A single voice praising God: an interview with the conductor of the Custody’s choir

A single voice praising God: an interview with the conductor of the Custody’s choir

Linked to a now centuries-old tradition, the Choir of the Custody of the Holy Land accompanies some of the most important liturgical times in the year, including the Mass announcing that God has been made man, which takes place in Bethlehem on Christmas night.

The choir has been conducted by Jamil Freij since last year: born in Jerusalem, Jamil is a tenor and singing teacher. His is a life dedicated to music.

“It has been really strange, but at the same time very stimulating, to become the conductor of the Choir I have belonged to since I was 15. My academic journey began at the  Magnificat, the Custody’s school of music, to then continue at the Pedrollo Conservatory in  Vicenza, with which our school has a partnership. When fr. Alberto Joan Pari, the director of the Magnificat, asked me last year to conduct the choir, in just a few months I went from being a member of the choir to facing the great challenge of conducting this element which I believe is essential to the liturgy.”

Another perspective

“As conductor, I have realized that we have to change our perspective: as a singer I was used to concentrating on myself and my voice, whereas this role forces me to open up to others, to listen, to manage all the scores and to create a single voice which accompanies truly special moments, especially here in the Holy Land. I believe that one of the greatest challenges is that of “creating” the choir, i.e. finding members who are committed in the long term to feeling part of this group. Today the choir of the Custody is made up of about 25 members from different countries: there are local Arabs, French volunteers, and then Italians,  and German, sisters and friars. It is a wonderful and stimulating environment, precisely in its diversity. We sing in Latin above all, but also in Arabic and in Italian.”

The special occasions of the Choir

“The Choir of the Custody concentrates its activities in particular on two great liturgical events:  Christmas night and the Holy Week in Jerusalem. We are also asked to accompany the solemn festivities of St Francois, St Anthony and Pentecost. Of course,  the Christmas Mass which is celebrated at midnight in Bethlehem is a very famous and well-loved Mass, as it is an “international” Mass, streamed live all over the world. Holy Week, though, is the most challenging work for the choir because the many celebrations that follow on one another have unique characteristics: this is why the repertoire has to be particularly wide. We have a great responsibility: to help the faithful experience the special moments of the Christian mystery in an intimate way.”

The repertoire

“I don’t know whether it is correct to say so, but I think that we can say that the repertoire is also part of the “status quo”. I mean that hymns have entered tradition at the most important festivities of Christmas and Easter such as “Christus factus est”  (Offerimus ergo tibi) by Ignaz Mitterer, which has always been in the repertoire of the Holy Week. At the same time, there are many pieces created and arranged by fr. Armando Pierucci, the Holy Sepulchre organist, founder of the Magnificat and a famous performer and composer. Fra Armando has written a lot for these liturgical events and he is still always ready to rearrange pieces that are too complex: for example, last Good Friday, we sang his composition on the “Passion”. I have always had a special bond with fra Armando, my teacher, who has seen me grow, study, graduate and become a teacher.”

Will all the members of the choir be able to go to Bethlehem for Christmas Mass?

“Everything is ready for Midnight Mass: we have worked very well in the past few months. Of course, the situation is instable due to the conflict, and this means that, a few days from Christmas, we still do not know whether and how we will be able to go to Bethlehem. But we are sure that a solution will be found because the presence of the choir is not secondary. We know that the line adopted this year by the Churches of Jerusalem is that of a “sober” and unostentatious Christmas, but ours is not only a “festive” participation:  our job is to accompany the believers in the liturgy and in prayer. The choir is an integral part of the celebration and it is important that it “guides” the faithful and involves them. This year I have decided to include some very well-known songs such as  “Silent nox”, “Adeste fideles” and  “From starry skies descending” as well as “Gloria in Excelsis Deo”, in Arabic, with which we hope to open the Midnight Mass in Bethlehem with joy and jubilation.” 

Silvia Giuliano