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The Virgil Fox Phenomenon

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Guest Lee Blick

I am giving reasoned arguments and constructive points. People may not like what they hear. But what is the point of debate if comfort zones and throught processes are not challenged? yes, so do put in that blank quote block, David, if that makes you feel better. :P

 

As for elitism, I have no problem with it, but there is no reason why it shouldn't be challenged.

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Again, in my view cathedral organists have as much right to dislike the approach of the entertainers as theatre organists have of disliking the approach of "serious" musicians. They are different animals really.

 

Although your statement is absolutely correct in respect of cathedral organists, I really do feel that I have to jump to the defence of theatre organists!

 

The vast majority of theatre organists that I know or have known (and there are, and have been, very many) are quick to express their admiration for the approach of 'serious' musicians, certainly with regard to their musical abilities and qualifications. One occasionally might hear the odd criticism of the way a recital is presented, and I suppose it's only natural for theatre organists - who of course have a VERY different task to perform - to be more receptive to the type of performance that is being discussed in this thread (i.e. the Virgil Fox/Carlo Curley 'show') than a more conventionally presented recital. We would, though, be doing most theatre organists a dis-service to suggest that they dislike the musical approach of a serious musician (rather than the performance style) just because they themselves choose not to perform in that idiom.

 

There are, of course, those theatre organists who don't have the ability anyway - I'm amongst them - but that needn't stop them appreciating the art of a 'serious' musician.... I believe Robin Richmond and Pierre Cochereau were good friends, and Robin was always the first to denigrate his own classical credentials - despite having studied under Peasgood at Westminster.

 

There were and are those in the theatre organ business who could more than hold their own in the world of serious performance, like the Reginalds New and Porter-Brown. There was the genius of Quentin Maclean, and his late and much-lamented latter-day equivalent William Davies, and currently I would hold up Richard Hills as a very good example.

 

But to come back to your original point - yes, they're different animals that perform in a different way, but anyone who is sincere in their love of music, or indeed in their quest to learn more about it will, I am sure, appreciate the degree of musicianship, ability and validity of performance we hear from our best organists in cathedrals, churches and concert halls - even if they're delivered without spotlights, dry ice, fireworks, overhead video screens, birdcages and men on pedestals :P

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I am giving reasoned arguments and constructive points.

"I am quite glad he didn't. He has been spared with the snobbish attitudes of those in their high organ lofts, as displayed here. Call yourselves professional organists when you denegrate your fellow practioners in this way? It is appalling, really. "

 

"I would rather listen to and be entertained by that rather some sterile and faceless recitalist in some backwater provincial cathedral in my personal opinion."

 

"For God's sake the guy is at death's door and all you can do, sjf, is criticize his playing. Call yourself a bloody Christian?"

:P

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The vast majority of theatre organists that I know or have known (and there are, and have been, very many) are quick to express their admiration for the approach of 'serious' musicians, certainly with regard to their musical abilities and qualifications.

Fair point, Stephen, and I accept your correction. I was really only drawing a distinction between the different aims of entertainment and service.

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I think that comment is rather misjudged.  I am pretty sure these 'entertainers' do care about taste.  I think they are good technical musicians in their own right.  You only have to listen to some of their recordings to see they are capable of serious things.

Maybe it was misjudged, but I don't think so. I never suggested that entertainers do not care about taste, only that they don't need to. I'm sure we can all think of comedians who have forged their reputations by indulging in bad taste - with the inevitable result that while some people find them hilarious, others find them offensive. That certainly doesn't mean that all comedians behave that way. Taste is simply a dispensible commodity in this arena. And it all contributes to the persona. With comedians the person and his/her style of humour become very much bound up together. Morecombe and Wise, The Two Ronnies, you name it - their humour wouldn't be the same delivered by anyone else.

 

And so it is with the two organists under discussion. The fact that they may sometimes show good judgement and taste does not automatically mean that we should deem them tasteful performers. You have to look at the whole package.

 

But whether they choose to express their talent in a particular way to an audience does not deserve some of the rather distateful put downs by musicians who seem to think they are superior.

