Friday, October 31, 2014

Roll of the Dead

This will be a difficult weekend at our church. Each year on the first Sunday of November we remember the people in our congregation who have died in the last twelve months. In large parts of the Christian world it is All Saints Sunday (the day itself is actually November 1st). As part of the worship service we light candles in memory of those saints who have gone before us. In Protestant view, this does not mean an exemplary class of persons who have undergone the postmortem process of canonization and been declared saints by church officials, bit rather anyone who dies in the faith. We remember them as we read their names each year during our Communion liturgy.

Usually there are six or seven names on this "roll of the dead." This year there are twelve. Twelve persons, most of whom did not live the normal term, but died too young of a terminal illness or a sudden accident. Those are never easy funerals. Some of those funerals took place in our Worship and Life Center where our Praise band provides the music. At the conclusion of each one the members, emotionally exhausted from trying to hold it together long enough to sing, would say something like, "Let's not have another one of these please," and yet a month later, there we would be again. Cancer, ALS, Rabbit Fever, heart failure. All spring and into the summer funerals kept happening. These weren't people who had been in nursing homes for years whom I had never met. These were people I knew. People whose deaths tore a little hole in the community each time. People whose funerals lasted well over an hour, whose tearful friends spoke at length about how wonderful they were and how much they would be missed. Lines formed around the block as the community came together in support of each other.

It has been a difficult year in the life of this church. And this weekend we will be forcefully reminded of it.

I am in a particularly pastoral mood this week. I'd like to be able to comfort my people. At the 'traditional' services this weekend I've chosen to play a Bach fugue. That may not seem an intuitive choice, but Bach's fugues, far from being exercises in counterpoint, show an enormous variety.

This one begins with a relatively trivial subject. It is pleasant enough at first: the voices all file in in an orderly manner. But then the way grows dark. C major turns out to be more harmonically complex than we thought. Tensions pile on top of one another; the song of serenity turns to a song of mourning. The tortured chords at the end are answered only by silence.

And then, triumph. Resurrection. A glimpse of a great hope beyond the grave.

But only a glimpse....

Bach: Fugue in C, Bwv 547

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Pictures from the organ recital (part two)

I was joined for this concert by Gavin Stolte on congas ("Three African Tunes for Organ" by Carl Heine), Camille Rose on violin ("Variations on Amazing Grace" by Wilbur Held), and Robert Brooks on saxophone (improvisation on "Just a Closer Walk")

Gavin has been the excellent drummer at our "fusion" service for many years. From time to time I invite him to the "celebrate" service to spice things up. I'm also in a band with him called "TimeZone." 

Camille plays violin in the Champaign-Urbana Symphony. She's been part of our congregation for years and has performed with our choir and with myself on several occasions.

Robert joined our choir this fall and is getting a Master's degree in jazz performance at the University of Illinois. 

After my joke with the new playback system (see Monday's blog) I had promised to have more fun with it. So I played a duet with myself for piano and organ using an organ performance I had recorded a few days earlier. 

I concluded with a piece by UK composer Paul Ayres, his "Toccata on 'All You Need is Love'" which I hinted it by mentioning that between the hymn I had just improvised on--"And can it be that I should gain" whose chorus is "Amazing Love" --and the last piece, there was a bit of a love theme in development, The composer has provided an alternate title "if you want to keep the audience guessing"--the Latin phrase "Amor satis est" (Love is sufficient) which is what I put in the program. I wanted the audience to figure it out gradually, just as Paul unfurls the tune, growing more obvious with each repetition.

By the end the audience was on its feet, cheering wildly, and I had to come back for an encore. Whoops! In a mere three weeks I had somehow managed to throw an entire concert together, learning three new pieces, assembling four partners to play them with, improvising two others, and arranging a seventh. Not to mention the pre-recorded bits, getting the furniture together and arranging to have the organ moved (I'll tell that story another time). I had no plan for an encore.

So I asked the audience for a hymn. Someone hollered out "I'll Fly Away" so I flew away for three or four verses. Since I was making it up I made sure to use the pedals aplenty since the audience could see those. It brought the house down (some have told me it was their favorite part of the concert). And no, the woman who yelled out her suggestion was not a plant. I had no idea what anyone would say. But I've been making up hymn improvisations for years so I figured as long as I knew the tune things would work out. Luckily, I just happen to know that tune. Our choir director likes it and uses it nearly every year on All Saint's Day.

I would like to thank my dear wife, Kristen, for her indefatigable help with publicity, which surely must account for the 200-250 people who attended, (besides the promise of being able to see my feet up close and personal) and also for all the photography you've seen this week. She took pictures of nearly everything--so many that I was able to choose these from over a hundred! Thank you, honey!

