Cathedral choir director relishes opportunity to 'unleash the Gospel' before 40,000 people next weekend in downtown Detroit

DETROIT — For years, the city of Detroit has kicked off the holiday season with the ceremonial lighting of the city's Christmas tree in Campus Martius Park.

This year, some of Detroit's most angelic Catholic voices will be on hand to keep spirits bright. 

The Detroit Archdiocesan Chorus will be the featured singers when the Campus Martius Christmas tree — the unofficial Christmas tree of the city — is lit during a festive ceremony on Friday, Nov. 22.

At the stroke of 7:30 p.m., the 46-member choir will burst out with “Joy to the World,” as the central downtown park is illuminated with some 19,000 lights decorating the 60-foot-tall Norway spruce. 

The tree lighting draws more than 40,000 people annually, a golden opportunity for director Joe Balistreri and his choir to “unleash the Gospel” during a marquee downtown event. 

“We were suggested by the Detroit Conservancy, and I talked to the people in charge, and we’re delighted to receive this honor,” Balistreri told Detroit Catholic. “This is the first time we’re doing this, and we’re really excited. It fits right in with the mission to ‘unleash the Gospel.'”

People skate on the ice rink at Campus Martius Park in downtown Detroit in this file photo. On Nov. 22, the Detroit Archdiocesan Chorus will help ring in the Christmas season during the lighting of Detroit's 60-foot Christmas tree. (Dig Downtown Detroit | Flickr, CC-BY 2.0)

During the hourlong buildup to the 7:30 Christmas tree lighting, the choir will join a number of other groups in singing festive songs, drinking cocoa and helping open the city's ice skating rink. Jeremy Abbott, U.S. Olympic medalist and four-time U.S. figure skating champion, will also perform.

Balistreri said the Archdiocesan Chorus will sing what he describes as a “funky fresh” version of “Deck the Halls” (written by James McKelvey, 1975) along with a more traditional hymn, “Hodie Christus Natus Est” (translated, “Christ is Born Today,” by Dutch composer Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, 1562-1621).

“A lot of times, people think of choral music as a dead tradition, something for the library, museums and concert halls,” Balistreri said. “It's important to realize that these songs bring out the hearts and minds of the composers, and we’re showing the living tradition that continues to this minute.”

The Campus Martius Christmas Tree lighting is organized by the Detroit 300 Conservancy, a private, not-for-profit organization responsible for the management and operation of Campus Martius Park. In 2009, the Conservancy became a subsidiary of the Downtown Detroit Partnership.

Having the chorus participate in cultural events around town is a great way to bring the Church to the people, Balistreri added.

“This is a reminder of how thrilling it is to have the beauty of sacred music, and not only have it recognized in the Church, but the culture at large,” Balistreri said. “I’m happy to see it at the center of cultural events in Detroit.”