Sounds of Sacred Music: ‘Miserere: A Lenten Prayer Service’ Invites a ‘Surge of the Heart’

Commissioned by San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone through the Benedict XVI Institute, conductor Alfred Calabrese discusses the latest world premiere and how the ‘creation of sacred music is experiencing a Renaissance of sorts ...’

Alfred Calabrese conducts a beautiful Lenten prayer service with the Band of Voices along with Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone at Mission Dolores Basilica in San Francisco, Calif. March 11, 2013.
Alfred Calabrese conducts a beautiful Lenten prayer service with the Band of Voices along with Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone at Mission Dolores Basilica in San Francisco, Calif. March 11, 2013. (photo: Courtesy photo/screenshot / Archdiocese of San Francisco)

Over the weekend, Alfred Calabrese brought his 30-plus years of conducting experience and his newly formed Dallas-based 20-voice choir Band of Voices to Mission Dolores Basilica in San Francisco for Miserere, an innovative Lenten prayer service led by San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone. 

Archbishop Cordileone commissioned world premieres of three pieces of sacred music through the Benedict XVI Institute for Sacred Music and Divine Worship for this event. The service was both anchored by and named for the institute’s composer-in-residence Frank LaRocca’s commissioned piece entitled, Miserere, which is translated from the Latin as “Have mercy on us.”

Miserere: A Lenten Prayer Service paired the motets of the great masters (Palestrina, Victoria, di Lasso) with new works setting the same text by four gifted contemporary American Catholic composers: Daniel Knaggs, Mark Nowakowski, Jeffrey Quick and Frank LaRocca. Each brings his signature style and musical preoccupations to the new work in a thoughtful marriage of sacred music tradition and modern idiom in service of liturgy.

La Rocca chose the living composers carefully. “It is a daunting challenge to compose knowing one’s own work will be placed in direct comparison with the greats like Palestrina, Victoria and di Lasso. All three of these composers were, in my view, up to the challenge,” La Rocca explained. “Daniel Knaggs and Mark Nowakowski are both remarkable younger composers beginning to get some real traction in the classical and sacred music worlds. Jeffrey Quick is a seasoned composer whose work deserves to be better known.”

“I am aware of the great responsibility before us to show that the creation of sacred music is very well indeed — one may even say it is experiencing a Renaissance of sorts,” said Calabrese, whose experience as a conductor, educator, composer and church musician spans the globe. Holding both a Master of Music and Doctor of Music degrees in conducting from the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, Calabrese is currently the director of music at St. Rita Catholic Church in Dallas. His duties include overseeing six choirs, professional singers and organists, and managing a full-time staff of five. One of his innovations at St. Rita’s was the creation in 2019 of the St. Rita Choral Academy, a comprehensive choral school for children from kindergarten to eighth grade. 

Yet his favorite place is the rehearsal hall, and his favorite activity is rehearsing with singers. “My career has two phases: the first, primarily in academia; and the second, full time in the Church. That’s why I love rehearsal so much — I am a teacher at heart.” He continued, “There’s nothing like working with singers, whether adults or children, to help them understand what a really great sound feels like in their own body. Then to use that feeling and place it in the context of a piece of music. There’s a reason almost all the great composers wrote for voice. They understood what voices can do.”

Calabrese formed the Band of Voices choir in Dallas a year ago to sing in a series of Lenten concerts. A 30-second Instagram of the choir, largely composed of professional singers, brought a response from La Rocca in the form of an invitation to sing in San Francisco at the Benedict XVI Institute’s Lenten prayer service. Calabrese views Band of Voices as an ensemble of singers who “like each other and like doing what we do.” He sees the choir’s future as encompassing both sacred and non-sacred music. To respond to a wide range of programming, he plans to keep the number of singers fluid, depending on the type of music and requirements of venue. 

“Unlike an orchestra, the singers are the instruments themselves. The body is the instrument. Using your own body to create sounds means you must be physically and emotionally invested. In a choir, each singer uses his/her own emotion, but the conductor molds the singers’ thoughts to create a shape that is one. Singing is both visceral and personal, very personal,” Calabrese continued. “I use my own experience as a vocalist when working with singers, both young and old.”

Sarah Joblin, a professional singer and member of Band of Voices, said ahead of the Lenten service, “It’s such a joy to perform new works because it keeps the choral tradition alive by injecting new energy into it. These four modern composers are seeped in the sacred texts — you can tell by the music. The choir’s hope is to connect with people at the service so they feel what the composers have seeped into the music. ”

Calabrese described the exhilaration that happens as a new composition reveals its meaning to him: “When conducting contemporary music — especially debuts — I have to understand what the composer was thinking, then teach that to a choir. That’s where the intellect, the experience, the age takes over.” He added: “There is nothing more exciting than to see everyone in a choir think about a piece so that the music conveys its meaning.”

The Lenten prayer service featured both musical prayers and non-musical prayers. Set in the acoustically responsive Mission Delores Basilica, the program began with the chanted Confitemini Domino (Psalm 136: 1-26). Then the program unfolded in a pairing of a Renaissance piece followed by a contemporary piece, interspersed with prayer led by Archbishop Cordileone. 

“The mood of the pieces is extremely varied,” noted Calabrese. “Some of the pieces are very polyphonic, such as La Rocca’s and Quick’s. Nowakowski’s is monophonic and begins very slowly with low voices. Its Eastern European influence shows in a slow-moving harmonic rhythm and those low voices. Knaggs creates a dynamic intensification of text through rising notes, then dissonance followed by beginning again to build intensity. La Rocca’s piece uses sacred silence and the construction of beautiful musical shapes.”

As La Rocca put it ahead of the service, “I’m looking forward very much to hearing the old masters and some of us aspiring new ones in a setting of prayer and worship, but performed to the highest possible standards of musical craft. It is our hope and our gift to the archbishop and all who attend either in person or via EWTN that this sacred music will uplift, comfort and inspire us to travel the road to Calvary so we can rise with Jesus Christ on Easter.”

Together, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, the composers, musicians, conductor Calabrese, the singers and the congregation prayed the musical experience into a “surge of the heart,” to borrow the words of St. Thérèse of Liseux describing prayer. 



Sarah Cortez is president and founder of Catholic Literary Arts, She is a fellow of the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, a Scanlan fellow at the University of St. Thomas, and a fellow of the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.