Against All Odds: A few inconveniences on the road to becoming an organist Buenos Aires, Argentina, to California, USA, 1950–65, Part II

April 5, 2017

Editor’s note: Part I of this article was published in the March issue of The Diapason, pages 20–22..


Organ concerts

There were, I learned, only two concert organists in Buenos Aires (and probably in the whole country), who, once a year, would give recitals in churches and institutions they had access to, sometimes sponsored by large musical organizations such as Collegium Musicum and others. They were the Italian Ermete (Hermes) Forti  (1906–72), who settled in Buenos Aires in 1940, mentioned above, a student of Fernando Germani in Italy; and Julio (Jules Michel Adolf) Perceval (1903–63), a Belgian who settled in Buenos Aires in 1929 (and died in Chile in a car accident), a student of Paul de Maleingreau and Marcel Dupré. He became the organist of the Metropolitan Cathedral (19th-century three-manual Walcker organ) and the Colegio Nacional de Buenos Aires, a 19th-century high school connected with the Universidad de Buenos Aires (19th or early 20th-century thee-manual Laukhuff organ). In 1940 Perceval moved to the University of Cuyo to establish the Conservatory of Music. Forti then took over at the Colegio Nacional.

Every winter these organists would play a series of concerts in these two venues. I will forever associate these places with the wonderful experiences of hearing for the first time real pipe organs in exquisite surroundings! They were played by Hermes Forti at the Colegio Nacional de Buenos Aires, whose assembly room was of palatial proportions in beauty and size, and by Julio Perceval at the Basilica de Nuestra Señora de la Merced, which housed a three-manual Walcker of considerable size. One of the unforgettable experiences of my life was to hear Perceval play, in this venue, the Toccata, Villancico y Fuga that Ginastera dedicated to him—in presence of the composer who, at the end of the concert, gave Perceval a theme for an improvisation. My young mind was at a loss to comprehend how it was possible to create on the spot such a monumental, amazing, and overwhelming piece of music!

Forti’s concerts at the “Colegio” were just as exciting, encompassing music from pre-Baroque to modern French. My first experience with that organ has stuck in my mind since: it was 1953, my first year of lessons.

I remember only one piece of that concert: the Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue in C of J. S. Bach. I got there late, the massive doors to the auditorium were closed, and the porter wouldn’t let me in while the performance was going on. I begged with him to let me in, which he did. I came in quietly and stood there without moving in front of the doors. It was during the Adagio. The glorious tender sounds got to me, and I thought I was in another world—the one I yearned to inhabit. I think I worked very hard to contain sobs that wanted desperately to come out.

I knew then (and still think so) that organists are the most privileged people in the world! There were many other concerts there that even I participated in, as a registrant and page-turner. (As an aside, 33 years later I would be playing a concert in the same place. Who would have thought then!) 


A job and more lessons

Forti soon made me his assistant at the Basílica del Santísimo Sacramento with its Mutin Cavaillé-Coll organ. I played mainly weddings and weekday services. It was the parish of the well-to-do. What I got for playing weddings was, for a kid my age, incredible and helped me with some of my expenses. There was a seminary there, and true to the name of the church, it was a place of “perpetual adoration” either in the main sanctuary or in the crypt, which also housed a two-manual French organ. Practicing there, and in Catholic churches in general, has always been a problem. I never practiced on that organ (and I don’t think that Forti ever did!). With four manuals and mechanical action, it was extremely heavy when coupled with its many levers, couplers, “appels,” etc. One would go in “cold” to play for services! I never heard a concert on that instrument until after the Italian firm Tamburini rebuilt and electrified it in 1955, installing a new console.

The Escuela Superior didn’t offer degrees or certificates. Forti insisted that I should attend the School of Fine Arts in the city of La Plata (the capital of the Province of Buenos Aires), where he also taught, and work towards a degree. I registered and took organ, piano, harmony, and counterpoint.

