception (which was later elevated to the status of a Basilica). Our then-Dean Elaine Walter (of the Benjamin T. Rome School of Music) had chaired the search committee and shortly thereafter commissioned me to compose a cantata for chorus, soloists, and orchestra, "In the Fullness of Time," marking the occasion of the 20th anniversary of Vatican II. This was performed during the school’s annual Christmas Concert in the Crypt Church in 1985. That was the first real collaborative concert.

From that time forward, Dean Walter included me as guest conductor for two magnificent pilgrimages to Rome, the first in October of 1987 with the CUA Chorus and Orchestra during which we sang in the Sala Clementina for Pope John Paul II and the University Board of Regents, then gave a public concert in the Vatican Radio Hall on the Via della Conciliazione, reprising my "In the Fullness of Time." A second pilgrimage in May of 1993 with the CUA Chamber Orchestra and the Choir of the Basilica, this time accompanying the CUA Board of Trustees, again performed for Pope John Paul II in the Sala Clementina, with daily Masses in all the major basilicas of Rome and a memorable concert at the Church of San Pietro in Vincula (St. Peter in Chains), Rome's chamber music church.

Elaine's gracious invitations to conduct our CUA musicians continued when I guest conducted selected works during performances at the Kennedy Center; in those years CUA performed the spring scholarship concert there every year, underwritten by our benefactor and friend Benjamin T. Rome. During those early years I also taught private conducting lessons to CUA students.

Each year after 1990, when the combined Christmas tradition began, Elaine offered the CUA Symphony Orchestra to accompany the Choir of the Basilica: I was no fool and we happily accepted the shrine rector’s generous offer to host a combined concert. So you see, when Dean Walter invited me to compete for a professorship in choral and sacred music in 2000, the winning and accepting of that post was in a very real sense a "coming home" to CUA. I began as the Justine Bayard Ward Professor of Music in the fall semester, 2001. 

What has it been like participating in these concerts each year?
As I tell the students: it's not about them, and it's not about me either. It's about how we, chorus, soloists, orchestra, conductor together, year after year convey to audiences the ideas of composers from such diverse times and places. If you were to imagine a cartoon of a composer sitting in at his desk in 1579 and a dotted line emanating from his head showing a light bulb with rays coming out of it which stands for the musical idea ... our job is to turn on that light on Dec. 4 in the Basilica. And the date of the composer sitting at that desk can be 1949, 1741, or this past summer or fall. So long as the audience is bathed in the differing glows of such a succession of lights and comes away saying, "What wonderful ideas I heard tonight."

What has been your favorite part about conducting these Christmas concerts?
That's like asking a parent to choose among children. The preparation itself is always exciting because it heralds the season: a longer-term preparation for the choruses (although Chamber Choir and University Singers usually give another concert in October), an accelerated one with CUA Symphony Orchestra. The collaboration with our student and faculty composers is always illuminating for me as conductor. A major component is the enthusiasm with which our students in both orchestra and chorus resonate with support for the new music of their classmates and professors! Each year it is a joyful challenge to program a different spectrum of Christmas-Advent-Epiphany music which will move our audiences, on occasion retaining time-honored music (like "Hallelujah") to which the audience has responded well. The carols with chorus, orchestra, organs and audience, always in elegantly crafted settings, are a real joy: to turn around and to see the entire Basilica standing and to hear the beautiful sound.

Why is it important to you that each Christmas concert includes an original composition? Many years ago and with a poet's fervor, Lucien Deiss penned, "The Church, the ageless Bride of Christ Jesus (II Corinthians 11:3) has never ceased growing in the beauty of her youth. This is why her prayer, which expresses her dialogue with the Lord, has never stopped conceiving new forms to show her love each new day." (Spirit and Song of the New Liturgy, 1970).

The composer is the person who in the temporal arts conceives these new songs, new forms, and fashions new ways to praise. Two thousand years later, still chanting, composing, at times improvising this dialogue of beauty, composers in the Church sing new songs because they have no choice. The exquisite fragility and temporality of our art renders it unique: it exists not on the manuscript or printed score, but only when it is performed, rendered in time by breathing musicians.

Musicologists and liturgical historians have for at least the last century chronicled and lamented the decline of involvement on the part of composers of serious art music in music for the Church. The fertile ages of the anonymous chant composers, of Leonin, Machaut, Palestrina, Victoria, Monteverdi, Mozart, Haydn, Bruckner, along the wealth of musical literature they created for the Church's treasure house are long gone. In our commissioning of new art music for the Church, we CUA composers offer with appropriate humility to augment the treasure house of which the gospel of Matthew (13:53) speaks. Thus our Christmas concerts reflect music of the many ages of Christendom and music composed specifically for each concert, treasures "old and new."

As an academic institution, we offer to our students and faculty the opportunity to have an original work thoroughly rehearsed (the choruses beginning their preparation in September), offering that polished performance to the University community and, through television, to a far greater audience. You would be surprised to learn of how many student composers never hear the compositions crafted for their senior or master's theses or doctoral dissertations performed. The music lives only in their minds' ears. What we offer is the realization of their creative energies. I think it a significant gift: to the audience present on Dec. 4, to the Church, to the composers themselves, and to the broader music-loving world.

Why do you think original music adds value to the concerts each year?
Great choice of words, because in a society which increasingly equates value with price, we understand it to mean worth. The value is threefold:

  • Come December, many major symphony orchestras with their choruses offer pricey "seasonal fare," which can translate to oft-heard chestnuts and pop concerts, frequently conducted not by their music directors, but by associate conductors. Adherence to this kind of programming can also be found in many educational institutions, and in our increasingly secular culture often with "Christmas concert" replaced by "Winter Gala." This is not what The Catholic University of America offers.
  • In 1990, our two houses decided on "The Annual Christmas Concert for Charity" which says two things: come and hear an array of beautiful art music of the season and hear it for free. Give your money to people here in Washington who so desperately need it. Over the years we have taken up collections for a succession of worthy organizations, most of which daily labor among the city's needy, be they homeless, hungry, ill, or at painful junctures in their lives.
  • All of the music, but especially the newly composed works are our (the composers and performers) way of "performing" the University mission: to evangelize, to be heralds of the Good News of salvation, and to be "voices in the wilderness" who sing of the coming of the Christ Child, telling anew how that blessed Incarnation changed the course of human history and continues to change us today.
Editor’s note: Before his death in 2019, Leo Nestor worked with former dean Elaine Walter to correct several dates and sequences of events. This version of the interview was updated in 2020, with the help of Walter, who is completing a book chronicling the history of the Music Division/Department/School from 1950 to 2018 (Legacy: Memorable People; Memorable Events).

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