Sheldon Lee’s musical journey has seen highs and lows – or crescendos and decrescendos – over the course of several movements; now, it has reached its coda.
The longtime music director has been a fixture at Dorchester parishes for more than 30 years, first at St. William’s, beginning in 1986, then at St. Margaret’s when the two parishes merged in 2004, and now at the renamed St. Teresa of Calcutta parish.
As he has on hundreds of occasions over the years, Lee will lead the choir at the 11 o’clock Mass this Sunday, April 29, but this time, when the Mass is ended, he will lay down his baton for good.
On the cusp of retirement, Lee says the feeling is “bittersweet. So many wonderful choir members go through this choir. It has been a great, great blessing, musically and spiritually.”
Music was a part of his daily life growing up in Homestead, Florida, where he says every family member sang, “in and out of the shower.”
After earning a masters in voice and opera at New England Conservatory, Lee continued to teach music at middle schools in the greater Boston area. A skilled vocalist, he won a prestigious music competition in 1986 and earned the chance to study in Italy with Arriga Pola, the teacher of the famed opera singer Luciano Pavarotti, and then Pavarotti himself. Lee spent time in Busseto, the birthplace of the legendary composer Giuseppe Verdi, where, he says, he still has some friends.
“It was absolutely magical,” he says. “Pola was the greatest teacher I ever worked with in my life, bar none.”
After his European sojourn, Lee joined St. William’s as a cantor, and soon, in 1991, he was named music director. He made an immediate impact by starting a tradition in his “Messiah Sunday Masses” – joyous musical celebrations based on the grand ceremonies he experienced at Austrian churches during his time overdseas. Those Masses have become a favorite among parishioners, a hallmark of a career characterized by bold creativity. For Lee, being creative sometimes means being unconventional.
“I’ve had great passion and success with taking pieces of music that might not necessarily be religious in origin, and arranging them with sacred words,” he says. He cited as an example an instance in which he arranged Carl Orff’s famous cantata “Carmina Burana” to accompany the Agnus Dei.
Lee’s passion and determination to push boundaries has kept his creative fires burning through all kinds of adversity, the least of which was his brush with death in August 2015 when he was brutally, and randomly, attacked by a mentally unstable, knife-wielding neighbor. The assault left him clinging to life in the emergency room. Undeterred, recovered to conduct his choir at the Christmas Eve mass just five months later.
The community activist and Savin Hill resident Bill Walczak, who has been a member of Lee’s chorus for 31 years, described Lee’s upcoming departure as “the end of an era.”
“He brought in a whole sense of professionalism into the choir,” said Walczak. “Not only did he direct a wonderful chorus and actually write the music used for accompaniment, but he also was involved in making people into better singers. Overall, he’s a person who really added a tremendous amount of beauty to the Mass. … It was a total joy to be able to be part of something like that. We wish him well, but it will be a sad day for music in Dorchester.”
For St. Teresa of Calcutta’s choir, and for Lee, his final performance at Mass on Sunday will be a family gathering. “It has been a tremendous honor to work with the members of my choir,” he says. “As I have told them so often, they are my family. They care for each other, their parish, and they share the vision I have for what a fine parish choir should be.”
As to what’s next for the retired choirmaster, Lee is looking forward to returning once again to some of his favorite places on the continent (“I’ve already been to Europe 42 times”), and pilgrimages to the musical meccas of Vienna, Salzburg, and, of course, Busetto.