Author Archive

A New Role   6 comments

Many years ago, I took advantage of a singular opportunity to travel to Santa Barbara to reconnect with one of my heroes, Sir David Willcocks (I had accompanied for him for many years at Westminster Choir College, among other places, during the 80s, when I lived in the east), at a choral workshop put on by Cantori Domino. 

This led to a 15-year relationship where my dear wife and I both sang, and I occasionally played in their orchestra. Now, with the sad passing of Mary Gerlitz (see “A Fond Remembrance” below), Cantori Domino’s artistic director, Bunny Thornburgh, has asked me to be their new accompanist, and I have accepted.

With enthusiasm! Though I enjoy singing very much with this group – one of the finest choirs in LA – I am very much looking forward to playing for this outstanding group of singers as well! It will be great fun as well as a privilege to accompany for this choir!

A Good and Sweet New Year Indeed   Leave a comment

I’m slowly coming down from our wonderful High Holy Days services at Temple Beth Ohr in La Mirada. What a pleasure it was to be a part of this, and to hear the room resound with vigorous singing from the congregation as well as the choir!

Over the past couple of years I’ve done about a dozen full choral arrangements of some of the significant High Holy Days music, and it was wonderful to prepare our special High Holy Days choir to sing them, which they did beautifully, and even more wonderful to hear the congregation responding with gusto.

As always, Rabbi Goldfarb and Rabbi/Cantor Yoni Regev gave thoughtful, warm sermons. In addition to singing with gusto, many congregants participated with enthusiasm as readers and in other roles. Truly, a magnificent collaborative effort.

The services were streamed online, and you can watch them from this archive.

L’Shanah Tovah u’Mitukah ~ To A Good And Sweet New Year!

Posted September 17, 2013 by Ray Urwin in Uncategorized

A Fond Remembrance   3 comments

Organists, Sir David Willcocks workshop, Santa Barbara CA, 1990s. From left: Elizabeth Rembolt, Sir David Willcocks, Ray Urwin, and the late Mary Gerlitz.

Organists, Sir David Willcocks workshop, Santa Barbara CA, 1990s. From left: Elizabeth Rembolt, Sir David Willcocks, Ray Urwin, and the late Mary Gerlitz.

We’re back now. It was a glorious time in England, and I do have stories, as promised!  But York will be my next post (or two). For this one I want to bid a fond farewell to a beloved person, one of Cantori’s founders.

Recently it was my privilege and pleasure to serve as organist for the memorial service and celebration of the life of Mary Gerlitz, a longtime organist in the LA area, and accompanist, administrator, and General Goddess in Residence for the Cantori Domino choir.

We had returned from England only a few days before. Over the previous year Mary had made the basic arrangements for the tour, and she and I were to share the accompanying duties. But shortly before we left she suddenly became very ill, and it quickly became clear that she would not be going. She died on August 1. We all knew she was very seriously ill, but it was still a huge shock.

The service, held at St. Augustine by-the-Sea last Friday night (August 9th), was lovely – simple and direct, with a superb mix of music and words, and eulogies of fond and admiring content. Prelude music was Joseph Jongen’s impressionistic Petite Piece and a Bach instrumental aria. The organ loft was packed with former and current Cantori members, who sang Brahms’ Let nothing ever grieve thee so very beautifully – I could feel as well as hear the love and affection for Mary as they sang, both in the rehearsal and service. The service also included some of Bach’s best: Bist du bei mir sung by Bunny, and the Aria from the Goldberg Variations.

We also sang the great hymn O God, our help in ages past. The choir (which includes some of the finest vocal musicians in LA, including several members of the Roger Wagner Chorale) had gone down into the congregation by then, and one doesn’t often hear hymn-singing like THAT!:) Thanks so much for that, Cantori – that’s one of my very favorite hymns: a perfect match, I think, between text and music, the greatest funeral/memorial hymn ever written, perhaps the greatest hymn, period. I will never forget our moving rendition of it, and don’t expect to experience hymn music-making like that this side of Heaven! I will never forget it. And several singers noticed that I had composed the previous hymn in the book!

I knew Mary would also want a big piece for the closing organ voluntary, the last music of the service. Instead of selecting one of the usual suspects, I played Swiss organist Lionel Rogg’s magnificent toccata setting of the Advent chorale Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stille (I played this piece at OLA a while ago).

