What sweeter music. . .Leo Nestor

On Sunday afternoon, September 22 [2019], many of my dearest friends and musical colleagues and I learned of the death of Dr. Leo Cornelius Nestor. The obituary gives scant idea of the depth and breadth of his influence. When I find something more inclusive online I will post that.

“Nestorianism” is defined as the doctrine that there were two separate persons, one human and one divine, in the incarnate Christ. I won’t get into the theological niceties of Nestorianism, but the duality concept strikes me as somehow apt for our dear Leo.

Not all of the following pairs of things represent exact opposites of each other, but they still stand in opposition to each other in some ways: The Shrine Choir v. The American Repertory Singers; Dr. Nestor, the Conductor (and later, Professor) v. Leo Nestor the Composer; and last, but not least, Leo, the Caring Friend and Companion v. Nestor the Impossible-to-please Perfectionist. To complicate these pairings, it must be said that the last two components often were elements in most of the others.

Most of the singers who sang with me under Dr. Nestor’s direction did so at least initially at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, in Northeast Washington, DC, where Leo was music director from 1984 to 2001. Sometimes I refer to it as the Basilica, and sometimes as the Shrine in this post. It is the largest Roman Catholic Church in North America, and the Liturgical Music Program was appropriately grand in scale.

“A forced march”

A year at the Shrine began with the evening rehearsal (7:30-10:00pm) the Thursday after Labor Day, with a 10:30am shorter (though often much longer than it should have been) rehearsal call on Sunday morning before the Noon Mass. In addition, there were required calls for the major Feast Days of the Church: November 1 (All Saints’ Day), November 2 (All Souls’ Day), December 8 (Feast of the Immaculate Conception—more about that later), December 24 (“Midnight” Mass, celebrated at 8:30pm), December 25,
Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday (a lengthy Easter Vigil), etc., continuing through the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary on August 15, celebrated on whatever day of the week it happened to fall. After a short hiatus, it all began again.

For each of these rehearsals and liturgies, there was music proper (or “Proper”) to that particular Sunday of the Church Year. Leo would often say that we were “a Church of texts,” meaning that the only reason for all of the glorious music that we diligently rehearsed and sang week after week was to convey the texts, central to the Roman Catholic Church’s beliefs.

On any given Sunday, in addition to joining in the congregational Processional, Communion, and Recessional hymns printed in the Worship Leaflet, the choir was solely responsible for a setting of three parts of the Ordinary of the Mass (“Ordinary” meaning their texts remained constant in each day’s Mass), in Latin or English), and the composers ranged from the Renaissance (Palestrina, Byrd, di Lasso, etc.), through the Baroque (Bach, Handel, Schütz, etc.), Classical (Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, etc.),
Romantic (Rheinberger, Bruckner, etc.), the 20th Century (Howells, Vaughn-Williams, etc.) to living composers (Proulx, Near, and Nestor—lots of Nestor:

  • An Introit, before the Processional, often penned by Leo that morning in a style he called “Plainsong New;”Kyrie (“Lord, Have Mercy”);
  • Gloria (“Glory to God in the highest,” omitted during the seasons of Advent and Lent);
  • Agnus Dei (“Lamb of God”);
  • There would be a choral piece during the Offertory;
  • Another after piece Communion;
  • A Communion chant, also “Plainsong New,” an example of which appears below.

This was distinct repertoire, every single week. Over the course of the year we sang an incredible amount of music, and it was hard, though always rewarding, work. Leo referred to it as “a forced march.”

Leo the Linguist

When it came to conveying text, Leo was absolutely unrelenting in his insistence on clarity of enunciation. Many of us came to him thinking we had mastered this craft, either in college or with previous choir directors. Many of us came to realize very soon under Leo’s tutelage that we had not.

There is a Facebook page called “The Quotable Nestor,” on which many of us who sang for him throughout the years have posted our recollections of some of the clever, insightful, outrageous, provocative, or simply downright absurd things he said in rehearsals in order to achieve his desired result. A significant portion of these sayings had to do with the pronunciation—or more likely, mispronunciation—of the text. A significant portion, it should be said, were not “politically-correct” by most definitions. But it should also be said that no group was spared his humorous sayings.

