The Bible says that a prophet is often without honor in his own country. Let's hope that isn't also true for an organist.
On Friday at 8 p.m., at St. Luke's Episcopal Church, in downtown Jamestown, Joshua Stafford will perform a concert as part of the 2011-12 Concert Series of the Jamestown Concert Association.
Less than six years ago, young Stafford graduated from Jamestown High School. From there, he has soared to the very top of the field of performing artists on our culture's most powerful musical instrument, the pipe organ.
Jamestown native Joshua Stafford, at the keyboard of the famed Wanamaker Grand Court Organ, in Philadelphia. With him are Thomas Murray, organist for Yale University, Ken Cowan, Canadian performing artist, and Peter Richard Conte, the official organist of the Wanamaker Organ.
We've written about young Stafford and his meteoric career several times already, but let me give a quick repeat of the basics, for those who aren't already familiar with it, then share with you what I learned in a telephone interview with him, where he was preparing for his final concert in completion of his Master of Music studies at Yale. Then we'll talk a bit about what music he'll be playing for us on Friday.
Joshua Stafford was born in Jamestown. His parents are Kevin Stafford and Lori Lynn Stafford. His grandparents are Don and Katherine Lynn.
When he was only 6, it became apparent that something was wrong with his left leg. A long and exhausting search from doctor to doctor and from hospital to hospital, eventually ended with a diagnosis of Campanacchi Syndrome, a rare medical problem in which bone is prone to easy and frequent breaking.
The doctors ordered that he was to avoid rough play and lead as quiet a life as possible until his bones stopped growing, whereupon surgery was possible to strengthen and stabilize the bone.
Meanwhile, while visiting his grandparents, the 6-year-old had encountered his first piano. He found that making sounds on the instrument was enjoyable and that he could pour a lot of the energy he couldn't expend in active play, into playing the piano.
Almost immediately, he began to progress by leaps and bounds, playing piano music intended for much older performers. Eventually, he went on to study with Helga Hulse, who considered him among her most gifted students.
His promise was so great that when he was only 11, he was invited to participate in a pipe organ excursion held by the local chapter of the American Guild of Organists.
It is a cruel irony that while the pipe organ is a wonderful instrument, capable of more unique sounds than any other instrument known to us, for many people who participated in the counter-culture revolution in our own society, because large organs are usually located in churches, concert halls and civic centers, its sound has come to represent, for many people, a way of life which they have rejected.
It is still true, although less so than in the 1980s, that organists feel an obligation to do whatever they can think of to introduce young people to the instrument and to make opportunities to study available to them.
The members of the local Guild of Organists invited 20 talented pianists to hear and to play upon a number of instruments in our area, and found that only three or four of them could remember ever having heard or touched an organ before that time. The climax of the excursion was the opportunity for each of the young musicians to play upon the giant Massey Memorial Organ in the Amphitheater of Chautauqua Institution.
A 1999 piece in The Post-Journal, written by Traci Langworthy, quotes Stafford as saying, ''I was just amazed at its power.'' And a child with a handicap could master and release that power.
Also participating in the organ excursion was the late R. Richard Corbin, who was then organist of St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Jamestown. Corbin was stunned by how quickly and enthusiastically young Stafford took to the instrument. He invited the boy to rehearse on St. Luke's splendid Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ.
Recognizing that young artists need the challenge of having goals to reach, he arranged for the small baroque organ which provided music in St. Luke's chapel to be moved into the sanctuary, and he began to invite Stafford to play duets with him - not just in practice sessions, but as part of the worship services of the large church.
The earlier article describes a situation in which Corbin recognized that the choir was having trouble reaching the top notes of a piece of music which they were singing. He automatically transposed the music down, into a lower key, momentarily forgetting that this would be a challenge for Stafford, who was playing along on the baroque organ.
''I glanced over, to see if he had dropped out, and found that he had just transposed to the lower key, right along with us, and was playing away,'' Corbin said.
All through Stafford's growing years, Corbin continued to serve as a mentor. He chose not to become the boy's official teacher, understanding that doing so would change their relationship. Stafford studied with Bobbi Lange, with Donna Gatz, and later with Brian Bogey.
Corbin focused on using his connections in the music business to arrange for performing opportunities for the boy. He advised the young scholar on acquiring a professional wardrobe and he introduced him to other professional organists, who could help him to advance.
When Canadian organist Ken Cowan was invited to perform as part of the Jamestown Concert Association's concert season, Corbin, who was then the president of JCA, made sure that Josh got to have as much contact with Cowan as possible. The artist set aside two hours to listen to the boy perform and to advise him on technique and to answer questions.
