2019 Great Lakes AGO Regional Convention

Jim Hejduk reports on the Great Lakes AGO Regional Convention in Grand Rapids, MI, June 30–July 3.

Two summers ago, I opted to attend the Great Lakes AGO Regional Convention in Youngstown, OH because I was impressed by the lineup of artists and it afforded me an opportunity to visit my family. This year, I chose to go to Grand Rapids for exactly the same reasons. Too, I'd never been to Grand Rapids and a Westminster Choir College buddy, Larry Biser, was the program chair so I wanted to support him. Grand Rapids is larger than Lincoln and there's definitely a Dutch Reformed influence there. Moreover, for a city its size, Grand Rapids boasts a striking number of out-sized instruments. 4- and 5-manual instruments were not uncommon in several churches there.

We began with a Sunday afternoon evensong service with a pre-service recital by Nicole Keller from Cleveland playing Trinity Lutheran Church's III/37 Letourneau. The organ sits prominently on the left side in the front of the church. Its voicing and the church's lively acoustics offer it plenty of punch.

Voluntary for Organ—William Bolcom
Partita: Jesu, meine Freude—Johann Walther
So Fades the Lovely Blooming Flower—George Shearing
A Quaker Reader—Ned Rorem

  • A Secret Power
  • The World of Silence
  • There is a Spirit that Delights to do no Evil

Jig for the feet (Totentanz) from Organbook III—William Albright

Keller's playing was assured and used the organ to maximum advantage. It was a blissful marriage of instrument and repertoire.

The service itself was veddy British indeed. Conductor Scott Bosscher was a former choral scholar at Wells Cathedral and the Grand Rapids Choir of Men and Boys is the only RSCM choir in Michigan not affiliated with a church or school. This all-volunteer group is quite extraordinary. The music included Introit I—Let the People Praise Thee, O God by William Mathias as well as settings of the chanted Preces and Psalms by Philip Radcliffe, H. Walford Davies, and H. G. Ley while the "Mag" and "Nunc" settings were by Stanford (in B-Flat). The service was interspersed with Biblical readings as well as poetry, the Creed, etc. plus a short sermon (something one does not have to usually endure in British services!). The musical centerpiece of the service was Finzi's Lo, the Full, Final Sacrifice followed by Philip Stopford's In My Father's House sung in memory of a young chorister who had died in a car crash at the beginning of this season. C.H.H. Parry's setting of O Praise Ye the Lord (in the Willcocks arrangement) was sung mightily by the congregation at the conclusion of the service. I would add that organist Kenneth Bos accompanied this service with stunning aplomb given the instrument on which he had to play (hardly rife with mellow, enveloping diapasons and celestes). Nicole Keller returned to the bench to play Stanford's Allegro from his Six Short Pieces, Op. 108 for the appreciative conventioneers. This was a glorious slice of England in Grand Rapids. The choir is obviously well-trained and hard-working. The boys don't quite have the "zing" in their high notes like English choristers, but they've obviously bought in to the mystique and no little magic that their conductor seeks to instill in each of them through this glorious choral tradition.

Sunday evening featured Scott Dettra (son of one of my Choir College dorm floor mates) and the Majestic Brass of Grand Rapids at Central Reformed Church (Schantz, 1957/Robert Dial, 1982—V/80). Dettra is truly an accomplished pro and the brass ensemble was on a par with our own Plymouth Brass.

Sinfonia Festiva—Daniel Gawthrop
Fantasia on the theme of Hindemith (organ solo)—James D'Angelo
Concerto for Brass, Organ, and Percussion—Robert Elmore
Salve fac populum tuum—Charles-Marie Widor
Arioso (organ solo)—Leo Sowerby
Suite for Organ, Brass Quintet and Percussion—Craig Phillips

This was a program with something for everyone (except for folks who might have preferred more organ solo music perhaps) and was masterfully played. It was wise, indeed, to feature Grand Rapids groups (with guest organists) to perform at the opening events so local musicians could really "strut their stuff." Many came away impressed by just what Grand Rapids has to offer musically.

