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AGO opens convention with new music

The American Guild of Organists launched its 51st National Convention on Sunday night with a worship service. That seemed appropriate. History’s greatest organist and composer, J.S. Bach, was, after all, a church musician.

phillipsOne of old Sebastian’s modern-day successors, Craig Phillips, was the center of attention on opening night at First Baptist Church. Phillips is the director of music at All Saints Church in Beverly Hills, Calif. He’s also a local musician made good – he pursued his early musical studies at the Blair School of Music before heading off to college and eventually earning a doctorate from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y.  On Sunday, he presented the convention’s opening night “Distinguished Composer” concert.

Phillips began with his two-movement Suite for Organ, Brass and Percussion. The opening Prelude functioned as a kind of dialogue between organ and brass ensemble, with the percussion and timpani adding rhythmic drive and color. The concluding Cantilene was serenely lyrical and expressive. Members of Belmont University’s Belmont Brass – trumpeters Joel Treybig and Pat Kunkee, horn player Radu Rusu, trombonist Jeff Phillips and tuba player Chris Vivio – played with exquisitely warm, round tones. Timpanist Christopher Norton and percussionist Todd Kemp performed with precision, and conductor Matthew Clark kept all of the players in tight formation.

In his Three Sketches for Organ, which came next, Phillips showcased his skill at writing inventive and idiomatic music for organ. The aptly-named “Awakening” began with a gentle three-note motif that quickly built in volume and intensity. “Midnight Dance” was a remarkably dreamy piece that called to mind a gently waltzing sleepwalker. “Fête,” the final piece in the set, was filled with virtuosic sparkle. Phillips ended the pre-service concert with his Prelude and Exultation, a mellifluous, joyous and energetic work for organ and brass.

During the service proper, Anna Carter Florence, a professor of preaching at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga. (and judging from her one-liners a budding stand-up comic) said she was thrilled to address a gathering in which the organists were in charge. She meant that as a compliment to church musicians who, as artists, routinely expose their innermost emotions in order to express what it means to be human. That, as always, is a risky endeavor.

Certainly, being in a church filled with top-notch musicians had at least one advantage: The singing from the congregation was remarkably polished and sensitive. Two local choirs, Christ Church Cathedral Choir and the Sanctuary Choir of West End United Methodist Church, added their luminous voices to the mix.

The AGO convention continues tonight (Monday, July 2) at 8 with a performance by organist Thomas Trotter at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. For tickets, call 615-687-6400.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), ArtNowNashville.com and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.

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