Gradually, the boy got the opportunity to give concerts on the organ of St. Paul's Cathedral in Buffalo, and on the organ of St. Thomas Episcopal Church, on Fifth Avenue in New York City and that of St. Bartholemew's Church on Park Avenue to name just a few.
All the while these things were happening, Stafford maintained stellar grades in school and continued to study the piano as well. Although the keyboards of the organ and the piano look similar, they are played with quite different techniques, and the organ has an additional ''keyboard'' of pedals, which are played with the feet, plus anywhere from dozens to hundreds of different voices. It can sound like a violin, or like a trumpet, or like a harp, among many possibilities.
All of that would be challenge enough, and yet the young man was almost unbelievable generous with his time, playing organ or piano for groups in our community. He accompanied the Chautauqua Chamber Singers, the Drama Enrichment Program, the MS Society Broadway Reviews and the All County Senior High Choir.
He accompanied a number of vocal groups at Jamestown High School and was president, as well as accompanist, for the A Capella Choir. That organization named an award for him, the Joshua Stafford Character Award.
He played the organ each Saturday morning for the Breakfast Party, on a local radio station. Our back files for the early years of the 2000s are full of announcements that he would be giving concerts or accompanying concerts as benefits for local arts organizations, scholarship programs, and the like.
When Corbin became gravely ill in 2005, and eventually died, the former student became choir director and official organist at St. Luke's, for approximately seven months, ending only when he left town to begin studies at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
The Curtis Institute, alma mater to Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, Lukas Foss, Jaime Laredo, Ned Rorem, and a great many more such greats, only accepts one organ student per year. All of their students are assigned to study with some of the best teachers in the world - there are no part-time instructors, only the top. There he had a full scholarship, and was able to travel abroad to study organ technique in other countries and cultures, and to give performances on the organs on Westminster Abbey, Notre Dame de Paris and other such edifices.
When he finished his studies there, he was accepted with another full scholarship to a graduate program at Yale. His performance in Jamestown was originally scheduled for later in the month, but had to be changed when his professors decided that his graduate recital would take place on the date originally announced for his concert here.
It is an honor to celebrate an artistic accomplishment as great as this young man has achieved, and an even greater honor to celebrate his continuing effort, hard work, energy, generosity with his time and talents, and the fact that he started here, and went to the very top.
ON THE PHONE
We reached Josh by phone, on a cold, rainy winter afternoon, on which my voice had decided it would be fun to disappear and leave me croaking, like a frog. Some people - including a number with far fewer accomplishments - would have hung up the phone. He didn't.
We discussed the program of music which he will be performing on Friday, which is identical to the ones he will be playing as something of a final exam, for his professors, later in the month. Then we moved on to his soon-to-be-completed degree from Yale.
''I'm completing a Master of Music Degree, with a certificate in performance on the organ for churches,'' he said. ''My studies at Curtis were almost completely in music, but at Yale, I've been studying roughly 50 percent music and 50 percent theology and religion. I'm hoping to have a career as a performing artist, but also to work at a large church, possibly as a Minister of Music.''
Would he like to couple playing the organ with directing the church's choir, as many do, or would he prefer to focus entirely on instrumental contributions?
He answered, ''I hope I'll get to direct a choir, as well as performing. I think the two go very well together.''
What does Stafford plan to do, when he finishes his program, later this month? ''I have a number of applications out,'' he said. ''I've been amazingly lucky that as I've moved through my studies, when I needed opportunities to earn some money and get some experiences, openings have come up, right where I needed them to be. Right now, I'm playing at an Anglican Catholic church, in Connecticut, which is serving an Afro-Caribbean population.He also has some concert bookings, and he's aware that a giving successful concert is the most likely way to attract a future booking.
''I'm lucky that there has been a definite return, in recent years, to interest in traditional church music,'' he said. ''There are some opening around, and I'm networking with other organists to see who might be thinking of leaving a position, which might be an opportunity. Fortunately, organists are in demand, right now, and I probably can get substitute work to carry along until I get something more regular.''
Has he always been able to support himself by playing the organ, or have their been the traditional jobs such as waiting tables? He replied that he has always earned enough from music to meet his needs.
Is the trip home to Jamestown a treat, or something of a duty? He said, ''I've loved it here at Yale, and I've been very happy, but I've been working so intensely and for so long, I really need a chance to get away.
