Among his many admiring colleagues, Albert Russell is considered not only a prince of the organists’ realm, but as a gentleman’s gentleman. These attributes are rare enough in this day, but they are uniquely combined with great humility, affability and graciousness.
Those of us who have been fortunate enough to know him for years know also of his dry wit and wonderful good taste. His recently released Aeolian-Skinner Legacy recording [See p. 20–Ed.] enables his outstanding musicianship to be shared with a new following of fans, all of whom will be delighted that he has generously given this fascinating interview.
Lorenz Maycher: Tell me about your early years, and how you got interested in the organ.
Albert Russell: I was born in Marlin, Texas, which is near Waco. Later, we moved to Stamford, near Abilene, out in the Panhandle. I was interested in the organ from early childhood and used to go to choir practice with my mother and drive the organist crazy, reaching up and playing the keys while they rehearsed. I started piano lessons at the age of six, and organ at twelve, taking lessons on a two-manual Estey at the Methodist Church, where the highest pitch was 4′. My teacher would put on the sub-coupler and say she was “searching for depth.” She gave me mostly transcriptions. Rachmaninoff Prelude in G Minor, Caprice Viennois of Fritz Kreisler, and Dreams of Hugh McAmis were some of my pieces. I went to my first lesson wearing tennis shoes, but she got rid of those. Her students were not allowed to use the tremolo while we were practicing, because she was afraid it would break and she wouldn’t be able to use it on Sunday. She kept a clothespin on the tremolo stop so we wouldn’t use it. There was a ceiling fan above the console in the choir loft where birds would build nests that would fall into the choir loft. Dick Bouchett was one of her students, and later we were good friends.
I left Stamford when I graduated high school and went to study with Robert Markham at Baylor, where I had a full scholarship. Baylor had a good music department, and Markham had built the organ in the main auditorium there; it was installed beneath the stage and had some theatre organ stops in it. He was organist at First Baptist in Waco, where he played a large Pilcher. He was very good to me and brought me back after I had left Baylor to accompany Messiah. I was also chapel organist at Baylor, and was organist at First Lutheran Church in Waco, and, later, First Methodist Church in Marlin.
Then I was in the Air Force, stationed in Bryan, Texas, and was fortunate to get to play in the civilian churches. I would play the chapel service using a field pump organ at first and then we got a Hammond, which made me feel like I was playing a five-manual Skinner. After the service I would then go into town and play at First Presbyterian. When I got out of the Air Force, I went to the University of Texas in Austin, and auditioned for and got the job at University Methodist Church, which was a nice position. Archie Jones, who taught in the music department at the university, was the choir director. It was great fun to try to play the organ loudly enough to support a congregation of 1200 Methodists singing “the good ole hymns!” I would have been an organ major, had we not been required to play from memory. I can memorize, but have never felt I played as well from memory. I don’t make music as well—too busy worrying about the notes. Gerre Hancock, Joyce Jones, and Kathleen Thomerson were some of my classmates at UT. Gerre played at University Baptist Church. The organ at UT was the first Aeolian-Skinner I had any contact with, and it was such an eye opener. I studied organ with John Boe and Earl Copes and learned from both of them. Earl Copes now lives in Sarasota, Florida and is still playing recitals. We are still in contact.
The summer of 1953, I came to Washington, D.C. I had heard William Watkins play a recital at Baylor and vowed then that I’d like to study with him. And sure enough, I did in the summer of 1953. He was so wonderful to me, and got me jobs playing the organ all over town. When I got to Washington, I had $50 in my pocket, so had to get a job in a hurry.
LM: You came to Washington just to study with him?
AR: Yes. Studying with him that summer was such a great experience that I decided to come back to Washington in January 1954 to work with him some more at the Washington Musical Institute, where I completed my bachelor’s degree.
