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Charlie Stewart

Listen to the Quiet
If you like your Sunday nights on the calm side, Heinz Chapel may be the ideal place for you.

Holiday 2010

CSFeel a sense of calm take hold as you enter Heinz Memorial Chapel in Oakland to hear the Pittsburgh Compline Choir.

Close your eyes and listen to the quiet. Take a deep breath and exhale your worries. As the chanting rises from the chancel, let the goose bumps flow down your spine, while you are transported to a long-ago century.

When the organ prelude begins, a meditative rest takes hold as you imagine leaves shimmering in the breeze, a crescent moon, hugging a friend, a father pushing his daughter on a swing—or nothing.

The service heightens your senses—the smell of incense, the sight of flickering candles, and the resonance of the choir’s voices in the high, vaulted ceilings of the chapel. Let the experience waft over you.

Pray for someone you love, and let God know you will try to be a better person. That’s what Compline is all about.

Compline (pronounced calm-plin) comes from the Latin word completorium, meaning “completed,” and thus Compline is the final Christian monastic prayer service for the day—in other words, the way the church says “goodnight.”

An ecumenical and cooperative ministry of the Lutheran Campus Ministry in Greater Pittsburgh and the First Lutheran Church in Downtown, the Pittsburgh Compline Choir leads the free, hour-long service in Heinz Memorial Chapel on Sunday nights during the acadmic year. The choir is now in its 22nd season.

“It’s very much to do with peace and quiet, light and darkness,” says director Alastair Stout, who grew up in the Shetland Isles off the northeast coast of Scotland. “It’s a candlelit service and most of the music is a cappella, so it’s very contemplative and perfect for reflection at the end of the day. Since there is no clergy really involved, the congregation gets to sit back and relax and let the whole atmosphere of the service kind of breathe over them.”

Like many of us, Stout initially knew little about the Pittsburgh Compline Choir, but as director of music and organist at the Coraopolis United Methodist Church, he was introduced to the group when invited to play the organ prelude in 2005. He began singing with the choir the following year, and the 35-year-old became director last February.

Dating back to St. Benedict in the sixth century, the Office of Compline (“office,” in this case, being used in the ecclesiastical sense to mean a prayer service) traditionally was chanted a cappella by an all-male choir of monks. Today the Pittsburgh Compline Choir is co-ed and includes other styles of music, from Gregorian chant to contemporary classical works by composers such as Stephen Paulus, Arthur Wills, and University of Pittsburgh music lecturer Roger Zahab.

Diversity is also reflected in the professional and religious backgrounds of the 22 choir members, who include musicians, seminarians, surgeons, lawyers, professors, and university students—among them Lutherans, Presbyterians, Catholics, and Episcopalians

CSWhat they have in common is musical talent.

“This is a group of extremely fine musicians who are very proficient at sight-reading and therefore can perform some absolutely outstandingly high-class music spanning six centuries,” Stout explains.

Caitlin Kempf, 22, of Oakland, is a master’s student in occupational therapy at Pitt who has sung in both church and school choirs for most of her life. Her background in doing four-part harmony, as well as her sight-reading skills, made her an ideal candidate to audition for the choir.

“When I first arrived in Pittsburgh from Allentown, my friend and I decided to attend Compline in Heinz Chapel, and pretty much from the moment the choir walked in, I knew I had to join,” says Kempf, who has been an alto with the choir for three years.

That same spiritual energy is felt by those sitting in the pews.

Marian Cook, 75, of Aspinwall is a volunteer docent for Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation who had heard about Compline for years. But it wasn’t until William Ogburn, the organist and choir master at The Church of the Redeemer in Squirrel Hill, urged Cook to go that she started attending regularly.

“I love going into Oakland on a Sunday evening,” she says. “It’s easy to park, and when I go into Heinz Chapel, I sit there soaking up all the splendor around me and am transported into a world of worship that’s very peaceful.”

Now she occasionally brings along her granddaughter, Jessica Cook, a junior at Pitt, to share the mesmerizing Compline experience. “So many professional musicians volunteer for the choir, that I just feel so blessed to have something so beautiful that’s free and right on my doorstep,” Cook continues. “I find it to be a refreshing transition where I try to leave behind my concerns of the past and look forward to a clean slate in the week to come.”

The Pittsburgh Compline Choir is modeled after the Compline service at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle, which started in 1956 and attracts an audience of hundreds each week. By offering a style of music that people of any faith—or even no faith—can enjoy, the Pittsburgh choir reflects that tradition, as well as the spirit of Heinz Memorial Chapel itself, which was always intended to be interdenominational.

“I love the fact that we are on a vibrant campus in the heart of the Oakland area,” Stout says. “And within that vibrancy and excitement, you have this incredibly calming and reflective service and environment, during which people can just come in from their busy lives, and for an hour, be completely chilled out.”

Despite her busy class schedule and the homework demands of her graduate studies, Kempf makes the choir a priority.

“Compline on Sunday evenings,” she declares, “that’s my time with God.”

The Pittsburgh Compline Choir holds services on Sundays at 8:30 p.m. at Heinz Memorial Chapel at the corner of Fifth and South Bellefield avenues in Oakland during the University of Pittsburgh academic term. For more information and a schedule, visit www.compline.lucpgh.com.

With many thanks to SHADY AVE magazine for granting me permission to reprint on my website.


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