The distance from my home to the school by public transportation was too long. I had to walk to the local train station (eight 100-meter blocks), ride the train for half an hour, walk a few blocks to the subway, ride for 15 or 20 minutes to the next train line, ride (for one hour!) the train to La Plata, then ride the streetcar to the school. One hour and a half for organ practice, time for the other classes on different days, and, of course, organ class once a week (on a two-manual Wurlitzer organ!) for which everyone stayed to hear everyone play. I would leave the house around 8:00 a.m. and come back around 6:00 p.m.

I did this for a couple of years, always thinking that I couldn’t keep it up. The excessive travel time did not make sense, and besides, I had to start thinking about earning some money. I was advancing pretty well with my organ playing to the point that I thought I needed “a real organ” to practice on. Going to various churches to ask permission to practice always elicited the same response: No. I prevailed on Maestro Forti to get me permission to practice at Colegio Nacional. He did. I thought myself privileged. What an opportunity! It went on for a while until one fateful day, September 19, 1955.


Political instability

It was mid-morning. I got out of the subway to walk the couple of blocks to the “Colegio,” and I began to hear shots and explosions. The Colegio Nacional was also a couple of blocks from the “Pink House,” the seat of government. The movement of people, perhaps a bit more harried that morning, did not surprise me. Buenos Aires has always been a busy city; but I saw a lot of people congregated on the narrow sidewalks around the Colegio, and arriving there, I went up the few steps going to the main entrance. I saw the porter, who asked me, “What are you doing here, kid?” I responded, “I’ve come to practice on the organ as always.” “The school is closed,” he responded, “and you better get out of here if you don’t want to get killed!” “What’s going on?” I asked. “Go home!” he said. I saw many trucks filled with men yelling and chanting slogans going by the narrow street. It was surreal; I could still hear the shots! I did not ask any more questions and headed back to the subway and straight home. Later that day I learned that Juan Perón had been forcefully deposed. The end of an era for the country, but not of its influence and consequences. It was also the end of my privileges at the Colegio.

The political instability of the country wasn’t good for those working in institutions run by the government. Many posts (I believe) obtained by political maneuvering and connections began to be unsteady, and many were lost. Maestro Forti lost his jobs except the one at the church. He experienced a period of great depression, and I don’t know how he managed his life. We, his faithful students, kept close to him. I continued being his assistant at the church. Just playing the Mutin-Cavaillé-Coll organ was a wonderful experience, and so was the money I got for the services.


A new school

After a while I learned that a new institution of learning was being organized in Buenos Aires, the Universidad Católica Argentina. There would be a music department, and the eminent composer Alberto Ginastera would be the organizer and head of it. There was going to be an organ department, and Ginastera chose Hermes Forti to be its head. I enrolled as a student there. Each department required an assistant, and Forti chose me. The institution began in another “mansion” owned by the diocese in an old residential neighborhood. The large living room was the concert hall. Back to lessons on the Hammond organ. At least I had something to practice on without the need of excessive travel.

At the end of the first year I was chosen to play an organ concert. Two things only I remember of that concert: I played the Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue of J. S. Bach, and Alberto Ginastera was seated in the first row leaning his head on the wall (probably bored!). It was a hot December day. And no air conditioning!

Then and for some years I earned some money playing piano in nightclubs with tango orchestras. Upon reaching my 18th birthday and looking ahead to my 20th with the possibility of being conscripted into the army for one year, or into the marine for two, I took the option given by the government of being a policeman (in the city) for a year (a salaried job), relieved of the above required obligations. After three months’ training, I became a policeman! My studies had to wait and also my organ playing. I hated the job, but with the money I earned I bought a new piano. New Hammond organs (the only electronic brand available then) were outrageously priced. It was impossible for a student to buy one.

Years back, at a concert in Colegio Nacional I met a young American with whom I became friends, a relationship that lasted for years in Argentina and later in the United States. Our conversations, mostly about organs and opportunities in his country, made me think that I might have there the chance to get what was almost impossible to obtain here. The idea never left me.


Moving to the United States

Fast forward to 1959. Foolish, like most dreamers are, thinking only of the best side of things, and without counting the cost of the realities immigrants (with little means) have to face, I headed for the United States (with a visa, of course), not only with my dreams of pipe organs, but with a wife at my side! I was 22. We ended up in Los Angeles, California. Stanley Bellamy (Eddy as we called him), my American friend, helped us to get settled.

