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East Texas Pipe Organ Festival 2012: Honoring the Life and Work of Roy Perry (1906-1978)

Roy Perry, ca. 1966

Roy Perry, ca. 1966

This article appeared in an abbreviated form

in the February 2013 issue of The Diapason.

Copyright 2013 © Neal Campbell

Stoplists, photographs, and commentary on the four Aeolian-Skinner organs discussed in this article are found as separate blog entries on the list in the column to the right.

Photographs, most of which may be enlarged by clicking on them, are from my archival collection, internet sources, candids I took via my BlackBerry, and from the Facebook album of Paul Marchesano, which are included with his permission and my thanks.

Background

For the second time in as many years I attended the East Texas Pipe Organ Festival held November 11-15, 2012, honoring the life and work of Roy Perry (1906-1978), featuring four organs built by Aeolian-Skinner which he designed and finished.  The rationale for such an event is best summed up in Roy Perry’s own words from a brochure he wrote in 1952, describing the organs in First Presbyterian Church and St. Luke’s Methodist Church in Kilgore, and First Baptist Church in Longview shortly after they were built:

Among musicians, only the organist seems to suffer from a chronic indecision in defining his instrument.  The pathology of this condition just about parallels the history of the organ, and is perhaps inevitable, since the factors involved in making an organ present a wider latitude of choice than those presented by the piano or the violin.  The varying fads and fashions of organ design have had their effect on organ literature; just so has the current repertoire in a given period influenced the thinking of organ designers.

From time to time in the history of this apparent confusion an artist-builder has stood out from the ranks of organ makers to stamp his aesthetic ideals on the organs and the organ music of his era, thus stabilizing for a time a concept of the organ worthy of the respect of musically educated people. Such men were Silbermann in 18th century Germany, Cavaille-Coll in 19th century France, and Father Willis in England.  Each of these men, in his own country and his own time, combined a clear historical perspective and a just appreciation of function to produce great, if differing, masterpieces of the organ builder’s art.  In 20th century America the man worthy to be named in their company is certainly G. Donald Harrison.

Mr. Harrison is personally familiar with the historical aspects of his art, having examined with a critical ear the best surviving instruments of all periods.  Just as a contemporary painter understands the techniques of Da Vinci but refrains from copying Mona Lisa, Mr. Harrison has rejected mere imitation.  He has experimented in all styles of organ building, but only to create a style of his own that is eclectic and individual at the same time.  It is his expressed aim to create organs on which all worthy organ music can be performed with the highest artistry.

A decade and a half ago the tonal design’s of G. Donald Harrison were considered revolutionary, mostly because of the considerable publicity given a few of his organs built in the so-called Baroque style.  At the present time, when tastes range all the way from extreme Romanticism . . . to the bleak austerities of the Baroque, his tonal ideas represent a temperate middle-of-the-road.  The flexibility of his thinking is well demonstrated  in the three organs considered in this booklet.  None of these organs is extreme in any direction.  They are alike only by way of family resemblance, but each in its way is a work of art.  They provide a generous education in contemporary organ building as interpreted by this great artist, and are happily concentrated in a small geographical area.

It is clear from his own words that Roy Perry considered G. Donald Harrison, and not he himself, to be the designer of these organs.  This brings up a question that has sometimes been asked of me: did Perry design these (or any other) Aeolian-Skinner organs?  Roy himself would have been the first to say it was GDH, whom he revered during their all-too-brief association which ended when Harrison died in 1956.  But it is also true that Roy had a lot of control over the organs he sold for A-S and that GDH relied heavily on his knowledge in setting initial design parameters, especially so in that during the post World War II era the company was at its busiest and Harrison was swamped with inquiries and orders.  In the last fifteen years of A-S’s existence following GDH’s death Roy’s influence over “his” organs was even greater, sometimes even surreptitiously so!

However, the real signature that manifests itself in each of Roy’s organs is the result of the finishing process in which he and the Williams family of technicians brought the factory-completed instruments to their full flower through installing and tonal finishing on site.  William Teague, long-time organist of St. Mark’s Church (now Cathedral) in Shreveport, tells of seeing Roy and Jim Williams spend hours on a given stop or pipe to insure its perfect speech, dynamic strength, and blend.  Multiplied over the span of his 20 plus year career with Aeolian-Skinner the musical imprimatur on Roy’s organs is hard to miss, although difficult to quantify by means of scientific measurement.  Writing to Henry Willis III in 1955 Donald Harrison says that Roy

  . . . has supervised, with the aid of Jack Williams [sometimes known as T. J.] and his son [Jim or J. C.], most of our important installations in Texas.  He is an accomplished organist and has a wonderful ear. He is a top notch finisher and during my periodic visits to Texas I cannot remember a  time when I have had to suggest that something might have been done a little differently.  He just has that kind of organ sense.

Roy Perry at Opus 1174 during its tonal finishing, 1950

Roy Perry at First Baptist Church, Longview, during the tonal finishing.

Festival Itinerary

There are, of course, many examples in this country and overseas of festivals centering on some unifying theme: a composer, musicological practice, or some other cause.  Unlike the AGO conventions and denomination specific conferences and their smorgasbord of activities with which I personally have been involved, these East Texas festivals were my first experiences with such topic specific conferences and the rewards for those who love these organs were enormous.  The fact that all of the playing was world class and that the organs were in excellent condition made for a memorable week of organ music. [For an account of last year’s festival readers are referred to Michael Fox’s review published in the February 2012 issue of The Diapason.]

As with all conferences, the only way to completely and truly grasp the entire event is to swallow it whole, so to speak, and make it your mission to take in every event in its entirety.  My complete participation was somewhat compromised by having to play church in Connecticut on Sunday morning, so I missed the pre-Festival recital by Bradley Welch on Sunday evening in Longview.  Further, part of my mission in attending was to provide transportation and note-holding for organ technician Stephen Emery.  But I did make all of the recitals on the four featured Aeolian-Skinner organs—the three in Kilgore and Longview, and one in Nacogdoches. And I had the opportunity to play and go through each organ at some length, a great bonus of being the organ tuner’s helper!

Through recitals by a variety of artists these four organs were put through their paces during the festival week and provided an excellent opportunity to see, hear, and compare four distinct, unique Aeolian-Skinner organs that have the unifying characteristic of being installed and finished by the same artisans, Roy Perry and the Williams family.  In addition to honoring the legacy of Roy Perry, this year the life and career of Alexander Boggs Ryan, noted teacher and performer from Longview, was also commemorated in the Wednesday afternoon and evening sessions in Longview when the routine departed from its A-S centric (and even its organ centric) scheme in an organ recital and a program of harpsichord music in Trinity Episcopal Church, the Ryan family church and organ.   There was also a display of memorabilia on the lives of Perry and Ryan at the Gregg County Historical Museum, and a talk by family members, which I had to miss owing to my note holding duties.  Each day also included ample social opportunities at meal times and the nightly “Afterglow” receptions which concluded each day—or began the next morning!  I was sorry to have also missed most of these convivial gatherings owing to Steve Emery’s tuning schedule.

Steve Emery at St. Luke's showing the organ to 300 school children, also part of the festival plan.

Steve Emery at St. Luke’s showing the organ to 300 school children, also part of the festival plan.