Always—absolutely always—the humor, whether biting or not, was well-planned in such a way as to make the intended lesson hit home and stay there. Many singers in whatever genre give little thought to making the text clear, or have acquired bad habits they may think constitute good diction but are quite the opposite.

“We do not sing as we speak!”

A lesser pedagogue might have phrased this as, “We should not sing the way we speak,” but Leo was never one to mince words. There was a time when properly-trained native English speakers did indeed speak and sing in much the same way, at least in polite, public society, but the late 20th- and early 21st-Century American does not. The irony is that Leo did, for the most part, speak as he wanted us to sing, with infinite, loving attention paid to each phoneme [there’s a word I suspect many of us had never heard before!], so that no word could ever be mistaken for one that sounded—at least when spoken by Iowa Combine-Drivers—similar to another, or, worse yet, a non-existent, nonsense word. But he would never simply state these concepts in such a pedestrian manner as “Yore and Your are not pronounced the same way!” Instead, we were typically admonished as follows [I’ve added clarifying text in brackets]:

Yore refers to preterite time; your is the second-person possessive article.” [True confession: I was pretty sure I knew what he meant, but still had to look up the word preterite when writing this to be sure.]

“The first-person plural possessive pronoun [our] is pronounced aʊə, and the second-person form of the verb ‘to be’ [are] is ɑr, preferably without a combine-driver’s masticated ‘r’ at the end! These are not interchangeable!”

“If you hear someone chewing the ever-loving hell out of that ‘T’, even after I asked that it be muted 14 times, lay hands on that person and evict them from the Body of Christ.”

“No unholy alliances!”

This was sometimes alternately stated as “No unholy marriages!” A common mistake of singers who think they have excellent English diction is to over-pronounce words, one symptom of which is to runwordstogetherinabiguglyjumble. The “Quotable Nestor” page in Facebook is full of humorous examples, but I’ll list a couple of my own favorites here.

“Could someone please tell me what a ‘Dangel’ is? The text is ‘So spake the Lord Angel.’ I don’t know what a ‘Lore Dangel’ is. [“Ave Maria—So Spake the Archangel” from the “I Sing of a Maiden” CD.]

“The Second Person of the Trinity is not a ‘chile’ by the name of ‘Dan Dweep!’” [“That Hee the ould Eternall Word should bee a Child, and weepe.” This is one of the most moving moments in Richard Dirksen’s setting of the poem, the text conveyed with a sense of hushed wonder, but I could never sing it afterward without an inner smile when I thought about “Dan Dweep.”]

“Raise your hand if you’re traveling to the planet ‘Zarm!’” – [Pointing out failure to properly separate “his” and “arm.” The text is from the Magnificat, “He has shown strength with His arm.”]

While British spoken pronunciation sometimes favors these liaisons between words, in spoken and sung American English, they are anathema. Despite what some voice teachers and coaches may have drilled into their students’ minds, the tiny spaces between words that Leo was demanding for the sake of textual clarity do not preclude a legato, or connected, singing line. Anyone who claims they do should be required to listen to Christa Ludwig singing the Schubert Lied, Ellens dritter Gesang (“Ave Maria”), as proper German pronunciation demands a glottal “attack” (though I’ve never liked that word in the context of singing) at the beginning of any word starting with a vowel.

The Music: A Singer’s conductor

If it seems I’ve spent an inordinate amount of space discussing Leo’s handling of text, keep in mind that as he made clear to us countless times, if we failed to make the text intelligible to the listener we were wasting our time and effort with the music.

And oh, what music there was! What other music director/conductor could put together a program so artfully? Whether it be the liturgy for the Umpteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, a Papal Visit, or a concert seemingly examining the entirety of Sacred Music (see “Pittsburgh NPM, 1991” below), the combination of attention to textual relevance, revelatory juxtaposition of styles, elegant transitions from one key to the next, and variety of musical forces (unaccompanied pieces interspersed with organ or ensemble accompaniment) could be the basis of a post-doctoral seminar.

Of course, an encyclopedic knowledge of the choral repertoire does not by itself guarantee music-making at an exalted level. As hundreds, if not thousands, of us can attest, Leo Cornelius Nestor had the chops necessary to bring the music off the page and into life.