Everyone is entitled to their view. I switched on Classic FM some months back and caught the opening of BWV 565 (what else!) It was a thoroughly Romantic interpretation in which the organist did all the wrong things (swell boxes, the lot), yet there was no denying that it was both very exciting and musically very effective (even if it had little to do with Bach). Turned out that the performer was none other than Carlo. I am quite capable of appreciating a wide variety of interpretations, but that does not mean that I have to suspend judgement about where to draw the line.

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I am giving reasoned arguments and constructive points.  People may not like what they hear.  But what is the point of debate if comfort zones and throught processes are not challenged?  yes, so do put in that blank quote block, David, if that makes you feel better.  :P

 

As for elitism, I have no problem with it, but there is no reason why it shouldn't be challenged.

 

No problem with debate. You're simply slinging mud and abuse at anyone who disagrees with you; that's something else. Considered Irish politics?

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No problem with debate.  You're simply slinging mud and abuse at anyone who disagrees with you; that's something else.  Considered Irish politics?

 

I'm afraid, Lee, that I agree with David - you are perfectly entitled to your opinions, and I'm neither agreeing nor disagreeing with you on anything... But... I really think you owe Stephen Farr an apology ; there was no call to make what seemed like a personal attack on him, and I'm rather astounded to read your criticism of his professionalism in a later reply - the man was remarkably professional, and, I felt, diplomatic in the face of a personal attack which would have had me coming back with a chainsaw and a baseball bat had I been on the receiving end.

 

Like I say, I'm not knocking your opinions, merely the way you expressed them.

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Guest Roffensis
I'm afraid, Lee, that I agree with David - you are perfectly entitled to your opinions, and I'm neither agreeing nor disagreeing with you on anything... But... I really think you owe Stephen Farr an apology ; there was no call to make what seemed like a personal attack on him, and I'm rather astounded to read your criticism of his professionalism in a later reply - the man was remarkably professional, and, I felt, diplomatic in the face of a personal attack which would have had me coming back with a chainsaw and a baseball bat had I been on the receiving end.

 

Like I say, I'm not knocking your opinions, merely the way you expressed them.

 

 

Here here.

 

R

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The sad thing about this debacle, is that it has distracted us from quite a lively discussion which demonstrated polarised views. Now, rather more heat than light has been shed on the subject, and we have totally lost sight of the original subject matter.

 

I would also include disparaging comments made about Carlo Curley in the discussion, which is just as bad as a personal attack upon Stephen Farr IMHO; especially since the comments are directed in a way which is both inaccurate and rather snide.

 

It's a pity we can't stick to discussing musical points rather than indulging in phantom turf-wars, which serve no useful purpose whatsoever.

 

The sad thing is, there is so much ground which remains to be covered, which goes far beyond the cult of Virgil Fox. That is particularly apparent when people talk about "good taste," suggesting that the present age is somehow "tasteful" whilst other have not been. I think I can convincingly argue that this is a totally immature view.

 

The Biggs v. Fox debate is as relevant to-day as it was 40 years ago!

 

MM

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Guest Roffensis
The sad thing about this debacle, is that it has distracted us from quite a lively discussion which demonstrated polarised views. Now, rather more heat than light has been shed on the subject, and we have totally lost sight of the original subject matter.

 

I would also include disparaging comments made about Carlo Curley in the discussion, which is just as bad as a personal attack upon Stephen Farr IMHO; especially since the comments are directed in a way which is both inaccurate and rather snide.

 

It's a pity we can't stick to discussing musical points rather than indulging in phantom turf-wars, which serve no useful purpose whatsoever.

 

The sad thing is, there is so much ground which remains to be covered, which goes far beyond the cult of Virgil Fox. That is particularly apparent when people talk about "good taste," suggesting that the present age is somehow "tasteful" whilst other have not been.  I think I can convincingly argue that this is a totally immature view.

 

The Biggs v. Fox debate is as relevant to-day as it was 40 years ago!

 

MM

 

 

Oh yes, and there's another one! :P We have so much to learn from the Big Apple.

 

R

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The Biggs v. Fox debate is as relevant to-day as it was 40 years ago!

 

 

Ronnie Biggs?

 

I think I belong to a strange minority in that if I were going to a concert, I'd probably prefer to be entertained in a Virgil Fox kind of way, but, to sit down and listen to some music in my own space and time, I'd rather hear a more "serious" interpretation.

