Roderick Bryce

Roderick Bryce

April 18, 2016

Roderick Bryce could not have imagined a better start to St. Joseph's Basilica's new springtime Festival of Sacred Music.

The first concert on April 2, a program of Ukrainian sacred music featuring 50 mostly professional men's voices, was sold out. The sound was incredible.

But what struck Bryce the most was how many people who are engaged in the city's artistic community approached him to say they had never been in the basilica before.

For Bryce, the basilica's director of music, it was exciting to see the vision for the festival, to broaden the church's outreach - already a beautiful venue for worship and an iconic part of Edmonton's architecture - come to fruition.

"Being in the music industry in Alberta, a lot of people that I've spoken to have never been to the basilica," said Bryce, noting the church, located on the corner of 113th Street and Jasper Avenue, is open to visitors every day.

"It's open all day every day and yet these people have never been inside and never experienced it."

It is the first time the basilica has undertaken a festival of this kind, said Bryce, who assumed the helm of music direction in 2013.

"I wanted to ensure the basilica was not just a place where Catholics go to Mass on a Sunday but that it becomes much more in addition; it's also this centre for Catholic culture in the city and, indeed, in the whole archdiocese."

Since Bryce, a professional singer and choral director from Edinburgh, Scotland, was appointed by Archbishop Richard Smith two and a half years ago, the basilica has been undergoing a musical renewal. The initiative came as a natural extension of Smith's Nothing More Beautiful series.

"His Grace was very keen that the basilica become a place of musical excellence in the archdiocese," said Bryce.

Edmonton, teeming with professional and amateur choirs, is "a very choral city," and a great city for singing, he said. But that is not reflected in its Catholic churches.

"People think music in churches tends to just be the best that some volunteers can offer," he said.

"So it's great now and absolutely fitting that at the cathedral we're at the forefront of good liturgy and good music."

The basilica is one of the best spaces for choral music in the city, Bryce said.

"It's really a marvelous acoustic so we wanted to sort of exploit that a little bit and say to people, 'Look, this is an important part of your heritage.'"

Sacred music concerts in churches are common around the world as well as in a number of older Protestant churches in the city centre.


"A lot of the music was written for these spaces. It speaks more clearly within these spaces than it would within a concert hall," he said. "It's an important step for us to take and certainly one which other churches recognize, which is why they do it."

Music is also a useful catechetical and evangelizing tool, he added. "A concert may speak to somebody in a completely different way than music may do in the liturgy."

Welcoming people into a beautiful space is an important first step of evangelization, said Bryce. The second step is to communicate to them through beautiful music and beautiful sounds.

"Those are the two foundation blocks before you can take the next step, before you could begin preaching or anything like that," said Bryce. "You're appealing to their senses first rather than engaging them on an intellectual level."

Sacred music in concerts makes sense, said Bryce, "especially in an age when our musical efforts in the liturgy are not perhaps the absolute best of music that we've ever composed.

"It's not necessarily the absolute vanguard of music making," he said.

Bryce believes the Festival of Sacred Music will have a different impact than other concerts in other churches simply because it is being held at the basilica.

"It may target people that have not been exposed to this sort of event before," he said.

"Hopefully, this becomes a regular part of the Edmonton musical calendar and continues to reach people that wouldn't ordinarily be concertgoers."


A high-level experience, showcasing the best that Alberta and all of North America has to offer is an important point of the festival, said Bryce. The program for the four inaugural concerts is varied, but all are at a professional level.

The next concert, on Mother's Day, Sunday, May 8, is a "very intriguing and unique" piece by Peter-Anthony Togni, said Bryce.

"It's a modern response to a piece of mediaeval music and it's spellbinding."

The third concert on June 18, music from five centuries, features the award-winning Chronos Vocal Ensemble, and the last concert on July 2, will feature basilica musicians themselves, putting on a Gioachino Rossini piece.

"It's a fantastic piece, a really fun piece to finish the festival with," said Bryce.

Tickets for the Festival of Sacred Music are available at Tix on the Square.

Letter to the Editor - 05/16/16