At the first rehearsal with Leo, the neophyte singer would immediately be struck by the clarity of his conducting. Beating a clearly understandable pattern is one of the first things conductors are taught, but Leo’s skill went so far beyond that. My friend and colleague James C. Dennis-Siranovich, a talented pianist and conductor, says it far better than I:

“Having studied the great conductors for 25+ years, I will just say it without equivocation: He was a genius conductor, the caliber of Carlos Kleiber, Claudio Abbado, Furtwängler, or any other giant you care to name. . . . He transcended ‘the beat’. He expected a collective listening and a collective responsibility for keeping the pulse going SO THAT he could show you 18 other things. The character. The articulation. The qualities of vowels. The releases and agogic accents. He abhorred anything mechanical, over-syllabic, or over-articulate. Music lived and breathed and was summoned. Baroque inflections flew out of his hands. The tension and release among voices lived in his entire body. He channeled the music to the degree that it felt like spontaneous creation. While he was a brilliant man, he never lost the visceral, sensual aspect of music or its performance. In rehearsal, he was a benevolent (usually) tyrant, but got away with it because he also had California Cool.”

Because of his own incredible level of preparation for every rehearsal, liturgy, recording session, etc., Leo demanded the same from all of his musicians. Our time together in rehearsal was for putting everything together, not to learn the notes and get them into your voice. He fully expected you to come to rehearsal with the music “in the mind and musculature,” which meant you had not only “skimmed through it over coffee this morning,” but actually spent whatever time you required to understand the text and music, to know what was on the other side of a page-turn [Mind], to ensure your vocal instrument and breathing mechanism [Musculature] had practiced that difficult leap, or sudden pianissimo high note, or whatever the challenge might be.

“Darlings, the music editors stay up nights to ensure the most surprising note or phrase follows a page-turn!”

He was demanding but also incredibly generous. He would impart all he knew of style and performance practice, but also admit when he didn’t know something, and call upon the expertise of others, either in the ensemble or elsewhere.

“You do not have to know everything. But you should have someone on speed-dial who knows everything. Am I an expert in French Baroque ornaments? No. But I’ve got four people I can call any time who know it like I know the alphabet.”

His “exquisite hands” (sometimes “expensive hands”) could provide far more information than lesser mortals might express in a half-hour of discussion. But sometimes, especially in the heat of the battle (and rehearsals could sometimes feel like armed conflict), he would have to resort to humor, cutting or not, to express what he wanted musically, just as the examples above demonstrated in the area of diction.

“Don’t make me look at you with my mother’s eyes. [Does piercing blue-eyed stare] You wanna see that? I didn’t think so.” [His mother’s eyes were capable not only of glaring at an errant singer, but also gazing warmly at the ensemble when all went well.]

“Alto! You show regard neither for my hands nor my mother’s eyes. She who continues to dwell in the insular vacuity of the alto-line shall soon find herself in the bread-line.” [The alto part in choral music can occasionally be mind-numbingly dull, but that’s certainly no excuse for the singer to check-out from what the rest of the ensemble is doing.]

“Not so much crescendo. Save something for the second date.” [The first sentence would’ve gotten the point across; the second made sure you didn’t forget it!]

As James says above, Leo expected all his singers to take responsibility for internalizing the beat of the music so he could do more than be a traffic cop with his conducting. Being Leo, he would express this in a number of colorful ways. Perhaps the most frequently-mentioned was the idea of the “rhythmic sphincter,” which was a rather graphic way of referring to keeping the pulse of the music—and you were responsible for knowing whether that was a half note, quarter note, or other note value—beating somewhere inside your body. And woe to the singer who indicated that beat outside his or her body by swaying in time or—God forbid—conducting!

“Ladies and gentleman, the cellist is quite clearly defining the primary beat! Your rhythmic sphincter should be wrapped around his bow!” [It was probably a Bach piece we were singing, and since there was an orchestra, it was Christmas or Easter. This statement elicited simultaneous “Eww!” and “Ooh!” responses from two singers.]