 

I don't know if that makes me shallow, but I tend to find organ recitals bore me rigid - I can only recall 2 that I've been to that I've really enjoyed ; one was Andrew Lumsden re-opening the organ at Lichfield, the other was by a member of this discussion board.

 

I think it has something to do with expectations and mood. I sit at home and think, "Hmm, I feel like listening to xxx right now", but at a concert, I don't know what I'm getting - it may not be relevant to me at that time in that place.

 

Does that make ANY sense?

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Guest Lee Blick
Absolutely. I like to be entertained at a recital too (but with the notes the composer wrote, please!)

 

But there does seem to be some unwritten rules of how a recital is conducted? I was watching Virgil Fox playing the Bach Gigue, and OK, he was getting people to clap along to it and a couple were dancing in the jig, even the conductor was waving his hands BUT as far as I can tell, he was playing the piece with accuracy and flair and enjoyment so what is wrong with that?

 

I thought it was a breath of fresh air to see a recital/concert presented away from the norm. And I bet there were many people in that audience who go to 'proper' organ recitals too, who had smiles on their faces.

 

We have so much to learn from the Big Apple

 

Yes, I quite agree! There is much the classical organ playing world in this country could learn from the States, the network, the excellent guilds (btw are not existing out of a 'suitcase') and the way the churches value their musicians.

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Guest Roffensis
But there does seem to be some unwritten rules of how a recital is conducted?  I was watching Virgil Fox playing the Bach Gigue, and OK, he was getting people to clap along to it and a couple were dancing in the jig, even the conductor was waving his hands BUT as far as I can tell, he was playing the piece with accuracy and flair and enjoyment so what is wrong with that?

 

I thought it was a breath of fresh air to see a recital/concert presented away from the norm. And I bet there were many people in that audience who go to 'proper' organ recitals too, who had smiles on their faces.

Yes, I quite agree!  There is much the classical organ playing world in this country could learn from the States, the network, the excellent guilds (btw are not existing out of a 'suitcase') and the way the churches value their musicians.

 

 

I particularly envy the wonderful interpretations of standard works, and their splendid gamut of recordings with nice pictures of organists in bow ties and playing on organ with hideously overblown specifications. :P:P

 

We have nothing whatever to learn from USA in terms of musicianship, and there is a lot of proof out there. The fact they pay better money is probably to keep us there, to show them how it should be done!

 

This thread has really become incredibly tedious and I personally cannot be bothered arguing, those who are musical will appreciate at least some of what I say, and ultimately this is just a website anyway. BORING!!!!!

 

R

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Guest paul@trinitymusic.karoo.co.uk
We have nothing whatever to learn from USA in terms of musicianship, and there is a lot of proof out there. The fact they pay better money is probably to keep us there, to show them how it should be done!

 

 

R

 

This is a bit strong, surely.

 

I am convinced from reading your writings here for some months now, Roffensis, that you are both dedicated to choir work and a real expert in this specialist sphere. Surely you will admit that there will be others elsewhere who like you have slaved in the organ/choir arena who may well have ideas/opinions/inspiration to offer you. Why limit your tolerance to these by geography?

 

Now if you'd said that you cannot currently bear to hear anything from the USA because you find their current administration's policies so far short of what they ought to be as a civilised nation then I would agree with you! That said, I believe that their musicians mostly mean well, even if their politicians speak with forked tongue (and seem to be lining their respective pockets on a regular basis).

 

They certainly do not have all the best musicians of the world over there, but it behoves us to admit that they do (actually) have quite a few of them!

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Guest Roffensis
This is a bit strong, surely.

 

I am convinced from reading your writings here for some months now, Roffensis, that you are both dedicated to choir work and a real expert in this specialist sphere. Surely you will admit that there will be others elsewhere who like you have slaved in the organ/choir arena who may well have ideas/opinions/inspiration to offer you. Why limit your tolerance to these by geography?

 

Now if you'd said that you cannot currently bear to hear anything from the USA because you find their current administration's policies so far short of what they ought to be as a civilised nation then I would agree with you!  That said, I believe that their musicians mostly mean well, even if their politicians speak with forked tongue (and seem to be lining their respective pockets on a regular basis).

