Raise High the Roof Beam: Mel and Berdie

Every Sunday morning Mel Hakola stands at the front of the auditorium of the Christian Science Church in Rocky River. He leads the congregation in three hymns during the service and sings 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 plays a Schantz organ, manufactured in Orrville, Ohio, from a sunlen nook beside the reader’s platform. “It’s a small instrument, but it’s an excellent pipe organ,” she said. “And it's perfect for the space.”

“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 began singing at the church in 1974, when its members were looking for a new soloist, and Berdie joined him 20 years later. “We attended college together. When the organist left the church, I talked her into coming here,” he said.

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 was born in Brilliant, Ohio. “My father was a Methodist minister and I am his brilliant daughter. I played prayer meetings from the age of seven.” She is a distinguished alumna of the BW Conservatory of Music. She has served on faculties at BW and the University of Akron, and is a piano collaborator throughout the Midwest and, most recently, at Carnegie Hall in New York City.

Mel 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, from the time when I was nine until I was 17 years old. The camp ran for eight weeks, and every week choir boys 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.”

Mel 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 BW and a master’s from Case Western Reserve University in 1956. He began singing at the Old Stone Church in downtown Cleveland.

From there he migrated to the Jewish Temple on East 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 was a music director and organist 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 that I should be playing sacred music, so I could be an important part of the service.”

Mel’s 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 longtime church and synagogue soloist.

Berdie has directed choirs and served as an organist in several area churches. She was the choir director and organist for the Westlake Methodist Church for 12 years, and later played the Holtkamp organ at the West Shore Unitarian Church. The Rocky River Christian Science Church just might be her favorite. “The organ is a beautiful instrument and it is a very comfortable place to play, and the people are just great.”

Sacred Music

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 an emotion more spiritual than material and must, to touch my heart, or ear, come from devout natures.” She wrote the texts to hymns that are still sung today, including “Christ My Refuge” and “Communion Hymn“.

Neither Mel nor Berdie is a Christian Scientist, which does not matter 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 play a prelude of organ music,” said Berdie. ”I play an offertory and then a postlude at the end of the service. The readers of the church pick the hymns, Mel picks his own solo, and I pick my own organ music.”

“Berdie and I choose the music for the services, planning it three months in advance,” said Mel, “so it meets the qualifications of the weekly lessons. We both have libraries of sacred songs, so many of them you wouldn’t believe it. 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 fine music here on Sundays,” said Berdie.

“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.”

And There’s More to Come

Since “retiring”, both Mel and Berdie 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 remains a frequent collaborative pianist in vocal performances. Long-time 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. “I’m just glad to be singing at 86.”


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Volume 1, Issue 3, Posted 7:54 PM, 09.03.2013