For all his talk about organs, Eddy was totally ignorant of the great community of organists in the U.S. However, he knew that I could get a paying job playing in a Protestant church (which I had never visited in Buenos Aires, because there weren’t many). Knowing nothing of the American Guild of Organists, we headed for the office of the Los Angeles Council of Churches.

Yes! There was a Methodist church in the town of Norwalk that needed an organist. We arrived at the church, an old small white-frame building, for an interview and audition. The pastor and the music committee were there. They wanted to hear me play. To my dismay the organ was a two-manual and pedal “Everett Orgatron!” In today’s parlance, it would be called a “harmonium on steroids,” a reed organ with amplification. They offered me the job and a salary of $75 dollars a month. I took it. That amount was exactly the rent price of a small two-bedroom bungalow in East Los Angeles, which we took. The rest of our income came from an eight-hour job at a lock factory. No time for organ practice, I just went in “cold” on Sundays to play for the services. The Protestant church was a good environment, and the people very gracious. I held that job for four years. Within those four years, the church built a new sanctuary a few blocks away and installed an Allen organ, a TC-1 model, I believe.

In the interim, a piano teacher from the church was moving to New York and left to my care all her students (30 of them!). With permission from the church I taught them on a piano in the basement. With some meager savings and a personal loan from a bank we bought a nice three-bedroom home close to the church and set up a studio there. I also got a job at a Jewish temple in a nearby town (a Hammond organ again!). The goodness of the USA was beginning to be shown in our lives. I was let go at the lock factory. The momentary shock turned to really be a blessing—now I was (in a sense) on my own.

Being a full-time piano teacher with two organist’s jobs brought some steady income. Besides, I was a few blocks away from the church and began to do some serious practice on the Allen organ.


A church with a pipe organ

Getting a job with a pipe organ and doing serious study with a good teacher was an ever-present goal in my mind. But . . . where to go? I did not know anyone in the profession! Eddy Bellamy, through a referral from a music school in Los Angeles, connected me with an organist at a Christian Science church in Beverly Hills that housed a four-manual Aeolian-Skinner of considerable size. The organist, Ronald Hall, had studied in New York with Lynnwood Farnam.

It did not mean anything to me at the time, ignorant as I was of this country’s outstanding artists. Ronald Hall was a very kind man and a romanticist at heart. The organ, an extraordinary instrument, was in an acoustically dead environment. I yearned then for the churches of Buenos Aires. (That organ is now in the Arboretum of the former Crystal Cathedral—now Christ Cathedral—of Garden Grove, California.)

I studied with Hall for about a year. It was he who introduced me to the American Guild of Organists. I joined the Los Angeles Chapter in 1961 with him as a sponsor. I am, as of this writing, still a member of it. I made a recording on that organ for a chapter project that was aired by a local radio station. 

Our family grew, and financial obligations forced me to stop lessons for a while. Membership in the AGO chapter and their monthly recitals of outstanding local, American, and European artists, plus reading The Diapason, gave me a picture of the scope of the profession here and abroad and spurred the desire to accomplish greater things of my own. All that, together with the church, fed my spirit and my hopes. 

Although I was a bit “green” in many respects, the Los Angeles AGO Chapter asked me to play a concert, my first in the United States, on three-manual Casavant at the First Methodist Church of Santa Monica, California. It was 1962. The week before, I attended the world premiere of Alberto Ginastera’s Cantata para la America Mágica for soprano and percussion at University of California, Los Angeles. I invited him to my concert since I was going to play his Toccata, Villancico y Fuga. He declined on account of his having to attend the recording of his work. I never saw him again.

Organists in churches with good organs hang on to their positions, sometimes for life. That’s what I learned in my quest to find a post with a good organ. There has to be something for me out there, I thought, and the search went on. In 1964 a position was open at Oneonta Congregational Church in South Pasadena, well known for having an excellent music program. The church had a three-manual organ. Exactly what I needed, and the salary was four times what I was getting!