''It won't be for very long - just a few days - but Jamestown has always been so supportive and the people there have always been so welcoming and so kind to me, that I'm really looking forward to coming back and being there.''
I wondered if there was a chance of his returning to studies. He said that he would be glad to earn a DMA degree some day, but he feels it important to earn some money and set himself in some regular living situation. ''Learning to cope with the real world,'' he described it, in terms often used by long-term students.
For the benefit of readers who are considering a career path similar to his own, is he happy with what he has done so far, or is there something he wishes he could change? He replied that he considers himself truly blessed. The study opportunities and the performance opportunities have suited both his needs and his wants.
The musician's conversation is punctuated with expressions of his love of our community and his gratitude for all that was done to advance his career from the handicapped elementary school prodigy to the master of the musical arts.
It appears as though we've done something right.
Those lucky enough to get tickets to enter St. Luke's on Friday evening with hear there organ works, followed by an intermission, and then a final work. To briefly describe each:
The program begins with a very special offering. Stafford will perform an organ transcription by late 19th and early 20th century organist Edwin Henry Lemare of the prelude to the opera 'Hansel and Gretel,'' by Englebert Humperdinck.
We're talking of Humperdinck, the 19th century German composer, not the mid-20th century singer who made many records.
Stafford was able to obtain sheet music from 1899 which he feels brings the music to life and especially inspires his performance.
The opera is the only composition of Humperdinck's which is well-known today. He was born in 1854 near Cologne, in Germany. He was a familiar of many of the great German composers of that period. He was hired by Richard Wagner as a music tutor to Wagner's son, Siegfried. Richard Strauss conducted the world premiere of ''Hansel and Gretel.''
Unable to break out of the shadows of the better known composers, poor Humperdinck accepted a position in Australia, but he had barely arrived when World War I broke out, and as a German, he needed to leave Australia promptly.
Returning to Germany, he attended a performance of Von Weber's opera ''Die Freishutz,'' during which he suffered a heart attack, and he died the following day.
''Fantasie in La Majeur, M 35'' by Cesar Franck is second on the program for Friday.
Franck was born in Liege, which was part of the Netherlands, but is now in Belgium.
At the age of 12, he gave his first performance as an organist and pianist, before Leopold I, King of the Belgians. His teachers determined that he and his younger brother were advancing beyond their ability to teach him, and they suggested that they apply to study at Le Conservatoire, in Paris.
For a while, the Francks won many prizes and performed many concerts in Paris. However, their father was a non-musician who planned that his two sons, especially Cesar, would make the family rich and famous, through their music. His attempts to influence critics and to insert himself into negotiations with orchestras and presenting organizations, led to a strong negative reaction, both to the father and his two performing sons. They were forced to return to Belgium.
Eventually his father's continued meddling caused young Franck to revolt and to move out of his parents' house. The spark which set off the revolt was the composer's growing interest in one of his students, a young woman whose parents were actors at the Comedie Francaise. Because men could not marry without their father's permission before the age of 25, Franck had to wait, but he married the girl and moved to Paris, where he began a career as a church organist and a concert performer, known for his ability to improvise at the keyboard.
Among his greatest supporters was the composer Franz Liszt. He died in 1890, not long after being involved in a collision between a tram and a horse-drawn vehicle, although people still dispute whether the accident had anything to do with his demise.
Franck was known to have had unusually large hands, and much of his music involves active melody, performed within repeated outer chords.
The third work is ''Symphonie No. 2, Op. 26,'' by Marcel Dupre. Dupre was born in Rouen, capital of French Normandy. His father was an organist before him.
He studied at the Conservatoire in Paris and was soon appointed to the faculty there. Among his many accomplishments was a tour across the United States, funded by John Wanamaker, whose chain of department stores was once one of the biggest in our country.
The flagship store of the Wanamaker chain in Philadelphia contains a very elaborate pipe organ, on which concerts were often given, including by Joshua Stafford, during his days at Curtis.
Dupre composed extensively for the organ and he arranged many works of music by other composers which were written for other instruments or for orchestra, to be performed on the organ. He replaced Charles Marie Widor as organist at Paris's St. Sulpice church, where he was still the official organist when he died in 1971.
Although Franz Liszt's ''Fantasie und Fugue uber den Choral 'Ad Nos, Ad Salutarem,''' is certainly a spectacular work, and will no doubt ''razzle dazzle'' the audience and send them into the streets, thrilled, I'm out of space to discuss it. I've heard rumors that the improvisations upon it are going to knock socks off, left and right.
I hope to see you on Friday. at St. Luke's.