Pulling out the Stops with Michael Murray

Michael Murray

Up on a hill, in a far off and distant land known as Dunbar on Vancouver’s mystical west side, there stands St. Philips Anglican church. And often seated at one of two prize instruments owned by the church is Michael Murray whose role as Director of Music has brought a great deal of musical joy to the city in recent years.

A founder of cherished local vocal ensemble musica intima, Michael is now a church organist like few others. His knowledge of and passion for a broad repertoire of organ music has ensured that not only do works from the early, classical and modern eras actually get played, but they find an audience as well. No small feat in an era of seemingly diminishing returns in the world of classical music performance, particularly in remoter markets in North America.

VR Media recently sat down with Michael to chat about the music series he puts on at St. Philips.

MM: The series features about 12 performances throughout the year from September to June with a Summer Choir program in July and August. Some highlights for me over the last year have included; the Verdejo Guitar/Viola duo, a piano recital featuring Angelique Po, the St. Philip’s Chamber Players doing Fauré’s Requiem, the Victoria Guitar Trio, and the Abendmusik Chamber Choir Vespers service. It’s really a mixed bag of musical delights throughout the season. And the church can seat about 250 – 275 people comfortably so the events retain a really intimate feel.

VRM: We really had to do some work and literally get inside the organ to do your portrait! It is impressive, to say nothing of the harpsichord…

MM: The organ and harpsichord are both very fine instruments. The harpsichord is a gift to the church from J. Evan Kreider and was built from a Hubbard kit design. It is a two manual (keyboard) instrument and is regularly maintained by Craig Tomlinson. It is tuned to a unequal temperament Werkmeister 3 and is ideal for early music ensembles.

VRM: I’m going to interject and admit I’ve no idea about equal temperament.

MM: Equal Temperament is, to some folks, like listening to Cher on Vocoder. Unnatural to say the  least. Mean Tone is more organic and flexible. Notes can move around a bit and breathe. There are “chubby” thirds and “skinny” fourths. Today we accept the A note that an oboist plays for orchestras to tune to is 440 cycles per second. But in Bach’s time, tuning for organ was all over the place, totally lacking any kind of standardization. Some instruments were tuned A = 415 cps or 390 cps! I have heard some English organs were high with A = 466 cps. I recall reading about one instrument that was tuned low so that it sounded a tone lower than all the other players. The way Bach solved this problem was to write the organ part up a tone in E major while everyone else had parts written in D major. A day in the life…

VRM: Well that certainly clears that up! Let’s talk about the actual organ because it’s a major fixture at the church

MM: The organ at St. Philips was installed in 1961 and is a three manual (keyboard) Casavant with some 2000 pipes ranging in size from 16 feet to 1 inch. Casavant is a Canadian company based in St. Hyacinthe, Quebec. The organ sounds amazing in the church nave as the acoustics are excellent. It also has a lot of sound colours so I can play the repertoire of all periods of music, from the early Renaissance to, say, contemporary Canadian “new music”. You want some Frescobaldi? No problem. Persichetti? Here you go. In a way, the church has become my studio space during the week as I practice, teach, record and perform there. I love it!

VRM: Tell me about the upcoming concert on September 27th. It sounds like you’ve got quite an evening planned for organ fans, performing music that spans the ages quite nicely.

MM: The concert is the kick off to the 2015 season. I will play a big Prelude and Fugue by J.S. Bach and a new work for organ by Adam Hill called Panic at the Discotheque which he wrote in 2011 for Vancouver Pro Musica’s Sonic Boom. The organ was the featured instrument for composers to write for that year. He thought he would base the work on a tragedy that happened at a night club in New York. The place caught on fire when the band started playing and people couldn’t escape because all the exit doors had been locked. Some 40 people lost their lives. Hill created a work that describes the events that evening. The piece opens with punchy eighth notes and driving rhythms and has a great energy when suddenly it morphs into shrieking scream like sounds, bangs and thuds. The organ has to be as loud as possible and all the notes are to be played in clusters. Eventually, this all settles down and concludes with a haunting elegiac postlude as the music gets softer and softer finishing on a sustained A minor chord.