Incidentally, just as no discussion of the of these organs in their earlier generation would be complete without mention of the Williams family of organ technicians from New Orleans who installed and maintained them, so the work of Steve Emery was central to the success of this festival.  For a week prior to the festival, and throughout the actual week of events, Steve gave these four organs the type of careful, knowledgeable, sympathetic attention that has earned him his high reputation as an expert on the maintenance and restoration of these types of organs.   In my personal case, Steve and I worked together for 21 very happy years maintaining and restoring the organ in St. Stephen’s Church, Richmond, Virginia, Aeolian-Skinner’s Opus 1110, an organ of four manuals and 70 ranks which he still maintains, traveling several times a year from his shop headquarters in suburban Philadelphia. In fact, this circuit rider approach to organ maintenance is not unlike what took place in the years following these organs’ initial installations, and on other Aeolian-Skinner installations throughout the region: the Williams— T. J and Sally, Jim and Nora, or some combination—would arrive on site, check into a motel and stay for a week or ten days—once a year at most! to do a thorough tuning and some planned repairs.  Between these visits Roy Perry assisted by local organists, choirmembers, and Sonny Birdsong (son Mabel Birdsong, the organist of First Baptist, Longview) would do spot tunings and make minor repairs and adjustments.

Monday

Before the festival officially opened with the evening recital, there was an opportunity in the afternoon to gather in St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Kilgore for a demonstration of the organ and for some reminiscences and conversation with Charles Callahan and Larry Palmer on composers they had known and with whom they had worked.

Charlie demonstrated the great versatility and color of the organ, one of the larger two-manual organs Aeolian-Skinner built. Of the four organs featured in the festival St. Luke’s obviously has the least favorable acoustical environment for organ sound and Charlie made the point that it was more difficult to build an effective organ in an acoustically dead room, such as this, than in more resonant ones.  The organ has always been a favorite of mine and is a notable success within its given parameters.

Larry offered remembrances of his several commissions from and first performances of the works of Gerald Near and Charlie told of his encounters with Leo Sowerby, David McK. Williams, and Thomas Matthews.  Of particular interest, however, were his remembrances of visiting with Alexander Schreiner, pupil of Widor and Vierne, who we know primarily as the organist of the Mormon Tabernacle immediately prior to and following the installation of Aeolian-Skinner’s legendary five-manual Opus 1075.  But Schreiner’s Ph.D. degree was in composition and he composed a lot of organ music, most of which is unknown.

The opening recital of the festival was given by Thomas Murray at the First Presbyterian Church in Kilgore on Monday evening and was the second annual recital honoring James Lynn Culp, organist emeritus of the church.  At the mid point in the evening a plaque was shown honoring Jimmy’s thirty years of service to the church which will be placed in the chancel along with those to Roy Perry and G. Donald Harrison.

Lorenz Maycher, organist of the church and founding director of the festival, made the point several times throughout the week that it was interesting to see and hear first hand how different players approach the same organ. Tom Murray’s use of the organ was the most conservative of the week and the organ obliged completely and effectively in replicating a sound more typical of the house of Skinner in its pre-Harrison days, even in his hefty dose of Bach.   The rest of the program, and particularly the Franck was obviously informed by a 19th century aesthetic.  In the scherzo, in particular, Professor Murray’s solid and assured technique was put to good use.  There was a large crowd, filling the church, including many young people which I was told were from nearby Kilgore College.  All told, an encouraging opening to the week.

Thomas Murray, Organist

The Second Annual Recital in Honor of James Lynn Culp, Organist Emeritus

First Presbyterian Church, Kilgore

Concert in C major (in one movement), BWV 595—Bach

Four Sketches for Organ or Pedal-Piano, Op. 58—Schumann

C minor; C major; F minor; D-flat major

Two Welsh Folk-Tune Arrangements—Vaughan Williams

Romanza “The White Rock”

Toccata “Saint David’s Day

Passacaglia, BWV 582—Bach

Intermission—Presentation to James Lynn Culp

Carillon, Op. 75—Elgar

Grande Pièce Symphonique—Franck

Picture2

First Presbyterian Church, view from the nave

Tuesday

The morning recital was again at First Presbyterian Church and could not have been in greater contrast to the use of the organ the previous evening.  I had not heard Walt Strony previously, although I had known his name and—erroneously, as it turns out—had assumed he was strictly a theatre organist.  What I quickly learned was that his approach, technique, and style sort of defies description in typical academic terms and he seems completely at home in concert, theatre, and church settings.  It must have been this type of all-commanding wizardry put to solid musical principles that led throngs to hear Edwin H. Lemare and Archer Gibson in the early 20th century. This was a wonderfully satisfying morning of creative music making.

He used the organ in all of its permutations and possibilities.  The standard groupings of organ tone and registration were clearly evident, but the imaginative exploitative quest for color and drama was always also evident, and tastefully so.  Walt’s biography in the program booklet says that he has written a book on theatre organ registration which has become a standard reference work for theatre organists.  I wish he would write one for classical organists, too.  We have a lot to learn from him, especially those who attempt effective transcriptions.

Walt’s program was an eclectic mix of original works for the organ, transcriptions, paraphrases of classical standards, and some dazzling arrangements of his own.  His hymn arrangements made me ache for the days when the organ was still the instrument of choice in the evangelistic churches in the pre-praise band era.  I particularly liked his inclusion of the arrangement of Fats Waller’s pieces, reminding us that Waller was an organist and knew Dupré!  His performance of Lemare’s transcription of the Liebestod easily stood its own with Virgil Fox’s recording at Wanamaker’s.   The Carmen Fantasy and closing Kismet suite were organists’ counterpart to a standard 19th and 20th century piano virtuoso’s staple—the symphonic paraphrase.  And in this case Walt struck me as being the Horowitz of the organ!  Richard Purvis’ music captured the essence of the Kilgore organ which is easily the equal of its slightly older and larger cousin organ, Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, the organ for which Purvis’ music was conceived.

I was impressed most of all by the fact that Walt Strony seemed comfortable in stepping aside and letting the organ take center stage in its own right.  He did not try to mold it into his preconceived notion, or filter it through any established aesthetic.  He didn’t attempt to make it sound like a theatre organ, or a so-called symphonic organ, or a classic organ, although elements of each were clearly present.  It was simply the modern American organ playing music—and, using a word Roy Perry liked to use in describing this very organ, it was “deluxe!”

Someone who had grown up in First Presbyterian Church asked me what I thought Roy Perry himself would have made of the program—a natural question considering that during most of his years at the church (1932-1972), particularly the early ones, Roy was perceived as being strict, even doctrinaire, in his approach to and selection of sacred music.  Given the times and lack of any developed religious musical aesthetic in the community, he saw himself as a missionary in paving the way and setting standards of worthy church music, and was often colorfully demonstrative in his opinions of the sacred versus the profane.

But I think Roy would have loved this program.  It fully showed off his “banjo” and everyone had a good time.  After his retirement from the church most of Roy’s professional life was taken up working on the renovation of the organ in Washington Cathedral which required him to make periodic trips to Washington, sometimes for several weeks at a time.  During these visits he always made a point of going to the Alexandria Roller Rink with Bob Wyant, the foreman for the Newcomer firm who took care of the Cathedral organ.  Here the very talented Jimmy Boyce presided over a re-installed Wurlitzer and played regular sets to accompany the skaters.

Roy reveled in this flip side of the church organ and was himself a theatre organist at one time.  He had been the organist of The Pines Theatre in Lufkin, Texas, before coming to Kilgore.  In fact it was Knox Lamb, the manager of the theatre in Lufkin, who suggested Roy Perry to Liggett Crim, the owner of the chain of theatres and also a pillar of the First Presbyterian Church, who was looking for an organist for the new church in Kilgore in 1932.  Yes, he would have liked this!

