Tuesday, July 27, 2010

32. Master Class

This month I spent a week at the Sewanee Church Musicians Conference in Monteagle, Tennessee. Situated on the beautiful Cumberland Plateau, the area is full of winding roads and lush forests. Many artists and writers call this part of the state home, and for good reason. It is high enough to be away from the unrelenting heat of the Deep South and far enough from a major city that the night sky is brilliant. Although Monteagle is the base for our activities, a number of events also take place on the beautiful campus of the University of the South in nearby Sewanee.

This was my 4th year to attend the conference and by now it is sort of like a homecoming...I've made a number of good friends there as well as many acquaintances, and reconnecting after a year is both fun and interesting. Most of us work as organists and choirmasters in Episcopal churches and that common bond usually allows us to converse on a meaningful level despite political and theological differences.

Each day begins with a Eucharist at 7:30 (I confess to not always attending these) followed by rehearsals, workshops, lectures, recitals and music-reading sessions. There is not much free time, but I try to squeeze in a swim now and then and a late night walk with friends. And of course, there's the food...tons and tons of marvelous southern-style cooking served 3 times a day. Grits, sausage, barbeque, chess pie-we all laugh at our expanding waistlines while we continue to shovel it in. I dare say 100% of the attendees are on a diet this week! But along with the food come great opportunities for ample conversation with folks from all over the US, and this year, Barbados. Most evenings after dinner a large group gathers on one of 2 verandas to have a drink, tell a joke and wind down.

Yes, it's a lot of fun, but the musical and liturgical ideas plus the training I receive are on a par with none other. This year that was especially true because I signed up to play for a master class for our organist clinician, Peter Richard Conte. Peter is a world-class performer: in addition to his duties as organist-choirmaster at St. Clements's Church in Philadelphia he is the Grand Court Organist for the Wannamaker Organ at Macy's department store in the same city. The famous Wannamaker organ has 6 manuals and 28,000 pipes. When not touring Peter performs there twice daily, 6 times a week.

The master class took place on the next-to-last day of the conference. I had plenty of time to get used to an unfamiliar instrument, but it also meant that the event was hanging over me for most of the week. It is not easy to play for a famous organist and your peers! I was nervous and particularly struggled to put it out of my mind at night; however, at the same time I really wanted to play.

I chose Louis Vierne's Clair de Lune, an evocative, somewhat hazy piece of about 10 minutes duration. I did alright: as with any performance some things turned out very well, others not. But I was able to hold my head up afterwards and best of all I got some very practical tips from Peter on registration, articulation and phrasing. The end result was definitely worth the effort.

I am grateful to my friends Ellen, Elise, Nina and Lyn (left to right, below) for their encouragement and support. When I threatened to back out they would not hear of it, and on that free Saturday afternoon when they could have been out exploring the countryside they came to hear me play. Thank you! I hope I can do the same for you all next time.

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