During my Juilliard years in the early 60s, I spent many
evenings being thrilled and moved by magnificent musical events at Church of
the Ascension, usually accompanied by an "orchestra" made up only
of pipes, played by Vernon deTar, who was my teacher for several years. The
program for each evening was wonderfully crafted, with fabulous hymns to sing
(to equally fabulous accompaniments), and along with some great classics, other
music less known, and sometimes, for its time, a bit daring. I can't
recall the details of the finances of all this, but the choir was somehow
"semi-professional." Everyone was paid, but as I recall, many
people received $2.50 a time--it was a kind of token, but it expected a
commitment in return--and commitment there was in abundance, I can say
from having attended many rehearsals. This was a fabulous choir, full of
enthusiasm, skill, and professionalism--nothing "semi" here.
Vernon ran a very tight ship. Not a moment was wasted in rehearsal, and there
was a strong sense of achievement at the end of each meeting. Best of all were
a few events for which I and a few other interested students were invited to
join the choir to help fill out the bass section for an evening performance. I
always suspected that we were not really needed, but rather, Vernon thought we
would benefit from the experience of the music at hand. I recall two
concert/services in particular. One featured the Hindemith "Apparebit
repentina dies" (hoping I have the name right after all these years), a major
work involving a brass accompaniment. And Holy of Holies, I was once invited to
sing in one of the annual performances of King David, a life-changing
experience, and a work which I think Vernon was first to perform, at least in
New York, if not in the country. This required four hands at the organ, to
achieve the orchestra, and it was John Upham who for many years attended to the
top manual, the Solo division. Vernon, of course, conducted all of this into a
mirror at the console. He was a dynamo!
On Sunday, November 14, at 4:00, a memorial service was held
at Ascension, in the presence of a large number of the many who were taught or
otherwise influenced by Vernon during his half century as a church musician in
New York, 42 of those years at Ascension. I dare not start naming names, other
than to say that not only were many of New York's leading musicians in
attendance, but also many who came long distances. Prelude: Choral in B Minor,
Franck, played by Mark Kruczek; hymn: Alleluia! sing to Jesus (Hyfrydol) (The
hymns were all accompanied by Dennis Keene, organist at Ascension, who also
conducted the choir); Introit & Kyrie from the Duruflé Requiem;
after the Old and New Testament readings: By the waters of Babylon, Bach,
played by Jon Gillock; hymn: Come down, O love divine (Down Ampney). The
announcement of the Gospel was said, followed by a loud single note on the
organ, and we all sang the response, doing the same thing after the reading as
well--and all I could think of was Vernon in Church Music class, saying
how dumb he thought it was to have a spoken announcement (or a versicle)
followed by a sung response! Well, it was!! And that is as close to a criticism
of anything that took place that you will get out of me.
The rector of Ascension is now The Rev. Andrew Foster, who
gave us a wonderful homily, saying in a really neat way what I have not heard
many clergy express--words are great, but a much higher form of worship
requires music. He also commented that many choir members like to say that one
"who sings, prays twice." I have heard that attributed to both Paul
and Augustine. Anyway, the rector clearly believes that, and must be a very
supportive priest for whom to work.
Messiaen: Resurrection (Livre du Saint Sacrement). This
incredibly powerful music was followed by the gentle "Meditation on
Blissful Eternity," part II of Dyptyque. Both works were played by Jon
Robert Baker needed a bit of help to ascend to the lectern,
but he needed no help in his wonderful message, delivered in a loud, clear
voice. He spoke of the twelve years in which he and Vernon were church
neighbors, Baker at First Presbyterian Church up the street, and, of course,
Vernon at Ascension. He told of their frequent "brown bag lunches"
together, in which they discussed new ideas in church music. It was a very
moving tribute from one wonderful man and musician to another.
Louie White (1921-1979) was baritone soloist at
Ascension for all the years I was around there. He also was the much-loved
conductor of the Greenwich (CT) Choral Society for a very long time, a position
Vernon had held earlier. He was a wonderful man, and (in my opinion) a fine composer
who needs to be better known. We heard St. Teresa's Bookmark, set to a
text of St. Teresa of Avila, in part: "Let nothing disturb thee, nothing
affright thee; all things are passing; God never changeth . . . ."
Following the Creed and the Prayers of the People, we sang "Christ the
Victorious" (Russia). Next, the final chorus from King David. After the
blessing, we sang a most stirring hymn: Pioneers! O Pioneers! style="mso-spacerun: yes"> "All the past we leave behind, We
take up the task eternal" (Walt Whitman) to a powerful tune, Gramercy, by
Vernon, dedicated to Samuel M. Shoemaker. After the dismissal, Harvey Burgett
played the St. Anne Fugue of Bach.
I am so very glad I went. It was a lovely way to remember a
man who probably knew more about church music than anyone I have ever met, and
who was anxious to share, both in the formal setting of the classroom and also
over dinner or a drink. He was a gentle soul, but oh so firm in his
determination to set a high standard. The church was not totally full
yesterday, and I wondered if the New York AGO chapter should have, perhaps,
sent out some sort of notice.
Perhaps it did, and I missed it, but then, I wondered if it
would have mattered a great deal. Possibly most of the current generation of
New York organists are too young to have met Vernon and experienced his work.
Anyway, the service was a great and fitting tribute, filled with music, all of
which Vernon knew and loved.
Mander Organs, Ltd. - USA