Walt Strony, Organist

First Presbyterian Church, Kilgore

Walt Strony at the console of 1173

Walt Strony at the console of 1173

Sinfonia from Cantata #29 “We Thank Thee, O God—Bach

Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde—Wagner

Capriccio on the Notes of the Cuckoo (from Three Pieces)—Purvis

Thanksgiving (from Four Prayers in Tone)—Purvis

Two Hymn Arrangements—Strony

    His Eye is on the Sparrow; Joyful, joyful

Intermission

Tico, Tico—Zequinha de Abreu

Carmen Fantasy—Bizet, arr. Strony

Two Improvisations—Strony

      Over the rainbow—Harold Arlen; On the Sunny Side of the Street—Jimmy McHugh

Ain’t Misbehavin; A Handfull of Keys—Fats Waller

Bess, You Is My Woman from Porgy and Bess—Gershwin

Medley from Kismet—Borodin ( arr. Robert Wright, George Forrest)

The Trompette-en-Chamade and exposed Great upperwork

The Trompette-en-Chamade and exposed Great upperwork.  Photo Copyright © 1980 O. Rufus Lovett.

Tuesday afternoon the conference moved to Longview, about a ten minute drive from Kilgore, and was devoted to a visit to Trinity Episcopal Church in Longview, the Ryan family church.  Jeremy Bruns demonstrated the Ryan Family Organ built by Ross King, and Larry Palmer played a harpsichord recital featuring several works one is not likely to hear on a recital program featuring this historic instrument—modern works by Near, Howells, Martinu, and arrangements of Duke Ellington—which I was particularly sorry not to hear, but Steve Emery and I had our work cut out for us in tuning the large organ in the First Baptist Church.

First Baptist Church in 1955

First Baptist Church in 1955

The history and aesthetic of the First Baptist Church in Longview is the stuff of legend.  Its complete story is far too rich to adequately tell here.  Suffice it to say that as it played itself out, it could only have taken place at the confluence of three important and independent factors: the oil rich location in East Texas, the population boom of the post World War II era, and the visionary leadership of its pastor from 1945-1971, the Rev. Dr. W. Morris Ford.

The Rev. Dr. W. Morris Ford

The Rev. Dr. W. Morris Ford

Unlike some so-called “high” ecumenical Baptist churches in the south with impressive music programs and facilities to match, such as Myers Park in Charlotte, or River Road in Richmond—or even Riverside in New York, First Baptist in Longview was more or less a typical Southern Baptist church.  Their services centered on preaching at Sunday morning and evening services, they had prayer meeting on Wednesday nights in the chapel, the men’s bible class met on Sunday before church, and a softball team competed in a church league in the summer.  The music was weighted toward participation as a holy offering, as opposed to musical erudition.  And, though always courteous and “playing well with others,” they were not overtly ecumenical.  The previous church, across the street from the present one, seated some 800 people including horseshoe shaped galleries, and was an American adaptation of a domed classical structure which had served the congregation since 1902.  Mabel Birdsong had been the organist since 1920, playing a two manual Hillgreen-Lane organ.

Dr. Ford singing with the choir

Dr. Ford singing with the choir

Dr. Ford was a cultured man with an earned doctorate, a love of music, and a fine singing and speaking voice.  He sang both as soloist and with the church choir, and it was he that infused the church and its services with an innate sense of classical dignity in all things, which was his authentic response to the calling of the Gospel.  This he did without diminishing the essential tenets or manifestations of the Baptist tradition.  He brought Dr. Glenn Farr to Longview as the Minister of Music to work together with Miss Mable, who continued as organist until she retired in 1970.

Dr. Glenn Farr, choir director, and Mable Birdsong, organist from 1920-1970

Dr. Glenn Farr, choir director, and Mable Birdsong, organist from 1920-1970

When it was decided to build a new church the vision was big and bold.  The local architect B. F. Crain, who trained at Harvard and designed several notable buildings in the area, was selected and the style of the new church was determined to be “Modern Gothic.”   To be frank there is little that is Gothic about it in the textbook sense, but the scale and towering spaciousness—even its domination of its local surroundings—is obviously inspired by the Gothic aesthetic stripped to its essential unadorned lines.  It seats 1,700 persons, the interior height is 93 feet, and it was designed with the organ’s success in mind from the beginning.  Taken in this light, the 87-rank organ seems almost modest, at least on paper.  But its tonal impact is comprehensive and monumental.  Writing about the organ when it was new Roy Perry says

Although this organ leans toward the Classic style, it affords five pairs of strings, a Vox Humana, and percussions, not to mention the wonderful flutes and small reeds. It will do justice to any music, even the humblest; in grandeur it holds its own with the great organs of the world.

The interior of First Baptist Church

The interior of First Baptist Church

The organ seems to have suited the needs and vision of the church perfectly and was appreciated as an asset to the community and was played by the great organists of America and Europe.  Virgil Fox inaugurated the organ and ultimately played there several times, and Catherine Crozier made two notable LP recordings on it which were iconic in publicizing and documenting the organ when it was new.  The only reason I can figure why they are not better known is that they were recorded in monaural just before stereo recording technology was coming into its own and they have never been never reissued.  And why Aeolian-Skinner never featured this organ on their King of Instruments series of recordings may be one of the mysteries confined to the ages.

In the ensuing years recitals and concerts regularly took place in the yearly round of church services and activities, including a performance of the Bach St. John Passion sung in 1962 by the Robert Shaw Chorale, for which by this time Dr. Ford’s son, David, was a member.  The church may not have styled itself as anything but a typical Southern Baptist church, but during Dr. Ford’s tenure as pastor there were many opportunities to be presented with world class music, in ideal acoustical surroundings, by well-known recitalists and ensembles—many more than a typical church of any denomination for miles around.  So, although there was a recital here on last year’s festival, it was of particular interest to me that three full-length evening recitals on Opus 1174 were included this year’s activities.

As is typical of most Baptist churches these days in this part of the country, the organ in First Baptist is not now the primary musical instrument used to lead the music of their services; its role is more that of a collaborative player with a band.  Impacting the organ’s tuning is a modern computer driven heating, cooling, and ventilation control system which many large spaces rely on these days.  By digital means, which are predetermined and programmed into a computer, the heating and cooling systems are used in tandem to create a precise temperature at a precise time.  Nothing could be of greater aid in the efficient control of the temperature in so large a building.  And nothing could be of greater hindrance in tuning the organ!  Steve said that up in the organ chamber heat might be coming out of one vent and cooling out of another in no apparent time pattern, seemingly at random, determined by the pre-programmed computer formula.

The staff of First Baptist were helpful in accommodating the unusual (to them) requests to override the systems for a set period of time to stabilize the temperature long enough for tuning and recitals.  The result was that we had to wait for a while until the temperature was approximately that which Steve had left it last.  Then, just as it was right, he went to work and all would be well, until such time as the automatic controls took over again.  There was a definite window of opportunity for optimum effect, not unlike an immediate flight departure in order to gain a take off spot before a storm prevents your landing slot in a city a thousand miles away.  And, according to Steve, we were just barely within that window!