I had gone to a fortune-teller in San Antonio, and she had said I would find a job not related to music in Washington within three days of my arrival. Sure enough, the third day I was hired as a flunky in the office of Senator Prescott Bush, the grandfather of the current president. And again, thanks to Bill Watkins, I was busy playing in churches all over town. He opened up a whole new world for me and presented me in recitals at his own church, New York Avenue Presbyterian. I got to know many of the Washington musicians through him and vowed then that, if I were ever offered a job, I would move here. And, sure enough, here I am.
In the fall of ’54, I enrolled in the master’s program at Union Theological Seminary in New York, studying organ with Hugh Porter. He taught his lessons on the E. M. Skinner at the Academy of Arts and Letters. That first year I had a little church job in Cloister, New Jersey, and took the bus out there. The second year, I played at West End Collegiate Church on an old Roosevelt that had been redone by Austin. Donald McDonald had been there, and he turned over the reins to me. We had eight professionals for the choir. It was a fun job.
That year, I decided to study organ with Searle Wright just to get a different perspective on things. I got to play a number of noonday recitals at St. Paul’s Chapel at Columbia, where he taught his lessons. Searle’s accompaniments of oratorios at St. Paul’s were superb. He would always laugh and say if he didn’t have such good acoustics, he’d be fired. He didn’t have time to practice a lot, but he always played wonderfully.
I learned about being a good musician from Searle. He always taught such interesting repertoire, like Robert Russell Bennett’s Trio, where all three voices are in different keys. I chided him about that piece for years afterwards for giving me something so difficult. It is a good piece, but is disconcerting!
LM: Every time I run across a recital program of yours, the repertoire is completely different. How did you acquire such a large and varied repertoire, with so much new and challenging music?
AR: I am a fast reader, so can learn quickly. I’ve always had a craving to learn new music, and enjoyed going to Patelson’s to buy music that other organists did not know or weren’t playing. Searle was awfully good about introducing me to music that was not being played a lot.
I also studied composition with Searle. He was never a morning person, and that class was at 9:00 a.m. He was ALWAYS late and just did not want to be there at all! He said I always wrote music that sounded like Delius, which I took as a compliment.
Through Searle, I got to know John Huston quite well, and Robert Crandell, who was at First Presbyterian in Brooklyn. John Huston was at St. Ann’s in Brooklyn with that wonderful Skinner that Virgil’s teacher put in. Charlotte Garden loved that organ. Through the faculty at Union, I made many connections in New York City, and as a result, got to play one of the opening recitals on the new Aeolian-Skinner at St. Thomas in 1956. It was an absolutely thrilling organ. Ed Wallace was the assistant at that time. George Faxon, Henry Hokans, and Clarence Watters were three of the other recitalists on the inaugural series.
During my second year at Union, I was chapel organist and got to accompany the choir’s Christmas concert, with Ifor Jones conducting. I once made the mistake of giving him a pitch with the celestes on. Well, I never did that again!
LM: Was Ifor Jones just a terror?
AR: He could be very hard on people in choral conducting class, and some were reduced to tears. He would say, “You should be a butcher, rather than a musician.” But it certainly separated the men from the boys. He would never allow anyone to conduct a straight four-beat pattern, which he thought was square, but insisted on a flowing, musical pattern. I think I learned as much from him, musically, as anybody.
However, years later, George Faxon and I often combined choirs. Once, we were rehearsing the In Ecclesiis of Gabrieli at Trinity, Boston. I was conducting and George was at the organ. Roger Voisin, the first trumpet in the Boston Symphony, was also playing. He said, “George, I cannot follow Mr. Russell. Would you please conduct?” So, we traded places. It was not funny at the time, but is now that I look back on it. I had always used Ifor Jones’s flowing style of conducting and, of course, orchestral people never knew where I was.
At Union, I also learned an awful lot from Robert Shaw’s mentor, Julius Herford. We all laughed at him at the time for what we thought was his overly romantic interpretation of Bach. Actually, he was making music. We were too young to appreciate that.
Charlotte Garden taught oratorio accompaniment. She was a terrific teacher and organist—and was fun. She was so tiny that she looked like a peanut sitting at that huge Möller console at her church, Crescent Avenue Presbyterian Church in Plainfield, New Jersey. She and Virgil were always vying for who could play the large Reger works the fastest.
