Ryba’s Czech Christmas Mass premieres in Chicago

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It has taken more than 200 years for Jakub Jan Ryba’s Czech Christmas Mass to come to Chicago, but it seems that good things come to those who wait. The Ryba Mass was premiered in the Windy City on Saturday and Rosie Johnston was there.

Here in the United States at the moment, department stores and radio stations are playing Christmas songs more or less non-stop. But it’s only upon very rare occasion indeed that you hear this sort of Christmas music in the American Midwest. On Saturday, December 17, Jakub Jan Ryba’s Czech Christmas Mass had its Chicago premiere. The mass was performed to a packed house at the Chicago Temple. Kirin Nielsen was one of the singers:

“It was a completely new piece for me, but such a charming piece. The writing for the orchestra is just like a town band, and I think that the organ part could well be done on a harmonium in a small village. And the writing for the choir is extremely simple, so I could see that being done, say, by a group of people who love to sing with their town band. Obviously, it was very beloved of the people who came in the audience.”

The performance was originally the idea of Judy Munson. She encouraged members of the Windy City’s Czech community to team up with the Chicago Temple’s choristers and sing:

“Once they started, and once they could see that the people here at the church wanted to learn how to say the words – and once they saw that the musicians being brought into the mix could actually play and would embrace them as well - it became this miracle.”

The Temple’s Musical Director, Erik Nussbaum, spent almost half a year preparing for the performance. He says the Ryba Mass has introduced him both to Czech culture, and to this city’s sizeable Czech community:

Erik Nussbaum
“They are the warmest people I have ever met. I got a feel for the whole thing at a Moravian Day Festival – the 72nd annual Moravian Day Festival here in the Chicago Area – out in Lemont, Illinois. I heard all the singers there and I thought ‘oh, they would be fun to add to our choir, because what they really added to us was the spirit of the piece, because it is so close to their hearts. They know it inside and out, because it is their tradition so, that spirit infused with our music making and just… it made an extraordinary experience.”

So, praise all round from the organizers, but what did the audience make of Saturday’s premiere?

“I think it was really nice, yes. I think that everybody did a great job.”

Okay, and have you ever seen this performed in a church before – was this a setting you are used to seeing this performed in?

“I’ve actually never seen it, I have to say. I’m a little embarrassed…”

Well, what do you think about it being here in Chicago?

“I loved it. It was really cool, and especially being down town, because it’s accessible to all people – and even people from the [Christmas] market and everything. I really enjoyed it, yeah.”

“I saw it one time or two times in the Czech Republic. It is really popular in Czech culture, and every year you can hear it from the radio or the TV. I really appreciate the American performance, how they were good in the Czech and how they were able to learn so hard a language as Czech is.”

First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple
“I thought that it intertwined a little bit of Czech culture with the Christmas spirit, and it had the opportunity to shed some light on kind of how Czechs are celebrating their version of Christmas now in Chicago.”

Okay, and do you think that a Chicago audience took to it really warmly and well? Was that the impression that you got?

“I feel like mostly what I saw was Czech-Americans who took to it incredibly well. I didn’t have a chance to talk to so many non Czech-related people, but generally speaking I think it was moving for those who haven’t heard it for a while and maybe those who heard it for the first time.”

“Oh, it’s unbelievable. It makes me proud of my Czech heritage!”

If the warm reception at the premiere was anything to go by, these won’t be the final strains of Jakub Jan Ryba’s Czech Christmas Mass we hear in Chicago.