Monday morning's Festival Worship Service at St. Adelbert's Roman Catholic Cathedral (Wicks, 1980, III/72—but the glorious acoustics caused many to suppress their skepticism) continued with impressive local talent. Program Chair Larry Biser assembled a pickup Convention Festival Chorale and organist Jonathan Tuuk (who played at the "old" St. Mark's Methodist on our LOS series decades ago) served stunningly as soloist and accompanist. Tuuk began with the Franck B Minor Choral and the choral introit was Locus Iste by Bruckner. Other anthems during the service included I Was Glad by Parry, Howard Hanson's setting of Psalm 8 and the Gloria from Argento's The Masque of Angels. The hymns during the service included Thaxted (aka Jupiter from The Planets by Holst), Nettleton, and Lauda Anima with an eye-opening new text by Larry Biser. The thoughtful address was delivered by Dr. Don Saliers, AGO National Chaplain (with whom I sat on the bus returning from the previous afternoon's service). Jonathan Tuuk concluded the service with a scrupulous yet searing account of the Tournemire-Durufle improvisation on Victimae Paschali Laudes. Though retired, Tuuk has organ chops to spare, believe me! His accompaniments (anthems, hymns, etc.) throughout were spot-on, sure-handed, and tasteful.

Beginning the day with an address by the National Chaplain, the concept of national continued throughout Monday by nationally (and internationally) acclaimed artists. In the early afternoon, we heard Katelyn Emerson at Grace Episcopal Church (Noack, III/53), the home parish of Gerald and Betty Ford.

Prelude and Fugue in G Major, BWV 541—J. S. Bach
Ballo del Granduca—Jan Sweelinck
Ich ruf' zu dir—Vincent Lubeck (an extended setting I'd never heard before)
Fantasie et fugue en si bemol majeur—Alexandre Pierre Francois Boely
Variations sur un theme de Clement Jannequin—Jehan Alain
Sechs Fugen über den Namen BACH—V. Lebhaft
Choral in A Minor—Cesar Franck

I've heard Emerson at St. Cecilia's in Omaha and at First Presbyterian in Kilgore, TX and found her playing quite stunning and deeply mature for one so young. She maintained that impression here, though I would have advised against playing the Franck as a closer given this particular instrument and its tuning. But the other pieces were abundantly well-suited to the Noack and stylishly rendered.

Then it was back downtown to hear Gregory Crowell (another more recent LOS performer on a variety of instruments at First Christian Church) at Central Seventh Day Adventist Church on an 1893 Johnson & Son instrument, 11/17. The church's membership has shrunk markedly over the years so little has been done to maintain, let alone enhance the interior of the (un-air-conditioned) interior or the organ. But this isn't necessarily a bad thing. The jewel-like interior with its richly decorated wooden arches and lovely stained glass windows and the organ itself are in remarkably pristine condition and Crowell's program was beautifully suited to this unique gem of an instrument.

Vergnügte Ruh'—J. S. Bach, arr. Brigitte Dubiel
Vesper Voluntaries—Edward Elgar

  • V. Poco Lento
  • VII. Allegretto pensoso

Praeludium in F-Sharp Minor—Ernst Friedrich Richter
Fugue in C Major—Charles Zeuner
Two Character Pieces—James Woodman

  • Wardie's Dump (and Crowell finally explained just what a "Dump" is musically speaking!)
  • Gagliarda for Emily and Kip

Abendlied—Robert Schumann, arr. Karg-Elert
II. Lebhaft from Sechs Fugen über den Namen BACH—Robert Schumann
Meditation—Arthur Foote
Toccata, Op. 71 No. 7— Arthur Foote

OK, let's be honest. How many of those pieces have you ever heard before, let alone played? This was a monument to deep study and exacting detail in an effort to find works appropriate for this unique period instrument at which Crowell succeeded triumphantly with attentive, hand-fanning listeners soon ignoring the sweltering heat in tribute to that Herculean effort and the success it wrought.