I have also invited some musicians to join me: Corey Hamm and Shane Hanson. Corey is, in addition to being an amazing piano player, also an organist. We will perform a duet by the great French composer Gaston Litaize. That means four hands and four feet are required! Organ Duets are like piano duets (two players – one instrument). There’s not a lot of music for organ duet but it exists. Sometimes all eight limbs are playing notes, so the console looks like a giant octopus-like creature is seated on the bench. The person playing the primo or top part (in this case Corey) has most of the melodic material and the secondo or bottom part (me) plays some of the melody and the harmonic material and the notes in the pedal.

The Sonata by Gaston Litaize (1909 – 1991) is a 3 movement (fast, slow, faster) tour de force and a real challenge. It’s one of his last compositions before he died. For loud sections we play together on the Great (loudest manual) and some sections solo out different lines so we will have our hands on the different keyboards for bringing out the tenor or alto line for example. He cleverly manages to write so that we are not banging into each others fingers. Sometimes the melody is in the feet with chords sustained in the manuals. The final chord at the end uses all 20 fingers and four feet to ring out a massive E major added note explosion.

Then Shane (singing counter-tenor) and I will perform My Heart’s in the Highlands by Arvo Pärt. It’s a hauntingly beautiful work for organ and voice.

Philip Glass

Philip Glass (during his last visit to Vancouver)

The program concludes with Satyagraha by Philip Glass and I’ve asked a choir of sopranos to join me for that. Glass wrote the opera Satyagraha in 1980. It’s a very beautiful work which is intended as a testament to the life of Gandhi. The word ‘Satyagraha’ means non-violent resistance: this was the cornerstone of Gandhi’s philosophy. Some time later, an arrangement for piano of the last part of Act III was published. Playing it on the piano felt unsatisfactory to me. The lines needed to sustain and that wasn’t happening. Also, the parts were not as clear as they could have been. All the sounds got lumped together and the melodies were lost.  With the organ, the sustain was no problem and I was able to gradually increase the volume as the piece reaches a climax at the end. I then thought: If I had a chorus of sopranos join in at the end of the piece it will be spine-tingling. So I arranged a part for women to sing as part of the crescendo. When they start to sing, the organ is already at maximum volume, and the addition of their voices is like the final stop added to the mix. I have performed the piece several times this way to great effect. I’ve always liked his music. I first saw him perform with his ensemble in Toronto in 1985. At that time Classical music seemed to be on the cusp of something so new and different. And Loud!

VRM: Many Vancouverites aren’t aware of some of the great classical and related music performances going on in churches across the city. It may seem like an odd venue in this day and age, particularly with new concert halls coming on line. But you’re seeing this as a tradition that’s holding steady and even growing.

MM: Traditionally the church has always served as a meeting place for communities. People come together and experience something as a group. Having performances in the space has been successful and we have developed a core audience derived from the congregation and music lovers. Taking people to new places musically in a beautiful space has been exciting for me. It’s my hope that more people especially young people will go to performances of all kinds in the city. Yes I am offering something that is “west side” and for the most part “traditional”, but I hope it might be attractive to everyone. One thing people say when entering the church is that the sound is great. The interior is like a studio for beautiful live music. Good acoustics and a quiet neighborhood help provide an ideal location for concerts. Too often sirens can shake the walls of a building downtown and destroy the mood of a performance, usually at the quietest part of the piece. Being in Dunbar, that rarely happens. And it is not too far removed from transit which is excellent. Both the 25 and the 7 buses have stops that are close to the church and we have ample free parking across the street.

VRM: What’s coming up and where are things going with the program?

MM: In addition to the Summer Choir’s performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, St. Philip’s will also present Mozart’s Requiem with orchestra, choir and soloists on November 8th and Rupert Lang’s Vancouver Children’s Choir for a Christmas concert on December 13. As well, musica intima vocal ensemble performs Evensongs on a regular basis. This church has had a long tradition of good choral singing; it has always been integral to the church service. I want to continue with chamber and choral music as the backbone of the series but I am thinking chamber opera and music theatre as a direction to pursue as well.

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