As the new organist for the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, Mark Loria is hoping to restore the church’s status as the “leader for the entire Philadelphia region in liturgy and music.” (Photo courtesy of Mark Loria)

by Michael Caruso

As in many of the great cities of the world, especially in the U.S., Philadelphia’s classical music community is led by its symphony orchestra. Founded in 1900, the Philadelphia Orchestra remains one of the greatest symphonic ensembles in the world. Its concerts, recordings and tours draw worldwide interest.

Philadelphia also boasts a world-class ballet company, the Pennsylvania Ballet, and an opera company of international note, Opera Philadelphia. Our town’s Curtis Institute of Music, founded in 1924 and located on Rittenhouse Square, is considered among the most elite music conservatories in the world.

The Academy of Vocal Arts, located only a few blocks away, has been producing opera stars of the future since it was launched in 1933. Both Curtis and AVA are among the nation’s only full-scholarship musical institutions.

Missing in this roster of nationally prominent musical leaders are Philadelphia’s Roman Catholic and Episcopal (Anglican) cathedrals. Neither at the present time boasts a musical program of even regional stature.

The musical efforts of the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral, located at 38th and Ludlow Sts. in West Philadelphia, are so negligible that one would be hard pressed to discover them let alone be impressed by them. The result has been that the mantle of musical prominence, both choral and at the organ, has fallen on several of the parishes within the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania.

Fortunately for Chestnut Hillers who love great choral music and singing, great organs and organ playing, two of those parishes share the local zip code: St. Paul’s and St. Martin-in-the-Fields. When you include St. Thomas, Whitemarsh, along with Center City’s St. Mark’s and Old Christ Church, then the pickings are far from slim.

Up until recently, those pickings have been pretty slim, indeed, for local Roman Catholics. Although the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, located along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway at Logan Circle, is undeniably a magnificent structure and historic treasure, its musical offerings have been in eclipse since the departure of John Romeri as its music director several years ago.

The first sign of hope came with the naming of Charlene Angelini as music director for the Cathedral Basilica and the entire Archdiocese of Philadelphia. With the recent appointment of Mark Loria as organist at the Cathedral Basilica, the “other shoe” has dropped – in a good way.

Loria hails from the New York City borough of Staten Island. He started playing the piano at the age of 6 and, by the time he was 13 years old, his repertoire focus was jazz. When he reached high school age, he began taking the ferry to Manhattan to attend Regis High School. The school is an integral part of the campus complex of St. Ignatius Catholic Church (Jesuit) on Park Avenue.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I am a member of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, Society Hill, Philadelphia’s oldest Catholic church and founded by the Jesuit Fathers in 1733. Our music director, Mark Bani, was previously the music director for 24 years of St. Vincent Ferrer, Dominican Friars, Catholic Church, only a few blocks away from St. Ignatius Church.)

Loria received his undergraduate degree in music and pre-med from Swarthmore College. His private piano teacher was Marcantonio Barone, who oversaw Loria’s return to the classical repertoire through study of the Romantics such as Chopin and Brahms as well as forays into the work of modern composers such as George Crumb of nearby Media.

Upon graduation from Swarthmore College in 2008, Loria returned to New York City and worked as a guidance counselor at Regis High School. It was there that he first became interested in the organ, listening to Kent Tritle and Nancianne Parrella’s playing at Mass at St. Ignatius Church. “I saw and heard him merge faith and music,” Loria told me, “and I said to myself that I needed to learn how to do that.”

Loria began taking organ lessons from Andrew Hauze for the next two years, building a foundation and taking and passing the American Guild of Organists’ examination. “I got my first job as an organist at St. Jean Baptiste Catholic Church.” The parish is located on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

“I was the associate organist,” he recalled. “We had a choir comprised of eight professionals complemented by volunteers. The church had a monster of an organ, and it forced me to figure out a lot of things about how to play the organ at Mass because it was my responsibility to do whatever was needed.

“More importantly, I realized that it was time for me to get some serious training as an organist. So I applied for and was accepted into the graduate program at Westminster Choir College as a sacred music major.”

While studying at Westminster and for two years following graduation, Loria worked as the organist at the Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton, New Jersey. “After John Romeri left the Cathedral Basilica,” Loria explained, “and Charlene Angelini was hired as overall music director, the next step was to hire an organist to play not only the weekend Masses at the Cathedral Basilica but also to play at special Archdiocesan events.”

In testimony to just how small a world Philadelphia’s church music community is, Zachary Hemenway was regularly called upon to play the organ at Archdiocesan Masses. Hemenway earlier this month left his position as music director at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, to take up a similar post at Epiphany Episcopal Church in Seattle, Washington.

“During her first year,” Loria said, “Charlene depended upon several interim organists to play at the Cathedral Basilica. But then I was invited to apply for the permanent position, and fortunately, I was accepted.”

Loria’s responsibilities include accompanying the various choirs that sing at the Cathedral Basilica. These include the Cathedral Choir that sings every Sunday at the 11 a.m. High Mass from September through June, the Archdiocesan Choir that sings at special Masses, plus the Archdiocesan Children’s Choir comprised of boys and girls.

The major project now under consideration at the Cathedral Basilica is its multi-million dollar plan for a new organ. “The pipe organ we now have is probably on its last legs,” Loria said. “This is a glorious space, and it deserves — the whole Archdiocese deserves — a world-class pipe organ.”

Loria recently took a “look-see” at Old Christ Episcopal Church in Old City as its newly commissioned Fisk pipe organ was being installed. That parish’s music director, Parker Kitterman, invited Erik Meyer and the Choir of Chestnut Hill’s Episcopal Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields to join his own choristers for a dedicatory Choral Evensong Sunday, May 6. Needless to say, the Chestnut Hillers sang splendidly.

“Along with choosing a builder,” Loria said, “we’re also focusing on fundraising. I dream of us having an organ recital series here at the Cathedral Basilica, of it being a destination church for lovers of great organs and great organ recitals.

“My goal is to return the Cathedral Basilica to its rightful place as the leader for the entire Philadelphia region in liturgy and music. I want us to be able to offer beautiful music within a beautiful liturgy.”

You can contact NOTEWORTHY at Michael-caruso@comcast.net. To read more of NOTEWORTHY, visit www.chestnuthilllocal.com/Arts/Noteworthy.

  • MWnyc

    Last I heard it, St. Clement’s, just off the Parkway, had a pretty good choir and music program, too.

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