A Western New York musician who studied in the Vatican has found success as a choir director at the University of Notre Dame. J.J. Wright, who released his most recent album, "Vespers for the Feast of the Transfiguration," last month, spoke about his lifelong interest in music and accomplishments with the Western New York Catholic as he began his new position at the prestigious Indiana university.
In July, Wright began his new job as director of the Notre Dame Folk Choir, with his wife, Alexandra, and their three children having already moved to the area since he attended school there. He will be directing a group of 65 students who not only perform on campus, but also do tours and recordings.
"This is a choir that was founded in 1980 by a guy named Steve Warner," Wright explained. "The choir prioritizes contemporary music and worship. They are the choir that does the 11:45 a.m. Mass at the basilica on campus every week. Their repertoire is mostly music in English and the vernacular, and contemporary, sacred music that is designed for people to participate and sing along with during the liturgy."
Wright, 32, is an Amherst native who attended St. Benedict School in Eggertsville and Christ the King School in Snyder for elementary school. He graduated high school from St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute in Kenmore in 2003. He received his undergraduate education from The New School in Lower Manhattan, New York City, before pursuing further graduate studies at the University of Notre Dame. His new album, available for sale on Amazon.com and jjwrightmusic.com, was made with a specific goal in mind.
"I was really taking in the mandate from "Sacrosanctum Concilium," from the Second Vatican Council, for full, conscious and active participation," said Wright. "I wanted to be able to make the music really accessible to the people. It's modern music. It sounds like contemporary music, but (I also wanted) to make it really sing-able so that it's not overly difficult, but to make it musically interesting."
To accomplish this goal, he incorporated elements of a jazz piano trio. As the service continues, the trio improvises around what people are singing to create "fresh musical commentaries on the texts that are being sung" as people are engaging in the service. When asked what he hopes listeners are able to get out of his most recent album, Wright said he hopes people may "enter into the Feast of the Transfiguration" and understand the story in a way that they are able to apply to their personal lives in an immediate way.
"Vespers for the Feast of the Transfiguration" also draws inspiration from Wright's time living in Rome, in which he furthered his education while also experiencing the Catholic Church in more depth. In the 2016-17 academic year, he lived there while writing his doctoral dissertation on a Roman composer.
While Wright was primarily in Rome to complete his dissertation, he also took classes at the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music while he was there. During this time, he also was an intern with the Sistine Chapel Choir, but this was not his first time there. "I went to Rome two years before I moved there," he said. "It was a study trip organized by the Sacred Music program at Notre Dame.
Wright recalled how this trip was organized around giving the students an experience in the seat of the Church in Rome. On that trip, they visited the major basilicas and went to Mass with Pope Francis. They also had the chance to sing with the choir at the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music.
Although his resume now includes many accomplishments, Wright began when his family nurtured his love of music. He started playing piano at age 10, and later learned the organ and conducting. "My first teacher was named Dave Butler, and he's a Catholic guy and really interested in sacred music, and always sort of brought that element into our piano playing when I was a little kid. He also did prayer groups with my parents," he recalled. "I think that was another sort of impetus for my parents to have him be my teacher."
In becoming a musical artist, Wright feels that his interest and pursuit of music is a gift from God, and it is the "best gift that He's given" since it is one of the main ways in which he is able to express his strong Catholic faith on a day-to-day basis. "I really see it as acting out of one of the primary ways that I can express my faith, by being a sacred musician and giving this gift back to the Church," he concluded.