Richard Elliott, Steve Emery, and Charles Callahan in the choir loft of First Baptist Church

Richard Elliott, Steve Emery, and Charles Callahan in the choir loft of First Baptist Church

Richard Elliott, organist of the Mormon Tabernacle, played the Alexander Boggs Ryan Memorial Concert at First Baptist Church on Tuesday evening.  The recital featured several pieces of varying eras and genres which presented the organ to good effect.  Ryan had played at the church in a 1959 program which included several pieces sung by the Rev. Dr. Morris Ford.  Three of these songs were here sung by David Ford, and it was good to hear the organ in the role of accompanist, which role was a significant part of the organ’s duty in the normal round of services.  Richard played the technically demanding program with the ease and confidence audiences are accustomed to in his weekly broadcasts from The Tabernacle.  The concluding work was the familiar Carillon de Westminster, which was characterized by an intense rhythmic drive throughout, and the gradual building up of dynamic forces which continued throughout the piece until the very end—saving something for the final the final few measures.  He obviously knew how to elicit the most drama out of the organ.  Many an organist wouldn’t be able to resist pulling out all the stops too soon; here the various climaxes were gauged and measured, saving something for the final few bars.  It reminded me of the old Columbia recording of Schreiner playing this work at The Tabernacle, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Richard had patterned his scheme from it.

David Ford, left, and Lorenz Maycher

David Ford (left) and Lorenz Maycher

Richard Elliott, Organist

David Ford, Bass

The Alexander Boggs Ryan Memorial Concert

First Baptist Church, Longview

 *Chaconne—Louis Couperin

*+Toccata in F, BWV 540—Bach

+The Heavens are Telling, from Six Songs, Op. 48, No. 4—Beethoven

+O Lord, Most Holy (Panis Angelicus) from Messe solennelle—Franck

+Recessional—Reginal De Koven

Cantilena—John Longhurst

Every Tim I Feel the Spirit—Spiritual, arr. Elliott

*Variations sur un Noël—Dupré

*Adagio Cantabile from Symphony No. 3 in C minor—Saint-Saëns

*+Carillon de Westminster (from Pièces de fantaisie, 3ème Suite)—Vierne

Note: Works marked with  * were frequently performed by Alexander Boggs Ryan.  Works marked with + appeared on the June 9, 1959 recital at First Baptist Church, Longview, featuring the Rev. Dr. W. Morris Ford (father of David Ford) and Alexander Boggs Ryan.

Wednesday

 The first event of the day was a delightful program by Charles Callahan at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church which consisted of lesser known gems by Bach, Fiocco, Charles and Samuel Wesley—honoring our host denomination, Peace, Wolstenholme, and three of his own compositions.  The program was carefully chosen to highlight the great variety and nuance of this remarkable organ, and was played with charm, grace, and lyricism.  I sat in the back of the full, completely carpeted church and the organ had remarkable presence in the room, which itself was completely devoid of reverberation.  This is the real testament to the success of the organbuilder’s art.

CC and Frances Anderson

Charles Callahan and Frances Anderson at St. Luke’s

Charles Callahan, Organist

St. Luke’s United Methodist Church, Kilgore

 Prelude and Fugue in C  (Misc. keyboard)—Bach

Adagio and Rondo—Joseph-Hector Fiocco

Air and Variation—Charles Wesley

Voluntary in G—Samuel Wesley

Allegro all Marcia—Albert Lister Peace

Pastorale in D—William Walstenholme

Three Pieces—Callahan

Lauda Sion (from Gregorian Suite)

Prelude on Jewels (from Kilgore Suite)

Trumpet Tune (from Suite in D)

Before lunch we walked the few blocks to First Presbyterian Church for Ann Frohbieter’s well chosen program, which, with the exception of Houston composer Michael Horvit’s The Red Sea, consisted of more or less standard organ repertoire.  But the playing was anything but standard!  Each piece was thrillingly played with an obvious affinity and understanding of the inherent beauty and resources of this organ.  To me it was the perfect foil to Strony’s program the previous morning, showing the same vivid approach to the organ via the repertoire.

Ann Frohbieter, Organist

Ann Frohbieter

Ann Frohbieter

First Presbyterian Church, Kilgore

Introduction and Passacaglia—Reger

Allegro (Concerto in A minor, BWV 593)—Bach-Vivaldi

The Red Sea—Michael Horvit

Variations on AmericaIves

Adagio for Strings—Barber

Impromptu (from Pièces de fantaisie, Book III, Op. 54)—Vierne

Prelude and Fugue on B-A-C-H—Liszt

Program note:  The Red Sea.  Michael Horvit is a well-known contemporary composer, who for many years was Chairman of the Department of Music Theory and Composition at the University of Houston, and was Director of Choral Music at Congregation Emanu-El.  In this composition for solo organ, Dr. Horvit has depicted the Biblical drama of the escape and deliverance of the Israelites from the Egyptians through the Red Sea.

After lunch we walked back to St. Luke’s for a recital by Christopher Houlihan.  The program was heroic for so small an organ and room, but consistently well played from memory.  It was interesting to hear his interpretation of the Bach Passacaglia on this organ, having heard Tom Murray play it Monday evening and I would have to say that this offering sounded more at home in this setting, than did the other.  Houlihan has made a specialty of the Vierne symphonies, playing all six in marathon sessions around the country.  He put down three movements from the Sixth, including the Final, but after arriving and playing the organ he substituted three movements from the Second, which was a wise move.  I particularly liked the Bach trio sonata and his Debussy transcription, each of which captured an intimate chamber music aesthetic and was ideally suited to this organ and this room.  On the whole, the playing was both elegant and exciting.  Christopher is certain to have a bright career ahead, and it was good to have someone from the younger generation on the festival roster.  Incidentally, there were a good number of young people throughout the festival at individual events, and Joby Bell’s entire studio from Appalachian State University in North Carolina attended the whole week.

Christopher Houlihan, Organist

Christopher Houlihan at the console of 1175

Christopher Houlihan at the console of 1175

St. Luke’s United Methodist Church, Kilgore

Toccata—Sowerby

Trio Sonata in C major, BWV 529—Bach

Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582—Bach

Intermission

March on Handel’s “Lift up your heads,” Op 15—Guilmant

Andantino, from String Quartet, Op. 10—Debussy

From Symphony II—Vierne

Choral

Scherzo

Allegro

Brett Valliant at St. Luke's where he and Steve Emery demonstrated the organ to local students.

Brett Valliant at St. Luke’s where he and Steve Emery demonstrated the organ to local students.

Wednesday evening was movie night at First Presbyterian Church as Brett Valliant accompanied the silent classic “The Phantom of the Opera.”  A large screen was placed in front of the chancel rood screen for the showing of the film and, aside from some opening commentary placing the silent film genre in context for the many younger members of the audience who probably had never have encountered it, the evening was devoted to the sounds of the organ and the visuals of Lon Chaney and the cast in the Paris settings of the Opéra and Notre-Dame.  Brett’s accompanying score was lyrical and lush and may have been inspired by the threatre organists of the past, but it—like Walt Strony’s program Tuesday morning—was simply the Kilgore organ rising to yet another musical task with completely satisfying results.

A full First Presbyterian on movie night

A full church on movie night

Thursday

 Thursday morning we moved to Nacogdoches where the smallest of the four Aeolian-Skinner organs of the festival was featured.  The worship space at First Baptist Nacogdoches is slightly larger than St. Luke’s in Kilgore and the factors involving the acoustics are much more favorable, in fact almost ideal: hard wood floors, a minimal amount of sound-absorbing materials and a generous height to width ratio.  The entire organ is enclosed in two chambers on either side of the stage-chancel, with openings into the stage-choir loft, and out into the congregation. Greatly enhancing the versatility of the organ is the ability to make the swell shade openings into the congregation operable or not, as desired.  The organ is a model of careful voicing, scaling, and finishing, is ideally suited to its surroundings, and is entirely satisfying on its own, in spite of its small size.

