November 22 is the feast of St. Cecilia, and as a musician, I just have to celebrate. All the more as I once sang in a choir named for her. That was for one year in the East Slovak city of Košice.
As I was about to move there after a three-year stint in Central Slovakia, a Roma violinist friend of mine put me in touch with the organist/conductor from the Cathedral of St. Elizabeth in Košice.
When I arrived in September, the group was at a choral competition in France, from which they returned with second prize. Once I started rehearsing with them, I realized I was somewhere in the bottom quarter of the talent pool. About half were conservatory students or grads; a good number sang—a couple as principals—in the opera.
At the center of the story is the remarkable conductor Viliam Gurbal. Born into a musical family he grew up playing several instruments, but studied electronics – a skill he still employs in recording. He met my friend Alexander Dasko of www.GypsyMusic.sk during their mandatory military service and they played in a group – Alex on violin and Vilo in cimbal, an East-Central European hammer dulcimer with a three-and-a-half-octave range. They’ve kept in touch all these years, though they live about four hours apart.
In addition to church organ duties, umpteen Masses per week, Vilo still plays cimbal in an ensemble, often at weddings. A few years ago I saw him play with young Gypsies, helping them gain experience. The interesting thing was that, during breaks, Vilo would use every spare minute to transcribe musical manuscripts on his laptop. His head would twist from yellowed old sheets on the table to the computer screen.
For years, he’d been borrowing works from the city archives, then transcribing and recording. Then I began to understand why everything we sang in the chorus had a St. Cecilia copyright mark on it. I further unraveled the mystery of Vilo when a friend suggested that he did the transcribing in part because it familiarized him with every single not.
Vilo also played a significant role in the selection of Košice as European Capital of Culture for 2013, as a number of his projects were part of the competition entry. You can read more about Vilo and Kosice in an article I wrote six years ago. (Of course, there’s more on the life and traditions of St. Cecilia on Wikipedia.)
I've been delighted and honored to sing with the St. Cecilia choir on various occasions on visits to Europe in the years since I lived there full-time.
I'll leave you now with this interview with Vilo (in Slovak), followed by clips from a performance. The first song (starts about 3:30) is "O beata et gloriosa/O blessed and glorious," a Marian hymn I've sung with them many times.