With May being one of our busiest times of the year at Church of the Holy Communion and St. Mary's Episcopal School, it's difficult to be away, even for a few days.
I have just returned from one of my spiritual homes, a great church in New York, host of a conference I have not attended for more than ten years.
For 44 years, St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue has hosted an annual choirmasters conference that has been led by some of the finest Anglican musicians and choir trainers from around the world, including historic names such as George Guest from St. John's, Cambridge, and David Willcocks and Philip Ledger from King's College, Cambridge.
Recent years have featured noted composer Malcolm Archer of Winchester College, Hampshire, and Andrew Nethsingha, who served as organ scholar under Dr. Guest and is now St. John's music director.
My graduate school organ improvisation professor, Gerre Hancock, founded the conference in 1973, his second year as organist and master of the choristers of St. Thomas Church. Dr. Hancock brought these fine choral musicians to work with his famed St. Thomas Choir and invited fellow choirmasters to observe. All these decades later, this important conference continues.
When Dr. Hancock stepped down from St. Thomas Church after 33 years, he was succeeded by John Scott of St. Paul's Cathedral, London, another world-class musician. Then tragedy struck.
In 2015, John Scott died suddenly of a heart attack at age 59.
After an interim season for the choir, St. Thomas Church welcomed its new organist and choirmaster last fall, Daniel Hyde from Magdalen College, Oxford. And rather than bring in a visiting world-class musician for the conference, Mr. Hyde hosted us and ran the conference himself.
After watching his work for three days, I now know that Mr. Hyde is himself a world-class musician. His rehearsal work with the choir was inspiring and innovative. His attention to detail was unsurpassed, and the boy choristers sat up like little soldiers, responding to his every word.
The gentlemen of the choir ferociously mark their music throughout rehearsals, adjusting and refining every musical nuance he demands. The end result is some of the most exhilarating choral music I have heard in a long time.
During the conference, Mr. Hyde spoke about his journey to St. Thomas Church and what is is like to succeed such noted choirmasters. While maintaining confidence in his own musicianship and craft, he appropriately honors those who preceded him, which speaks volumes in my book.
Watching Dan Hyde in action was a booster shot for me. Even in this busy season, I am grateful to have had this opportunity to sneak away for a few days.
As I remembered my own St. Thomas Church organ recital in 1988, observed choir rehearsals and sat in the pews for daily Choral Evensong, I found myself waxing a bit nostalgic in this spiritual home. After Dr. Hancock's long tenure and Dr. Scott's tragic death, I am glad to know that the St. Thomas Choir is in such great hands with Mr. Hyde.
On a side note, Dr. Hancock was a real card, as we say. His brilliant musicianship and quick humor alone warrant a blog entry.
Throughout my grad school years and all the years thereafter, Dr. Hancock always encouraged and welcomed me, saying, "Whenever you're in New York, do stop by our little parish church on Fifth Avenue to say hello."
I hope to make the pilgrimage to "our little parish church" before another ten years pass.
Dr. Gerre Hancock (1934-2012), organist and master of the choristers, St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, New York. Portrait by Paul Newton (2003), hanging in the St. Thomas Choir School.