The 2014 University of Michigan Organ Conference

April 1, 2015

The first University of Michigan Organ Conference took place in 1961, featuring Anton Heiller, and was the brainchild of Marilyn Mason. It is singular in the organ world for its longevity. Just two other schools offer comparable conferences: The Eastman School of Music initiated the EROI festival in 2002, and Indiana University started an annual conference in 2010. During its 54-year history, the U of M conference has featured a glittering array of artists and lecturers from the United States and Europe in addition to offerings by Michigan faculty and students. In 2014, this annual organ conference was held September 28–30. Due to construction at the School of Music, Theater and Dance on north campus, all events were held on the U of M’s central campus, with conference attendees circulating between Hill Auditorium, First Presbyterian and First Congregational churches. Shortened to two days rather than three a year ago to make it more accessible to attendees, the conference continues to offer a slate of strong academic content and fine performances. 

The 2014 conference not only honored Michele Johns’s 33 years of teaching but also was a natural showcase for the revamped Michigan organ department, with strong contributions by the new faculty. Following the retirements of three long-time teachers in close succession—Robert Glasgow in 2005 after 43 years, Marilyn Mason in 2013 after 66 years, and Michele Johns in 2014 after 33 years—unlike Michigan’s beleaguered football program, the organ department is transitioning smoothly into a new era. Kola Owolabi has joined the department as associate organ professor, and Joseph Gascho is the new associate professor of harpsichord. Vincent Dubois has been named permanent visiting professor, and a carillon instructor will be hired for the next academic year. James Kibbie became department chair in 2013, providing both continuity and a fresh approach. He seems genuinely excited about the department’s future. Current students come from a wide range of backgrounds, undergraduate applications have increased, and students are evenly spread between the undergraduate and graduate levels of study. The desire is to promote a culture of openness and excellence. As Dr. Kibbie is fond of saying, “There will always be a need for organists. We can’t predict what church musicians will need to do in the future, but we will continue to pursue excellence.”

The biggest change in the department was brought about by requests from students to study with all of the organ professors rather than being bound to one studio. Once a week they take part in a department-wide studio class dubbed “Common Time.” The era of specialization has been succeeded by a focus on collaboration and breadth. Early music is integrated into the organ department with Dr. Gascho’s harpsichord instruction, and the focus is on an eclectic approach to musical development to parallel the current professional landscape for church musicians and organists. Dr. Owolabi includes improvisation and church music courses among his teaching duties, offering sessions on blended worship music, different choral styles, and multi-cultural music. 


A Grand Night for Singing

“A Grand Night for Singing,” a gala concert put on by the choral, vocal, and theatre departments of the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance, offered conference attendees a great opportunity to witness the wide spectrum of vocal activity the school boasts. With over 650 students in eleven auditioned ensembles, the high caliber of Michigan music students and its excellent faculty was demonstrated by the fine performances prepared after only nineteen days of classes. Ensembles featured were the Chamber Choir, University Choir, Orpheus Singers and Orchestra, Men’s Glee Club, and Women’s Glee Club. In addition, the program included a scene from the musical Dead Man Walking and performances by voice majors. 

The concert concluded with all forces on stage for the Star Spangled Banner Medley, which had been featured previously in a football halftime show with the marching band and 500 singers in celebration of the 200th anniversary of our American flag. Before departing, the audience joined in “It’s a Grand Night for Singing” by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Jerry Blackstone, director of choirs and creator of this fifth annual event, included this comment in the program: “We are a singing community, and I am so happy that you are here to experience this Grand Night with us. Breathe deeply! Sing from your hearts!” The energy coming from the stage was palpable, and the enthusiasm of the audience unbridled.


Stellar performances by Michigan faculty

The highlight of the 2014 conference was stellar performances by Michigan faculty members Joseph Gascho and Kola Owolabi, and by Karl Schrock. Though not on the faculty at present, Karl Schrock did yeoman’s work serving as interim organ professor for the 2013–14 academic year while also maintaining his teaching duties at Kalamazoo College. Schrock offered a delicately articulated and subtly nuanced performance, having selected his repertoire—which offered plenty of sonic and stylistic variety—to mesh with the disposition of the Wilhelm organ at First Congregational Church. His harmonization of the tune was judicious and carefully handled, never overpowering, and his registrant was well rehearsed and expert in manipulating stops for him. Schrock’s program included works by Bach, Clérambault, Tournemire, Langlais, and Mendelssohn. Schrock negotiated each style with ease and assurance. His performances of the Cantilène Improvisée (a transcription) by Tournemire, followed by Langlais’ Miniature (commissioned by and dedicated to Marilyn Mason) were particularly charming. It was an exquisite program and a delight for the listener.