I studied improvisation with Harold Friedell, and got to play one of the Lenten recitals at St. Bartholomew’s. He was also good to me and had a wonderfully dry wit. He taught at the church, and I would think of what I was going to improvise on while on the subway on the way to the church. As you know, his music is very modal. He improvised in the same style and taught this style for improvisation in service playing. Thank goodness we did not have to improvise fugues or strict form, because I would not have been good at it. Friedell’s service playing was smooth, and he used the organ beautifully—including the dome organ and all those goodies up there.
I remember Virgil came to the Lenten recital I played at St. Bart’s. I did the “Sicilienne” from the Duruflé Suite, and used the dome Vox Humana—shouldn’t have been using it, but Virgil thought it was the highlight. Bobby Hebble and Ted Worth were there with Virgil—we were good friends. I had gotten to know Virgil through a friend of mine who was a tenor in the choir at Riverside. He thought I should play for Virgil once. So I did, and that is how I got started substituting for him whenever he was away, and playing oratorio accompaniments, which was a good experience for me. Dick Weagly conducted the choir and he was a good musician.
LM: When you played for Virgil Fox, what were his comments?
AR: He said, “I like the way you pull stops.” That’s all I remember. But, I learned so much from him just by observing. I had first heard him in recital at Highland Park Presbyterian Church in Dallas in 1948. It was electrifying. I also heard Marcel Dupré that same year at McFarlin Auditorium at Southern Methodist University. I’ll never forget Dupré’s recital. It was the first time I heard the Widor Toccata. The Hillgreen-Lane organ was in such poor condition that they had to work on it for a solid week to get it ready for the recital.
LM: Did Virgil Fox practice for hours on end?
AR: Yes, at night. I practiced at night, too. Also, at Riverside, I had to do anything I could to make money, so I ran the elevator, sang in the afternoon choir for oratorios, and ran the switchboard. I probably got $5 for singing, but did learn a lot of repertoire. Virgil loved ice cream, so a lot of the time after practice, we would get in his convertible and go downtown to Rumplemyers on Central Park South. He was not a drinker, so we would have ice cream instead.
LM: Was his playing always prepared?
AR: Sometimes he simply did not have the time to practice, and would come in fresh from a solo recital tour to accompany an oratorio. But his monumental talent always carried him through in great style. Dick Weagly would complain that the organ was too loud, and he and Virgil had many altercations about this. One thing I always admired about Virgil was he stood up for what he believed in, and never changed, whether others thought he was right or wrong. William Watkins was the same way. I got to travel with Virgil some and we had wonderful conversations. He had a lot of personal depth and was a very kind person to many people.
LM: You must have heard some great recitals at Riverside.
AR: Yes. Charlotte Garden, Claire Coci and Searle were some outstanding ones. I remember Claire Coci broke the crescendo pedal.
The summer of ’56, I played for Virgil while he was away. Then, after graduating from Union, I went to Hartford to be organist-choirmaster at Asylum Hill Congregational Church. Soon afterwards, I also got the jobs teaching at Hartt College and as university organist at Wesleyan University.
LM: What was Asylum Hill like when you arrived?
AR: It was very disappointing. I arrived there in August, and people did not go to church in the summer because they were at the shore. There was no air conditioning, so people would not go to church even if they were in town.
We had the services in the chapel, so I had my debut there on a concert Hammond with not many people present. They had gotten rid of the all-professional choir and only had four paid singers. So, in September I really had to start from scratch with volunteers. Later on, we went to eight paid people and started the oratorio choir, which got up to about sixty people. We did all the major works, which I conducted and played. People came from as far away as Boston, Worcester, and Springfield to sing in the choir.
The organ was an old E. M. Skinner, with a very beautiful case, up in the gallery. The Swell reeds were terribly loud, completely obliterating the choir. I was told when I went there to not even think about mentioning a new organ, as the E. M. had just been restored (they had taken out the Swell Mixture and replaced it with a flute celeste). It did have some nice sounds, but soon began ciphering, and finally ciphered on the Tuba on a Sunday morning, which got things going nicely for a new organ.
