Monthly archives "October 2017"

TAO November 2017–Retiring Thoughts

Retiring Thoughts

I wasn’t planning to retire, but it happened anyway last February. Without consultation, my lower back made the decision for me, even though I have a lot of music left in me. Happily, surgery was successful, and I can play again—but on a limited basis.
Without a doubt, retirement is a new stage of life for me. I have a lot to learn about making the most of the opportunities it presents. I won’t deny that my wife and I had begun dreaming of retirement for a couple of years, but, frankly, I was not prepared for retirement itself. Now that I’m better, I am enjoying the freedom that comes with it. Surgical recovery has given me plenty of time to look back over my forty-three years of professional music making. I have many wonderful memories of performances, pastors and people to carry with me. I will always be grateful for them.
If you aren’t retired yet, here is what I would like you to think about: Appreciate what you have now. Make the most of the time you have; make all the music you can. Be generous with your talent. Choose music for the people you serve and enjoy the music preparation process as much as the performance. Use work to grow as a person—you are more than the music you play. Embrace change and the challenges it presents. Challenge yourself, as well: read and listen, learn and reflect upon a wide range of topics. Let your personal growth shine through you.
Platitudes aside, let your Thanksgiving season be filled with genuine gratitude for the many gifts in your life. I am grateful for the partners in my life: my wife, Betsy, music making partners of all stripes, AGO colleagues, and friends who compose new music for our enjoyment. Let’s dive into some of their work now.
First, some ensemble literature to share with your partners: here is Wayne Wold’s Credo for Organ and Trumpet (Augsburg Fortress 9781506413754). I admire Wayne’s creative use of resources within limited means. Three of the movements describe the Trinity using material the Lutheran chorale, “Wir Glauben All.” He has also arranged five more hymn tunes: “Grosser Gott,” “Lobe den Herren,” “Noel Nouvelet,” “Puer Nobis,” and “Solid Rock.” All are delightful to play and to hear. A little more challenging for trumpet is Domecq Smith’s Voluntary (MorningStar 20-9920). This ABA trumpet tune would make a fine postlude for a festival day. Interesting keyboard duets keep coming in. Piano/organ duetists will enjoy Tapestries of Praise (Lillenas 9780787758196) arranged by Susan Caudill and Jerry Nelson. Combining two hymns in each work, these moderately advanced pieces are an evangelical organist’s new BFF. Truly gorgeous phrases move through endless varieties of textures to build exciting pieces that your congregation will love.
Two useful new resources for service playing are next. Jeffrey Blersch has prepared volume seven in his Interpretations series (Concordia 97-7775) There are intonations, re-harmonizations, and modulations galore for ten well-known hymns, including “Bryn Calfaria,” “Foundation,” “In Babilone,” “Olivet,” “Unser Herrscher.” You will find them to be harmonically conservative and creatively rich. In a similar vein is Joining in Glad Adoration (Augsburg Fortress 9781506426341), where David Sims has unleashed his creative mind on twenty-five hymn tunes selected across the entire spectrum of denominational traditions. Written at a similar early intermediate level, David loves both rhythmic verve and quiet sensitivity.
I have always enjoyed playing hymn partitas, mostly for the kaleidoscope of creativity that is required and for the flexibility they provide. Some movements work best grouped together as a prelude, others can stand alone for solo pieces at the offertory; undoubtedly, one of them will make a great postlude. We have a whole crop of new partitas to explore.
First is Jeffrey Blersch’s “Thaxted” (We Praise You and Acknowledge You, O God) (CPH 97-7792). This is one of my favorite hymn tunes, so I am always looking for something new to share. Opening with a grand “Intrada, he quickly moves through the traditional “Chorale” to a lively “Trumpet Tune,” a “Reflection” with tenor melody, and a lively, rising-scales “Finale” with the tune thundering in the pedals. I am also pleased to find something fresh on “Ebeneezer” (Thy Strong Word) by Benjamin Cullli (CPH 97-7791). The lovely “Meditation” quietly moves through four keys; the “March” and a delightful 7/8 “Scherzo” sustain interest before the final “Toccata.” With this movement, the composer enters an entirely different creative realm. The only movement at an early advanced level, Benjamin unleashes all he has to great effect. If you take the time to learn it, you will have a brilliant piece for service or concert.