A lovely reception followed, thanks to Betsy Wheeler Kollgaard, Susan Kasenow, my dear spouse, and many others. Last but not least, my personal thanks to Cecilia for quickly finding some last-minute music I needed online, and to The Rev. Mark Goldfarb, the Rabbi at my wonderful Temple Beth Ohr, who graciously let me have the evening off for the service.

Bunny told the group several times, both in York and at the service, that I had been Mary’s choice as the sole accompanist, should she be unable to go. I felt honored and remembered this throughout the tour and the service. Mary certainly deserved no less than my best and the choir’s, and we all knew it. I still find it difficult to believe, and accept, that she has passed. But I think we gave her a good send-off, and she is pleased, wherever she now resides!

Mary was one of those people who had been around “forever;” after all, she and Bunny had co-founded Cantori Domino. All of us have very fond memories of her. My personal eulogy: in the many years I knew and worked with her I don’t remember ever having heard her utter a bad word or negative comment about anyone, even when such opportunities arose – and indeed sometimes even invited such comments! Quite the accomplishment! And a great example to us..

She will be long remembered and greatly missed. Rest in peace, my colleague and friend.

YouTube   Leave a comment

Maybe if I post enough of these, I can get them to rename it “U(rwin)-Tube”….

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S28rQUPh9Fs

Click “Hear Me” above for more as they are posted! I’m heading to York Minster to play the organ there for Cantori Domino‘s residence all next week – joining some pretty exalted company, too, from the last 650 years or so. They don’t allow recording there, sadly, but I’ll be back with stories.

Posted July 18, 2013 by Ray Urwin in Uncategorized

Annoying Music   2 comments

We all have music that annoys us. This guy made a career out of it by analyzing and categorizing it. What’s your annoying music?

Posted July 5, 2013 by Ray Urwin in Uncategorized

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A Eulogy   6 comments

AmeliaAl1-1My eulogy for Al Sargent, January 25, 1941 – February 19, 2013. Devoted husband and father. Choir bass. Navy man. Close friend. And damn fine human being.
Given at St. Francis Episcopal Church, Palos Verdes Estates, CA, March 2, 2013.

Many of you know that St. Francis is one of three musical “hats” I wear – I’m Jewish on Friday nights, Roman Catholic Saturdays at dinnertime, and Episcopalian on Sundays!

No matter what the occasion – happy, sad, or anything in between – the services at synagogues always include a Kaddish, which is a prayer extolling the glory of God despite grief and death. No matter what happened previously in the service, the introduction into the Kaddish is a kind of signal, a sign that serious business is about to happen, and is a reminder of the transitory nature of life.

The Kaddish comes just before the end of every service. The rabbi reads the official list, then slowly moves his or her arm above the congregation, while the people say aloud the names  of recently died family members or friends, or the death anniversaries (called Yahrzeits) they are commemorating.

I usually don’t have any names to add. But last Friday night, I did. When the rabbi got to me, I said the words – Al Sargent. I didn’t say his name loudly, but it seemed to thunder in my brain. And I think it was having to speak his name aloud and in public at that moment that I came face to face with the fact that I will not see him, one of my longest and closest friends, again in this life.

We were friends for more than 20 years, and he sang in my choir longer than any other singer I have ever had, anywhere. His daughter Laura told me last week that he so loved singing with me and that choir practice was the high point of his week. Carla, his wife of 47 years, had told me this too, over the years, and I consider it one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever had. Al loved singing so much, and he would have greatly enjoyed the choir rehearsal for this service! Today I am using his hymnal and his copies of the music, and today’s final organ piece is one that he turned pages for many times.

Al spent much of his life here in the South Bay, but was originally from St. Paul, Minn. – land of Lutherans and of a cappella choirs such as the renowned St. Olaf Choir. I heard just last week that he had said multiple times that he loved to sing a cappella (unaccompanied) but never thought he’d be good enough to sing in such a choir. So it’s appropriate that the choir sang today’s psalm unaccompanied.

Our two families are about as close as one can get to being blood relatives. Laura and our daughter Amelia seem like sisters, and Al called them Miss Muppet Senior and Miss Muppet Junior.

My own relationship with Al was, I think, centered on music, family, humor, a shared love for gardening, and – last but not least – beer! And I’m happy to report that the beer genes have been passed down, and this trait is shared by Laura and her husband Jim.