Joseph Gascho, associate professor of harpsichord and early music, played a wonderful recital in the intimate space of Monteith Hall at the First Presbyterian Church on Tuesday afternoon. James Kibbie’s introduction of Gascho displayed his delight in having him on the department team. Gascho has much ensemble experience and hopes to expand early music opportunities, making them a more integral part of the music school. His program included works by J.S. Bach, Buxtehude, Charpentier ,and C.P.E. Bach. He was joined by viola professor Yitzhak Schotten for the Bach Sonata in G Minor, BWV 1029, playing a sweet-sounding viola from 1570. Gascho and Schotten were in perfect synch and spirit, even in the many parallel trills. Gascho is very personable and warmly communicative in his playing. His conversational remarks before each piece further enhanced his connection with the audience.

Kola Owolabi put the Hill Auditorium organ through its paces with a program including works by Bach, Parry, Bingham, Widor, and Eben. His quiet technique matches his reserved demeanor, but underlying both is great confidence and a passion for excellence. Owolabi’s unfussy articulation and tasteful acknowledgement of harmonic events in the Bach made for easy listening, while he let the organ’s sweetest sounds sing in Parry’s lyrical Chorale Prelude on ‘Martyrdom.’ Equally fine was Bingham’s Toccata on ‘Leoni.’ It is a powerful work, beginning with a harmonization of tune then launching into alternation between French-toccata style and quieter sections that display Bingham’s distinct style. The complex texture of the Widor Pastorale from Symphonie II was rendered with ease and elegance and the heroic finale was played with aplomb. Eben’s Four Biblical Dances comprised the second half of the program, preceded by clear verbal notes given by Owolabi. The Biblical passages related to each movement were read ably by current organ students. In this fascinating work, which displays Eben’s imaginative take on the Biblical stories, Owolabi’s quiet, efficient technique was particularly effective, letting the experience be all about the music and its sonorities while the performer stays out of the way. 

Joshua Boyd, who has studied with Marilyn Mason and Karl Schrock, gave his bachelor’s degree recital on Monday afternoon, performed from memory. He launched into the program with energy and confidence in the Recessional by Mathias followed by a sensitively played Drop, Drop Slow Tears by Persichetti. He appeared to be thoroughly enjoying himself throughout the Adagio from Widor’s Second Symphony. The first half closed with Digital Loom by Mason Bates, a fascinating and enjoyable piece for organ and electronica, which Boyd had played to rave reviews at the Ann Arbor POEA this past June. Bates grasped the mystery and visceral quality of the organ, successfully pairing its power with throbbing electronic sounds. The second half of his ambitious program was Dupré’s Symphonie Passion, masterfully played. Boyd’s fine performance proved that he deserved a hearing at the organ conference.

True to Michigan tradition, the evening organ concerts at Hill Auditorium were preceded by 30-minute carillon concerts. Pamela Ruiter-Feenstra offered a sensitively played program on Sunday evening, complete with program notes, and Kipp Cortez, coordinator of carillon studies, played Tuesday evening. During these concerts, a handful of the organ crowd sat listening outside while students wandered by, often pausing to gaze up at the carillon tower and snap a photo with their phones.

The first organ concert of the conference was given by Jörg Abbing of Saarbrücken Conservatory of Music in Germany. His program consisted largely of twentieth-century music and made for demanding listening. Realizing he had planned a daunting program for the listener, Dr. Abbing made a late substitution of Franck’s Pièce Héroïque to open his concert. This and Reger’s Phantaisie ‘Hallelujah! Gott zu loben’ were far less than polished, but Abbing played works by Messiaen, Guillou, and André Jolivet with conviction and finesse. At eighteen minutes and fifteen minutes in length, the Guillou and Jolivet works require a real commitment from the performer not only to handle the technical demands, but also to make sense of the noisy bursts of sound alternating with slow-moving sections and silences. Mandala by Jolivet is a programmatic work, describing the seven continents and seven seas of the Jambu diagram, a “mandala” to aid Hindu meditation. Jean Guillou was one of the first to perform it in 1969 and devised the registration scheme for the published work. In contrast, Guillou’s Regard does not have a program, reflecting his preference for leaving the audience free to interpret his piece. It is interesting to note that Jolivet’s piece was composed in 1969 and was revolutionary at the time, while Guillou’s, written in 2011, does not differ from it appreciably in style.