Then we literally walked next door to LaGrave Avenue Christian Church. From what I could discern, the more generously supported LaGrave Avenue church has taken the SDA congregation under its wing, enveloping it in its campus, and helps keep it afloat. We eagerly poured into the large air-conditioned sanctuary to hear Todd Wilson play the V/77-32 Digital Austin/Allen hybrid organ. When Todd Wilson plays, you just know nothing will go wrong (unless the organ misbehaves—and this one didn't). His programs are always memorized, monumental, and memorable. We heard him masterfully perform

Sonata on the 94th Psalm—Julius Reubke
Three Cincinnati Improvisations—Gerre Hancock, transcribed by Todd Wilson

  • Lobe den Herren
  • Grand Isle
  • Ar Hyd Y Nos

Suite, Op. 5—Maurice Durufle

Yeah; in a word "Wow!"

Having barely recovered from that recital, a few workshops, and dinner, we departed for Fountain Street Church (U-U) that evening to hear Ken Cowan on the V/138-34 Digital Austin-Allen in this storied edifice. I knew students from my era who had studied at this fabled church with Beverly Howerton, its esteemed Director of Music. (Its renowned minister at that time was Rev. Duncan Littlefair—sometimes referred to as "Drunken Littlefaith."). An even more recent LOS performer (First Presbyterian), Cowan provided us with one of his all-memorized extravaganzas.

Overture to Der Fliegende Holländer—Richard Wagner, arr. E. H. Lemare (also his LOS opener)
Humoresque (Homage a Marcel Dupre)—Rachel Laurin (another LOS selection)
Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D Minor—J. S. Bach, arr. Max Reger
L'Envoi—George Baker
Valse Mignon—Sigfrid Karg-Elert
Deuxieme Symphony—Marcel Dupre

So on this Monday alone, we had an address by the National Chaplain, three recitals by national icons, and a jewel box program on a blessedly untouched gem by a prominent local artist. Grand Rapids was truly pulling out all the stops for us!

Tuesday we were off to Holland which, yes, has lots of Dutch-inspired architecture, a tulip festival, and downtown sidewalks which are heated in winter to prevent icing over and resultant slippage! This is one very progressive, prosperous, and performance-friendly town on the shores of Lake Michigan, by golly! Our first program was at Grace Episcopal Church on a stunning 2016 Martin Pasi instrument, II/19, ideally located in a rear apse for maximum exposure and projection. Rhonda Sider Edgington (who we'd also heard in Youngstown) had played the dedication recital on this organ and knew it like the back (and front) of her hand. She craftily alternated older repertoire with modern pieces to show this remarkably versatile organ at its best (and distributed wonderfully illuminating program notes as well).

Praeludium in F Major, Bux 145—Dieterich Buxtehude
Three fugues from Twelve Short Pieces for Organ, Op. 43 - Rachel Laurin

  • Fugue Cirulaire
  • Fugue Triangulaire
  • Fugue Carree

Concerto in A Minor—Vivaldi/J.S. Bach
Church Bells Beyond the Stars—Cecilia McDowall
Three chorale preludes—Georg Böhm

  • Christ lag in Todesbanden
  • Vater unser im Himmelreich
  • Christum wir sollen loben schon

Prelude, Aria, and Finale—Margaret Vardell Sandresky (whose works I first heard at the Los Angeles National Convention way back when).

There was a program of handbell music given by Larry and Carla Sue (a husband-and-wife team who met online on The Handbell Community web site!) at Third Reformed Church and then it was off to Dimment Memorial Chapel on the Hope College campus to hear David Heinze who this month has taken up the post of Associate Director of Music at Grace Episcopal Church in Providence, RI. He's an alumnus of Hope and the Interlochen Arts Academy and has also had extensive training and experience in Great Britain. He played the chapel's vintage E. M. Skinner IV/48 for us in appropriately selected works.

