Mention “St. Paul’s Chapel” to most New Yorkers and they will think you are referring to the downtown church associated with Trinity Church, near the site of 9/11. There is another St. Paul’s Chapel, and this is uptown on the Columbia campus. Organist Gail Archer will play a fine program of contemporary American music there at 7:30 this coming Wednesday, Jan. 25: Tower, Persichetti, Barber, David Noon, and a Hayes Biggs premiere. (This is the first in a series of American music concerts by Archer at several locations – more info at her website.) There is a wonderful Aeolian Skinner organ in the Columbia chapel. I know it first hand from my days as a music minister for the Catholic Campus Ministry at Columbia. Here is a shot of the current console, a 1997 installation, but looking similar to the console I experienced about a decade earlier.
Among the delights of the instrument is a dome division, with a very powerful reed stop as well as speakers for an electronic 32′ pedal stop. I would reserve the use of that reed (what is called the “crown trumpet” in the stop list – see the link above) for special occasions. I remember using it to intone the last hymn of a big Easter Vigil service, and hearing somebody at the back of the chapel cry out in shock, pinned to the wall by the sound – although a joyous delirium brought on by beauty and length of the service as well as the strict Paschal fast may have also been factors in that reaction. More about my Columbia classmate Hayes Biggs here and here; my experience with organs here. Paul Dinter, Catholic chaplain at Columbia during my time there, has a memoir worth reading.
I was pleased to see the reminiscence by Peter G. Davis in the Times Arts and Leisure about his composition studies at Columbia, and about Jack Beeson in particular. It is a welcome corrective to the absurd tales of how serialism at one time ruled the world, or at least ruled Columbia University. My experience at Columbia, about 20 years after Davis’s, was of a similar diversity in approach among my colleagues and my teachers. I did not have a chance to work with Jack, but I wish I had, and I wish I knew more of his music. (I saw him for the first time in years at the American Academy of Arts and Letters Ceremonial this spring – and for the last time, as he died very soon thereafter.) I recall being very impressed by a broadcast of Lizzie Borden several years ago, but it is not easy to come across his other operas, let alone the instrumental music.
Of the several other fine composers associated with Columbia not mentioned in Davis’s article – George Edwards and Fred Lerdahl among them – I would call your attention to Chou Wen-Chung. He was Varese’s assistant and musical executor, and some of the music to be heard on the upcoming Lincoln Center celebration of Varese would not be performable without Wen-Chung’s efforts. Later serving as a mentor to the whole group of composers who came to this country from China in the 80’s- including Tan Dun, Zhou Long, Bright Sheng, and Chen Yi – Wen-Chung’s work with the U.S. China Arts Exchange overshadowed his composing for a time. But the music is overdue for revival. At a moment when there is so much interest in music that crosses cultural boundaries, Wen-Chung’s pioneering synthesis of Euro-American modernism and Asian sensibility should be much more widely known.