We formed an organ committee and took them to visit Symphony Hall, Boston, and several other good Aeolian-Skinners. We listened to other builders, but Aeolian-Skinner was by far the preference.
LM: Did Joseph Whiteford design the new organ?
AR: Yes. We drew up the stoplist together. I had met Joe through Virgil, and then later met Paul Callaway through Joe. Both were so good to me, and that started my association with Aeolian-Skinner.
LM: I know a lot of organists who look down their noses at Joseph Whiteford’s instruments, but don’t you think they were beautiful?
AR: Absolutely. Some of Joe’s organs from the early ’60s are among the best instruments Aeolian-Skinner ever built. Philharmonic Hall in New York, for example, was certainly one of the finest. I always enjoyed hearing Joe talk about organs, because he did it from a musician’s viewpoint. Joe had wonderful ears and good taste, but was also a good musician. For my money, that is the reason his organs turned out so well—because they were musical. We spent many hours together at the piano, talking about music and listening to singers. He was exposed to a lot of good musicians, too, and was friends with Samuel Barber, Gian Carlo Menotti, Thomas Schippers, and Earl Wild.
Donald Gillett was also a great artist, and I fully back his work. Both Joe and Gillett did use smaller scales and higher-pitched mixtures than Harrison, but it was beautiful work. You have to remember that we all grew up with organs that sounded like black smoke, where the highest pitch on the entire organ was a 4′ flute. Their organs were a reaction to those. They craved clarity and brilliance, and their organs were suave, beautiful creations.
LM: What were Joseph Whiteford’s goals when he designed the Asylum Hill organ?
AR: One thing he said was, “Let’s build an organ where you can use a lot of it all the time, and not have to save it for Easter Sunday.” It filled the church, but was not a bombastic instrument. I loved it and it played the literature beautifully. In the Ruckpositv, he took the old E. M. English Horn and made a Regal out of it, which was very effective. I used that in the slow movement of the Handel G Minor Suite in the Aeolian-Skinner “King of Instruments” series.
For the opening concert, we did a program for organ and orchestra with the Hartt College orchestra, and did the Seth Bingham Concerto for Organ and Brass, the Poulenc Concerto, and the Handel Sixth—no solo organ repertoire. For the second concert, we did the Duruflé Requiem and I played the Suite.
LM: You made two recordings on the Asylum Hill organ for Aeolian-Skinner.
AR: Yes, the organ solo LP at Asylum Hill included the Healey Willan Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue. We sent the recording to Willan, and he liked some things, and some he didn’t. He thought the organ was too thin for this piece (not having three diapasons on the Great!). The recording also included the organ at Philharmonic Hall in New York City, which I believe was the first recording made on the new organ. Joe Whiteford had been talking to me for a while about recording those two organs, and then he mentioned having the choir do the Duruflé Requiem.
We did the Philharmonic Hall recording first. When we got there, I was supposed to have practice time, but there was something going on in the hall. I had played enough Aeolian-Skinners that I knew what to expect, so I just looked over the organ and set some pistons. When the hall finally emptied, I was able to try out my combinations. We could not start recording until the subway had stopped, which was around midnight, so, I had from 11:00 to midnight to set up the organ and practice. That was it. I practiced and recorded in the same night! When we finally got started recording, we went well into the night. I would stop every hour and take a shower. Joe was present for the session, and the recording engineer for the New York Philharmonic recorded it.
When we made the recordings in Hartford, John Kellner from Aeolian-Skinner did the recording. He was awfully good. We did the Duruflé in a separate session, and as far as I know, it was the first commercial recording of it made in the United States. We sent it to Duruflé, and like Willan, there were things he liked and things he did not like. I hear things now in the recording that I cannot stand—some things that are non-legato that should have been legato, and the choir did not do its best singing—completely my own fault. Ultimately, I did get to coach this with Duruflé when the Asylum Hill choir sang the Requiem at St Paul’s Chapel in New York in about 1964. Duruflé conducted and Madame Duruflé played.
