The Anchorage Concert Chorus (ACC) returned June 12 from an Italian tour which included a performance at the Vatican.
What was it like to sing sacred choral music before a congregation during Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica?
“Almost overpowering,” said choir member Mary Ann Molitor. “I wanted to pinch myself and kept thinking ‘I can’t believe I’m here.’ It’s the pinnacle for a Catholic.”
The two-week journey saw 70 vocalists from the non-profit ACC perform in Rome, Florence, Milan and St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, among other sites.
Chorus members are no strangers to taking their show on the road. The group, which includes over 150 singers, schedules tours every 3-5 years. Tours have included several European and South American countries as well as Australia and New Zealand.
But this trip was special because of the venues chosen but also because it honored the 25th anniversary of conductor and artistic director Grant Cochran’s tenure with ACC. Many members of Cochran’s family traveled with the group and spent an extended time in Europe after the tour ended.
It was also the largest ACC group to make a trip, according to Executive Director Roland Rydstrom.
“Music is such an important part of worship,” said Rydstrom. “Sacred choral music is part of a centuries-old tradition. It bonds people together; it’s based on Scripture.”
The beauty of singing during worship is that everyone can do it, Rydstrom pointed out. Learning an instrument may take years; but everyone is a vocalist.
The Anchorage Concert Chorus is well known to Anchorage Catholics for performing at the archdiocese’s Christmas Midnight Mass. And Rydstrom said the unifying effect of sacred music is evident there.
“Often, the singers at Midnight Mass are mostly non-Catholic,” he said, “because so many Catholic members are singing in their own parishes that night.”
For Rydstrom, a Methodist, it was his second involvement with a Vatican performance. Once, traveling with a Catholic school group, the director, a religious sister, became ill. So Rydstrom and another staff member, a Southern Baptist, led the singing, proving yet again that music is a universal language of worship.
For Molitor, who at 81 has spent a lifetime in music, sacred choral music “is a deeper expression of feeling. It’s so personal and relatable. It’s enduring.”
Molitor is a member of Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral, but is by profession an accountant. For her, music “enriches life. Singing gives me balance.”
She’s been singing with the ACC since 1968, with time off when her children were young, and she was part of the local choir which Saint Pope John Paul II invited to sing in Rome after he visited Anchorage in 1981.
“We rehearsed for an entire year for that trip,” she laughs.
Anne Helzer, an ACC member and parishioner at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in South Anchorage, is also devoted to music and sees it as an expression of her faith.
“The crux of my whole existence is my faith,” said the attorney, who sings at Blessed Sacrament Monastery in Anchorage every Sunday morning.
Helzer said sacred music is “a transcendent experience. It’s meditative and prayerful. It’s a place where heaven and earth meet.”
So for her, the chance to sing at St. Peter’s and other sacred venues was “such a marriage of my favorite things.”
Helzer said another experience on the tour was also deeply moving.
The trip included sightseeing, but one day the group was given the alternative to sing at a refugee center run by the Catholic Church at Mondo Migliore in Rocca di Papa.
“That refugee center made me very proud of our church,” Helzer said. “It was in a spectacular location. It was like a palace on the waterfront compared to the warehousing you often see for refugees.”
As many as 350 refugees from 24 different countries — mostly sub-Saharan African nations — spend time at the center.
“It’s a tremendous message to the world on how the church views refugees,” Helzer said. “That center demonstrated our respect for the dignity of every human person.”
The Anchorage Concert Chorus was founded in 1947 by Lorene Harrison, and has been a mainstay of the Anchorage arts scene ever since. But today, social media is making the chorus more accessible to Alaskans. The website, anchorageconcertchorus.org, keeps visitors posted, and the group’s Facebook page featured film of performances in Italy as they occurred.
During the Italian tour, a local company, Buzzbiz Creative, filmed a documentary of the entire trip, including interviews, said Rydstrom.
Now, the chorus has hours of raw footage that they plan to edit into a documentary “which will be screened in Anchorage as part of the 2018-2019 season, then will be made available as a DVD.”
“This is a game changer,” he said. “We had tours for 45 years, but never had a way to share the experience with folks back in Anchorage.”
The Italian tour provoked several inquiries from potential members. Rydstrom welcomes the interest, and also any help that area Catholics would like to offer in funding the documentary.
“We are, after all, a non-profit,” he said.