 

They certainly do not have all the best musicians of the world over there, but it behoves us to admit that they do (actually) have quite a few of them!

 

 

Oh ok, I stand corrected. :P

 

Best regards,

 

Richard

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Guest Lee Blick
I particularly envy the wonderful interpretations of standard works, and their splendid gamut of recordings with nice pictures of organists in bow ties and playing on organ with hideously overblown specifications.  ;)  :lol:

 

We have nothing whatever to learn from USA in terms of musicianship, and there is a lot of proof out there. The fact they pay better money is probably to keep us there, to show them how it should be done!

 

This thread has really become incredibly tedious and I personally cannot be bothered arguing, those who are musical will appreciate at least some of what I say, and ultimately this is just a website anyway. BORING!!!!!

 

R

 

Oh dear, here I am trying to be positive and there you are trotting out some vague generalisations about our American cousins. I love what America has to offer, so too the continent. ;)

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That said, I believe that their musicians mostly mean well, even if their politicians speak with forked tongue (and seem to be lining their respective pockets on a regular basis).

You're surely not suggesting that this is unique to the USA? I'm getting this vision of very old and well-used pots and kettles! :lol:

 

But you're quite right, America has many first-rate musicians - and career prospects for them.

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When I was much younger I used to go (was taken) to “Hooked on Classics” concerts. At the time I thought they were great and I thoroughly enjoyed them. I wouldn’t go one now though. There was much debate at the time about the music being trivialised etc etc. What I thought at the time was that it introduced music to an audience who would never have ordinarily heard it. This I don’t think is a bad thing.

 

I’d never heard of Virgil Fox before reading this thread. You may not like what he did or the way that he did it, but if he in any way inspired others to listen to or learn to play the organ, then it can only be a good thing?

 

:lol:

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I particularly envy the wonderful interpretations of standard works, and their splendid gamut of recordings with nice pictures of organists in bow ties and playing on organ with hideously overblown specifications.  ;)  :lol:

 

We have nothing whatever to learn from USA in terms of musicianship, and there is a lot of proof out there. The fact they pay better money is probably to keep us there, to show them how it should be done!

 

This thread has really become incredibly tedious and I personally cannot be bothered arguing, those who are musical will appreciate at least some of what I say, and ultimately this is just a website anyway. BORING!!!!!

 

R

 

 

======================

 

 

What utter rubbish!

 

I look forward to the day when "most" English built organs are in the same class as those being built in America at the present time, by the best builders.

 

As for "showing them how it should be done," I would merely suggest a listen to the likes of Paul Jacobs and Gerre Hancock; the latter on a par with David Briggs as an improviser.

 

We do not have a single music college which even approaches the standards set by the Julliard; which is one of the very greatest teaching institutions in the world.

 

As for "overblown specifications," America is what you want it to be. There are plenty of very large instruments certainly, and a vast number of smaller instruments; some quite outstanding.

 

If there is a very notable difference between America and "Little old England," it is to be found in many, many churches (not cathedrals), where the music-staff are professional in every way and extremely well educated.

 

Imagine the task of being musical director for Crystal Cathedral, if you will. What a vast range of music and performers, several choirs, a huge organ, Steinways and a full orchestra.

 

I doubt that there are very few on this board who could handle it all.

 

Having spent a considerable amount of time around Boston and Harvard, I can tell you that it has three remarkable establishments educationally. There is the MIT, Boston University and Harvard University; each of which is a world leader in one or more fields, and including medicine, business and technology. In fact, the Boston area must be the ONLY place in the world where 1 in 3 of the population are either graduate or post-graduate.

 

Never have I met more intelligent people anywhere, and in such numbers.

 

A former partner of mine, an American, had THREE Masters degrees before the age of 25 and was fluent in 14 languages. He also happened to know more about music history than all my Uni lecturers combined, and was the first person in the UK to have the complete set of Grove.

 

Kid yourself not!

 

The Americans value education in a way that England forgot three decades ago, which is why they "buy" the best people from all over the world, and are prepared to learn from them.

 

MM

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I look forward to the day when "most" English built organs are in the same class as those being built in America at the present time, by the best builders.

