In memoriam Carl B. Staplin

Carl Staplin
Carl Staplin

A week ago this evening, my principal organ teacher, Carl Staplin, died at almost 80 years of age. I studied with him from 1970-1974 when I was an undergraduate student at Drake University, in Des Moines, Iowa. I’ll be making a quick trip to Des Moines tomorrow afternoon, and I will be one of the organists for his memorial service on Monday morning at First Christian Church, where he was the organist for decades, presiding over a 1956 Holtkamp organ of great integrity, if not great size.  Indeed, my first church job as a beginning freshman at Drake was as his assistant at First Christian. I had the opportunity week-in-and-week-out to hear him play repertoire, lead hymns (often with dazzling free accompaniments) and accompany the choir, which was conducted at the time by the late Allan Lehl, the director of choruses at Drake. That experience gave me a model to emulate for my 40-year (and ongoing) career that followed.

Carl was a brilliant teacher, patient, but insistent. He could always find something encouraging to say, even after the most dismal lesson. I don’t recall ever hearing him utter an unkind word. He had a friendly smile and greeting for everyone. Although all of his students were expected to study masterpieces of the organ repertoire, he also encouraged students to explore the repertoire of interest to him or her. My own senior recital had Bach, Sweelinck, Hugo Distler, the Roger-Ducasse “Pastorale” (What was he thinking!?), and Ligeti’s “Volumina,” that masterpiece of graphic notation with its use of the organ as non-traditional sound source. I’m sure Carl knew little about the piece when we started, but we plowed through it together. There are probably many teachers with whom I could have studied more repertoire; Carl insisted that things be very well learned over time and usually memorized. The result of that kind of study was that we didn’t necessarily cover lots of pieces but we learned how to listen and learn, a skill that has been my shield for all of my playing career and that has brought me performing opportunities that I might not otherwise have had. Most notoriously, that skill came into use once when I received the invitation in Cleveland with just two weeks notice to perform Jean Langlais’s Messe solennelle at which the composer himself would be present. Although I had heard Langlais’s mass before, I hadn’t played it. All worked out well for the performance.

Another aspect of Carl’s mentorship came in his encouragement of his students to follow their hearts in regard to their careers. I can’t imagine that he didn’t have some amount of disappointment when I decided not to pursue an advanced degree in organ and church music; I instead became a librarian. But if he was disappointed, Carl never uttered a single word of it to me. He has always been tremendously supportive of my library career, and seemed to be proud of my advancement to the upper levels of administration in a university research library. My library career, contrary to being a hindrance, has given me the opportunity to have a profession to “pay the rent,” but letting me pursue the musical career that I wanted, without having to depend on it for my living. It has for me been the best of both worlds, although not without some compromises in the amount of time I’ve had to practice. (Another example of using the skill of knowing how to learn quickly.)

The cadre of organ students at Drake became our ad hoc social group (very few of the students belonged to the Greek organizations that were the hub of social life for many at Drake). The parties at the Staplin home were legendary. Carl’s wife Phyllis, and his two children Elizabeth and Bill, put up with the uproar. Bill was a toddler at the time, and I think he often wanted us just to leave so he could get some sleep.

I’ve spent the last week reflecting on Dr. Staplin’s influence on my life and career, and even now I hesitate to publish this, because a few sentences cannot do justice to his life as a musician, academic, personal mentor and friend, husband and father. Rest well, Carl. Your legacy is secure in the lives of your students, family and friends.

Cameron Carpenter vs. the Mighty Wurlitzer in Akron

Cameron Carpenter

Last night I heard organist Cameron Carpenter perform at the Akron Civic Theater on its Wurlitzer theater organ, as part of a series sponsored by the University of Akron and E.J. Thomas Hall. Thomas Hall doesn’t have an organ, and Cameron’s long-awaited digital touring organ isn’t yet complete, so he had to do battle with the Wurlitzer, which put up a tough fight, including a couple of ciphers (notes that don’t stop playing when you release the key), but Cameron ultimately prevailed. The audience was slim, filling only the front section of the main floor of the theater. And if the sponsors’ plan was to entice younger people, it didn’t work—the audience was proportionally higher with gray hairs.

Cameron took his bad boy image to the max, at least during the first half of the concert, where he was sullen, sarcastic and never looked at the audience head-on during his remarks between pieces. (He sat half-way on the organ bench and looked at the wings of the stage.) And a lot of what he had to say was just pretentious bullshit, for example, his statement that in playing the Bach G Major Trio Sonata—a very difficult piece technically—one should just relax and let the music play itself. (Not that he cares one iota what I think.) If his idea is to draw new audience to the organ, it seemed an odd way to do it, unless the audience has masochistic fantasies. Do I really need to be talked down to? In the second half, he was remarkably more relaxed, even friendly, as if he had changed his attitude along with his costume.