But those weren’t our only tangents. I don’t know or care much about cars, but one year I went with Al to the LA Auto Show, and it was like having my own private guided tour with a walking, talking encyclopedia of car stuff! He tossed off fascinating comments about just about every car in the show – and its past history – as we walked by!

When I emailed some former and current choir members with the sad news, they all expressed surprise and great sadness, and send their condolences to both family and friends.

Here’s what they said:

From the Rev. Jim Caldwell, former associate minister here and bass singer in the choir:

“I am in tears over the news. It’s a rare moment for me to be speechless…. but I am, most certainly.”

From Paul and Jan Davis, who sang bass and alto in the choir:

“I remember Al’s enthusiasm and his good nature.  The fun he had in 1990 driving our new Corvette still makes me smile. Please convey our sympathies to Carla and Laura. Love, Paul and Jan.”

From a long-time and current choir member, Bob Africano:

“Even though we didn’t socialize together a lot (save choir parties), I felt as close to Al as to my own brother, because we shared so much of our long Episcopal life separately and together. Very sad. I will miss him a lot.”

And finally, from Keith Kuhn, a former tenor in the choir and a Vestry member here:

“Dear Ray – our condolences and sympathy go especially to you, Cecilia, Donny, Ginny, and Amelia.  I remember just how close you all were to Al and his family.  As for me, I remember Al as an always warm, upbeat, chatterbox of a guy who was always happy to see me (or you or just about anyone else he knew!).  Not a bad way to be remembered.”

Indeed – not a bad way to be remembered.

Al had many talents. I’ve always admired his skill with his hands and with machinery, and have wished I had just a bit of it, which I don’t. Another of his skills was his uncanny ability to turn almost any unrelated story, or part of a story, or one word from a story, into something about either his time in the Navy or old Torrance!  He was practically a walking encyclopedia of Torrance during the Cold War era, and it’s a shame that so far as I know no one ever got him to talk into a recorder about that.

Al’s boat, the carrier USS Hornet, is now a museum, up in Oakland. Al told me it had picked up a couple of the early astronauts. And I found out when I toured it that Neil Armstrong’s first steps on Earth after Apollo 11 splashed down were onto the Hornet. But when I wasn’t thinking of Armstrong or gawking at the cool planes on display I was constantly thinking of Al, wondering where he bunked, where he worked, and all that. It seemed like revisiting the Scene of the Crimes, the Ground Zero of his many naval escapades, including the sewing machine and illicit tailor shop story Laura told!

Al had a few signature one-liners – Al-isms for want of a better term! Here are a couple, and I’m sure many of you have more:

“Age, experience, and cunning beat youth and enthusiasm any day of the week!”

“My people will talk to your people…”

[The aerospace work we were doing] “was so secret we had to work on it with our eyes closed!”

“Wherever two or three Episcopalians are gathered together, there’s always a fifth!”

Another of Al’s sayings, in more recent years, was “I’m not important enough to have a cell phone…” Well, maybe not, my friend. But you probably had no idea of how important you were to so many, how many people you influenced and who loved you so much, until now. Al, we know you are watching us from wherever you are, and making sure we get this service right!

Despite the sudden and tragic nature of his death and my own shock and grief, I still smile whenever I think of Al, and probably always will. I know I am a better person for having known him, and I imagine that is true for most of us.

The other morning I saw a line in a brochure: “Don’t lose the song.” I don’t think Al ever did lose his song.

Now, I’ve been a church organist long enough to know that this is not Christmas! But we’re going to sing “Silent Night,” and here’s why:

Many years ago I had a flutist for Christmas at my church back East, and so wrote a descant for Silent Night, high above the melody, a musical depiction of the Star of Bethlehem. When I came here we sang it a few years, but the poor choir had to just sing the melody, because I had changed the harmony from what is in the hymnal.

You probably know that the original “Silent Night” was thrown together at the last minute because an organ broke down and all they had to play was a guitar. So the original harmony is very simple, and most choir singers will tell you that’s really pretty boring, especially three times in a row.

But that let me as the organist play and experiment with different chords, trying out different harmonies. And over the years I settled on a version with an independent and I hope a more interesting bass part, coming just a little after the melody. But the choir was still singing the melody only.

