Expect ‘acoustically alive’ concert at Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception with presentation of Handel’s ‘Messiah’

Attendees of the 81st performance of George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” are in for an “acoustically alive” concert when singers take the stage Dec. 4  in a new location — the recently renovated Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.

The Cathedral was built in 1913 after the original church was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1910. Stained glass was added in the 1930s.

A renovation in the 1940s, however, changed everything.

“Monsignor Boudreaux was pastor in the 1940s and he really was ahead of his time,” said Robert Marcantel, director of music for the parish. “He would invest in recording equipment and as a result we have some early recordings of the cathedral choir. He really liked music.”

One of the things Boudreaux didn’t care for, according to Marcantel, was the reverberation time when the choir performed.

“So he put this acoustical tile up that was made to look like stone,” Marcantel said. “From the 1940s until the 2010s, that tile stayed up there.”

Acoustic tiles can help absorb sound and reduce echo while also preventing sound from traveling to adjacent rooms.

“One of the first things they did when the very early stages of the Cathedral restoration began was to tear down all those acoustical tiles because they realized it was made of asbestos and moisture had gotten in back of them. What happened was when they took all the tiles down, all of the sudden the acoustics drastically changed.”

Marcantel said once the restoration was complete, the decision was also made to not reinstall cushions on the wooden pews.

“The pews are hardwood finished, there’s terrazzo floor, then a marble extension was added to the front of the front altar area, so now you have all these reflective surfaces — marble, wood, terrazzo tile — and now if the cathedral is empty there is a six-to-seven minute delay when you finish singing or playing an instrument.”

Marcantel said if one were to stand underneath the dome where the painting of the Blessed Mother hangs while the choir sings in the back, it sounds like the music is coming from the Blessed Mother’s mouth.

“It’s really, really crazy,” he said with a laugh.

Marcantel said “Messiah” director Colette Bulber Tanner has sung in the cathedral when it has been empty and “it was like I could hear the sound traveling toward me like waves of an ocean.”

“When that sound hit me, it washed over me and I got major, major chills,” he said. “I’ve never experienced anything like that before.”

Marcantel said without the tiles, the building is extremely reverberant now — something that was missing for nearly 70 years.

Also of note, is the fact that Francis G. Bulber — Colette’s father and founder of the beloved performance — was the parish’s choir director at one time.

“He was a wonderful, wonderful man; a gentle soul,” Marcantel said. “I think it’s appropriate to have ‘Messiah’ play here for the first time because of that connection.

Marcantel said ‘Messiah’ was performed for the first time in a building in Dublin, Ireland, that was about the same size as the cathedral.

“I think there’s beauty in having it here not only because of the acoustics, and not only because of the history with Dr. Bulber being the choir director here at one time, and the connection of it first being performed in a building the same size as the cathedral but it’s also a more intimate setting,” Marcantel said. “I think that’s a very exciting thing, too.”

The free performance is set for 3:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 4, at 935 Bilbo St.

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