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Celebrating 40 Years: An Interview with Organist / Composer McNeil Robinson
by Andrew Adams for Vocal Area Network
Posted March 13, 2003

McNeil RobinsonFor 40 years, organist/composer McNeil Robinson has been one of New York City's most visible church musicians. His two-decade tenure at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin saw the creation of one of the most memorable liturgical music programs in the city. He was in the forefront of the Early Music movement, and for more than twenty years he has been Organist/Music Director at Park Avenue Christian Church, organist at Park Avenue Synagogue and head of the organ department at the Manhattan School of Music. His choral compositions are performed frequently at churches across the country. An internationally renowned recitalist, he receives consistent critical and popular acclaim for his improvisational skills, which are legendary. In this interview, he offers his unique perspective on New York's church music over the last 40 years.

Vocal Area Network: What was NYC church music like when you started 40 years ago? How has it changed?

McNeil Robinson: 40 years ago, the singing was loud, and the organs were played even louder!

In the late 60s and 70s, at St. Mary the Virgin, we started doing a lot of research. We had a full-time musicologist, Nancy Sarten, and began performing Binchois and Machaut. We even did the complete Choralis Constantinus of Heinrich Isaac. St. Thomas developed into a really professional situation with the arrival of Gerre Hancock. When Richard Westenburg moved to the cathedral, he created a stupendous choir. In fact, the New York Times ran a big, multi-column article about those three churches, calling them the best church music programs in the city.

The 1970s and early 80s were the apex of New York church music. It was really good church music at that point. It was either early music or new music; there wasn't much in the middle.

Then in the early 80's things began to scale down. Because of finances, choirs became smaller and programming less ambitious. However, there were several important new appointments: Dennis Keane at Church of the Ascension, and Jon Gillock at Church of the Incarnation. Jim Litton turned St. Bartholomew's into a very special situation.

And there was my very interesting friend, Calvin Hampton, at Calvary/St. George. His midnight organ recitals were always very exotic events. He was always experimenting with new things, like a psalm being read by a lector, accompanied by tympani. Whatever he wrote was always new and fresh; his hymn tunes were stunning.

VAN: The changes you mention correspond with the birth of "Early Music" in New York. What effect did that have on church music?

MR: In the late 1960s, some of us were going around ornamenting Bach and playing at outrageous tempos, thinking we were observing correct performance practice. I found out years later that I was dead wrong. I conducted New York's first Baroque orchestra at Church of the Holy Family in Alessandro Scarlatti's La Giuiditta. We also did some then-unknown Mozart: the Grabmusik, and also premiered the Isaac Posch psalms for an Easter Vigil at Holy Family. For 1968, that was pretty way out.

It also had an enormous effect on choral sound. I like Kyler Brown's Virgin Consort very much. Dennis Keane's chorus at Church of the Ascension also has a very good sound. I think we get an excellent sound here at Park Avenue Christian.

VAN: How would you define the sound that has developed?

MR: I don't want to say we imitate boys, because women's voices have more color. It is straight, but not white. I can't stand a white sound. Straight-tone helps with tuning, in general. Even in a warmer sound like Brahms, especially chromatic Brahms, you have to be careful. Sometimes though, I react against it. Having been so involved with the 19th century as a pianist, sometimes I just want to hear a more voluptuous sound.

VAN: You had quite a long relationship with Beverly Johnson and her voice studio. Has that influenced your sound?

MR: Well, I certainly did learn what singers could do and what singers shouldn't do! She taught me the value of treating the chorus the right way: keep them focused, don't tire them. At one point, we had Lorna Haywood, Rita Shane and Barbara Shuttleworth in the choir at the same time. Beverly heard me say something to the choir about a straight sound and she said, "You'll kill them!" The other side of the coin was learning that you have to have superbly trained singers in order to get a beautiful straight sound. They have to know how to support.

VAN: Where do you think New York's church music is now?

MR:  The problem today is not the past. Our staple of music is music that's already been around. In Mozart and Haydn's time, and for much of the 19th century, it was mostly new music that was performed. Today it's very hard for us to live on a diet of new music. New music does not have the social consequences that it once had. And it doesn't relate to society at large the way it did in other times. I don't know if it's the fault of the composer or if it's the lack of education in our culture. Are we not prepared to hear new music? Or is some new music not worth its salt?

VAN: And how about on a national scale?

MR:  I see some disturbing things in terms of the "dumbing-down" of worship that's taking over the Roman Catholic and the conservative Protestant churches. Maybe it's a result of MTV or something, this need for platitudes and religious entertainment that has nothing to do with worship. Sometimes I think things go in cycles. 19th century France was certainly a low point in terms of worship and music. And there are pockets on the national scene where the aesthetics of worship are at a very high level, such as Church of the Ascension in Chicago; All Saints, Beverly Hills; and Seattle's St. James Cathedral. I admire their work very much.

VAN: Where are you with your own composing style?

MR: I went through serialism: Medea's Vengeance Scene from Medea: an Opera in Progress, the Dismas Variations for organ is a different kind of serial writing, a four-note set, not 12. And I have some hyper-romantic pieces. The Messe Solennelle is extremely neo-classic, as is the concept of the Missa Brevis. Minimalism just isn't for me.

VAN: Who were your great influences?

MR: When I was very, very young I was just undone by Stravinsky. I played an unbelievable amount of Chopin, as well as Schumann and Brahms. In terms of composing, my teachers Vincent Persichetti, Virgil Thompson and Yehudi Wyner led me to myself. My music doesn't sound like any one of them. I love Duruflé's harmonies very much. Messaien's influence was absolutely profound. I have to be careful with him: he's someone I can ape fairly well, but I try not to.

VAN: Where are you now with your writing?

MR:  I'm waiting to be refreshed. I went through periods where I had enormous output, followed by periods where I think my psyche was recycling and beginning to cycle new material. Virgil Thompson once told me at a counterpoint lesson, "I'm at the drafting table every morning. I'm there and if the muse doesn't show up, it's no problem." Whether it's working on a counterpoint exercise or a really difficult Hindemith harmonic exercise, it's just something that you have to do every day to keep the technique sharp, concise, fresh.

VAN: What's the next challenge for you?

MR: Well, keeping up with things here at Park Avenue Christian Church: I've had a great opportunity to do things here that I'd never done before, especially hymn writing. That's been so satisfying because we have so many wonderful new texts, but sometimes their musical settings aren't very good. And we do such a wide cross-section of music here, everything from medieval masses to jazz services. That's a challenge in itself.

VAN: And for you the composer?

MR: Finishing the concerto that was due two years ago!

On April 8, 2003, Park Avenue Christian Church celebrates the organ and choral music of McNeil Robinson with a gala benefit concert. Consult the VAN Concert Calendar or call the church office at (212) 288-3246, ext. 28.

Andrew Adams is the Associate Music Director at Park Avenue Christian Church. This is his first article for Vocal Area Network.

Content Contact: Andrew Adams.
Revision Date: January 16, 2003.
Technical Contact: Steve Friedman.

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