Jennifer Pascual and Sounds from the Spires: Interviewing the interviewer

Jennifer Pascual

Jennifer Pascual is Director of Music at St. Patrick’s Cathedral since 2003 and the first woman to hold this position. She holds degrees in organ and piano performance and in music education, culminating in a Doctor of Musical Arts Degree in Organ Performance from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY. She hosts Sounds from the Spires on The Catholic Channel on Sirius XM, where she interviews musicians and music lovers of all stripes.

How did you get involved with Sounds from the Spires? 

The Archdiocese of New York began a collaboration with Sirius XM in 2006. The Catholic Channel (now on Sirius XM, Channel 129) first launched in December of that year. It is 24 hours of programming of various religious topics, and of course, mine is about music. The Archdiocese asked me if I would host a one-hour per week program related to music to which I responded, “I have no radio experience, but I’ll give it a shot! I work two blocks away from the studios, so I think this will work!” I have been hosting the program ever since and am one of the few original hosts that saw the launch of The Catholic Channel

What is it like to prepare for the show?

Other than the sound engineer in the room during the program, I do all the work myself. Each week I try to feature a different musician, and they can either be live in the studio with me or over the telephone. Guests range from instrumentalists, singers, composers, historians, publishers (Mark Lawson (ECS Publishing Group President) has been on my program before!), conductors, chant scholars, priests, seminarians, writers, organ builders, etc. Most of the time, I am featuring music composed and/or performed by my guests, and part of the preparation time is listening to their recordings. I travel a lot, so I often have guests from places I have traveled and am usually carrying CDs home from most trips! If I know someone will be in New York on a certain date, I try to reserve that date for that person, and keep the other open dates flexible. Sometimes people reach out to me and tell me they have a new recording out or they’d like their music to be featured on my program. If I don’t have a guest on a particular date, I do the program myself and pick a composer who has a significant anniversary, or focus on a particular liturgical season.

We all have a tendency to get stuck in our own little worlds, and if I hadn’t hosted my radio program for almost 12 years, I think I would be quite out of touch with what is out there aside from cathedral-type music. I have a real appreciation for music that I am not necessarily familiar with, and even more so when the composer or musician tells the story behind it. Many times I find myself feeling generally exhausted and run down, and in speaking to some of these musicians who are so full of life and positive energy—it’s really encouraging. I hope that listeners get a sense of this as well.

What are some favorite experiences you’d like to share? 

Favorites… that’s a difficult one—like picking out my favorite dessert! Some of my favorite guests have been people from foreign countries who have become good friends of mine and my family’s over the years: two organists from St. Peter’s Basilicain theVaticanJames Goettsche, an American, and Juan Paradell Solé, a Spaniard—both have lived in Rome for many years. When I interviewed Solé in the studio, his wife served as the translator. Whenever my family and I are in Rome, we always try to visit with Solé and Goettsche over a meal. If I happen to be at St. Peter’s for a Papal Mass, one of them would find me and have me play the postlude!

Another two favorite guests are from Russia: Marina Omelchenko, Principal Organist at the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Moscow, and Fr. Daniel Maurer, CJD, an American who serves in Vladivostok, which is in far eastern Russia—he was instrumental in reopening a parish there after the fall of communism in the 1990s. Long story short, the former Roman Catholic Cathedral building would only be released to the Church if, in part, it were used as a magnet for organ music. Ms. Omelchenko was their first organist, and also was baptized in the parish after the suppression of religion was lifted. I was there in 2015, along with Ms. Omelchenko, to dedicate a new Diego Cera pipe organ, which was built in my mother’s hometown of Las Piñas, Manila, Philippines.

On vary rare occasions I have had live performances —our own St. Patrick’s Cathedral Choir did a Christmas program one year. Other live performances were Argentinian pianist Rosa Antonelli performing works of Argentinian composers, and New York pianist Eleni Traganas performing works of Alexander Scriabin on the 100th anniversary of the Russian composer’s death. On one occasion, I hosted Armenian duduk player Oganes Kazaryan, and he demonstrated that ancient Armenian wind instrument during the interview. He lives in Moscow and is a duo team with Ms. Omelchenko.

What feedback have you received about the show?

 My hope is that people listening are getting something out of my program, whether it be musical ideas for their church programs, spiritual inspiration, exposure to new music or musicians or instruments that they’ve never heard of, or even just enjoying the music of the guests that I host.

Some cool notes that I have received from listeners are, “I liked such and such a piece that I heard on your program and I will start using that at my parish,” “I’m glad I heard so and so and you mentioning their upcoming concert because I was able to attend,” “I listen to you all the time when I am driving in my car!” “I heard your show and I hope you consider my music to be played on your show.”

Describe the connection between your work at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the radio show.

If I were not at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, I never would have been asked to host a radio program. It was a direct personal ask from the Archdiocese, and I am here to serve!

I should make mention of the man who hired me at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Edward Cardinal Egan. He was on my show once, along with two other musicians whom he wanted to feature. Ideally, I would have wanted to interview him alone, but I never had the chance to do that before he passed away. He was my boss, but also my friend and a good mentor.

I was responsible for the liturgical music for the 2008 visit of Pope Benedict XVI and the 2015 visit of Pope Francis to New York. I interviewed different musicians from different cities involved in those U.S. Papal visits—those were some very memorable interviews for me.

In addition to the radio program, our 7:00 a.m. Mass is broadcast live Monday to Friday, and our 10:15 a.m. Sunday Mass is as well. I used to play the organ for the early Mass (which used to be at 8:00 a.m.) 4 times a week. The Cathedral Choir, which I conduct, can be heard on the Sunday broadcast from just after Labor Day through the Solemnity of Corpus Christi, and during other special liturgies when they are broadcast. One of the most memorable notes I received from a Mass listener was, “I listen to Mass every day when I commute to work, and it helps me to pray every day.”

Our annual, standing-room-only “A City Singing at Christmas” concert is a favorite of The Catholic Channel staff, and they make it a point to re-broadcast it on Christmas Day. The two Papal visits, of course, were broadcast on The Catholic Channel, and I did a couple of solo shows featuring the music that was to be heard at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, as well as at Yankee Stadium and Madison Square Garden.

What first attracted you to the field of church music?

I went to Catholic school, K-12. Playing the piano since age 5 was ok, but when I joined the choir in 8th grade, I saw that an organ was pretty cool. The organist was playing on several keyboards and with his feet. I only played the organ once during elementary school when the organist was late for Mass. Then in high school, after my organist friend graduated, I wanted to try it out as there was no one else to play organ for Mass. I was hooked onto the organ from that point on! One of my teachers told our parish priest that I could play the organ, and I have been playing the organ every Sunday since! The instruments in themselves are cool, but working with liturgical musicians is far more rewarding than sitting in a practice room, solo, all day for a performance stage. I consider myself to be a liturgical musician before a performer. The years of hands-on experience, education and networking have made me the person I am today.

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