The 500th anniversary of the Reformation has inspired two more settings of “A Mighty Fortress.” Aaron David Miller offers a useful hymn concertato with an extended introduction that will stand on its own. Following that, there are resources for congregational participation. This is a real festival setting. Michael Costello’s partita (CPH 97-9977) conveniently straddles the line between the two rhythmic interpretations of this chorale. A thrilling “Introduction” leads to a “Hymn,” a short three-part manual variation, a truly lovely “Ayre,” then another “Chorale” that leads into a final “Fughetta.” The wide range of moods here makes this a useful piece to know.
The Reformation anniversary has elicited three more partitas for you to explore: “Nun Komm der Heiden Heiland” by Jacob Weber (CPH 97-7788), “Nun Freut Euch” by Kevin Hildebrand (CPH 97-7789), and “Gelobt Sei Gott” by Kevin Kosche (CPH 97-7790). Each is a satisfying creative work following the variation pattern.
While I love these traditional stylings, I also admire composers who take risks by exploring how to clothe old material in new styles. How about Kyle Johnson’s Variations on “Engelberg” (MorningStar 10-694)? His sparkly, multi-meter “Prelude Dance” tells you that is no ordinary partita. As does his very easy, mystical “Offertory.” But nothing heard so far will prepare you for his “Swing That Postlude.” Kyle is unabashed in his use of “big band” rhythms and harmonies, creating a tap-your-toe atmosphere that will spread smiles across the room. There is nothing here to put off the intermediate organist, including the string bass pedal solo. Played on just the right occasion, you might even get a raise!
But, let’s face it, most of our treasure is not being deposited in our bank accounts. The work we do can never be fully compensated in dollars or bitcoins, because sacred music is beyond earthy value. In fact, we ourselves become the treasure as we acquire more and more knowledge and experience. Our congregations depend upon us to carry their legacies forward. Each denomination has contributed something special to the worlds’ sacred music treasury.
It’s worth exploring what lies beyond our own musical heritage. Regardless of how remote these hymns might seem from our own, we usually know at least one from every tradition. The universally regarded contribution from Scandinavia is “How Great Thou Art.” Nordic Hymns for Organ (AF 9781506426358) is a broad exploration of other traditional Scandinavian hymns. Edwin Childs’ arrangements dress each hymn with fresh garb, often in a most non-Nordic way. In this volume, Childs ventures into fresh harmonic territory, but never abrasively. Christopher M. Wicks has devoted his attention to Three Preludes on Swedish Hymns (CPH 97-9980). Here are short, two-page settings of “Thy Holy Wings” and “Children of the Heavenly Father,” with a most interesting countersubject reminiscent of Frank. His third choice, “Prepare the Royal Highway,” is most energetic. Just say “ja” to this little set!
The Welsh have given us some of our most beloved hymns, including “Cwm Rhondda,” “Hyfrydol,” “Llanfair,” and “Ar Hyd y Nos.” Bernard Wayne Sanders has added to these “Aberystwyth,” Bryn Calfaria, “Gwalchmai,” and Rhosymedre” to his new volume, A Welsh Hymn Sampler (CPH 97-7779). He has lavished his rich imagination to all eight of these hymn tunes. Applying old textures in fresh ways is his specialty. You will enjoy the sound of his unexpected harmonic shifts. Trickier than they look, all but one will take an upper intermediate organist. His toccata on “Hyfydol” requires a little mores skill. Each of these volumes is an opportunity to explore and honor our international roots. If hymns from any of these traditions is on your bucket list, be sure to take a look at these books.
I have always been grateful for the riches in our sacred music repertory. It is in our musician nature to add something of ourselves before passing it on the next generation. In many ways, maintaining continuity from generation to generation is an authentic witness to the faith we serve. For me, a new perspective on life and career is emerging since retirement. This year I am especially grateful for the opportunity to have participated in continuing the sacred music tradition. Let’s give thanks together!