 

MM

 

MM - I am quite certain that the rest of the post to which this quote belongs makes many valid points. Personally I am in no doubt as to the technical and academic accomplishments of our transatlantic 'cousins'.

 

However, I do disagree strongly on one point.

 

I am concerned that we still, in this country, tend to ignore the good things which we do have - such as the great variety of superb home-built organs of all styles - not least in our cathedrals and greater churches. These range from Chichester to Westminster Abbey (or St. Paul's or Liverpool - depending on preference).

 

Unfortunately, quotes such as yours above can only serve to advance the view held in some quarters that British organs (at least those not built or rebuilt in the last twenty or so years) are not worthy of respect. Arguably, it is a viewpoint such as this which has led to a well-known cathedral unceremoniously disposing of a fine instrument which, without question, could have been restored to full playing order and made reliable for a fraction of the cost of the new instrument(s).

 

However, I promised my therapist that I would not mention Worcester again....

 

Damn!

 

Insofar as quality is concerned, I doubt that anything can be learned from the U.S. One only has to recall the fact that T. C. Lewis organs even had the interior chests and other woodwork finished to a high polish (to say nothing if the extremely high standard of finish on the more visible parts of an instrument). Then, of course, the Harrison & Harrison organ where even Ralph Downes, while disliking the tonal 'house-style', freely admitted that their workmanship was perfection itself. Then the work of Norman & Beard who, certainly in the first quarter of this century, were on a par with Harrisons. Walkers were also known for the high quality of their instruments. Somewhat more recently, at least three of us on this board are unanimous in declaring the workmanship of the new Harrison organ at Twyford to be superlative.

 

Of course there were (and are) always exceptions - but this is also true of America. To take one example, even Virgil Fox admitted that the resonators of the Swell Contra Gamba were constructed of something akin to flexible tubing. In addition, there are other instruments (such as Saint Thomas, Fifth Avenue) in which the present organ is in quite a bad state - and this is by no means attributable solely to lack of regular maintenance. This organ was built (and rebuilt) by craftsmen who were known for the high quality of their work.

 

However, if you mean in size alone, (I confess that I am uncertain as to the precise implication of your chosen word 'class'), then I doubt that this will ever be the case. New York alone has a large number of behemoths which are costly to maintain, arguably over-sized for their true requirements and, in the case of the main cathedral, unplayable for the last few years. Whilst I realise that, in the case of the latter instrument, this was largely due to a fire, nevertheless, Peterborough Cathedral organ, which suffered a similar fate, has been expertly restored to playing order.*

 

Riverside Church has a vast instrument, with several sections placed at various locations throughout the building. There is ample documentary evidence that this instrument was too loud for the building in the tenure of Fox; however, in recent years, two further batteries of powerful reed stops have been added, at either end of the building.

 

Personally, I hope that British organs never reach the over-inflated proportions of these mighty beasts. Liverpool is large, but is easily out-stripped by such instruments as St. Matthew, Hanover, Pennsylvania (IV/231), St. Bartholomew's, NYC (V/227), Riverside, NYC (V/216) and Calvary, Charlotte, NC (V/205). It should also be borne in mind that Liverpool Cathedral is vast - one of the largest ecclesiastical structures in the world, in fact. Saint Bartholomew's and Riverside (for example) are rather smaller. Therefore, surely there is even less reason to have a monster-sized instrument in these edifices. In the case of Riverside, notwithstanding recent alterations to the fabric, it does not even have the mellowing or attenuating effect of resonance - the church is still acoustically almost dead.

 

 

 

 

*The organ in the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine suffered extensive smoke (and some water) damage as the result of a fire a few years ago. Peterborough Cathedral organ also suffered smoke damage and the Choir Organ was largely destroyed by fire. The organ at St. John's is large, but not unduly so; certainly not substantially more so than Peterborough.

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Guest Lee Blick
Imagine the task of being musical director for Crystal Cathedral, if you will. What a vast range of music and performers, several choirs, a huge organ, Steinways and a full orchestra

 

And it is not just the largest institutions. You only have to look at the job descriptions at the AGO site to see the investment of the music in their churches. If only our parish churches in this country had those resources. The Cathedrals and major churches in this country have the lion's share of the musical resources and expertise. How about some investment, development and regeneration of organ playing in our local parish churches? Fifteen years ago the RSCM commissioned a study to survey the state of music in our churches. I really do think it is time for another one to see how things have progressed or regressed and this time put forward a nationwide strategy to help regenerate the music in the local churches.