All that said, there is no one else in the organ performing sphere that has Cameron’s technical skills, and his performances are riveting, if willful and infuriating. The only comparison that might be made would be to the French outlaw virtuoso Jean Guillou, in his prime. I found myself not caring in the least that Cameron’s performances were not “historically informed.” He also played to his own strengths, in his transcriptions and arrangements of other music, starting with an etude based on the first movement of Bach’s first cello sonata. The cello part was played in the pedals, with increasingly complex layering on the manuals above it. He also made an effective transcription of Liszt’s “Funerailles,” originally for piano. It seemed tailor-made for the theater organ. He ended the first half with an austere and mostly atonal composition by a Ugandan composer whose name I did not recognize. (And since there was no printed set list for the concert, I can’t confirm.) With massive sounds, including pedal chords, on full organ, it was as if Cameron truly was trying to test the Wurlitzer to its limits. There weren’t any ciphers after this piece, but there was one after Marcel Dupré‘s “Variations on a Noel,” which Cameron dissected and reassembled in his own fashion. (At least the cipher was on the tonal note of the piece.)

The second half was devoted to lighter fare, a medley of some Gershwin tunes, and ending with three relatively brief improvisations devised by the performer on the spot, including a concluding fugue recognizably, if loosely, based Beethoven’s famous piano piece “Für Elise.”

It was announced that Cameron Carpenter will be back next year with his new touring instrument. Maybe playing on a familiar instrument will put him into a better mood.

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A Year Ago… EACC fire remembered

Euclid Avenue Congregational Church Euclid Avenue Congregational Church fire Ruins of Euclid Avenue Congregational Church

It was a year ago today in the early hours of the morning that fire destroyed Euclid Avenue Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ, which was my church home (and employer) for twenty-seven years. The fire began during a freak thunder and lightning storm late the night before. I’d had Rosie out for her last walk of the night, and I remember wanting her to finish her business because it was starting to thunder. I’d also had a series of annoying spam calls on my cell phone, so I had turned it off before I went to bed at midnight. Had I not done that, I would have been among the first (perhaps the first?) to get the call about the fire, since I live in close proximity to the place and occasionally would receive calls from the Cleveland Clinic security about issues at the church. As it was, I did not know anything until early the next morning.

This all took place the Wednesday before Palm Sunday and Holy Week. There was a meeting of church leaders and staff in the morning on Wednesday, and by the end of the day the church found a temporary home thanks to the congregation of the former First United Methodist Church, who had recently vacated the church to merge with the former Epworth Euclid United Methodist Church. It was quite a miracle—a spacious facility with a large pipe organ, grand piano, hymnals in the pews. The EACC congregation is still meeting there a year later as they determine their future as a church.

The impact to me personally was considerable, since the church’s organ was lost, as was the choir’s music library and much of my own personal organ music library. I received a very generous insurance settlement, and I have replaced a lot of the music; I also received several very generous gifts of organ music from professional colleagues. Almost every week, however, I still discover something else that is gone. And money alone can’t replace the personal nostalgia that I had for some of the music, with its accumulation of forty years of markings, fingerings, and teachers’ markings. Some of the music was falling apart; other things had never been played.

There have been, of course, many challenges since then, and I salute those church leaders who have worked so tirelessly over the past year. The year was not without conflict, but the EACC congregation continues to be the resilient body it has been for over 160 years.

There have been many changes in the past year: Rev. Terri Young, the Interim Pastor at the time of the fire, has moved on to a new situation; the church has called Rev. Courtney Clayton Jenkins as its permanent pastor; and I have retired from the church as its Director of Music, with the intention of not playing every Sunday.

Hardly a day goes by that I don’t still think about the old church, and the magnificent Karl Wilhelm organ, which can never be replaced at any price. It was a unique instrument in a specific environment. One of the wonders of being an organist is that one’s instrument is integral to the architecture in which it is installed. Sometimes that equation works; other times it’s out of kilter. The Wilhelm was a perfect fit.

As Isaac Watts’ hymn said, “time, like an ever-rolling stream,” keeps on going. We survive; things change; things get better or worse. All the tears in the world won’t bring back the past. Optimism for the future is what sustains us.

There will be a service of remembrance at the site, 9606 Euclid Avenue, tonight, March 23, 2011, at 6:00 PM.

Our God, hour help in ages past,
Our Hope for years to come,
Be thou our guard while troubles last,
And our eternal home.
– Isaac Watts, 1674-1748

The International Music Score Library Project

An article in today’s New York time by music critic Daniel J. Wakin about the International Music Score Project library (also known as the Petrucci Library), draws attention to this vast digital library of music scores and parts that are in the public domain. That is, these editions of published music are no longer protected by copyright and can be freely downloaded, reproduced and used for whatever purpose.

