By Ed Staskus
Every Sunday morning Mel Hakola, at the front of the auditorium, leads the congregation at the Christian Science Church in Rocky River, Ohio, across from the town’s high school, in three hymns during the service, as well as singing a solo, accompanied by his organist Berdie d’Aliberti.
“The church has a wonderful atmosphere,” said Mel. “It’s a fabulous place to sing.”
Berdie d’Aliberti plays a Schantz organ, manufactured in Orrville, Ohio, from a recessed nook to the side of the reader’s platform.
“It’s a small instrument, but it’s an excellent pipe organ,” she said. “And the pipes are real.”
“We’re the music,” said Mel. “We help the people have a good religious experience. My role as a singer is to create a spiritual atmosphere for the worship of the congregation.”
Mel Hakola began singing at the church in 1974, when its members were looking for a new soloist, and Berdie d’Aliberti joined him twenty years later.
“We were at college together, and when the organist left I talked her into coming here,” he said.
Mel Hakola began singing in churches in Painesville when he was nine-years-old. “I sang in a boy’s choir in an Episcopal church, although I’m not Episcopalian. I am Finnish, so I was raised in a Lutheran family.”
As a boy he spent his summers at Camp Waliro, a choir camp on South Bass Island, named after Warren Lincoln Rogers, an Episcopalian bishop. “I worked there in the summers, as a dishwasher, because my family didn’t have the money for lessons, from when I was nine until I was seventeen-years-old. The camp ran for eight weeks, and every week boy choirs from different churches would come to the camp, but since I worked there I stayed all summer. I learned so much about music, in general, and sacred music especially. It helped me become the musician I became.”
A professor emeritus at Baldwin Wallace University, Mel taught voice for 38 years before retiring. The Conservatory of Music at BW created the Mel Hakola Prize for Academic and Vocal Excellence to reward voice students who demonstrate vocal and musical abilities and ‘who have the potential to make a significant contribution to music performance.’
Berdie d’Aliberti was born in Brilliant, Ohio. “My father was a Methodist minister and I am his brilliant daughter. I played prayer meetings from when I was seven-years-old.” She is a distinguished alumna of the Baldwin Wallace Conservatory of Music. She has served on faculties at BW and the University of Akron, and is a piano accompanist at concerts throughout the Midwest, and most recently, at Carnegie Hall.
Neither Mel nor Berdie are Christian Scientists, which matters neither to them or the church. Music praises God, and in some respects music is a church’s greatest adornment. “In church, sacred music would make believers of us all,“ wrote the American journalist Mignon McLaughlin.
“I do a prelude before the service, ten minutes of organ music,” said Berdie. ”I play an offertory, a postlude at the end of the service, Mel leads the congregation in three hymns, and he sings a solo. The readers of the church pick the hymns, he picks his own solo, and I pick my own organ music.”
“We both have libraries of sacred songs, so many of them you wouldn’t believe it,” said Mel. “All the classical composers from Bach onward have written sacred songs, Handel, Mendelssohn, John Rudder. We have sung many songs by Ralph Vaughn Williams in this church.”
“You get good stuff here on Sundays,” said Berdie.
Mel Hakola sang in a G. I. chorus during his service in the army. “That’s when I decided I would go into what I always wanted to do, which was music.” After he was discharged he earned a degree at Baldwin Wallace and a Master’s from Case Western Reserve University. He began singing at the Old Stone Church in downtown Cleveland, and from there he migrated to the Jewish Temple on E. 107th Street. ”That was a huge place, and the organ in the temple was tremendous. I sang there from 1951 until I came here. I loved singing there. Even after I left I kept singing the high holy days.”
In the early 1950s he won a scholarship with the Singer’s Club, whose conductor was Robert Stulfert.
“He had a program at the Church of the Covenant, and one time he was talking about a piece of music, and said his job was to choose music that would create a spiritual atmosphere. That’s when I realized why I should be playing sacred music, so I could be an important part of the service.”
His career includes being a concert artist in more than 250 performances, a frequent guest artist with the Cleveland, Akron, and Columbus symphony orchestras, as well as a long-time church and synagogue soloist.
Berdie d’Aliberti has directed choirs and served as an organist in several area churches. She was the choir director at the Westlake Methodist Church for twelve years, and later played the Holtkamp organ, with its eleven racks of pipe, at the West Shore Unitarian Church. The Rocky River Christian Science Church might be her favorite. “I don’t know if it’s acoustically regulated, but it sounds just fine. It is a very comfortable place to play, and the people are just great.”
Music has always been an important element in Christian Science church services. In 1897 Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of the religious movement that emerged in New England in the late 19th century, wrote, “congregational singing is the best song service for the Church of Christ, Scientist. Why? Because singing is, if harmony, an emotion more spiritual than material and must, to touch my heart, or ear, come from devout natures.”
Mary Baker Eddy wrote the lyrics to hymns that are still sung today, including ‘Christ My Refuge’ and ‘Communion Hymn’.
“Berdie and I choose the music for the services, planning it three months in advance,” said Mel Hakola, “so it meets the qualifications of the weekly lessons.”
“People come up and thank us for the music,” said Berdie, “for what we’ve chosen. That’s another nice thing about this church. You just don’t walk in and nobody gives you the time of day. I think it is because it is a Christian Science church, and nothing negative goes on in the church. Sometimes people have a hard time with chords in more contemporary sacred music, it doesn’t suit their harmonic specifications. But that’s all right, that’s how you grow.”
“It makes it interesting to do the singing, too, so you don’t fall into a rut, “said Mel. “We don’t have time to fall into ruts.”
Since retiring both Mel Hakola and Berdie d’Aliberti have remained active. “I have sung the Messiah more than 75 times, all over creation,” said Mel, “and Bach with the Columbus Symphony and at the BW Bach Festival.” Berdie d’Aliberti is a frequent collaborative pianist in vocal performances. Longtime friends, they are planning several recitals together.
“I sing when I am happy and I sing when I am unhappy to make myself happy, “ said Mel Hakola.
“I’m just glad to be singing at age 86.”
Ed Staskus posts a feature story monthly on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com.