Unfortunately it was for only one year. Their organist, Ronald Huntington, was taking a sabbatical leave. Besides being a great organist he was professor of comparative religions at Chapman College in Orange, California. It was a hard decision to make and “big shoes” to fill. What was I going to do at the end of that year? I would leave that up to Providence. I took the chance, auditioned, and was accepted. They had a great choir, and its director, Warren Marsh, was a hard taskmaster. I practiced Monday through Saturday, plus of course, two Sunday services. It was a great learning experience!


A new teacher

Since I now had a pipe organ at my disposal, I thought I needed a good teacher, and with a better salary it was a bit easier to pay for lessons (not so easy though, since by then we had three children!). I approached the best known in the Los Angeles area, Clarence Mader, and he took me as a student. I made excellent progress under his tutelage and learned many new things about interpretation of the various schools of organ playing.

Lessons about Romantic music took place in the main sanctuary, which housed a 1929 four-manual Skinner organ. Lessons on the music of 18th-century composers took place on the church’s fairly new three-manual Schlicker organ in the chapel.

It was here that I learned something that was totally lacking in my organ technique: the art of phrasing and, particularly, articulation. It was a revelation that I applied religiously to tremendous success in my work as an organist and later as a teacher.


The composer

The harmony lessons of a private teacher years back in Buenos Aires and later at both a school of fine arts and Catholic university (in the latter with Alberto Ginastera as teacher) did not go to waste. I had tried my hand at composing back then in Buenos Aires, but now in the U.S. I took a more serious look at it and worked more diligently. New music (fresh sounds) and the music of Bach on the “new sounding” instruments being built were the rage of the 1960s. The words “tracker,” “chiff,” “upperwork,” and “contemporary” were in every conversation and in practically every article in the trade journals.

Although I had written a decent piece of music in 1962 published in The California Organist, I thought I’d try my hand at writing a rather “large” piece: a Toccata and Fugue. I entered a contest sponsored by J. Fischer & Bro. of Glen Rock, New Jersey. It won a prize and was published. That year (1964), Warren Marsh put together a concert featuring a new choral work for Christmas, The Miracle, by a Los Angeles composer, and my piece, which sounded great on that organ and won me a few accolades. It happened that Clarence Mader got hold of that piece—which I did not know. During one of the lessons I mentioned my plight at the end of my year at Oneonta Congregational, the “dire” fact that I needed to find another church job, and quick!


A new job

I have to confess that up to that time, I did not consider myself anything but a “dilettante” in music composition, and winning that contest, nothing but beginner’s luck! Obviously, it gave Clarence Mader a different impression of my musical knowledge, one that was higher than the one I had of myself! He mentioned that he was impressed by the piece. He said that he was a consultant for a new organ to go in a church that was to be built the following year: a three-manual Reuter of 48 ranks for the First Methodist Church of Garden Grove, California (a fifteen-minute drive from my home). He said I should apply for it, and that he would put in “a good word” for me. I met with the music committee and pastor, who, after an interview, asked to play on the old sanctuary’s c. 1920 two-manual Kimball organ. I did, and they hired me!

Later I heard that the “good word” Clarence Mader put in for me was, “Grab him before he disappears!” What an honor! Finally I had the kind of instrument I longed for all my life. With this event ends one part of the story of the Argentine kid who wanted to be an organist, who put up with a few “inconveniences” to reach his goal.

At that very point another story had begun, perhaps the most important—one by now fifty years old and continuing! (A story perhaps only for family consumption.) A story inspired by this great country, the country of “Yes!”—its exceptionalism, its incentives, and learning opportunities. A story inspired by an instrument fifty years at my disposal, and a great church and congregation that believed in my ability to make music and allowed me to do it for over half a century. Inspired by the thousands of organs here and abroad, their builders, their artists, their glorious, inspiring, and overwhelming sounds, and the great churches that house them. By the recordings, the journals, the yearly gatherings of music making, learning, and fellowship; by family and selfless supporters. Yes, inspired and grateful for the ability of creating new music, and having the time and the will to do it.

Ah! The United States—what a blessed country! The American Guild of Organists—what a great and unique organization! May the new generations of organists be aware of the privilege and opportunities available to them and use them to bless the world with the majestic music of our beloved instrument. I knew all along that organists were the most privileged people in the world!

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