Steve Emery and Scott Davis at First Baptist in Nacogdoches

Steve Emery and Scott Davis at First Baptist in Nacogdoches

The program began with Scott Davis leading the audience in singing a hymn, with his improvised introduction, interlude and concluding stanza.  Scott also concluded the program with an extended multi-movement improvisation in the style of his late teacher Gerre Hancock.  These—the hymn singing and improvising—were the only nods during the festival to the liturgical effectiveness these organs also possess.The centerpiece of the program was another of Charlie Callahan’s signature programs of interesting, lesser known works which were carefully selected and performed to present the organ in its most favorable light.  Charlie also played two recent compositions of his own: Alleluia  (an energetic miniature, similar in feel to his more virtuosic Fanfares and Riffs) and Festival Voluntary on “St. Anne” for Horn and Organ which received its first performance.

Charlie also spoke at some length about Roy Perry, Jim and Nora Williams, and some of the other Aeolian-Skinner personalities he has known over the years, particularly Arthur Birchall, for whom as a young man he held notes on tuning and finishing jobs in the Boston area.  This was a valuable spoken addition to the basically auditory nature of the week’s events.

Charles Callahan at the console of 1153-A

Charles Callahan at the console of 1153-A

Charles Callahan, Scott Davis, Organists

Rebecca Robbins, Horn

First Baptist Church, Nacogdoches

 Festival Voluntary on St. Anne for Horn and Organ—Callahan

Memories—Clarence Dickinson

Adagio Cantabile (from Cinnamon Grove Suite), 1928—R. Nathaniel Dett

Fireside Fancies, Op 29 (1923)—Joseph Clokey

          A Cheerful Fire

          The Wind in the Chimney

          Old Aunt Chloe

          Grandfather’s Wooden Leg

Melody in Mauvre—Purvis

Alleluia (2011)—Callahan

Improvisation—Davis

Interior, First Baptist Church, Nacogdoches

Interior, First Baptist Church, Nacogdoches

Back to Kilgore for the afternoon recital by Christopher Jennings for what was anticipated as a highlight of the week: a complete performance at First Presbyterian of Clarence Dickinson’s Storm King Symphony, in what was among the first complete performances ever of the entire work.  We know that Dickinson played individual movements from among the five, but there is no documentation of his (or anyone else’s) ever playing the entire work, and this was one of several times this season when Christopher has played all five movements in their entirety.  The same screen that was used for the movie the previous night remained in place, and Christopher had arranged for still photographs of various scenes to be displayed at the appropriate points in the movements.  This was helpful in negotiating the impressionistic, programmatic nature of the work.  The program notes told us that the symphony “reflects impressions made on the composer by the varying moods of the stately Storm King mountain, which stands guard, as it were, over the Highlands of the Hudson” near Dickinson’s home.

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It is a pity that in most circles Dickinson’s compositions aren’t taken very seriously today.  He wrote so many small works and carol arrangements that are so easily accessible that the larger forms such as this, which require significant technical prowess, remain unknown.  Taken as a whole, the entire Storm King symphony could easily supplant the ethos of either the Reubke sonata or Liszt Ad nos on a recital program.

Christopher’s use of the organ was informed by the early 20th century organs which Dickinson would have known, but in a commanding and vivid way that did not sound retrospective.  The natural power and expressiveness of the organ was entirely satisfying and there was not the impression that he was under-using the organ, even though he elected to leave out most of the upperwork.  On occasion he used the famous Trompette-en-Chamade in chorus, Bombarde wise, and it was very effective.  The sound is not so ferocious as it looks, at least out in the church.  In truth, this stop is one of the standard Aeolian-Skinner Trompette Harmonïque designs mounted horizontally, on reasonable wind pressure, which can, in fact, function as a chorus reed capping the full ensemble when called upon to do so.

I regretted that I could not stay for the second half of the program, which was also by New York composers; Steve Emery and I had to get over to Longview to do further battle with the computerized heating-cooling system at First Baptist Church!

Christopher Jennings, Organist

First Presbyterian Church, Kilgore

 Storm King Symphony—Dickinson

Allegro Maestoso

Canon

Scherzo

Intermezzo

Final

Intermission

Fanfare—Alec Wyton

Five Dances—Calvin Hampton

      The Primitives

      At the Ballet

      Those Americans

      An Exalted Ritual

      Everyone Dance

Toccata—Gerre Hancock

Ken Cowan played the concluding recital of the festival at First Baptist Church.  In advance publicity on the Festival’s Facebook page, Lorenz Maycher wrote “on the questionnaire, where his manager asked what kind of program we’d like, I put HEAVY DUTY.  That’s exactly what we got. I love it when that happens!”   There’s really not a lot that I can add after the fact to that.  It was a huge program, played from memory, characterized by effortless technique in the service of the music, and impeccable use of the organ’s vast resources.  It was epic and (sorry Virgil Fox) I don’t recall a better organ recital in my life.

I had not heard Ken play his version of the Saint-Saëns” Danse Macabre.  It was of the same symphonic paraphrase style à la Horowitz of which I spoke previously when writing about Walt Strony.  It was truly astounding, and—fun!  Totally new to most in the audience was John Ireland’s Elegiac Romance, an expansive work written for the organ, but symphonic in scope.  For his encore, Ken played George Thalben-Ball’s  pedal etude Variations on a Theme of Paganini, which—with all due respect—makes the brief Middleschulte pedal etude, which Virgil Fox used to routinely use as an encore, sound trivial.

When the Kilgore organ was new, one of the first players to present a recital on it was William Watkins, who was not yet 30 years old.  He had just won the Young Artist Award of the National Federation of Music Clubs—a $1,000 award in 1949—at the time the most prestigious competition to which any young musician could aspire; it was open to all instrumentalists.  The competition had been held in Dallas, Watkins was the first organist to win it, and Roy Perry wisely brought him to play the new organ in Kilgore to a full church.  The review in the Kilgore News Herald of February 17, 1950, which Watkins used in his publicity for a many years was written by Roy Perry himself, and concluded “This boy is one of the great interpretive artists of the century.”  The same can easily be said of Ken Cowan in this century.

Ken Cowan greeting the audience after his stunning program.

Ken Cowan greeting the audience after his stunning program.

Ken Cowan, Organist

First Baptist Church, Longview

Sonata No. 1 in F minor—Mendelssohn

Allegro moderato e serioso

Adagio

Andante, Recitative

Allegro assai vivace

Danse macabre—Saent-Saëns, arr. Cowen

Suite, Op. 5—Duruflé

Prélude

Sicilienne

Toccata

Intermission

Étude Héroïque—Rachel Laurin

Elegiac Romance—John Ireland

Fantasy on the Chorale How Brightly Shines the Morning Star, Op. 40, No. 1—Reger

Joby Bell, second from right, and his class from Appalachian State University in North Carolina, at the console of the Longview organ after Ken's closing recital.

Joby Bell, second from right, and his class from Appalachian State University in North Carolina, at the console of the Longview organ after Ken’s closing recital.

Neal Campbell at St. Stephen's, Richmond, Va., A-S Op. 1110

Neal Campbell

NEAL CAMPBELL has been the Director of Music and Organist of Saint Luke’s Parish, Darien, Conn., since 2006.  Prior to that he held church, synagogue, and college positions in Washington, Philadelphia, New York, New Jersey, and Virginia.  Growing up in Washington he was a student of William Watkins, and he first met Roy Perry in 1972 when he was a finalist in the AGO National Organ Playing Competition in Dallas, and he continued his friendship with him during the years Roy Perry presided over the work at Washington National Cathedral. He has played and recorded on the Kilgore organ several times.

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Honoring Judith Hancock: 2004 and 2012

Copyright 2012 © Neal Campbell

In the spring of 2004 two of the happiest events of my professional career occurred within about six weeks of each other–the second a direct result of the first.