Marche Hongroise from La Damnation de Faust—Berlioz, arr. Henri Busser
Solemn Melody—Henry Walford-Davies
Symphonie Romaine, Op. 72—Charles-Marie Widor (marking the 175th anniversary of his birth)

Armed with box lunches, we headed off to various workshops or the lakeside Holland State Park before returning to the Hope campus's stunning Jack H. Miller Center for Musical Arts (Eat your heart out, Westbrook!) with its jaw-dropping recital hall and 2015 Casavant III/54. The donor of the organ was in attendance and recognized. His donation stipulations were that the organ had to be a Casavant and that the pipes were not to be visible! So the pipes are at the rear of the large stage behind a cloth screen and handsome wood framing. Huw Lewis, long-time Hope College organ professor played

Partita: Sei gegrüßet, Jesu gütig, BWV 768—J.S. Bach
Symphonie I—Louis Vierne

These contrasting works showcased the organ's versatility and Lewis's virtuosity and musicality. Following this program, Lewis led a scintillating and insightful masterclass.

Then it was back to Grand Rapids, a speedy supper, and Lynne Davis's concert at the Cathedral of St. Andrew which sports a rear gallery 2002 Letourneau, IV/54. Interestingly, this all-French program was performed on a French-Canadian instrument whose specifications use German nomenclature (except for the older front chancel organ with a II/18 disposition). This posed no problems for Davis, accustomed to the Marcussen instrument at Wichita State U. in Kansas.

Te Deum—Jeanne Demessieux
Livre d'Orgue—Pierre DuMage

  • Plein Jeu
  • Tierce en Taille
  • Basse de Trompette
  • Dialogue sur les Grands Jeux

Choral I—Cesar Franck
Pieces de Fantasie—Louis Vierne

  • Andantino
  • Toccata

Intermezzo—Jehan Alain
Litanies— Jehan Alain
II. Moderato cantabile from Symphonie No. 8—Charles-Marie Widor
Variations de Concert—Joseph Bonnet

I'm accustomed to hearing Davis play the big French potboilers, so was surprisingly impressed with her DuMage for which she seemed to have a very capable and studied affinity.

We relished the late start offered Wednesday after two very busy days and began with a presentation by Clark Wilson on the mighty Wurlitzer installed at the Grand Rapids Public Museum. This new-ish structure isn't an art museum per se but, rather, something akin to a grand and very imaginative children's and science museum whose exhibits were visually and educationally appealing and to which youngsters were drawn enthusiastically. And its second-floor auditorium has a uniquely installed Wurlizter III/29 dating from 1928 and updated by G.M. Buck Pipe Organs in 1994. Wilson gave a great demonstration of the instrument and its capabilities, then favored us with a colorful and creative medley of Judy Garland hits (I'd forgotten there were so many) followed by an accompaniment to an early Laurel and Hardy silent film. We then went a few blocks to the campus of Grand Valley State University to hear a carillon recital on the Beckering Family Carillon of 48 bells cast by Fonderie Paccard by Helen Hofmeister, a former Grand Rapids AGO Dean and principal organist and choir director of Westminster Presbyterian Church there. The weather was breezy for pleasant outdoor listening or one could listen from inside while enjoying selections from the food court. Her program was stunningly varied and frankly left me pleasantly surprised at my level of attention and enjoyment.

Leyenda—Isaac Albeniz, arr. Albert Gerken
A Suite of English Folk Songs—Ronald Barnes (a name I recognized from his Washington Cathedral days)

  • The Lark in the Morn
  • The Keys of Canterbury
  • O Sally My Dear
  • Driving Away at the Smoothing Iron (something I suspect has nothing to do with golf!)

Chartres—Roy Hamlin Johnson
Chessie 'Round the Mountain
American Music—arr. Milford Myhre

  • America the Beautiful (Samuel Ward)
  • Simple Gifts (Shaker Hymn)
  • Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair (Stephen Foster)
  • Beautiful Dreamer (Foster)

Suite III for Carillon—Henk Badings

  • Preludium
  • Passacaglia

Then it was off to Immanuel Lutheran Church (Schlicker, 1963—Lauck Pipe Organ Co. 1976–2004, III/56) to hear Noah Klein, a Northfield, MN native who studies with Janette Fishell at Indiana University, play his winner's recital as part of the Quimby Regional Competition.