I have used the IMSLP quite often in the past year, especially after the Euclid Avenue Congregational Church fire, when much of my personal organ music was destroyed. There were many things that I had originally purchased that in subsequent decades have now become public domain, including works by Bach, Franck, Reger, Guilmant, and many others. Among other things that church choirs use all the time are the G. Schirmer scores of standard choral works: Messiah, Elijah, Brahms’ Requiem, etc. Debussy’s works are now all in public domain (in the same Durand editions that you can pay through the nose for), as are many of the works of Sibelius and Mahler. Most of the operas by Puccini are there, as are the operas of Verdi and Wagner, often in multiple editions.

The NYTimes article points out that the public domain scores are old and don’t have the benefit of modern scholarship that might be available in new editions. But often new editions don’t provide great value (or at least not as great a value as their editors might have us believe.). While the music of Johann Sebastian Bach has had much valuable scholarship since the Bach Gesellschaft Edition was published in the 1800s, there is not a lot of recent work on Guilmant or Reger. Sometimes I just want to look at a score and then later decide to purchase it. There is value added by having a professionally printed and bound score. Some of the scores in the IMSLP are available commercially through such publishers as Dover and Kalmus.

Whether you’re a poor student, interested amateur or professional musician needing a quick look at at a standard repertoire work, the IMSLP is an invaluable resource.

Cleveland’s famous Beckerath organ gets a boost with a $100K donation

Donor gives $100,000 to Trinity Lutheran Church’s Beckerath organ restoration fund

Published: Tuesday, January 04, 2011, 11:38 AM     Updated: Wednesday, January 05, 2011, 10:46 AM
By Donald Rosenberg, The Plain Dealer
Thomas Ondrey, The Plain Dealer
Florence Mustric plays the Beckerath organ at Cleveland’s Trinity Lutheran Church. The instrument is undergoing a restoration that should be completed this year, thanks to a $100,000 contribution from an anonymous donor.

An anonymous donor who loves Baroque organ music has pumped $100,000 into a fund supporting the restoration of the Beckerath organ at Trinity Lutheran Church on Cleveland’s West Side.

Until recently, the Beckerath Organ Restoration Fund stood at $142,000, about half the amount needed to refurbish the 1956 instrument. The $100,000 donation will enable the project to be completed this year, said organist Florence Mustric, who chairs Friends of the Beckerath.

Mustric said 92 percent of the $142,000 came “not in major gifts, but in small and modest donations over three years, ranging from a great many $1 bills to a few $1,000 checks.” The donors have comprised music lovers from across Northeast Ohio and the country, including members of the Organ Historical Society.

The church’s admired organ was built by Rudolph von Beckerath of Hamburg, Germany. It is being restored by Leonard Berghaus, founder of Berghaus Pipe Organ Builders in Bellwood, Ill., who was inspired to become an organ builder by Trinity’s Beckerath.

The instrument has been undergoing restoration in stages, as funding has allowed, since 2007. After a concert Sunday, Jan. 16 by organist David Tidyman, who’ll present a program titled “Bach as Visionary and Mystic,” pipes and several divisions of the Beckerath will go to Berghaus for restoration.

Mustric said this stage should be completed by April, after which the final stage, including renewal of the console, will follow.

The anonymous donor has been a fan of the Beckerath for two decades, said Mustric.

“When we first met, I expressed surprise that he knew nothing about it,” she said. “I said, ‘I have the keys to the candy store’ and invited him to come hear it and play it. His first words on hearing it were, ‘This is not the candy store.’ Stunned, I said, ‘No?’ He said, ‘This is no candy store – this is Fort Knox!’ ”

Mustric said the $100,000 donation will make it possible for her and Trinity organist and director of music Robert Myers to pursue foundation support for the restoration.

“Bob is speechless,” said Mustric of the $100,000 donation. “I’m stunned, but, as you see, I am not speechless, which is a good thing.”

Mustric and Myers alternate as soloists in free recitals on Wednesday afternoons in Trinity’s Music Near the Market series. The church is at 2031 West 30th St., Cleveland.

Congratulations to the indefatigable Florence Mustric on this great advance in preserving the historic Rudolph von Beckerath organ at Trinity Lutheran Church. It is one of the treasures of Cleveland’s musical culture.

EACC music rundown

Today’s organ music at Euclid Avenue Congregational Church:

Prière á Notre Dame (from Suite Gothique) – Léon Boëllmann

Offertorio (C Major) – Domenico Zippoli (transcribed by E. Power Biggs)

Soliloquy – David Conte

(This list provided for those who might imagine that I play nothing but timeless masterpieces for my congregation.  It is summer and the sanctuary is not air-conditioned.)