To celebrate the completion of a two-year restoration of the fine Aeolian-Skinner organ in St. Stephen’s Church in Richmond, Va., where I served from 1985-2006, we organized a weekend of events featuring Judith and Gerre Hancock, Charles Callahan, and Steve Emery.  On Friday evening Judith was presented in a full length recital  which was co-sponsored by the local chapter of the A.G.O.  Saturday was given over to masterclasses and workshops led by Judith and Gerre on pieces and improvisation topics relevent to the current A.G.O. examinations.  Charlie Callahan  talked about G. Donald Harrison and Aeolian-Skinner, and Steve spoke about the organ’s restoration and took workshop registrants through the organ.

Gerre Hancock, Richard Newman (who played in the masterclass), and Charles Callahan at St. Stephen’s, Richmond, Va., March 2004

On Sunday morning, Gerre directed the choir and played the organ, and Steve led interested parishioners on tours through the organ between services.  In the afternoon, an open rehearsal was followed by a big Evensong, for which Gerre directed and Charlie accompanied, which combined St. Stephen’s Choir, and  the choirs of St. Catherine’s and St. Christopher’s Schools–two diocesan schools whose campuses are adjacent to the church which were led by my colleagues Greg Vick and Nick Stephenson.  The repertoire included Gerre’s Responses, Charlie’s Harvard Service, and concluded with all of the choirs singing Parry’s cantata-length anthem Hear my words, ye people.  Folk in my choir were excited to be singing music by living composers in their presence! The afternoon concluded with one of Gerre’s signature symphony improvisations, the themes for each of the movements drawn from prominent themes  from the service.

A month or so before these events, at Charlie Callahan’s instigation, I had been added to the board of trustees of St. Dunstan’s College of Sacred Music in Providence, Rhode Island.  And so it was that late that Sunday evening after we had all been to dinner, Charlie said to me that he thought it would be fitting if the College awarded an honorary doctorate to Judith.  The Hancocks were soon to be leaving New York where they had served at St. Thomas Church since 1971, and Gerre already had several honorary degrees, and Charlie and I thought this was a fitting climax to our celebratory weekend.  But we kept these thoughts to ourselves for a few days.

Later that following week, I called Gerre and laid our plan out to him and he thought it was “just WON-derful!  Judith will be so pleased.”  I then suggested that I knew the ideal time to do this: the first Sunday in May.   The recital following Evensong that day was to be the Hancocks farewell recital at St. Thomas Church.   It was also the opening event of the church’s annual choirmasters’ conference and was to be followed by a gala reception sponsored by the American Guild of Organists honoring Gerre, and many from the A.G.O. national council and other visitors were to be present.  So it was agreed that at an appropriate interval during the recital I would make the presentation.  But Gerre insisted that it be kept a secret from Judy.  He wanted it to be a surprise for dramatic effect; I had practical reasons in mind!  Since this scheme was cooked up in haste, I couldn’t arrange to be away from Richmond for the Sunday morning service and Charlie was not available to be in New York that afternoon.  In short order Charlie had the diploma made up and I ordered a doctoral hood from Collegiate Cap and Gown.  Not knowing whether or not St. Dunstan’s College had a color scheme for academic regalia, I just ordered the colors of Manhattan School of Music, which they had on file.

Now, in order for me to make it up to New York following my own morning service in time for the Evensong recital-presentation, I had to make some intricate logistical arrangements at each end of the trip, and Gerre and I knew that the success of the endeavor was predicated on each piece of my travel puzzle flowing seamlessly without snags.  So we had the understanding that if I showed up in New York that afternoon, we would proceed with the plan; if not, we would do it another time.

Over the years I have made the trip between Richmond and New York many times, in all modes of transportation, land and air, and the time taken for the journey ranged from a low of a couple of hours to a 24-hour-overnight trek.  I gave this enterprise about a 50-50 chance.  But fate was on my side that day, and I knocked on the door of Gerre’s office after Evensong, collected the academic hood Collegiate Cap and Gown had drop shipped to the church, and took my place in the chancel with my other colleagues on the council.  Someone observed me toting this hood and  I simply said “don’t ask.”

There were other speeches and presentations made at the mid-point interval in the recital, of which mine was last.  As Judy told me the story later, she said she was at the console preparing for the next number and was only slightly aware of these speakers droning on, and she assumed that Gerre was receiving yet another honorary degree, and only when she began to be aware of feminine pronouns in my citation did she catch on to what was happening!  Following is the complete citation:

Photo by Tony Thurman, Development Director of the A.G.O. who organized the gala reception following the recital.

I am here this afternoon in my capacity as a trustee of Saint Dunstan’s College of Sacred Music in Providence, Rhode Island.

The college was founded in 1928 and chartered by the legislature of the State of Rhode Island in 1930 as a degree granting institution for the study of sacred music operating under the “rules of the Episcopal Church” to quote the first catalog.  Among its initial leadership was John Nicholas Brown whose idea it was for the college to function in connection with Brown University in providing courses of study leading to undergraduate and graduate degrees in sacred music studies.  It was housed in property on Benefit Street adjacent to the Cathedral Church of St. John, and its initial faculty and board was made up of leading musicians and clergy, some of whose names are still familiar today: Canon Winfred Douglas, David McK. Williams, Hugh Ross, Wallace Goodrich, Hollis Grant, and E. Power Biggs.

The vicissitudes of the Depression and World War II altered the scope of the college’s fortunes and function over the years and for many years it served as an east coast counterpart to the Evergreen conference in Colorado, with which Canon Douglas was also affiliated, and offered a certificate granting summer course of study in Providence and, later, Newport.  It also continued to publish books and music for the church, and served in an advisory capacity to churches and dioceses throughout the church.

Its activities over the years also included honoring outstanding musicians in the service of the church with the honorary degree, Doctor of Sacred Music.

This afternoon the trustees are proud to recognize a colleague who has served this parish church, the greater church, and the entire sacred music profession through her outstanding achievement as a complete church musician, especially in her role as a master accompanist to the comprehensive choral repertoire offered by the St. Thomas Choir, and through her untiring devotion to and love of the organ repertoire, and especially for her offerings of the great literature for the organ within the liturgies of the church.

Therefore, at the most recent meeting of the trustees of St. Dunstan’s College of Sacred Music, it was resolved to confer the degree Doctor of Sacred Music, honoris causa, to Judith Hancock, and we offer to her this diploma and hood as symbols of that degree, and as tokens of our affection and esteem.


Given the second day of May 2004, being the
Fourth Sunday of Easter, and the eve of
The Feast of Saints Philip and James
in Saint Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue, New York

Dr. Judith Hancock and her husband, Dr. Gerre Hancock, at the reception in Andrew Hall, St. Thomas Church, following their farewell recital, May 2, 2004.

Fast forward to 2012: Gerre Hancock, one of the founders of the Association of Anglican Musicians, died on January 21.  For the AAM annual conference in Philadelphia in June it was decided to honor his memory by including many of his compositions in the conference programs, and by asking Judith to play and to be present for the conference.  I was honored to be invited to introduce her at the opening banquet before she made her own remarks, and this is what I said:

The invitation to say a few words about the Hancocks this evening sent me to my files, where I found the printed order for the first service I attended at St. Thomas Church:

I was in college and it was over Christmas/semester break during the Hancocks’ first season at St. Thomas.  It was a weekday Evensong right after Epiphany, and the anthem was Sowerby’s Now there lightens upon us a holy daybreak.