We were also taking donations for the organ fund via a basket at the back of the church, and collected over 2,600 dollars. You guys rock! Thank you so much. I'm sure it must make Doug Abbott feel better. He's in charge of the church finances, and also videotaped the proceedings. Some parts of that (public domain parts, anyway) may make their way onto the web at some point. Stay tuned.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Pictures from the organ recital (part one)

 On Sunday, October 26th, at 3 pm in the Faith United Methodist Church north sanctuary a very special event occurred. It was an organ concert unlike anything I've ever been a part of.

Having recently had our console rebuilt and our pipe room rewired in order to fix a major problem with the electronic relay system, and in the process added a new digital system with a few new bells and whistles of its own (more about that later!) we decided to show it off.

Given the new console's portability, since it is now connected by a single cat-5 cable to the pipe room, we moved it to the center of the floor and the stage was literally set for the strange proceedings.
 First to take the stage was narrator Rodney Woodworth, who between subtle digs at the organist explained to the audience just what this crazy instrument could do.

Each of Rodney's explanations was followed by a variation from Mozart's set of variations on the tune popularly known as "Twinkle, twinkle," a very dignified choice to begin an organ concert.

The organ got a workout. Everything was tried out, from the tiny, shrill penny whistlish flute pipes, to the exotic mutations, to the mellow strings, the awe-inspiring mixtures, fun with upper and lower octave combinations, and of course the flatulent pedal tuba, which got plenty of laughs.

When it was time for the final variation, there was a little surprise waiting. About 3/4 through the variation, the organist backed away from the console, and the organ continued to play! That caused a bit of excitement.

I decided to go for a stroll while the organ finished up, poured myself a glass of water, drank it, just like a ventriloquist trying to show off his ability to play the organ and drink water at the same time (or something like that), conducted the organ to its conclusion, and led the applause.


Above, Rodney and I trying to get the organ to take a bow. Either that, or we are having a duel with wands. Hard to tell.

At left, our celebrity page turner falling asleep during Louis James Alfred Lefebre-Wely's circuslike Sortie in Eb, about to miss his cue. Oh, dear.

Once I roused him from his slumber by hissing at him a couple of times, he raced about, flinging pages all over the stage! He's fired of course, but not before I used him as a straight man to tell a joke about a saxophone and a lawn mower. Apparently tenor saxophonist Robert Brooks, backstage, didn't hear it, because he appeared to play a piece with me later.

An audience of at least 200 (and maybe closer to 250) filled the sanctuary for the concert. A hearty and grateful thanks to all of you who came. There will be more pictures from this event on Wednesday.

Friday, October 24, 2014

More than you probably wanted to know about this weekend's recital

This is the first of four articles about the organ concert on the 26th. Next week, on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I'll post photos and recordings and anything else on my mind.

Sunday, October 26th, is a chance to share the newly restored organ at Faith UMC with the church and the community. Because I didn't want to limit my audience to lovers of organ recitals, I decided to make the music and the atmosphere as light and friendly as possible. (in fact, I hope to draw many people to their very first organ recital) The organ has, let's face it, a bit of an image problem. Some folks think it is an instrument that never smiles; others hear it and can't think of anything besides haunted houses.

Yet it is a very versatile instrument, capable of everything from the greatest sobriety to the depths of silliness, from profundity to frivolity, and a lot of other things besides. The music written for it goes back over seven centuries, and the instrument itself over 2000 years.

The first thing I'll play on the concert is a bit of a get-to-know-the-organ piece. It includes a narrator, explaining how the organ works and talking about the various kinds of sounds of which it is capable. I'll fill in the sounds, some of which are reasonably dignified, and others are not at all. The piece in question is a set of variations Mozart wrote for the piano on a tune everybody knows (it was new in his day) and which I've turned into an organ piece by 'orchestrating' it--that is, choosing which groups of pipes to use in which colorful combination for each variation.

The way that originated was that one day somebody in the church popped by to ask me about weddings, and happened to mention that her friend had chosen this very piece as a recessional. It seemed like an odd choice, and, being in an odd humor, I started to imagine what it would sound like on the organ, even though I had been assured it was going to be played on the piano. At one point my friend was dissolved in laughter as I brought the flatulent tuba stop in at just the right moment. A day later, I recorded the set, and it's been on the website for a couple of years. I've just recorded the narrator parts (frankly, the organ sound is better, too, since I placed the microphones differently) and I'll post it in a few days if we're all lucky.