The Educator

Leo’s singers love recounting the endless amusing anecdotes, which could probably fill a book. The most effective ones were oft-repeated, but one thing I learned from reading The Quotable Nestor on Facebook was that there was a seemingly endless supply of new ones. More important was the fact that after leaving the professional ensemble of musicians at the Shrine, he went on to teach new generations of musicians at The Catholic University of America.

But he didn’t use only humor to teach. He constantly dispensed pearls of wisdom with the same linguistic panache.

“Read the whole score. Not just your part. Sing through everybody’s part in private. Real musicians do it.”

“If chant and Renaissance polyphony aren’t sung with the commitment and passion you hear in black Gospel singers, who wants to hear it? Different style. Same passion. They believe those Gospel songs. Do you believe this? Sing like those Sacraments are REAL.”

“I don’t advocate wild vibrato in everything. No way. But none? Please. Vibrato is natural to the human vocal instrument. A lot of people say otherwise—of course, they have recordings from back in the 1500s, right, so they KNOW there was no vibrato.”

To a student composer who asked how to write well for the voice:
Leo: You should marry a singer.
Student: My wife plays the trumpet.
Leo: Well then have an affair with a singer! [Mic drop]

In addition to his exquisite hands and verbal precision, he would sometimes give us scores filled with annotations he expected us to transfer to our own—in a manner we could understand—to achieve the results he wanted. In the score of Palestrina’s “Super flumina Babylonis” below Leo uses the horizontal brackets to indicate rhythmic groupings of text that give a more sensitive reading. This is necessary because of the way most modern editions of Renaissance polyphony force the proverbial round peg into the square hole, wrangling music originally written without bar lines (as we know them) into modern time signatures and resulting in unaccented syllables falling on downbeats of measures.

In the days since learning of his death, so many of his former singers, both students from CUA and professional singers from the Shrine and The American Repertory Singers have told stories of how they have used many of his phrases, as well as ones they created using his style, for the edification of their own students or colleagues.

Man of faith

Despite an often irreverent sense of humor—and vocabulary—Leo was a man of great faith. Some were offended by what they considered his taking the Lord’s name in vain. I would counter by saying that perhaps an exchange like the one below was not “in vain,” as the lesson it imparted was not likely to be forgotten.

“Sing like Jesus can hear you.”
“Can’t He?”
“Yes. Touché. But you’d never know it from the timidity I’m hearing now. Why are you nervous to sing before your Creator? He gave you good voices. And if you’re not nervous to sing before Him, how on EARTH are you nervous to sing in front of anyone else?”

This exchange with a student makes me both smile and tear up:

Student: Dr Nestor, I am sorry about your mother.
Leo: But why? Be sorry for me. SHE is probably beholding the glory of God right now, close-up.

Perhaps the greatest evidence of his deep faith is the sacred music he composed.

What sweeter music can we bring?

In the days before music-notation software became easier to use, Leo regularly handed us newly-composed scores in his own hand. A full analysis of his works could easily inspire several doctoral dissertations, but in the interests of space and time, I’ll limit my discussion to two of these.

In 1990 (my first Christmas at the Shrine) he composed a Carol to a text by Brian Wren.

Who comes? A child,
delivered on a stable floor.
His mewing, newborn cry
is all that God can say
of hunger, thirst and aching need
where Jesus lives today.

Come, singing fire
of truth, compassion, right,
and scorch our hardened apathy
Till love is new and bright.

Listen to the sensitivity with which he sets the text: the opening two-word question is given the interrogative inflection by the rising vocal line and then answered by its descending a perfect fifth to the tonic note of E (sol-do). But the underlying harmony doesn’t resolve to an E-major chord yet, ending in a deceptive cadence in c#-minor. The next line climbs the scale a full octave and a third; as with so many of his compositions, this is not easily achieved by the average parish choir. But this rising line, which then falls back to the D# leading tone on the word “say,” expresses the longing in the text. The following line lowers that D# to D-natural on “hunger,” and we finally resolve melodically and harmonically, “where Jesus lives today,” in E-major.

But we don’t rest there long, as the bass line descends to c#-minor for the bridge section, the melody descending from the upper E, and again alternating D# and D-natural in the melody. Interestingly, while the melody of the A section of each verse ends on the lower E tonic, the B section is suspended on the fifth note of the scale, B, giving it a sense of continuing on, in all three verses.

