CARLSBAD — By the era of Bach and Handel, the organ was known by poet and commoner alike as the "King of Instruments." The pipe organ's contemporary surroundings, however, tend to be anything but royal--small instruments ensconced in modest parish churches. For the most part, the instrument has traded in its Baroque splendor for more utilitarian pursuits.
This week the organists of North County will attempt to demonstrate the continuing vitality of their musical craft. They will host some 300 of their colleagues from the western states and Canada in the Far Western Regional Convention of the American Guild of Organists.
From Sunday through Thursday, these intrepid musicians will attend 11 recitals, 4 concerts and 2 church services, not to mention numerous workshops and symposiums.
Although the conference will be headquartered in Carlsbad, the faithful will traverse the length of the county, from a Monday night concert for organ and instruments at the Fallbrook Presbyterian Church, to a Tuesday morning lecture-demonstration at Point Loma's All Soul's Episcopal Church, to a Thursday afternoon recital on the organ at Mission San Luis Rey just outside Oceanside. According to convention program chairman Charlotte Atkinson, all of the convention's musical performances are open to the public.
Not surprisingly, most of the events will take place in churches. "That's where the pipe organs are nowadays," noted Janet Phillips, organist of the San Dieguito United Methodist Church. "Here in Southern California, you won't find them in concert halls."
In addition to being the most likely place to find a pipe organ, churches enrich the music life of their communities through various concert series. Nearly a dozen North County churches from Escondido to Encinitas support such series, according to Brett Michael Hauser, music director of St. Peter's Church in Del Mar.
"In a sprawling area like North County, where there are no big civic centers, the role these church programs plays is greater than in the city of San Diego with its Symphony Hall and Civic Theatre," said Hauser. "Most of the classical music in North County is presented either by community colleges, a few community choruses, and the churches."
However, not all of the convention events will be restricted to churchly surroundings. Tuesday's programs will include San Diego Civic Organist Robert Plimpton's recital of French symphonic music on Balboa Park's Spreckels concert organ and Ty Woodward's pops concert on the restored Wurlitzer theater organ in downtown San Diego's California Theatre.
According to convention planner Hauser, part of the goal of this conference is to demonstrate how music can flourish in modest circumstances. "We wanted to focus on music-making in the small parish church, not the well-financed cathedrals," explained Hauser. To further this goal, the convention organizers commissioned a choral work by Los Angeles composer Michael Cave and held a composition contest last year for new choral and organ music. The Cave commission, "Three Anthems for Peace," is a 15-minute work for organ, brass and chorus, whose idiom Atkinson described as "contemporary in flavor, but not too dissonant to be accepted in churches." Based on two Psalm texts and the "Prayer of St. Francis," the 15-minute work was designed to be divided into three separate anthems for those choirs unable to tackle the entire opus.
Cave's work and the winning pieces from the competition will be performed in the convention's gala finale Thursday evening at the Oceanside First Presbyterian Church. Guest conductor James Vail, USC music professor, will lead a 70-voice choir made up of convention members and volunteers from North County choirs.
Tuesday's musical events in San Diego comprise what organists call an organ crawl, a term that originally meant a literal crawl through the dusty chambers of an organ, but now simply refers to a non-stop tour of organs.
After hearing the recently installed Baroque-styled organ at the Point Loma Episcopal Church in the morning, the organists will be bused to Balboa Park to hear the Spreckels organ program. While they are walking over to St. Paul's Cathedral on the park's western edge, carillonneur Connie Venti will serenade the group with light classical fare on the carillon in the Museum of Man tower.
After Choral Evensong at St. Paul's, the crawl will continue to Woodward's program at the California Theatre and then move up the street to the First Presbyterian Church, where Catherine Crozier, the doyenne of American organists, will play a program devoted to American composers. In addition to works by Leo Sowerby and Ned Rorem, she will present the premiere of Norberto Guinaldo's "Lauda Sion Salvatorem."