LM: Did you enjoy life in Connecticut?
AR: Living in New York had prepared me for the rough winters. I had always been told that New Englanders were cold people. But I found them to be some of the most wonderful people I’ve ever met. From day one, it was a happy experience, and introduced me to many people who have become lifelong friends—Barry Wood, at First Baptist, Worcester; Hank Hokans, at All Saints, Worcester; Dick Westenberg. We all played in each other’s churches often. Dick was kind enough to invite the Asylum Hill choir to join his at Central Presbyterian in New York for a concert. George Faxon I got to know through Joe Whiteford, and that was a long, long collaboration. We combined choirs often at Trinity, Boston, and I played for his Evensongs when he was away. Later, when I moved to Washington, he had me come up and accompany the Brahms Requiem during Lent, and the next night I played a Lenten recital. That was a busy time, because I practiced there the week of, got back to Washington Saturday night to play for church Sunday morning, then went back to play the Brahms that night and the recital the next day. The organ at Trinity, Boston was splendid for accompanying. The whole front organ was enclosed, and the console was of George’s special design—low, so you could see over it. That was one of the happiest musical relationships and friendships, with George and Nancy Faxon, I have ever had. We had the best times together and I always stayed at their house. Many late night sessions were spent in their wonderful kitchen over glasses that always seemed empty.
LM: In Hartford, was Asylum Hill the only thriving music program in town?
AR: No. Sumter Brawley did wonderful things with orchestra and chorus, like the B Minor Mass. He was at Trinity Church right around the corner. Can you believe he has now retired and is living in this very building here in Washington? He still conducts marvelous concerts, having done one just recently at the Cosmos Club.
LM: Tell me something about your teaching career.
AR: Hartt College was my first teaching job. I had a lot of good students, and it was a learning experience for me, too. I did the organ and church music courses. Later the college joined the University of Hartford as the music department. We got an Austin in the concert hall. John Holtz, also on the faculty, took over the organ department when I moved to Washington. He was a marvelous teacher—brilliant—a much better teacher than I. He really lit a fire under his students. I was always better at coaching graduate students, rather than starting beginners, which just did not interest me.
LM: Did you start the contemporary organ series at Hartt?
AR: No. John Holtz did, and it really put Hartt on the map. John asked me to review the concerts one summer, and I was so unlikely to do it because I’ve never been a fan of extremely contemporary music. But I had to admit that after a week of listening, it was almost like hearing an old friend.
I was also university organist at Wesleyan. On Sunday nights, I’d go down there to play for chapel then teach the next day. There was a new Schlicker in the chapel. That was an interesting experience, again accompanying oratorios, although most of the time we used instruments with the organ. The Smith College choir would come down and join us. Iva Dee Hyatt was their conductor. She was fabulous.
LM: Were you working seven days a week?
AR: Yes, and I did up until my later years in Washington.
LM: Are you a workaholic?
AR: No. I simply needed the money, and, if I wasn’t teaching, needed to practice for recitals. Here in Washington, even on my day off, I would spend it practicing over at National Presbyterian, rather than going downtown.
LM: When did you come under management?
AR: I got to know Roberta Bailey very well at Riverside, when she was managing Virgil. He was her first client. Then she took on Karl Richter, Hank Hokans, Pierre Cochereau, and Anthony Newman. She and I were friends, and she knew I was already doing quite a bit of recital work, so she invited me to join her. She got me a lot of dates for which I was very grateful.
LM: When did you move to Washington?
AR: 1966. I had been in Hartford ten years. One day I received a letter from the rector at St. John’s, Lafayette Square, asking me if I would be interested in the job. Paul Callaway and George Faxon had recommended me to him. At the time, I had not been thinking of leaving Hartford. But I had always liked Washington a great deal, so was interested. On my way to play a recital in the Midwest, I stopped off here in the middle of a big snowstorm to audition. I was hired in the spring of 1966, and remember weeping bitterly my last Sunday at Asylum Hill, and I cried all the way to Washington. John Harper was the rector who hired me at St. John’s, and was there for my entire tenure as organist. He left me to do my work and was always totally supportive.