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And it is not just the largest institutions.  You only have to look at the job descriptions at the AGO site to see the investment of the music in their churches.  If only our parish churches in this country had those resources.  The Cathedrals and major churches in this country have the lion's share of the musical resources and expertise.  How about some investment, development and regeneration of organ playing in our local parish churches? Fifteen years ago the RSCM commissioned a study to survey the state of music in our churches.  I really do think it is time for another one to see how things have progressed or regressed and this time put forward a nationwide strategy to help regenerate the music in the local churches.

 

 

Yes, a new survey would be a thoroughly good idea.

 

Whilst some are more fortunate than others, (and it is true that, generally, cathedral organists' salaries and enhancement packages are considerably better than they were even twenty years ago), I am still regualrly amazed at how well organists are paid - and treated - in the US.

 

A colleague (who has, unitl recently, been a cathedral organist in this country) is currently filling a temporary post (during an interregnum) at a church in Florida. Apart from being handsomely remunerated, he has been provided with an air-conditioned apartment (I repeat, in Florida!) - oh, and a car. All free of charge, naturally. When, slightly overwhelmed, he expressed his great appreciation for this incredible kindness, the administrator (or whatever the equivalent is there) looked at him uncomprehendingly and said something to the effect of "Yes, of course you need all this - why wouldn't we let you have them?" He then tried to explain that in the UK this would simply not be the case, he would probably have to find a flat somewhere and acquire his own transport. At that point, all the men on the interview panel shook their heads in disbelief - and all the women became motherly and made sympathetic clucking noises.

 

You get the idea.

 

There is also the case of a colleague who, a few years ago, gave up his job as D of M at the grammar school where I work and attended a course at the University of Indiana, where he was successful in gaining a Master's degree in conducting. Whilst there (and needing some extra funds in order to keep body and soul together) he obtained a job as organist at the First Methodist Church in the town where he was residing. This was, incidentally, not the only Methodist church in the conurbation. His salary was $19,000. His duties were only part-time - a few hours each week. He had a good grand piano, his own office - oh, and quite a reasonable four-clavier organ. All he had to do was prepare the choir in an anthem each Sunday, play a few hymns and a couple of voluntaries and postludes. I am not even certain that he was required to attend an evening service.

 

The down-side?

 

The music was, naturally, American taste - and I do not write that in a disparaging way. Nevertheless, he did become frustrated by the type (and limitations) of the preferred style of music which was the staple fare of the church.

 

He has since returned to the UK and is again employed at our school, this time as Assistant D of M - where we are very glad to welcome him back* - and has resumed choral directing work in the area. He also came home with a lovely young lady who is now his wife. I had the great pleasure of playing the organ (in my own church) for their wedding. Needless to say, the music was a little more interesting than that to which he had become accustomed in the US - not necessarily beacause his choir there was incapable of performing the same repertoire to a good standard; rather that they just did not wish to perform what they would probably have termed 'highbrow' music.

 

Incidentally, before MM gets upset, I am aware that there is a vast range of music on offer at churches throughout the US - just as there is in the UK. I am also aware that there are many cathedrals and large city churches which have (for want of a better description) an 'English cathedral-style' of worship. Nevertheless, it is also true that there are a large number of churches where the musical style and repertoire is quite different to the UK - which is only natural - but arguably where it could be described as 'limited'. Again, I am conscious that there are many churches in the UK to which this description could be applied, but I am beginning to go around in circles - and type with a distinctly frantic aspect to my demeanour....

 

:lol:

 

* No reflection on the current D of M, who is an excellent teacher

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If only our parish churches in this country had those resources.

If only our parish churches had the Americans' interest in music! If they did, then the investment in the resources would surely follow. But any change would have to be led by the congregations (who would ultimately be financing it). I can't see that happening any time soon. It is entirely possible that, one day, culture will change and it will become "hip" to be into classical music - but I won't live to see it and I wouldn't put money on my children doing so either.

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