Wayland Rogers wants to make the past speak to the late 20th century.

Rogers, choirmaster at the Episcopal Cathedral of Saint James at Wabash and Huron, feels both the tug of the centuries and the tension of our times and of modern music. That much is clear as he discusses the new mass he has written for organ, brass, choir, and soloists. Resurrection Mass–actually a missa brevis, a short mass intended to be sung within a service rather than by itself as a concert piece–will be first performed this Sunday, Easter, at Saint James.

“The words, of course, are ancient,” Rogers says. “The Sanctus goes back to the Judaic tradition, and the Agnus Dei dates from the fourth century. For me as a composer, it’s hard to look at those texts in a new light. We’ve got everything, from gregorian chant up through Stravinsky, using those words, and you can’t help but have some of those ideals in mind. But I’ve tried to find new ways of setting those same words so that they might reveal yet another aspect of their meaning.”

One solution is minimalism. Rogers is quick to point out that the piece is not entirely minimalist, although it is definitely modern throughout. “But there are minimalist elements in it,” he says. “That sets it apart.”

Rogers believes the minimalist elements tie the mass to the liturgy it’s meant to serve. “I don’t think minimalism has yet reached the Church,” he says, “and I see minimalism as having great possibilities on a spiritual level. Minimalism is based on repetition, and repetition has a long history of being used to awaken the spirit in almost every religion. . . . repetition gets past the intellect and into the unconscious.”

About the work he says, “It’s very vigorous. I’ve striven for a joyous quality. I mean, it’s for Easter–certainly the most important Christian festival, celebrating light and life. It’s joyful, exuberant, and sometimes playful.”

Rogers’s confidence about the new work stems partly from his enthusiasm for the people who will perform it, as well as for the congregation who will hear it. And he believes the physical space at Saint James is an advantage. “I’m writing for a choir I know very well,” Rogers says. “I know their strengths, their possibilities. I know the acoustics of the church. I know the organ. I know who the listeners are–that can play an important role in the compositional process. I know the specific occasion for which it’s intended, an Easter service. I love writing occasional pieces like this.”

The Saint James choir consists of 35 singers, over half of whom are professionals who sing regularly with such ensembles as the Lyric Opera Chorus, the Chicago Symphony Chorus, Music of the Baroque, and Chicago Opera Theater. Most of the choir are also Episcopalians. Often accompanied by orchestra, the choir performs in an 11-event series at the cathedral, “Music of Distinction,” in addition to singing every Sunday at the 11 AM service. (The choir’s next event will be a concert of the music of Igor Stravinsky, accompanied by the DePaul University Wind Ensemble, on May 1. It will follow a brief evening prayer service at 4.)

Rogers and his colleague, organist Samuel Salvadore Soria Jr., are the latest in a long line of distinguished musicians who have led the music program at Saint James. Dudley Buck, one of the first Americans to make a name for himself writing church music, was organist-choirmaster from 1869 to 1871, and the distinguished composer Leo Sowerby held the post from 1927 to 1962.

Directing the music at Saint James is just one of the many hats Rogers wears. Since he moved to Chicago in 1973, he says he’s “tried to manage several careers at once–I’m a professional singer, a composer, a conductor, and I’m on the voice faculty at DePaul.” In 1986 a CBS Masterworks recording on which he sang–a Mozart performance by the Chicago Symphony Winds and three vocalists–was nominated for a Grammy. The same ensemble will perform this August at the Mostly Mozart Festival in New York.

Rogers thinks his versatility works to his benefit as a composer. “I’m not an ‘academic’ composer,” he says. “For the past 50 or 60 years, so much music has been written for other composers and for grant competitions. Too often, the verbal description of such pieces is better than the music itself.” While not a maverick, Rogers makes it clear that he’s “beholden to no one–I can write for myself.”

He obviously writes for others as well. “Several years ago, I made a commitment to make an enormous difference in people’s lives through my music, their inner lives. This may sound basic, but as a composer, I actually write for other people to hear. It’s a way of expressing what I think is important. Each piece you write is a statement. The piece I’ve written for Easter is an important statement, and I want people to be moved by it.”

Resurrection Mass will be performed as part of the 11 AM service on Sunday, April 3, at the Episcopal Cathedral of Saint James, 65 E. Huron. Call 787-7360 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.