Sacred Heart Chapel is a place most members of the LMU community are accustomed to seeing filled with people and music. Outside of Mass, however, the chapel is a quiet, serene place. This is how Tony Alonso, whose office is in the back of the chapel, is accustomed to seeing the church.
Alonso, LMU's director of music for Campus Ministry, is responsible for filling Sacred Heart Chapel with song on certain Sundays and holy days.
When he moved from Chicago to Los Angeles in 2006, Alonso began directing the LMU Ensemble, the choir that sings during Mass. He was the music minister at St. Nicholas Catholic Church in Evanston, Ill. for five years after earning his bachelor's degree in choral conducting at Northwestern University. The move to LMU was not only a major shift from the windy city to sunny Southern California but was also a transition to working with an age-specific group.
"I was very nervous to work with college-age students just because I had not worked with an age-specific group before and also a group of people at such a transitional time in their lives," Alonso said.
But any apprehension Alonso felt only further encouraged him to accept the invitation from John Flaherty, director of liturgy and music, to work at LMU.
"I think it was that little bit of nervousness that made me want to be a part of this though, because I figured if you're not doing something that makes you a little nervous once and a while, you're never going to grow," Alonso said.
Flaherty had worked with Alonso for a few years at the Los Angeles Religion Education Congress in Anaheim, Calif., where Flaherty serves as the director of music.
"LMU has a long history of good liturgical music," Flaherty said. "I thought someone like Tony could take it to another level altogether."
Indeed, LMU's tradition of liturgical music has included the participation of over 25 published composers - Alonso now included - who were faculty or staff. Bob Hurd, who wrote recognizable hymns like "Unless a Grain of Wheat" and "Ubi Caritas," was a philosophy professor at LMU in the 1980s. Greg Hayakawa, who wrote "I Am The Light of the World," was a student at LMU.
Alonso also worked with some notable liturgical composers before moving to California. He grew up in Minnesota, where he said there's a "peculiar concentration of liturgical composers." Among the ones he's worked with are David Haas ("You Are Mine," "Blest Are They"), Jan Michael Joncas ("On Eagles' Wings," "I Have Loved You") and Marty Haugen ("Gather Us In," "We Are Many Parts").
Alonso met Haugen at Music Ministry Alive!, a summer institute in St. Paul, Minn. for people interested in liturgical music. Haugen was part of the faculty at the institute when Alonso attended in high school.
"You could see Tony taking in ideas and reacting to them faster than most of the students did. He learned things very quickly, and he's got a very good ear," Haugen said.
Alonso has since gone back to teach for the program. He has produced multiple albums with Haugen, sometimes doing recordings in Sacred Heart Chapel.
Alonso's first day conducting the LMU Ensemble in Mass at the Sacred Heart Chapel was the Feast of St. Ignatius five years ago. Then the choir had about 12 people. Now it's grown to about 40. Having a larger group has enabled Alonso to expand the ensemble's repertoire and have more parts for harmony and instrumentals. However, Alonso doesn't consider growing in size to be his primary focus or achievement.
"My effort has always been to help the music ministers see their role primarily as one that serves the voice of the assembly," Alonso said.
He emphasizes the difference liturgical music has from performance music. The choir's purpose isn't to put on a show but to inspire participation in the congregation. While that was a focus of the LMU Ensemble before Alonso came to LMU, he has been working to make it the primary focus.
"It's easy [to lose that focus] in an entertainment-driven culture where you just put in your ear buds and listen, or you go to a concert. It's kind of countercultural to ask people to sing these days. They don't even sing the national anthem anymore - someone does it for them," Alonso explained.
The songs Alonso selects and the way the cantor interacts with the assembly are just a couple of ways the choir works to create a participatory experience. Alonso sees the presentation of songs in Mass as a conversation between the music ministers in the choir and the assembly, and he feels it is part of his job to ensure that conversation never becomes one-sided.
"It's very unique to liturgical music. ... I think it's humbling and amazing that someone's able to say, ‘Yes, I have a talent, but I'm not just going to use that talent to show you what I can do. I'm going to use it in a way that enables your prayer,'" Alonso said. "It's a whole other level I think is much more challenging than performing."
At one Sunday 8 p.m. Mass last month, when the music for the new Missal was first sung during a Mass at LMU, Alonso had the choir leave their usual place next to the altar to sit among the congregation to inspire participation as the assembly tried out the new music.
Alonso has been teaching the music for the Third Edition of the Roman Missal, the liturgical book guiding the celebration of the Mass, to the congregation at the conclusion of each service for several weeks. The Catholic Church will formally implement the new Missal starting Nov. 27, but Alonso is giving LMU some time to become accustomed to the new texts before then. He has set the text to new music he's written.
In addition to writing melodies for parts of the liturgy like the Gloria and the Sanctus, Alonso has a large body of compositional work. His songs have been recorded on ten albums and published for other music ministers for use by GIA Publications, a major publisher of sacred choral music and sacred music recordings.
Alonso also does a few commissions a year, writing hymns for people and parishes across the country. One of his recent commissions hit much closer to home, as the LMU Centennial Committee asked Alonso to write a hymn in honor of LMU's 100th year. After writing about 15 pages of words, he pared it down to a one-page hymn called "The Greater Glory of God," which was sung for the first time at the Mass of the Holy Spirit in September.
"I spent a lot of time in quiet contemplating what's meaningful about this place to people and trying to imagine how that connects with the founding religious communities whose visions inspire our mission," Alonso said. "The challenge was boiling it [down] into one song."
The refrain highlights the mottos and constitutions of LMU's founding organizations (see sidebar) and also includes a line with the words "your sacred heart."
Flaherty emphasized that capturing all that in one song "sounds like it's easy to do, but it's extremely difficult to do something like that and not make it sound trite. He really captured that in a way that's not trite or manipulative."
Alonso hopes to record the hymn in time for members of the community to be able to purchase it on iTunes during the centennial year. It has not been published yet, but he expects it will be with GIA Publications, like his other songs.
"That's the kind of song that parishes and schools will sing all over the country," Flaherty said. "When it gets published, lots of people will sing that music, but for us, it has another depth of meaning that's hidden within the poetry."
Alonso said that in writing a hymn for his own community, he felt "not only a lot of pressure but also wanting to do right by the people nearest to [me]." He's been pleased with feedback from people who have said the hymn was meaningful to them.
Writing music is, of course, not the only way Alonso has made his mark on the LMU community - many students in the choir have been inspired or impacted by him.
"I've seen a full cycle or two of musicians who come in as first-year students and they go on and they claim ‘Tony is a mentor,' which is the highest compliment someone can pay you," Flaherty said.
"Not only is he incredibly gifted and talented, he also knows how to connect with each individual student and makes us feel like we are an essential component and voice to the ensemble," said junior business major Linda Nguyen, who's been in the LMU Ensemble since she was 14. "Without Tony, I honestly do not think I would be where I am today musically."
Students who call Alonso a mentor have high praise for him, but so do the people he calls mentors. Fellow composer Haugen summarizes the admiration many peers have for Alonso saying,"He's the best liturgical composer of his age."