St. John’s Music News for 2017 and 2018
By Dr. Anthony Antolini
Changes and additions to a church music program take place gradually and often don’t get much notice after they happen. People become accustomed to the new piano or the choir and soon forget that they didn’t used to be there. The exception is the members of the congregation who are away from us part of the year and then come back to a different routine or look. This month’s column is devoted to the changes and additions that have been made to the music program in the past year, with a look ahead at what’s changing in 2018.
During Lent 2017 I asked if there was interest in forming a choir at St. John’s. I proposed it as an experiment for the duration of Lent. I suggested that after Easter we’d decide whether to keep it or drop it. Perhaps because I view myself as a realist when it comes to forming volunteer church choirs, I proposed that the choir not have a weekly rehearsal some evening or afternoon. This is also a reflection of the fact that I have very few free evenings or afternoons because I direct Down East Singers (Tuesday nights), Bowdoin Chorus (Thursday and Sunday nights) and need practice time at the organ (Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday nights). So I proposed that we meet every Sunday at 9:40 to rehearse what would be sung that very day. Nobody requested a separate rehearsal! I was pleased to see that our attendance during Lent averaged six to eight singers and that people showed up every week.
After Easter I asked whether to keep or drop the choir. All were in favor. The choir has remained and is growing in numbers. At first we tried having the choir near the organ so that I could go from the organ bench to the choir quickly when conducting. But there were comments from members of the congregation that having the choir singing toward the organ and altar wasn’t audible. We tried standing sideways but that didn’t work very well. Eventually it was decided that the back pews on the west side of the church were the best place for the choir and we’ve been there ever since. The wall behind the singers offers good sound reflection, like the sound shell in a choral concert.
Rehearsals continue to be at 9:40 each Sunday morning. For special events such as the Christmas Eve Lessons and Carols and Easter we rehearse a full hour before the service.
New members are always welcome to join us. We have no audition and no age limit on either end of the age spectrum. An interesting development of late has been the idea of including children in the choir and eventually spinning them off into a children’s choir like the one we used to have in the 1990’s. This is only at the discussion stage but I am open to it. Your comments are always welcome.
We held our annual Messiah Sing again this year. Due to bad weather we had to postpone it from the 12th to the 19th of December but we had a full house as usual. The Mozart Mentors Orchestra plays for this event. We add Sean Fleming as the continuo keyboard player. This time he was able to use our new Yamaha Clavinova that played both harpsichord and organ sounds during the performance. (More on the Yamaha below.) Fr. Peter and I have discussed the idea of moving this event to Watts Hall now that we have a moveable keyboard and don’t have to hold it in the church. We have decided to wait to make such a move until we find that St. John’s is just too small. So far there are standees in the back but nobody has been turned away. But Watts Hall might attract an even larger crowd. What do you think?
Our music program has been greatly improved with an generous gift of a nearly new, top-of-the-line Yamaha Clavinova mini grand keyboard. I use the word “keyboard” because it’s more than a piano. It contains an enormous number of sampled sounds such as various pianos, organs, harpsichords and other instruments. These sounds can be summoned at the push of a button. The instrument is the gift of Mr. Chester W. Cooke of Topsham, Maine. Chester is a musical benefactor of churches and auditoriums all over Maine. He donated a brand new Steinway grand piano to Bowdoin Chapel and financed the Chapel’s rebuild of its 1927 three-manual Austin pipe organ several years ago.
Our new instrument permits me to play piano repertoire during services, to accompany Gospel tunes, to accompany guest vocal and instrumental soloists, and to include piano music for weddings and funerals. The instrument can become a harpsichord and organ when we need with a Baroque orchestra. It also is a great benefit to us because pianists can now substitute for me when I am away. (There are many more pianists available in our area than organists.)
Looking ahead to 2018, we have added a new feature to the Sunday bulletin. It is called “Hymnology,” giving brief historical background to the texts and melodies of the hymns we sing in the service. Research for this was not possible without the four-volume set of The Hymnal 1982 Companion, edited by the late Raymond F. Glover (New York: Church Hymnal Corporation, 1994.) These books had gone out of print. From some leftover funds from a foundation grant (for the Messiah Sing) we were able to purchase a nearly new set of this work from a book dealer. Our set originally belonged to the Episcopal Divinity School Library in Cambridge, MA. When that institution closed and merged with Union Theological Seminary in New York its library was sold to a book dealer. We are most fortunate to own this set. The detailed information in them is a treasure trove of history that’s fun to know about. The volumes contain the following topics:
Volume I: Introductory Essays, The Hymnal and the Book of Common Prayer, Service Music, Hymn Forms, History of Christian Hymnody in the USA and Britain
Volume II: Notes on Service Music (the S numbers in the Hymnal)
Volume IIIA: Hymns 1 thru 384
Volume IIIB: Hymns 385 thru 720
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The Episcopal Church of St. John Baptist 200 Main St., Thomaston, Maine 04861
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Office Hours: Tuesday through Friday 8:30 am - 12 noon