Music News & Reviews

Regional convention of organists comes to Lexington

Johnson Lexington Herald-Leader

Schuyler Robinson describes his instrument of choice, the organ, in the sort of zero-to-60 terms usually reserved for race cars or thoroughbreds.

"The sheer power," Robinson says, "you can go from a whisper sound, like 65 decibels, to the full power of the organ, which might be 110 decibels, like a rock band. You virtually have an orchestra at your hands."

Jane Johnson puts it in terms akin to painting.

"It's the variety of sounds," says Johnson, the organist at Crestwood Christian Church. "There's so much you can do with it. It's just fun to play."

Robinson, head of the organ program at the University of Kentucky, and Johnson will be joined by about 200 like-minded musicians Sunday through Wednesday when the Region V convention of the American Guild of Organists comes to the Bluegrass, bringing in organists from Kentucky, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana and Illinois.

The professional convention, like most conventions, has a lot of workshops and other features exclusively for practitioners in the field, but the organ gathering comes with 12 performances in Lexington, Danville and Berea that are free and open to the public.

This will be the first time the convention has come to the Lexington area and the first time it has been in Kentucky since 1988, when it was in Louisville. Robinson and Johnson say that with Cincinnati, Detroit, Chicago and other major metro areas in the region, there is a lot of competition to host the convention. But the public concerts were a big reason why the Lexington chapter of the American Guild of Organists wanted to bring the event here.

"We thought it would be great to have one here because we have some really nice instruments to showcase and we have a lot of different types of instruments to showcase," says Johnson, who is co-chairing the convention with Clif Cason, music director at Maxwell Street Presbyterian Church. "The beauty of organ is that there are no two alike.

"What we wanted to do was look at a variety of organ builders, the variety of sizes of instruments, and the literature that they are best able to present."

She cites the Taylor and Boody organ at The Presbyterian Church in Danville as a Baroque instrument. The organist who will play it Monday night, Jack Mitchener of Oberlin College in Ohio, specializes in early music. On the other hand, there is the modern, multifaceted Moeller organ at UK's Singletary Center for the Arts that will be played by David Briggs, who "will get sounds out of that organ no one has heard before," says Robinson, head of the organ program at UK.

Robinson is familiar with most of the organs on the lineup: He played a number of them on his album, A Kentucky Organ Tour.

"It was actually recorded a year before we even started talking about having the convention here," says Robinson, the convention's program chair. "So it's become sort of serendipitous that it's a nice souvenir for the convention."

The concerts will start Sunday with a performance of the seven winning pieces in the regional guild's organ composition competition.

"One of the purposes of the convention is not only education of organists and choir directors, but also to promote new music for organ and choirs," Johnson says. The week will include the premiere of a Pentecost anthem by Craig Phillips and a carillon piece Tuesday in Berea.

New music and new organists are a big deal in the field because there has been some attrition in recent decades.

"We're faced with a phenomenon that's been going on for 20 years: the empty organ bench," Robinson says. "A lot of churches have enjoyed a volunteer organist who has played maybe 60 years and is suddenly no longer available to play. The quest is to find younger organists to fill those positions."

Johnson says that shortage is why the national guild sponsors a young-organist competition, which was to take place Saturday, and the composition competitions to generate 21st-century music for the instruments.

Johnson says the trend toward churches with contemporary worship styles has affected the profession.

"That's fine if that's what speaks to people," she says. "But for churches that enjoy a more traditional style of worship, it is a concern."

Part of the aim is to help draw musicians, particularly pianists, to try an instrument that can be a little intimidating with its many keys, levers and pedals.

"What other instrument do you play with your feet?" Johnson says.

The organists acknowledge a pride in taming the beast of an instrument, which, combined with its sonic allure, makes it irresistible.

"It's the extremes of emotion and control of the instrument," Robinson says. "It takes artistry to make music out of a very clumsy instrument, a very mechanical instrument to begin with."