Imitating Chartres: Cathedral to ring with concert for everyone


On a sunny day earlier this week, in the shade provided by the cathedral where he works, Robert Twynham offered a gentle, final admonition to a luncheon companion.

"Now remember, I'm the music director of the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen," he said, poking fun at himself, "not the one at Chartres Cathedral."

Earlier that day, Twynham had talked warmly about the role of Chartres in the 12th and 13th centuries.

"It was one of the great intellectual and artistic centers of Europe," he said. "It tried to serve everybody -- and not just in a religious sense. I guess what I'm trying to do with my concert series is to bring some of that -- in the most ecumenical sense -- to Charles Street."

Sunday afternoon, Twynham, who has been the cathedral's music director since 1961, will present one of the most ambitious concerts ever in the "Music at the Cathedral Series." With an orchestra comprised of 40 of Baltimore's best free-lance musicians, he will conduct the local premiere of his own "Choral Fantasy on 'Crimond,' " a chorus-and-orchestra setting of the Scottish hymn, "Crimond,' a setting of the "Twenty-Third Psalm," and John Rutter's ever-popular "Requiem."

"A place of worship is a wonderful place," Twynham said, as he led a visitor through the cathedral, which was irradiated by the brilliantly colored light coming through the stained-glass windows. "If you participate in the liturgy, so many things are active on your senses; there's the sense of taste in the Eucharist, of smell in the incense and of sight in the windows. But you don't need the liturgy to give people a sense of the transcendental in this place, and it can happen in a concert."

Twynham has been a church musician his entire life. He graduated from Peabody 40 years ago, worked for a few years in a church in Brooklyn, N.Y., -- where he met his wife, Eileen, who is a poet as well as a musician. Then, in 1961, he returned to Baltimore, to the cathedral.

But he's had a sense of music in the broadest sense since he traveled to Paris as a 20-year-old to spend a year studying with Olivier Messiaen, the legendary creator of some of the 20th century's most ambitious and enduring music, on a personal scholarship from the composer himself.

"That was the greatest year of my life," says Twynham, 64, recalling the three-hour lectures he listened to twice each week on hard, backless benches, along with equally enraptured fellow students -- some of whom, like Karlheinz Stockhausen, went on to become superstar avatars of the European avant-garde.

Paris wasn't entirely a joy, however. While walking down one of its streets, Twynham was knocked over by what he thought was a club, but was actually the onset of Meniere's Syndrome, which eventually deprived him of most of the hearing in one ear. But he went on to a career in church music uninterrupted until January ** 1993, when Meniere's Syndrome struck the other ear.

"My hearing became incredibly distorted -- I couldn't tell the difference between this," he says, as he knocks a tabletop, "and middle C. I was going out of my mind -- I thought my career as a musician was over."

But a still-experimental treatment restored the hearing in his ear last year. "I had an appreciation, as never before, that hearing was such a gift," Twynham says, "and I threw myself back into my work."

One of the things he most wanted to do, he says, was make the cathedral's music series a magnet for music-loving people of all beliefs.

"I sort of think of Sunday's concert as a start in that direction," Twynham says. "You know, a lot of conditions are right. The Baltimore area is filled with talented musicians and this cathedral has an archbishop in Cardinal Keeler who feels very strongly about ecumenical endeavors and who loves music.

"And," Twynham adds with a smile, "this is the only place in the state that resembles the Cathedral at Chartres."


Where: Cathedral of Mary Our Queen

When: 5:30 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $6-$10

$ Call: (410) 433-8803

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