By the way, if you listen carefully to the first verse while following the words, you won’t hear anything about “an daching need” or “harden dapathy.” And imagine hearing it with lush strings accompanying in addition to the organ as here with The American Repertory Singers.

Having always loved Christmas music, I looked forward to Leo’s new Carol each year. One year in the early 1990s he set the poem of Robert Herrick, “What sweeter music[k] can we bring,” which has been set by many composers.

Still in the days of hand-written scores, it was a little trickier reading this one, with frequent changes in meter, and more “crunchy” chords (tight harmonies, peppered with expressive dissonances). But listening to it, I think the rhythm and meter serve the text well, without drawing attention to the difficulties they present to sight-reading singers. This recording is by The American Repertory Singers.

And it was still easier than “Where is this Stupendous Stranger?” circa 1993. I suppose I lied about limiting myself to two! If memory serves—and I trust it less these days—we were handed the manuscript to this one at a rehearsal in the Upper Church (as opposed to the more private choir room) for the big Christmas Concert with the Catholic University Chorus and Orchestra. While the orchestra and chorus took a break but were still milling about, we stood on the risers and attempted to sight-read a piece that doesn’t settle into an apparent tonality for quite some measures; listen for yourselves and imagine our efforts to make sense of this, while being verbally berated by its composer, and gawked at by undergraduates.

This brings me to. . .

Unreasonable expectations?

Leo could be quite difficult to work for. Many of his clever quips in rehearsals don’t appear on The Quotable Nestor or in this blog because he could, at times, come across as cruel. I’m not being politically correct; I genuinely do not believe he said things with the intent of hurting anyone’s feelings, but rather in the heat of the moment his frustration would cause him to lash out. This does not excuse any of the sometimes shocking things he said. Holding himself to the highest standards, he expected nothing less of those who sang or played for him. Not everyone was able to meet those standards consistently.

Pittsburgh NPM, 1991

I commented earlier about his genius at putting together a program. Sometimes too much of a good thing is, well, far too much.

In 1991, the Choir of the Basilica was invited to give a concert at the national convention of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians or NPM, an organization of Catholic church musicians. (It used to be NAPM, but people referred to it as “Napalm” and the “A” was removed.)

Leo put together an amazing program of music, both old and new—“Celebrate the Treasurehouse” was the title of it. Richard Proulx, renowned Catholic composer, was commissioned to write a work to be premiered at the concert. We rehearsed for many weeks, if not months, though to ease our burden somewhat, some of the selections were pieces we would be singing at liturgies at the Basilica.

As the July trip to Pittsburgh approached, some of us expressed concern about the length of the program, but Leo insisted it was “an hour and a half, tops.”

Thus we found ourselves in an un- or under-airconditioned St. Paul’s Cathedral in Pittsburgh to “Celebrate the Treasurehouse” twice for the convention attendees, since there was no venue large enough to hold all
who wished to attend.

The first concert began at 5:30pm and lasted until almost 8:00. We had barely half an hour before the 8:30pm show to pee, drink some water, and try to revive our exhausted bodies to do it all over again. Leo did remove a couple of pieces from the program order for the second time.

Perhaps the most quintessentially “Leonine” thing about this concert (I can’t recall if it was the 5:30 or 8:30 performance) happened during the Mozart “Ave Verum Corpus,” in which the attendees were invited to sing with us in observance of the 200th anniversary of the composer’s death. The music was printed in the program, though many could have sung it from memory. At some point Leo realized the congregation was not keeping up, and without missing a beat—or even scowling at them—his left hand pointed to his exquisitely precise right hand to indicate that they should pay attention.

The marathon program was, of course, completely unrealistic. But it was also the greatest joy I have ever had in pure music-making at such an exalted level. Singing for Pope [now Saint] John Paul II in Rome two years later was thrilling, but not for strictly musical reasons. The convention-going audience treated us like rock stars after each concert, as we stumbled back to our hotel, where a reception awaited us. There was food and perhaps an open bar. (I don’t remember paying, but I certainly remember a lot of drinking.) And we partied into the wee hours of the night, enjoying our temporary rock star status.