Coming here was one of the best things that ever happened to me. Phil Steinhaus was my predecessor. He had been here for two years before leaving to work in Boston at Aeolian-Skinner and the Advent. The organ at St. John’s was a late E. M. Skinner and Son, although Aeolian-Skinner had redone the Great. The choir was a small, professional group of 13, which I had always wanted. The organ was just a mess, and it didn’t take long to convince the rector we needed a new one, which we got in 1969.
I had become interested in Gress-Miles, and thought, in that situation, with the organ stuck in a hole, that an aggressive instrument was the best way to go. There was not enough room to enclose two divisions, which was unfortunate. We had wanted to put the organ in the gallery, but, because St. John’s is a historic structure, we were not allowed to change the room in any way. So, we had to plunk it back in the hole. I worked with Ed Gress on the design of the organ, and he was wonderful. He was a theatre organist, but also knew the classical literature very well and knew its demands. We both drew up individual stoplists, then collaborated on the final one.
LM: How was it for accompanying?
AR: It did as well as it could do under the circumstances, with only one enclosed division. But, if we had gotten a milder organ, it wouldn’t have been successful. The former Skinner there just didn’t get out at all. Paul Hume reviewed the opening recital of the Gress-Miles, and one of the first things he commented on was how much better the new organ got out. I played a solo recital for the opening, and Bob Noehren played another. He was a great mentor of mine. We had met through John Holtz in Hartford. We also did the Duruflé Requiem and the opus 5 Suite on a program. Paul Callaway played the other one—there were four inaugural concerts.
LM: Was the reverberation system in place at St. John’s when you arrived there?
AR: Yes. The church had one of Aeolian-Skinner’s reverberation systems, which allowed one to make music in that practice room situation. The system was very convincing, particularly in the middle of the nave. If you were by the speakers, under the balcony, it was less convincing, although it helped tremendously with hymn singing. There were fifteen speakers, each with delayed sound, and each with its own timing. It was a heck of a lot better than not having it. Christ Church, Cambridge was, I believe, their first one. Joe Whiteford set one up at Christ Church Cathedral, Houston for the 1958 AGO convention. I played the Mozart K. 608 Fantasy, first without, then with, reverberation, and Joe gave a lecture.
At St. John’s, we had several Sunday mornings a year that were all music, so we would do an oratorio. We had excellent singers in the choir, especially after the Kennedy Center opened, which attracted even better singers to town. One time we were doing the Mozart Requiem, and, soon after we began, the alto doing the quartets became ill and had to leave. So, I looked at one of the other altos. She nodded, and sang the quartets without a flaw. Another time we were doing Messiah, and I played the introduction to “And the Glory,” and when it was time for the altos to enter on the opening C-sharp not one alto peeped. So I played it again and, this time, it worked. Explain it.
We hosted several regional conventions in Washington, and the choir either sang programs or services for these. We had the AGO national convention in 1982. I was program chairman for that, and we did the Duruflé Requiem the opening night of the convention to a full house. I’ll never forget the choir processing in to Hyfrydol. Later, they told me, “We just stopped singing so we could hear that enormous, thrilling sound coming from all the organists in the congregation.” You couldn’t put on enough organ. I conducted and played the Requiem, and Donald Sutherland played the Widor Fifth Symphony before the service.
LM: Did you play for a lot of dignitaries at St. John’s?
AR: Yes. Before every presidential inauguration we had an early service. And, every president worshiped there. Once in a while the rector would say, “Let Helen play the last hymn, and you can come out and meet the president.” He was very nice about that. The only ones who were there regularly were the Fords. It sounds glamorous to say the president was there, but security was such an issue that it made life difficult. The Secret Service men would put dogs in the organ chambers. There was one Sunday where we had a bomb scare while the choir was practicing, so we had to finish the rehearsal out on the sidewalk, using a pitch pipe.
