In a normal year, Phil Hines takes a deep breath, puts his hands on the keys of the 135-year-old pipe organ, and starts playing.
The first notes of “O Come, All Ye Faithful” sound from some of the organ’s 2,200-plus pipes, forming a soaring herald who welcomes worshipers to St. James Catholic Church in Louisville, Kentucky on Christmas Eve.
For the Church’s music season, this is the liturgical Super Bowl, an event planned months and months in advance. The voices of 36 choir singers mix with the organ, a trumpet, a baritone horn, a violin, cymbals and the thundering kettledrum, while 400 parishioners, cheek to cheek, join in.
Some arrive an hour early to get a seat.
This December, of course, the celebration is different in St. James and in churches across the country where the joy of Christmas is channeled through music.
With the coronavirus pandemic killing more than 300,000 people in the country, Mr Hines, the 63-year-old Church Music Director, can only think of how dangerous the night has become, which he looks forward to all year.
A soprano solo can not only contain good news.
Coughing from parishioners who once just stopped the music could pose a public health hazard.
But there is no way that Mr. Hines, who survived a soloist with laryngitis and an ice storm that stranded the choristers, canceled Christmas.
“I will bring the message of the birth of Christ to the people as best I can,” he said.
This year, Mr. Hines designed his “Quarantine Quartets” – groups of four who will sing at Christmas Eve and day services in St. James, accompanied by a violinist and drummer, masked and socially distant in the choir loft above the sanctuary.
His flutist and 32-year-old trumpeter, a former rector of the Louisville Orchestra, will be watching from home.
“And I’m not blaming them,” said Mr. Hines. “But it meant that I had to put my thinking hat on.”
This is the mission that music directors across the country face this Christmas. If the normal year is the challenge of choosing between Joy to the World and the Alleluia Choir, this season the question arises of how to celebrate the birth of Christ without creating a potential superspreader event.
Some churches, like Trinity Church Wall Street in Manhattan, are downsizing choirs and orchestras, which may have more than 80 members, to single-digit choristers for services that they stream without congregations. St. John United Methodist Church in Augusta, Georgia accepted 85 current and former choir members to sing the John Rutter Christmas carol “What Sweeter Music” individually plus three violinists and a cellist playing in their homes to create a video that will be shown during a recorded Christmas Eve service.
Middle Collegiate Church in New York’s East Village, whose sanctuary was destroyed in a fire this month, recorded a video that now includes footage of a dancer both of them twirling around the sanctuary 16 hours before the fire – possibly the last person inside before it burned – and dancing outside the blackened skeleton of the structure. “It will make you cry every tear,” said Rev. Jacqui Lewis, the Church’s chief minister. The church will also be streaming its 2018 CBS Christmas Special on Christmas Eve.
But Rev. Gary Padgett, the pastor of St. James in Louisville, said that despite all of the recorded concerts and services, it was important for the Church to film its own music in-house. “I’ve always felt that when a member can see their own building, their pastor, and the people they know are playing music they are used to, it helps regain some of the tradition,” he said .
Mr Hines said he hoped those who show up – whether 100, 50, or 10, spread over a room limited to 125 people – connect with simplicity. “It’s a different sound,” he said. “But if the people watching still feel that they have celebrated the birth of our Lord and that the music helped them, it will be a success for me.”
Padgett said that Mr. Hines’ encyclopedic knowledge of liturgical selections is second to none, but that he is also resourceful. When his soloist contracted laryngitis, Mr. Hines found a way to sing – by transposing the work in three semitones. (“Imagine a cross between Beverly Sills and Bob Dylan or Tom Waits,” he said.) For this year’s service, he rewrote bass and tenor parts for alto and soprano to work with the choristers who agreed to sing. He equipped his choir with special singing masks from the nearby Bellarmine University. He will rely on the pipe organ to fill in the missing instrumental parts.
“It’s like the Whos are all gathered together and the Grinch is looking down and he can’t figure out why they’re still singing,” he said. “Of course they could hold hands, and we can’t. But we can still sing, even through a mask. “
Not everyone who is part of tradition can make it. Jerry Amend, 75, the recently retired solo trumpet for the Louisville Orchestra, typically played five Christmas services in a 24 hour period. This is the first Christmas he has spent at home since 1962. His mother-in-law is in a nursing home and two people in her department have died from the coronavirus. “I love performing, but it just seemed tricky this year,” he said.
Mr. Hines has reduced his volunteer choir to 14 this year – less than half of his normal 36 members, but oversized in spirit, he notes. Since the second week of November they have been rehearsing four or five times a week, spread over the choir loft with individual music stands.
Joe Sullivan, 56, said the Church was his second family when he had teleworked as a meteorologist for the National Weather Service for the past nine months. The weekly rehearsals have helped him stay connected at a time when face-to-face interactions are rare. “It’s one of the few things that keeps me feeling normal,” he said.
Martina Gregory, 63, said the passion of the music director, whom everyone in the community called “Pip,” said was contagious. Her daughter works in the emergency room at the University of Louisville Hospital and has witnessed the number of victims of the pandemic first hand. However, Ms. Gregory is confident that the precautionary measures – everyone present is masked and the pews disinfected after every mass – will ensure her safety.
“We’re singing about Golly,” she said. “I just hope we don’t have to do that again at Easter.”