None of the “Pittsburgh Survivors” would have missed that experience for anything. Many of us heard from colleagues years later about how having heard that concert had a lasting effect on them as church musicians.

Dealing with Leo

The 1993 trip to Rome, on which the Shrine choir was accompanied by the orchestra of the Catholic University of America, was musically and spiritually rewarding on many levels. We gave two public concerts, and sang Masses at the Basilicas of Mary Major, St. John Lateran, and on the last day, St. Peter’s, before a private audience with the Pope.

But at times Leo’s demanding behavior and lack of patience with us led several of us to swear we would quit the group after the trip. I don’t know that any actually did, but I can attest that the impulse to do so was genuine.

All musicians know that we are hardest on ourselves when it comes to accepting less than our best. And Leo would be the first to admit that perfection not only is unattainable, but even undesirable. He complained about performances or recordings of some well-known choirs that were “machine-tooled” to within an inch of their lives, and therefore completely soulless.

He was also not effective in dealing with personnel issues. If he had a problem with a singer’s vocal quality—and we all experience vocal problems, as well as eventual decline, sometimes temporary due to illness, or permanent with age—or thought they weren’t right for the job for any other reason, he was not adept at dealing with it discreetly as one might be required by HR to do in a normal workplace, but was more likely to single that person out during rehearsal for their real or imagined transgressions.

I left the Shrine over twenty-five years ago (!) because I felt Leo was being unfair to me in the scheduling of cantors.

When I returned four years later, having tried various church jobs that were never as challenging or satisfying, I found a considerably mellower Leo than I had known before. Whether it was a maturity he hadn’t reached before, or some other change in his personal life, he was a much easier person to work for, and the level of music-making was not any poorer because of it. I am not generally prone to regrets, but I do regret missing out on those years, as well as the first year of ARS, which I declined to join at first because I was still upset with Leo.

The American Repertory Singers (ARS)

Leo founded ARS in 1994, in part to record new choral works issued by the music publisher ECSchirmer, which published many of his compositions. Another reason for the group was to give Leo opportunity to perform the secular choral repertoire he could not do with the choir of the Shrine. The following blurb excerpted from the liner notes of one of the ARS commercially-released recordings, is vintage Leo: “A singer’s conductor first, Nestor has envisioned for ARS a stylistic and vocal malleability of unparalleled diversity as response to the literature at hand.”

Several times a year we would meet to record selections from the upcoming catalog of ECSchirmer; these would be the CDs that subscribers to the publisher received along with perusal copies of the scores, to convince them to buy the music for their choirs.

This was actually fun! There was no looming performance to prepare for. We were all accomplished sight-readers and vocalists, and would rehearse perhaps two evenings and then have two evenings of recording sessions. The music was of varying quality, and Leo would observe that we made some of these pieces “sound much better than they are,” and suspected that some of the choir directors who bought them were in for a surprise if they thought they would sound like us.

The better selections from these “New Releases” CDs were assembled into two commercially-released CDs, “Sounding Joy” and “Welcome Christémas,” from which came all the YouTube clips to which I’ve linked. There were also several CDs recorded specifically for release.

We even acted as match-makers. We recorded a CD of the music of Richard Wienhorst, a well-known composer of contemporary Lutheran sacred music. A couple of years later we were invited to do a concert of his music for a convention in Richmond, VA, and there we met the woman who had heard his music on the CD, and became the widowed composer’s second wife.


I don’t know if it’s harder to believe that it was twenty-nine years ago that I first sang for Leo, that it has been eighteen years since I last sang for him regularly, or that he has left us.

As many have observed in the days since his death, his influence on us as musicians, teachers, writers, human beings, is not based on the length of time we spent with him, but on the incredible quality of that time.

In the midst of writing this, I attended church choir rehearsal last night, and at no time was I not employing the skills imparted by Dr. Nestor.

I finished writing this last night, and now am giving it another once-over in an attempt to shorten it, no doubt removing some attempted Nestorisms that fall short of his standard. But that standard keeps me trying!

