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Mr. G Does the Classics, Part II

by Keith Gatling | 4 years ago

My first paying job was as a boy soprano at the Episcopal Church of Saint Andrew, in South Orange, N.J. I held that job from about age 9 until I was in 8th grade, and my voice changed. I started at $1 a month, with a 50¢ raise each year. It may not seem like much now, but in 1966, $1.50 could buy you 10 comic books. Then, in high school, I got called back to be a falsetto alto, at the flat rate of $5.00 a month. I stayed with that until I was offered a better paying gig at McDonald’s for $1.40 an hour, when I was 16.

What does this have to do with anything? Well, you learn a lot, and hear a lot, of classical music when you’re in an Episcopal church choir. And I’m not just talking about the hymns, which the whole congregation sings, but the anthems, which are sung only by the choir. A lot of those anthems, I would later find out, were set to famous classical tunes. One of my favorites, Speak, Lord, to Me was set to an abridged version of Chopin’s Etude in E Major. Here’s the original Chopin as played by Lang Lang. I’ve never been able to find a recorded version of the anthem:

It was also at St Andrew’s that I learned the famous John 3:16 well as verse 17 after it...because they were the words to the anthem “God So Loved the World” by John Stainer, which we did every year, after Christmas. A lot of Bible verses got memorized because I’d sung them as anthems:

I’ve been in many choirs since St Andrews: the Newark Boys Chorus, in New Jersey, where I was on their 1973 Christmas special for WNBC in New York. This is where I first heard Bernstein’s “A Simple Song”, which I mentioned last time. It’s also where learned a lot of Bach, including his Christmas Cantata 191, which I sang as part of that 1973 Christmas special.

Here’s a version of it done by the Netherlands Bach Society:

I also spent six years in the Hendricks Chapel Choir at SU, where I got to tour across Europe and the United States, as well as two be on two local Christmas specials. When I went back home to North Jersey (there’s that “home” thing again), I was in the choir at Saint Peter’s Lutheran Church, and got to be in a Christmas special filmed there.

And when I returned to Syracuse, which is now my home, I joined the choir at King of Kings Lutheran Church, right here in Liverpool, where I served at choir director myself for five years.

But enough with the choral music, I want to talk about organists.

For the roughly 50 years I’ve sung in choirs, I’ve had the privilege of singing with some absolutely fantastic organists. George Blake, the organist at St Andrew’s, used to be one of the top theater organists in Manhattan before talkies came in, and he switched to church music, which he composed a lot of. Jon Quinn, who played for the Newark Boys Chorus, was also a fantastic organist. At SU I sang with organists Rob Kerner, Brent Hylton, and Winston Stephens; and each of these organists had their own signature “show off” piece. Here are some of the ones I remember:

The Tocatta in D by Widor, here played by Olivier Penin:

The funny thing about the Widor Tocatta is that over 30 years ago, a friend of mine said that she wanted the organist at her church to play it at her wedding, but the organist had never heard of it. I told her, “Donna, if she’s never heard of it, she can’t play it.” You can see why!

The other “show off” piece was the Finale from Louis Vierne’s First Symphony (and yes, there are symphonies written for organ). Here it’s played by Ash Mills:

And a third piece was Carillons of Westminster, also by Vierne. This time played by Diane Bish:

Take a listen around some of the cathedrals of the world, and you’ll hear some fantastic organ music.

But that’s not all! The John Wannamaker department store in Philadelphia (now a Macy’s) was built with a huge concert organ it it, and to this day, free recitals are held there twice a day, except for Sundays (I guess the organist has a church gig). In 1921, during his first recital on it, French organist Marcel Dupré was so impressed by the instrument that he improvised a piece on it during a recital, which later became his Symphonie-Passion.

So churches and cathedrals aren’t the only places to hear great organ music! In fact, if you remember George Blake, there used to be a lot of theater organists around, and I bet they were using a lot of classical themes to accompany the movies they were playing for.

And...there still is a Mighty Wurlitzer at Radio City!