Remembering from the distance of forty years, two things are still vivid:

1) The choir sounded very good—much the same in style and sound as it always has sounded and still does—obviously inspired by and molded in the English Cathedral tradition.

and . . .

2) . . . the choir was directed by Judith Hancock, the associate organist of St. Thomas Church, and wife of the new organist and master of choristers, Gerre Hancock.

Gerre was off concertizing someplace and Judith was left in command.  So my first fan letter to St. Thomas was to Mrs. Hancock, and I still cherish her written reply, which I also found in my file.

It is this pattern of family collaboration, yet individual artistry and professionalism established at the outset of their careers, that I want to recall and honor tonight.

St. Thomas being the obvious centerpiece of the Hancocks’ careers, it is easy to forget that they had a life before New York—but they did, and it was a good life!

Gerre was in charge of the music at Christ Church Cathedral in Cincinnati—the cathedral church of the Diocese of Southern Ohio—was on the artist faculty of the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music—and had already established himself as a successful concert organist, touring under the auspices of the Lilian Murtagh concert management since 1964.

In Cincinnati Judith directed the music and played the organ at her own church and they had two very young children—Deborah and Lisa.  They were not all that eager to move.  And, to be honest, St. Thomas at that time was not the obvious career move one would assume today.

But . . . once in New York it was a partnership of shared work right from the start, as evidenced by the weekday Evensong I attended that first visit.  And . . . while there was no doubt that Gerre was in charge, Judith was apt to often be at the helm in this, their highly visible position at the crossroads of the world, at Fifth Avenue and Fifth-third Street.

And . . . not just at the church.  I had just moved to Philadelphia and was present for Evensong and a concert by the St. Thomas Choir during the Third International Congress of Organists in the summer of 1977, right over at the Church of St. Francis de Sales in West Philadelphia (and at Girard College)—on that occasion Judith lead the choir and Wes McAfee played the organ.  It was immediately after Gerre’s first heart by-pass surgery, and he was in the congregation, but had not fully recovered to be able to conduct.  It was the first time I had ever heard of this medical procedure, and it seemed to me at the time that it was experimental surgery.  And Father John Andrew, in announcing Gerre’s presence, made it sound as if he’d been brought back from the dead, and we all clapped and cheered!  But it was Judith who led the music, as she would after his second similar operation many years later.

Judith’s own concert and teaching career also began to blossom: she also concertized under the banner of Karen McFarlane’s newly minted Murtagh-McFarlane management, and we all became accustomed to seeing both Gerre’s and Judith’s pictures on the back of The Diapason and The American Organist each month.

While she did all this with lots of grace and loving, wifely support, she was not incapable of sustaining her own pride of place while she was at it.  I’m sure I’m not the only one here to have heard her say in his presence:

“but Gerre, I have to practice; I play real music!”

As if to corroborate this, the Rector in his sermon at Gerre’s Requiem even said

you know, although Father Andrew and I certainly remember Judith at the console practicing, we can’t recall [ever] seeing Gerre there for that purpose!   

And I’ll never forget a scene at one of the early Choirmasters’ Conferences—back in the days when Judith was the sole associate organist and did all of the accompanying.

Other than emcee the event and visit with all of us, there really wasn’t a whole lot for Gerre to actually do, and during the rehearsal for some lengthy psalm or anthem, Judith was playing and Gerre was hovering.  The 32’ Bourdon was on and Gerre must have thought it was too much, so he reached over and took it off—while Judith continued to play!  Well—within the time span of a sixteenth rest Judy had that 32 back on, and it stayed on until she took it off!

(And, by the way, how many of us could have withstood the scrutiny of not only our musical programs, but our domestic lives played out to human view displayed the way the Hancocks did at these annual events!)

In 2004 as the Hancocks were leaving New York for the University of Texas, Judith was awarded the honorary degree Doctor of Sacred Music, the citation of which reads in part, that she is recognized as

a colleague who has served the entire sacred music profession through her outstanding achievement as a complete church musician:

. . . especially in her role as a master accompanist . . . her untiring devotion to and love of the organ repertoire . . . and . . . for her offerings of the great literature for the organ within the liturgies of the church.

          That’s as true now as then, and to it I can only add that I know there are students at the University of Texas who salute her for her continuing work as an inspiring teacher and mentor.

There is another female organ personality out there who is unofficially styled as “The First Lady of the Organ,” but—Judith, to me you will always be the First Lady of the Organ, and you are the undisputed First Lady of this Association, and it gladdens our hearts to have you here with us as we give thanks .  .  .  for your rich career as artist and teacher,  for your extraordinary role as wife and colleague of our beloved Uncle Gerre,  and especially as a cherished friend to all of us!

Judith Hancock address the AAM conference opening banquet, Philadelphia, June 18, 2012.

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In Memoriam: Gerre Hancock

Portrait by Paul Newton, 2003, which hangs in the St. Thomas Choir School.

 

Copyright 2012 © Neal Campbell

Gerre Hancock died on Saturday afternoon, January 21, 2012, of coronary artery disease. We all knew the day would probably come (he had a long history of heart trouble), but seeing the RIP in the subject line on my BlackBerry simultaneous with a phone call sent a shock of unbelief through my system.  There followed much internet activity–emails and Facebook posts, and in the ensuing days I added links and details as I learned them, together with scans of pictures from various sources, primarily old issues of Cantate, the magazine of the St. Thomas Choir School.

A colleague at my church, who had seen my several Facebook posts, asked me on Thursday after Gerre’s death “how did you know Gerre Hancock?  What was your relationship?” probably thinking that I was one of his many students, or had sung in his choir.  So, I relayed some of the thin line of continuity that threaded through our respective life’s pathways.  Just the previous Sunday the Gospel reading was about the calling of the disciples, and it came to me: that’s it!  I was a disciple of Gerre Hancock, I followed him.  I commended him to others and I spread the news of what he and St. Thomas Church were doing.  How I wish I had studied formally with him, which isn’t to say I didn’t learn a lot from him by observation, both in church services and recitals, and in less formal, even social settings.  You couldn’t help but learn from him if you absorbed and remembered his playing and talking.

I first met Gerre Hancock in January 1973.  I was a student at the University of Maryland and was studying organ with Paul Callaway, the legendary organist of Washington Cathedral, who had himself been a student of T. Tertius Noble at St. Thomas.  Dr. Callaway thought it would be a good idea if I went to New York and played one of the regular Sunday afternoon recitals following Evensong at St. Thomas.  I had played at most of the venues in Washington open to college students with aspirations and the idea of a New York recital evoked mystery and excitement redolent of the big time–like a rookie trying out for the major league.  After all, this was the place where Dr. Callaway himself had studied, the place where Marcel Dupré had made his famous recordings a mere seventeen years before, the organ which G. Donald Harrison gave his life trying to finish–hyperbole perhaps, but some people actually talked that way about GDH and St. Thomas in that had died while finishing the organ in 1956, after walking home in extreme heat because he couldn’t get a taxi during a subway strike.

There was a lot of legend to contend with in my mind.  So it was that I walked into the music office on the appointed day to practice.  Gerre got up from his desk and greeted me, introduced me to his secretary, Louise Meyer (who had been Searle Wright’s secretary at Columbia University before they disbanded the chapel music program), and we were off: “Isn’t it just WONderful that you are studying with Paul! You know he got his start RIGHT HERE!  And, he was the organist of what was then St. Thomas Chapel right over on East 60th Street.  What “songs” are you going to play? That’s quite a program, are you sure you wouldn’t want to trim it a little–not that I would ever want to second guess the great Dr. Callaway. ”   And so it was, in a matter of moments I was a colleague, junior to be sure, but a respected, even treasured part of the scene, companion to the legacy, part of the lineage of the great St. Thomas scene past and present, just like that.