In my new career as a voice-artist, every single time I record a sample script to audition for a job, or am narrating a 20-hour audiobook, I am evaluating the clarity and intelligibility of my work by his impeccable standards.

It was somewhere between my two stints at the Shrine that I began to spend time with Leo outside of musical circles. There were some incredibly pleasant, relaxed evenings of warm friendship and delicious meals in the secluded garden behind the Georgetown house of two other dearly cherished friends of Leo’s, also no longer with us on this physical plane.

My dear friend Mark Cobb, present at those fondly-remembered garden parties, wrote this morning:

“The key idea for me keeps coming around to the fact that Leo was a very unique figure in my life – pivotal. Had I not met him and been invited to sing at the Shrine, my life would have been very, very different now. He took a high-school trained singer with a good voice and a few years under Paul Hill and turned him into this – musician, person, friend, Catholic. I marvel at it and realize that I am not so sad as I am grateful.”

Sorting through emails I found this one from July 2016, in which Leo recalls to a group of friends the occasion of his last Sunday at the Shrine. The number of alumni who returned for the event speaks volumes, as do Leo’s words here:

It was sixteen years ago today, the Seventeenth Sunday in the Season of the Year, 29 July 2001, the last day making music at the big blue church. Fifty singers from the 16.5 years at the blue church along with Robert and Peter came on Thursday evening to dine, then to rehearse, then to adorn Sunday’s solemn Eucharist. The Rev. Dr. Msgr. Godfrey Mosley came to concelebrate with the rector. (The rector had always called Godfrey “the chaplain.”)

There was a half hour of organ and choral preludes, a beautiful Mass, a formal picture in the chancel, then brunch at the Old Ebbitt Grill. A perfect Sunday. If anyone still has pictures from that happy day, I would be ever so grateful to receive them.

How God and his holy Church caused this particular antiphon and psalm to be sung on that day, I do not know, but no text could have been more appropriate. He did indeed “stretch out his hand and save me.”

I can still hear Ginny (May she rest forever in the Lord.) and Charles powerfully singing the first and third verses, the choir’s opulent, full-throated singing of verses two and four … and the hand-written manuscript from which we performed. No time for engraving that week. Jerry recorded the day and gave us all memories to cherish, his CDs with our picture, the listing of repertoire … and of course, the big blue church.

I recall that during the week before, I was also packing, a task adroitly overseen by Dr. Gerre Rohling … and more, she made certain that everything got to my studio at the university.

So on the cusp of another adventure and life change, I am thinking of you and remembering what wonderful music we were graced to make during those many years. For this and for your friendship, I thank you and God who made it and makes all things possible.

With much love, as ever.


And from the day’s (and today’s) Gospel:

For everyone who asks, receives;
and the one who seeks, finds;
and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened …

If you then, who are wicked,
know how to give good gifts to your children,
how much more will the Father in heaven
give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?

Now I understand … the Holy Spirit did it all!

What a delight it was to spend time enjoying his brilliant mind discussing anything that came to mind. I’ll let Leo’s own irreverent humor have the last word:

“See, the great ones don’t talk about their greatness all the time, or even about music. I saw Richard Proulx the other day, and I didn’t immediately start asking him about chant. I said, ‘Richard, when’s the last time you saw your dick?’ and he said, ‘I can’t remember, but your hairline’s moved.’ We have a wonderful time just being.”

When all is said and done—not that we who mourn his passing will ever have said it all—I feel privileged to call him friend and mentor.

And Peace at the Last

I can think of no more fitting way to close than with what might be my favorite of Leo’s compositions, a setting of a prayer by John Henry Cardinal Newman, 1801-1890.

Cardinal Newman calls this “A Daily Prayer.” But for me the text and Leo’s setting seem to have a finality about them; not the end of the day, but the end of a life. This might be my personal association with the piece, because Leo’s setting of it was penned on January 2, 1991, the day after my mother’s unexpected death.

May [Christ] support us all the day long, till the shad[ow]s lengthen and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then in His mercy may He give us a safe lodging, and a holy rest and peace at the last.

Leo, I pray that the Angels may lead you into Paradise, where you may enjoy a holy rest and peace at the last.

1 Comment What sweeter music. . .Leo Nestor

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