The Choral Project rehearses Street Requiem at Willow Glen United Methodist Church in San Jose. "It was such a moving work," says baritone Wilfred Matthews (far left), who's performed the piece before. "I felt like I could contribute in a little way to spreading the message of hope for the marginalized in our society." (Photo: Rachael Myrow/KQED)
Like most of us living in the Bay Area who are lucky enough to have a roof over our heads, Daniel Hughes says he has looked away when walking past homeless people.
"What I observed in my own behavior, as well as people on the street, was just how difficult it was to confront how someone has fallen so low," says Hughes, who serves as the artistic director and conductor of The Choral Project, a community choir in San Jose. "The regular man’s reaction to that is to try to ignore it and pretend it’s not there, because it really does force us to confront our own humanity."
That response, or lack thereof, is exactly what Street Requiem is designed to confront. Choral groups around the world have performed the work since its debut in 2014 — and donated proceeds to support the homeless in cities from Melbourne, Australia to San Francisco.
Kathleen McGuire, one of the co-creators of Street Requiem, spent 13 years in the San Francisco Bay Area. She led a number of high profile groups, including the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus and a homeless choir in San Francisco called Singers of the Street (SOS).
McGuire was inspired to launch SOS by a fellow Australian choral conductor, Jonathon Welch, who’s started two homeless choirs himself, in Australia. He also came up with the idea for Street Requiem.
"There are so many people who die on the streets every year, who nobody mourns, and nobody knows their name," McGuire says. Street Requiem, she says, "is really about the experience of the person on the street, and yes, trying to put the audience, as well as the performers, into a different mindset."
Street Requiem draws from multiple musical traditions, foremost among them Roman Catholic religious music. The "Requiem Æternam" movement, or “Eternal Rest” in Latin, for instance, is a prayer asking God to hasten the journey souls take from purgatory to heaven.
"We’ve taken some core elements of the traditional requiem, but we’ve put it into modern vernacular," McGuire says. "We’ve also taken out some of the very overtly Christian language to try and make it more accessible to people of faith but not a specific religion."
Excerpt from "Ubi Caritas - Charity and Love"
What is it that scares you when it's change I'm looking for?
What is it that scares you that make you bar the door?
What is it that scares you when my hand's stretched out this way?
What is it that scares you that makes you turn away?
Ubi caritas et amor deus ibi est.
(Where there is charity and love, there you will find the spirit of God.)
Street Requiem also addresses the multiple ways people die on the street across the world every day -- not just as a result of exposure to the elements, but also through crime and government oppression. One of the most touching movements, "Gloria," includes a phrase from the Zulu language commonly sung at South African funerals and demonstrations.
"Senzeni na means 'What have I done?' or 'What have we done?'" McGuire says. "It also means, 'What have we done, as a society, to each other?'"
McGuire is not the only musician involved in the project who feels the homeless crisis applies to all of us. That’s why the Bay Area-based, internationally renowned mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade is involved in the San Jose and Santa Cruz performances of Street Requiem.
"It’s not very hard to end up on the street." says von Stade, who has performed Street Requiem in Dallas, San Mateo, San Francisco and with an Australian choir at Carnegie Hall. "Nobody’s that different than we are. They’ve just had unbelievably tragic circumstances and they’re circumstances that are beyond people’s control." Over the years, she’s also worked with a couple of organizations that provide opportunities for poor children to learn music, including the Young Musicians Choral Orchestra.
With real estate prices as high as they are in Silicon Valley, choir members can’t help but resonate with the thought that we're all potentially one crisis away from the streets, and that any one of us could fall prey to a layoff, a health crisis, crime, or indifference from friends and family.
It’s heavy stuff, acknowledges Choral Project baritone Wilfred Matthews. He's been singing with the community choir for 13 years, commuting from as far away as Sacramento at one point to be a part of the group.
Matthews sang Street Requiem two years ago when it was performed in San Francisco and San Mateo. "It was such a moving work," Matthews says. "I felt like I could contribute in a little way, you know, even with my own small voice, to spreading the message of hope for the marginalized in our society."
Matthews says the work has helped to change the way he interacts with people living on the streets. "I actually look at them in the eye," he says. "I don’t walk away like I used to before."
The Choral Project performs Street Requiem on Wednesday, Feb. 15, at the Saint Joseph Cathedral Basilica in San Jose; and Saturday, Feb. 18, 2017 at Peace United Church of Christ in Santa Cruz. Details here.
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