When I arrived a few days later on Sunday afternoon for the recital, for some reason I did not attend Evensong–nerves probably.  I walked through the now familiar entrance to the Parish House at 1 West 53rd Street, through the iron bars of the outer gate where legend has it that Dupré got locked between the inner and outer doors during his 1956 visit, and into the music office.  Louise Meyer was there and greeted me warmly.  As I sat and waited I was quickly aware of a couple of small children who were all over the place playing gleefully.  Miss Meyer sort of rolled her eyes. “The Hancock girls,” she said. “I can’t do anything with them!”

In those two events surrounding my New York “debut” I saw and experienced for the first time the essence of the world of Gerre Hancock–the warm welcome, the “we’re all in this together” attitude, the collegiality, the whole family involved in the enterprise of church–even his giving aid and succor to Miss Meyer, she having been ousted from her long time Columbia University St. Paul’s Chapel position–in summation, I saw the Gerre Hancock that the world would come to know and love, and it only intensified and strengthened as time went on.

From there on, my encounters with Gerre and with St. Thomas were similar to those of so very many other budding organists and church musicians like me. When I moved to Philadelphia to take my first church, and later when I had jobs in the suburban towns, it was an easy trip into New York. Friends and I thought nothing whatsoever of striking out after Sunday morning at our own churches to explore the myriad options a Sunday afternoon in New York offered, and not just St. Thomas.  St. Bartholomew’s and Riverside regularly had thrilling Sunday afternoon services of music.  In fact, I vividly recall that during the first few years of Gerre’s and Fr. Andrew’s tenures at St. Thomas, attendance at Evensong was modest by comparison with St. Bartholomew’s, especially during Advent when the stores began to be open on pre-Christmas Sunday afternoons and the Even-Song oratorios like Messiah or the Bach Magnificat would pack the church.

I first attended the annual Choirmasters’ Conference in 1977 when I met George Guest for the first of many times–at the Choirmasters’ Conference, and in Richmond and Cambridge.  These were really magnificent innovative events that took full advantage of the Anglican tradition, about which many of us were just learning and which was in fact only just beginning to emerge in America.  They also took full advantage of the church and its central location in New York.  Who wouldn’t want to come to New York for a day or two and rub elbows with the greats to learn a new trick or two to take home. We could immerse ourselves in the nitty-gritty of rehearsal technique, and in lectures learn first hand about the inner workings of some famous choirs in England we’d hitherto known only through recordings and broadcasts, and we’d sit at lunch with the likes of George Guest, David Willcocks, and Philip Ledger.  Gerre was also good about including topics that he knew we all had to deal with in our own churches, even though they might not be part of the St. Thomas regimen. We learned from Fr. John Andrew all about being partners in worship and we heard him proclaim from the pulpit that our salaries were absurdly low, and that we needed to get to know our clergy, to socialize with them–he said he drank liberally of Gerre’s vodka, and Gerre drained his bourbon!

And so it was that as time went by, we sent our brightest and best to the Choir School if we could convince their parents, and the Hancocks came to our churches, either by themselves or with the choir.  They validated our work and pumped us up in front of our own clergy and vestry members proclaiming that we were their beloved friends and colleagues. I’ve never known what contractual arrangements were made with the church about time off for their concerts, but I do remember seeing regularly in the issues of Cantate, which started to appear in my church mailbox, news of not only the choir’s tours, but of the Hancocks’ recital tours as well.  I do remember with great laughter that in 2004, not too long after it was announced that the Hancocks would be leaving for the University of Texas, both Judith and Gerre came to my church in Richmond, Virginia, for a weekend of events to celebrate the renovation of our organ, details of which had been arranged about a year prior. It was the Fourth Sunday in Lent and I marveled at how they could each get away from church, and Gerre quipped with his mischievous grin “well, what are they going to do, fire me?!  Besides, the young people love to have a chance to do all the playing and directing.”

Yes, I followed him–particularly after I moved to Virginia.  If he were playing within driving distance I reveled at the chance to hear his signature improvisations, to chat with him (usually briefly, sometimes more expansively) at the reception where it was always “so good to see you.  Give my admiring and loving best wishes to Gwynn,” or to my mother (who had once helped with a reception), or to a choir member who had written him a note, and so on . . . and the remarkable thing about this whole scenario is that I know for a fact that it played itself out literally hundreds of times throughout the country.  No bishop or circuit riding preacher ever worked harder looking after his flock than Gerre did tending to the souls of those who befriended him or looked to him for reassurance and inspiration.

Now the sun has set for him and a great life has come to an end.  When all is said and done I am sad, to be sure.  Sad that I can’t pick up the phone and chat for a few minutes, or make the drive to some venue to hear him and have a good chuckle over something, and I’m especially sad that I can’t hear him play a church service again.

But, oh!  Am I thankful!

–thankful to Gerre for simply being himself and sharing himself with us.

–thankful to Judith for loving and sustaining him.

–thankful to Deborah and Lisa for supporting him and sharing him with us and being a part of it all.  I particularly remember a poignant scene from when they must have been in their early teens: one Sunday afternoon after Judy had played the post-Evensong recital at St. Thomas, as the ovation went on, they each went up and presented their mother with flowers.  I have no idea what it was like for them growing up in anything but a typical household, but as one who observed from afar, I was always glad for their presences and I know they were never far from their father’s thoughts.

–thankful for Fr. Andrew for nurturing and supporting Gerre and for sharing him and St. Thomas Church with us all.  Surely the church knew that large contributions probably weren’t forthcoming from most of us, but the welcome mat was always out and the hospitality was continuous and contagious.

Most of all, I am thankful to God for creating, sustaining, and redeeming his devoted servant, Gerre.

In closing, I am reminded of attending Virgil Fox’s memorial service in November 1980 at The Riverside Church.  There was a visiting choir which joined the Riverside choir for some major works of Vaughan Williams, much of whose choral music was heard for the first time in this country at Riverside. At the end of the service, following a quiet benediction hymn, but before a concluding thunderous organ work, one of the clergy read these words from John Bunyan’s allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress, from toward the end of the book, as the protagonist at the end of his life journey is about to cross the great divide:

After this it was noised abroad that Mr Valiant-for-Truth was taken with a summons, by the same post as the other, and had this for a token that the summons was true: ‘That his pitcher was broken at the fountain.’  When he understood it, he called for his friends and told them of it.  Then said he, I am going to my fathers, and though with great difficulty I am got hither, yet now I do not repent me of all the trouble I have been at to arrive where I am.  My sword I give to him that shall succeed me in my pilgrimage, and my courage and skill to him that can get it.  My marks and scars I carry with me, to be a witness for me that I have fought His battles who now will be my rewarder.  When the day that he must go hence was come, many accompanied him to the river-side, into which as he went he said, ‘Death, where is thy sting?’ And as he went down deeper, he said, ‘Grave, where is thy victory?’  So he passed over, and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.

May it thus be so for our beloved friend and brother, and fellow organ-grinder!

“I do not believe in goodbyes, a theologically unsound word at best. I rather like the phrase, ‘Go with God’ and I rather like the phrase, ‘Till we meet again.’ The Choristers know how easy it is to read Uncle Gerre’s mind, for he is so simple-minded; reading my mind at this very moment, you’ll find these words: May God bless you richly; See you later.” GH from his address on his final Sunday at St. Thomas, June 2004. Photo by George Bang after his final improvised postlude on “Ora Labora” that same day.

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