Over the years, Al urged me to write out these new harmonies for a choir. As a rule I really don’t like to rewrite my old music, I always want to move on. But he was so kind and so patient as I dawdled over the years. So I finally wrote a full-fledged four-part choir arrangement, which my choir loved and looked forward to every year, and no one more than Al; I think he said once that Christmas would not be Christmas for him without this bass part. I wrote the bass part while thinking of Al, and many of us choir people can still hear him singing it, and will for many years.

This past Christmas I finally got around to doing something I should have done long before: I dedicated it to Al. That was his Christmas present from me.

It seems appropriate to end this by doing something Al and I did together a lot: making music and loving it.  You’re welcome to sing along on the melody. But I hope you’ll also listen for the bass part, that’s the real connection with Al.

Rest in peace, my dear friend. Hope to meet up with you later on in the journey! When we meet again I probably won’t be directing or playing, but I’ll bet two beers you’ll be in the choir!

Posted March 19, 2013 by Ray Urwin in Uncategorized

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Concert!   Leave a comment

At the excellent Bach’s Lunch series at Trinity Lutheran Church in Manhattan Beach this Friday, February 1, at 12:15.

You’ll hear all kinds of music you won’t hear elsewhere.

My program is a study in contrasts — contrasting composers, musical periods and styles, and the contrast of composers who are both living and no longer so.

One example — a setting of the melody of  “Jesu, joy of man’s desiring.” The familiar Bach setting is a soaring, stately melody over an ornamented accompaniment; Lionel Rogg’s composition has the melody in the lower part, with a more dancing, playful accompaniment.

Do come!

The concert is 30 minutes, and the church’s address is 1340 11th St., Manhattan Beach 90266.

Bach’s Lunch Organ Concert, Friday, February 1, 2013

Two Trios
Trio in F                                                Johann Krebs (1713-1780)
Trio in B                                                Joel Martinson (b. 1960)

Three Organ Chorale Settings                         Lionel Rogg (b. 1936)
Now thank we all our God
Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring
Sleepers, wake, a Voice is calling

Danse (from Mariales)                                   Naji Hakim (b. 1960)

Arioso                                                           J.  S. Bach (1685-1750), arr. by Ray Urwin

Fugue in D                                                    attr. J. S. Bach

Posted January 29, 2013 by Ray Urwin in Uncategorized

Yet, we do search for words   4 comments

At times when all we can think is “there are no words,” sometimes a great mind finds them anyway. As we look for a way out of the darkness of last week’s events, here is a hymn written in 1996 after the school massacre in Dunblane, Scotland, by John Bell. We sang it Sunday to the tune of Ah, Holy Jesus.

There is a place prepared for little children,
Those we once lived for, those we deeply mourn,
Those who from play, from learning and from laughter,
Cruelly were torn.

There is a place where hands which held ours tightly
Now are released beyond all hurt and fear,
Healed by that love which also feels our sorrow
Tear after tear.

There is a place where all the lost potential
Yields its full promise, finds its true intent;
Silenced no more, young voices echo freely
As they were meant.

There is a place where God will hear our questions,
Suffer our anger, share our speechless grief,
Gently repair the innocence of loving
And of belief.

Jesus, who bids us be like little children,
Shields those our arms are yearning to embrace.
God will ensure that all are reunited;
There is a place.

Posted December 17, 2012 by Ray Urwin in Uncategorized

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Thanks to all of you who came out at noontime today to hear some French music just in advance of the Christmas season! If you didn’t get a copy of the “Fun Facts” I passed out, you can find them under “Musings” here — they’ll give you a new perspective on Messiaen and the other music I played.

It was a beautiful California day at noon, but it’s turned rainy where I live, so here’s a bit more on Messiaen, and a picture of him all bundled up for the weather.

Many thanks to all of you, all my readers, and to Sal Soria, a gracious and talented host at OLA. Joyeux Noel, indeed!

Posted November 29, 2012 by Ray Urwin in Uncategorized

Memories of Performances Past   1 comment

Elliott Carter died Monday. He was born on the same day in the same year as Messiaen, December 1908 (yes, Carter was 103 years old).

I had the pleasure of performing two of his major pieces – one at Carnegie Recital Hall, and one at Yale.  read more here…

Posted November 7, 2012 by Ray Urwin in Uncategorized

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