Next up, the concert turns solemn with the introduction of religious music. Well, not if James Louis Alfred Lefebre-Wely can help it. His contribution is a lot like a circus march, and I'll give a long-winded explanation of that, and also discuss the long and dark history of the organ's acceptance as a musical instrument in church. Then I'll invite a conga player to join me (the latest lobby against the organ is split into people who favor the guitar and those who favor the drums--or both) proving that it is possible for the instruments to get along. We'll further complicate the issue by playing organ music from Africa, which is not a place where the organ originated, nor where all that much organ playing or writing happens even today--although there is some, and I'll keep you posted on that as I find out more.

I bought this group of 3 African tunes at a convention I was at 13 years ago and we played one of them the week after Easter a couple of years ago. Two of the pieces are in 7/8 time--not something we're used to. Also, the pedal part and the hands have some tricky exchanges, since they are putting the accents in different places. The pieces sound fairly easy, but it took a few days of practice just to stop feeling so clumsy!

Next comes a piece by a 100 year old composer. Wilbur Held turned 100 on August 20th, and is still making appearances, it seems. We've got a pleasant set of variations on Amazing Grace for violin and organ, which is the only piece on the program that isn't loud or fast--which is the very reason I thought of it in the first place. Our violinist and I played it a few years back in church.

Now I've gotten used to throwing concerts together fast these last years, but this one came together in only three weeks. The only way to do that, especially if you want to learn two new pieces into the bargain, is to not have to practice one of them AT ALL. And that just what our resident jazz saxophonist and I are going to do--make it up at the concert. It's going to be a lot of fun. Robert joined our choir this fall, and the first time we worked together I got an email from him the day before the service saying that we should play Amazing Grace in the key of G--start slow, play it three times, with an interlude between the second and third time and then up the tempo for the last time. That was it--no practice at all, and we played it at the early service without my ever having heard him blow a note before. People loved it--they thought I was great, and I had nothing to do with it. I didn't even volunteer him to play: his girlfriend did! But of course we asked for a repeat performance--numbers 2 and 3 this weekend. He'll also be playing an unusual choir anthem that features saxophone accompaniment with organ.

There are some things I just can't give away before the concert--one of them involves some new toys that are part of the organ now. I've been neglecting the piano ever since the organ showed up in September and I'm going to remedy that. The penultimate piece on the program features me paying the piano. As for who will be playing the organ--there will be more about this next week.

Finally, some people who heard me pitch the concert may be wondering what the Beatles have to do with an organ concert. If they come to the concert they'll be wondering no longer. Our finale comes to us courtesy of a composer from the UK who is also an organist.

In fact, 5 of the seven pieces on the program features composers who are still alive--two of the pieces will feature creators who are in the room at the time! The tradition of writing fine and sometimes funny music for the organ lives on, and so does this instrument, concept from the 3rd century BC, formulas for making different families of sounds from the Middle Ages and Renaissance, electric wind supply from the 19th century, and digital extras from the 20th and 21st--just like our audience!

Friday, October 3, 2014

Concert announcement

Now that the organ has been refurbished, renovated, renewed, improved, and all kinds of other good adjectives, it seemed appropriate to give it a nice re-dedication ceremony. Someone suggested breaking a bottle of wine over the console but was informed by our business director (the one who allocated the funds) that that might not be such a good idea. So instead we're going to have a concert.

The concert is going to be a bit unusual. I thought about the circumstances of this auspicious moment and decided to think outside the old cliched box. Our church is a diverse place and we have, in addition to three more or less "traditional" services, a "contemporary" service in a different sanctuary at which the organ isn't present. Many of those folks hop around from service to service, appreciating both styles of worship and not minding thinking of the organ as a boring old relic of the past at all, but then some folks are more doctrinaire about it, and probably don't want to be caught dead going to an organ concert. But they've helped pay for this, too--even if it wasn't voluntary.

It seemed to me that this concert ought to be as friendly to as many people as possible, particularly to non-organ fans. So Bach's complete "Art of the Fugue" is going to have to wait. Instead, I've invited some friends to join me, including a jazz saxophonist, a conga player,  a narrator, and a violinist. There will be some improvisation, some innovative approaches to old music, some music that is very new, and even something based on a Beatle's tune. The remaining surprises are things I don't want to reveal yet.

Since there are about 400 people in worship on a weekend, and about 150 or so other choir members and their parents who will be getting invitations, there is a chance the sanctuary will fill up nicely. Usually we don't draw more than 100, but this is not a typical concert. It offers a chance to see the organ console for the first time out in the center of the floor, since the new connection with the pipe room allows portability. You will be able to watch me select stops, press buttons, move my hands and feet, and a few other things. It will be a bit educational in that sense.

And an awful lot of fun. Bring the kids.