Abbing proved to be an engaging and effective coach in a Monday morning workshop on improvising on Gregorian chant. He believes all students should be creating their own music in order to help develop a unique musical personality. He worked with several organists on harmonizing melodies, changing the tonality and paraphrasing the melody. Master’s student Ye Mee Kim and Michigan organ alums Joseph Balistreri and Dr. Naki Sung-Kripfgans were Abbing’s willing and skilled pupils.


A variety of lectures

Michael Barone kicked off Monday morning with “So Much Music, So Little Time,” another of his organ music appreciation sessions that have become a fixture at the Michigan organ conference. Barone always provides an enjoyable and insightful session, playing his chosen instrument—a stereo and stack of CDs. This musical tour included Bach cantata movements arranged for two organists, the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor for saxophone and organ, Cameron Carpenter’s performance of a Bach solo cello work played on the pedals, and a piece for organ and harmonica, to name a few. Barone is fully immersed in the realm of organ music, always ready to listen with an open mind, and is fascinated by all sorts of organ music. He invites organists to follow suit in expanding their musical horizons. Ending the session on a wistful note with a recording of Refined Reflection by Stephen Paulus (from his unfinished Baronian Suite written in honor of “Mike”), he commented “You’ll never have enough time, but make the most of it.”

On Monday afternoon, Michigan organ alumna Joy Schroeder gave a lecture on “The Power of Theoretical Analysis upon Performance, Illustrated in Two Chorale Prelude of Bach and Brahms.” Believing there is often too much disconnection between performance and theoretical analysis, Dr. Schroeder encourages analysis as an aid to memorization and a way to discover new aspects of the score. She illustrated her analytical techniques with Bach’s chorale preludes Durch Adams Fall ist ganz verderbt and Christe du Lamm Gottes from the Orgelbüchlein, and O Welt, ich muss dich lassen by Brahms. She noted that given the variety of opinions among theorists, discernment is required in applying analysis to interpretation. Schroeder’s points are well taken. It is all too easy to get caught up in learning the notes without a good understanding of the architecture of a piece. 

Tuesday morning, Iain Quinn of Florida State University gave a lecture on Russian organ music, providing an enlightening entrée to this little known realm of repertoire. The first organs in Russia were owned by the nobility and opportunities to compose organ music were limited because the Russian Orthodox Church suppressed the use of organs. Nevertheless, there is a small but very fine body of Russian organ literature written in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. By the mid-nineteenth century, there were over two thousand organs in Russia, though many were destroyed during the Russian revolution. The first published organ works in Russia were three fugues by Glinka. Others who composed organ music are Gretchaninov, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich, and Glazunov, whose works are the most substantial. Dr. Quinn skillfully played several engaging pieces, closing with the Prelude and Fugue in D Minor by Glazunov, which was dedicated to Saint-Saëns. Quinn provided a list of about three dozen works currently in print, most of which are published by Bärenreiter.

Michigan Improvisation Competition

The third annual Michigan Improvisation Competition, developed by Michele Johns, took place on Tuesday afternoon at the First Presbyterian Church of Ann Arbor. The competition has injected new life into the organ conference, offering another event open to the public and an opportunity for another church to be involved with the conference. Judging by the attendance at the competitions, this event is an audience favorite. Contestants in the preliminary round submitted a recording of a free improvisation on a given theme and a hymn introduction and two stanzas of the tune Pleading Savior. Preliminary round judges were Dr. Gale Kramer, Dr. Joanne Vollendorf Clark, and Dr. Marcia Van Oyen. Five contestants were invited to the final round, which involved similar improvisational challenges—a free improvisation on a given theme, a free improvisation on Darwall’s 148th, and a hymn introduction and two stanzas of Darwall’s 148th with the audience singing along. Final round judges were Dr. Larry Visser, Dr. Ronald Prowse, and Dr. Jorg Abbing. 

