The antiphonal section of the organ, May 2005
A friend of mine from church took me out to dinner this evening, followed by a pipe organ recital by Alan Schultz in honor of the 50th Anniversary of St. Michael & All Angels Day School. Mr. Schultz (as his former students call him) or Alan (as longtime parishioners call him) recently retired from the school after teaching there for over four decades. I know him mostly as the substitute organist who occasionally plays at the 10 AM mass - not just Bach and such, but his own sacred classical works as well.
Tonight he started us off with Fantasy in G by J.S. Bach, turning much of it into a call and response between the main section of pipes behind the sanctuary in the front of the church and the antiphonal pipes above the back door. He said it was supposed to represent sets of angels singing to each other. It was interesting to hear, and made more use of the organ's capabilities than the average Sunday hymn.
Next came the premiere performance of Schultz's Psalmist Songs, "a song cycle for mezzo, English horn and organ." This was based on seven psalms (1, 121, 31, 45, 103, 133 and 126) sung by mezzo-soprano Korby Myrick, accompanied by Alan on organ and Kay Trondsen on English Horn. One of the psalms reminded me strongly of the L'Engle novel The Moon By Night, which quotes from it extensively.
Alan finished the recital with seven selections from his Twenty-four Preludes and Fugues in All Keys for Organ, which was also being premiered. He explained that in Bach's day, an innovation in the way instruments were tuned made certain keys, which sounded awful before, usable for the first time. Bach eventually composed two sets of Preludes and Fugues to cover each of the twelve major and twelve minor keys. Schultz has composed one set. He explained all this, and a little bit about what a prelude is and what a fugue is. I didn't really quite catch on what exactly defines each of this musical forms, but I gather that the fugue part developed from the canon, or round, which in turn arose naturally in medieval times from people not starting a chant at quite the same time. At one point Alan demonstrated the form by having the audience sing Row, Row Row Your Boat. These introductions reminded me a little of Leonard Bernstein's Concerts for Young People when I was a kid. He ended the performance by having us sing a particular hymn that led directly into his Fantasy, Fugue and Variation on "Divinum Mysterium" in E-flat major.
Before and after the recital there were prayers from Father Smith and testimonial speeches from several people associated with the school and its students. I had vaguely gathered that Alan taught English as well as music, but was surprised to learn that this was perhaps the most important part of his legacy at St. Michael's Day School. His eighth grade students learned to write research papers, something I wasn't exposed to until my senior year in high school. One speaker credited him with turning his students into "grammar police," and a former student of his joked that he tries "to never split...I mean, never to split infinitives" because of Mr. Schultz. The student's parents said they needed a dictionary to look up words in Mr. Schultz's report card evaluations, and the father, a professor, said he has higher standards for papers from former St. Michael's students because of Mr. Schultz. The headmaster talked about Schultz joking about buying a supermarket just so that the express checkout would allow "10 items or fewer." He sounds like my kind of guy!
It turns out this man I've seen around the parish for a decade, and occasionally heard play, is a bit of a renaissance man. Today's program calls him a "composer, teacher, conductor, organist, harpsichordist and author." He was music director of the Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra for 15 seasons, and he's a former director of the Tucson Masterworks Chorale. He's written a book on teaching organ, had several recordings released, and has had both music and poetry published. Wow! And to think he was basically "just zis guy" to me until tonight.
Afterward at the reception, I tried to express my appreciation upon learning more about him, especially the English teacher bits. I somewhat nonsensically compared the recital to "a cross between Leonard Bernstein's Concerts for Young People and the writing of Madeleine L'Engle," a compliment he accepted graciously. To be honest, I'm a bit of a Philistine with respect to classical music; I do like it, including Schultz's own contributions to the genre, but not enough to seek it out or make an effort to learn more about it. Still, even my relatively untrained ear can tell that his music is creative, ambitious, and well-executed.
I remarked to my friend before the recital that St. Michael's can be represented by a big Venn diagram, with overlapping populations of students, faculty, staff, choir, parishioners who normally attend each of the three Sunday masses and thus seldom meet each other, the social concerns people, the Altar Guild people and ECW. There was a good selection from each of those groups there tonight, including one writer and former journalist I'd like to get to know better.
Given this revelation about someone I took for granted, I can't help but wonder: if this man I see each week at the 10 AM mass can be as accomplished and interesting as Alan Schultz, what about all the other people behind those familiar faces? I overheard one woman this evening mentioning that she was a nurse in Vietnam. Another parishioner is an expert on Byzantine art. We have engineers and astronomers, mathematicians and professors, photographers and who knows what else, some retired, some still working. What fascinating biographies do these people have, unknown by a shy fellow parishioner who barely scratches the surface of their acquaintance?
But maybe it's not important that I get to know each person in depth, learn all about their careers and their hobbies, their trips to Spain, their military careers, and their stories in major newspapers. Maybe it's enough to know and to remember that they're all people, mostly intelligent, talented people, each making unique contributions to the world and its people, each with his or her own "spark of divine fire." Occasionally, if I pay attention, I may even see them glow.