LM: You did quite a bit of teaching in Washington, too, didn’t you?
AR: Yes. I got Peabody at the same time as St. John’s, because Phil Steinhaus had been at both, and just turned the reins over to me. Arthur Howes was teaching there at the time. I taught all day on Mondays for $10 an hour. The concert hall had an Aeolian-Skinner, but I taught on a Walcker practice organ with a mixture that could be heard all the way to Washington. I needed my martinis after eight hours of that.
Leo Sowerby also asked me to teach at the College of Musicians. I taught people who came to the college just for organ lessons and who were not college students themselves (there were only eight college students, whom I did not teach). I called my students the “out-patient department,” and they had their lessons at St. John’s. In fact, I met my future assistant at St. John’s teaching her there—Helen Penn. I got to know Leo quite well and learned a great deal from him. I was particularly fortunate to coach Forsaken of Man with him when we did it at St. John’s. He lived on Wisconsin Avenue across from the National Cathedral. We watched the 1968 fires on 14th Street from his apartment. I remember a party where Leo sang “I can’t give you anything but love, baby,” accompanied by Garnell Copeland, organist at Church of The Epiphany. It was something. Speaking of Garnell, I judged the Ft. Wayne competition one year and thought I recognized Garnell Copeland’s style of playing, and sure enough, it was he. We flew back to DC together.
Preston Rockholt was my boss at the College of Musicians. He and Paul Callaway were the organ teachers there. Paul was so much fun. He was tiny, but was a musical giant. He always parked his big Buick convertible car by sound!
I also taught organ at American University and Catholic University. I never enjoyed teaching as much as playing recitals or doing church work. Perhaps I was a good teacher for some people, but I knew I wasn’t for others. Maybe all teachers feel that way. The lovely thing is, some of my former students keep in touch, and we have become good friends over the years.
In the early ’80s, I noticed I had a problem with my right hand. I thought it was carpal tunnel syndrome—something that could be fixed. I would warm up every morning by playing Hanon on the piano for 30 minutes before going to the organ, and noticed it there first. Then, at the organ, I noticed it on the Widor Toccata. One finger, on my right hand, would just lock. So, I went to every doctor in town and in Baltimore, and was not diagnosed. Leon Fleisher had had the same problem, and had been diagnosed at Mass. General, so that’s where I went, to the doctor who had diagnosed him. Sure enough, I had the same thing—focal dystonia—a neurological problem that cannot be cured. I decided to give up the church. I know St. John’s did not understand why I left, and why I have continued to play elsewhere since I left in 1985. But, I had to follow my conscience. I did not want tourists coming from all over the world to a church where the organist could not play major literature. Of course, people were asking right and left for the Widor Toccata for weddings, which was out of the question.
LM: Has your hand problem improved now, twenty years later?
AR: No. It is worse. I have tried everything and have had injections, but they did not work.
LM: Do you play at all now?
AR: Yes. I have done a lot of playing. I have just had to learn which pieces to stay away from—no Widor—and to use bizarre fingering. Fortunately, I have received a number of invitations to play the Duruflé Requiem, which I am still able to do because the most difficult part of the work is in the left hand. Also, I have switched the right hand part in the “Introit” to the left hand. I played it most recently at St. Paul’s, K Street, where I’ve played it several times for Jeffrey Smith, and at National Presbyterian Church. I was fortunate to get to perform it frequently early in my career, too. I also do little recitals for a group of people here in my building and am playing a program for them just this next week at National Presbyterian Church, where I am fortunate enough to practice each week. My good friend, Bill Neil, is the organist there and he is so kind to give me the time. These little demo recitals are very informal—we talk about the organ and I play for them. We just have a good time, like family.
I cannot imagine being more fortunate than I have been all through my school years, career, and now in retirement to have had the teachers, colleagues, friends and bosses who have given me an enormous amount of support and affection.What else is there that matters in life?