First prize was awarded to Luke Mayernik of Pittsburgh, second to Christopher Ganza of Oklahoma City, third and audience prizes to Matthew Koraus of New York, fourth to Aaron Tan of Ann Arbor, and fifth to Bryan Sable of Pittsburgh. The prizes were sponsored by the American Center for Church Music. Once again, First Presbyterian proved to be an ideal venue for the competition with the ample resources of its Schoenstein organ (III/42) and its hospitable staff and volunteers. Following the competition, the Ann Arbor AGO provided a dinner for conference attendees.


Honoring Michele Johns

Festivities to celebrate and honor Michele Johns’s 33 years of teaching in the organ department began Monday evening with a catered dinner held at the First Congregational Church. Joseph Balistreri, director of music at the Archdiocese of Detroit and Michigan organ alumnus, served as master of ceremonies. Dr. Timothy Huth, Dean of the Ann Arbor AGO, Colin Knapp, organ conference coordinator, Dr. James Kibbie and Matt Greenough, former cantor at Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish, each offered humorous anecdotes, remembrances, and words of appreciation.

In addition to her three decades teaching church music skills and philosophy at U of M, Michele Johns is the author of Hymn Improvisation (Augsburg 1987) and a regular columnist for GIA Publications. She is co-founder and executive director of the American Center of Church Music, an Ann Arbor-based, non-profit organization through which she was producer of five interdenominational choir festivals plus concerts, hymn-playing competitions, workshops, and conferences for the enrichment of church musicians. The ACCM currently supports the Michigan Improvisation Competition. She is also the co-founder and first Dean of the Ann Arbor Chapter of the American Guild of Organists.

For more than twenty years, Michele Johns served as director of music at Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish in Plymouth Michigan, developing one of the largest music ministries in the Archdiocese of Detroit. The ministry included 22 cantors, 5 handbell choirs, plus an 80-voice adult choir. Under her direction, the Plymouth Counsellors Chorale completed five European tours to ten countries and tours to churches in the United States. During her time in Ann Arbor, Dr. Johns also served at the Bethlehem United Church of Christ and the First Congregational Church. Her organ solo appearances in North America and abroad have featured music of the 18th and 20th centuries. In honor of her 30th anniversary of teaching at UM, a group of UM organ alumni created the Michele Johns Scholarship for Organ Performance and Church Music. Like her esteemed colleague and teacher, Marilyn Mason, Johns came to Ann Arbor to study organ at U of M and never left. 

Following the celebratory dinner at the conference, there was an alumni recital featuring students of Michele Johns. Performers were Dr. Christine Clewell, Dr. Brandon Spence, Stephanie Yu, Dr. Andrew Meagher, and Dr. Larry Visser. The repertoire included a variety of repertoire reflective of what Michele Johns would have covered in her church music classes—everything from a trio sonata to a congregational hymn setting. The program included the audience singing the anthem Peace I Give to You, composed by Larry Visser when he was a student, in honor of Michele Johns. The piece was later published by GIA and dedicated to Johns for her 20 years of service to Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish.


Songs of Thankfulness and  Praise

Perched atop stools, morning-show style, Darlene Kuperus and Larry Visser offered an upbeat and personal tribute to Michele Johns titled “Songs of Thankfulness and Praise.” They began with an overview of her career and the church music courses she taught. Her courses included liturgical practices in different denominations, hymnody, hymn improvisation, and a church music practicum, which included discussion of books on church music and issues that church musicians face. Dr. Kuperus provided a recommended reading list of books dealing with changes in the church music landscape, including Eileen Guenther’s excellent Rivals or a Team? The most entertaining portion of the presentation was the time spent on recollections of Johns’ personal characteristics and what she taught her students. Citing Johns’ warm, down to earth manner and ability to connect with people, both Kuperus and Visser said that she helped them understand that church music is relational. They applauded her emphasis on consensus and collaboration, as well as her notion that it matters how you treat people. Quotes of comments Johns is regularly known to make such as, “That idea was worth this whole meeting,” and “We do this, ja?” elicited smiles and head nods from the audience.

On a personal note, I have truly enjoyed the opportunities I’ve had to work with Michele Johns, particularly in recent years. While still at OLGC Parish, which is down the street from my church in Plymouth, she revived a Thanksgiving Choir Festival involving the choirs and bell choirs of five churches in town. I continue to organize this festival thanks to her inspiration. She is a dear soul with the ability to come up with great ideas and involve many people in implementing them. It is perhaps her collaborative spirit and kind heart that have had the greatest influence on those privileged to work with her. Thank you, Michele, for all of your contributions to the world of church music and for your friendship.

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