Hymn: Lasst uns erfreuen
Piece Heroique—Cesar Franck
Prelude and Fugue in A Minor, BWV 543—J. S. Bach
From Five Dances for Organ—Calvin Hampton

  • At the Ballet
  • Those Americans

Final from Symphony I—Louis Vierne

This was not a sympathetic room acoustically and Klein's playing was marked more by speed than musicality. I suspect his win was a result of disparate opinions by the judges resulting in a compromise. He's by no means untalented and will undoubtedly develop into a much more mature player.

We then proceeded to storied St. Mark's Episcopal Church where Gregory Crowell holds forth. Leo Sowerby was a choir boy here and Paul Callaway was St. Mark's organist before going to the Washington National Cathedral. We heard Nicole Simental, Assistant Director of Music and Principal Organist at St. Joseph Cathedral in Columbus, OH who is also a DMA candidate at Indiana U. with Christopher Young. She received her Masters in Sacred Music at Notre Dame with Craig Cramer and Delbert Disselhorst (possibly a contemporary of Michael Emmerich's there?). The organ is a J. W. Walker, 1V/69 dating from 2004.

Tierces from Four Concert Etudes—David Briggs
Variations on Est-ce Mars—J. P. Sweelinck
Prelude and Fugue in E Minor, BWV 548—J.S. Bach
Lullaby (Suite #2)—Calvin Hampton
Sonata IV in B-Flat Major—Felix Mendelssohn
II. Andante Sostenuto from Symphonie Gothique—Charles-Marie Widor
I. Allegro from Symphonie No. 2—Louis Vierne

This was a big program but Simental flew through it in nothing flat. After her stunning opener which gave us plenty of assurance of her technique, the rest was noteworthy mainly for its speed. The Widor provided a glimpse of what she may be capable of musically, but the rest of the pieces were marked mainly for their breakneck tempos. Maybe she had a plane to catch back to Columbus. Who knows?

That evening's closing recital was by Nathan Laube on the V/94 1968 Tellers at Mayflower Congregational Church, later updated by Lauck Pipe Organ Company in 1998. This large American colonial edifice looked as if it had been uprooted from New England and had been Jonathan Tuuk's final Grand Rapids 26-year position prior to his retirement. Laube's printed program was full of enticements like his transcription of the Liszt B minor piano sonata and Hungarian Rock-Chaconne by Gyorgy Ligeti which I was anxious to hear. However, Laube had undergone surgery on his left foot and his cast had been removed only ten days prior to this concert. This necessitated a change in program which retained some pieces, discarded others, and plugged in new ones. But what we ended up with was by no means disappointing in the least!

Sonata Eroica—Joseph Jongen
Passacaglia in C Minor—J.S. Bach
Variations Serieuses, Op. 54—Felix Mendelssohn, transcribed by Laube
Overture to Tannhäuser—Richard Wagner, transcribed by S. P Warren, E. H. Lemare, N. J. Laube

Most of the cheering, wildly clapping attendees left the sanctuary stunned, slack-jawed, and vowing either to practice much harder or give up the organ altogether. It was simply dazzling on all fronts in terms of technique, musicianship, and audience appeal. One cannot imagine a more brilliant finish.

From the stylish and cleverly designed utilitarian tote bags to the generous, spiral-bound program book to the kill-'em-with-kindness and literal door-to-door bus service, the stylish hotel (with two Wolfgang Puck eateries, a Ruth's Chris, and a Starbucks), an over-the-top, mouth-watering banquet in the gorgeous hotel ballroom and "whatever it takes" chapter helpers and enablers, this was one well-oiled machine of a convention with a star-spangled array of performers. Hats off to Grand Rapids! Add a $325 registration fee which included bus transportation and the banquet and Grand Rapids will be hard to top anywhere!

And how nice to chat a number of times with Laura Hedstrom, our local competition winner and Concordia alumna who's now thriving in her church position in Elkhart, IN as well as James Brown, an old Boston buddy who's been at St. Giles Episcopal in Northbrook, IL as well as Northern Illinois University in DeKalb for longer now than either of us would care to remember!