An Interview with Stephen Buzard

An Interview with Stephen Buzard

WCC music director Victoria Marshall sat down with Stephen Buzard, virtuoso organist and director of music at St. James Cathedral in Chicago, to talk about his path to the organ, the recital he has curated for our Pasi organ, and what he sees as the future of the organ’s role in worship.

What is your first memory of the organ?

Because my parents are both organists, I don’t remember a time without the organ. My mom had a church job when she was pregnant with me, so I was probably hearing the sound of it since before I was born. Singing in the choir and being accompanied by the organ in worship was very formative for me.

How did you find your way into church work? Were there hurdles along the way?  

Well, I had been a boy chorister. When my voice started changing, I realized I couldn’t really contribute vocally the way that I had before. I had taken piano lessons for many years and got my first organ job in high school. It all kind of fell into place; I found there was a way to use this passion to actually make a living. Perhaps in part because I’d had a pretty early start with the right teachers, and because of my privilege of growing up with parents in the field.

It’s certainly a difficult career path to be a professional musician. But I have found that church music has always been a relatively stable thing. And I’ve been able to have the right sort of mentors and positions to make it sustainable for me. One of the biggest challenges is that the stuff you end up doing day-to-day is not necessarily what you train for in conservatory. Technology, politics, administration, all that.

Tell us your path. How did you get to where you currently are as Music Director at St. James Cathedral?

I went to Westminster Choir College, in Princeton, New Jersey, when I worked at Trinity Princeton Church, in a wonderful Episcopal music program. My teacher there was the organ virtuoso Ken Cowan. He was a great person for learning how to play in a disciplined but also a really fun, expressive way. He is a consummate artist.

After that, I knew I wanted to get really serious about playing and conducting, so I went to England for a year and worked at Wells Cathedral as a Children’s Scholar. At Wells, the children had nine services every single week, with separate rehearsals every morning for the boys and the girls. Every day I was doing some degree of conducting or playing, and usually with very little preparation. We had to prepare some insanely difficult music on the fly. I’d have to transpose at sight, and just stay a couple of steps ahead of the kids, because these kids have all been doing it every day since they were seven, it’s like breathing to them. That was a wonderful experience and a big wake-up call, but a fantastic year overall. 

I came back to the States and went to the Yale Institute of Sacred Music where my primary teacher was Thomas Murray. While I was there, I worked at Trinity on the Green in New Haven which also had a wonderful music tradition with boys and girls and two adult choirs. 

Then I went to New York and was the assistant organist at St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue. That is a very famous cathedral that has an all-boys-and-men tradition, and they do Evensong services most days of the week. Every service was webcast, which used to be a big deal (now that’s normal!). After two years, our Director of Music, John Scott passed away suddenly, so my colleague and I took over as co-directors for the next program year. By the end of that year, I realized I didn’t want to return to being an assistant organist. 

I came to St. James Cathedral here in Chicago which, of course, has a really robust musical heritage. They have a great vision for building a new program for the future, including reintroducing choristers here for the first time in nearly a century. We have a flourishing choir school for kids who come after school for voice lessons, piano lessons, and choir. And the adult choir is an excellent semi-professional ensemble. It’s a great, great place to be. And Chicago, of course, is a fantastic city for arts and culture.

How did the interest in directing come about in you? Was that out of necessity or desire?

It’s something I’ve always been interested in. At Westminster, I started a new choir at the Episcopal Chaplaincy at Princeton University. They had previously had Sunday services without a chorus. I thought, why don’t we see who might like to come sing? There were tons of great singers who just wanted to get together for an hour before the service, sing, and then I’d usually buy a round of beers for everyone afterward. And so we started a choir that grew. I really enjoyed that opportunity and realized that program-building was part of my vocation. 

What can the organ provide that is truly unique, in the context of liturgy or in art music?

I think the organ in worship is the best single instrument for leading congregational songs. It has the capability to sustain tones that really support the human voice. The voice should be singing in a full legato, well-supported with good breathing, and the organ sustains voices in a way that the piano isn’t capable of doing because the piano tones die away. We use an amplified piano in our 9:00 service, which is a little smaller and more intimate. There is a place for the piano, but in a bigger context, the organ has the power to give a carpet of sound for people to feel comfortable singing on top of. They are expressing themselves as a corporate body, and I think that’s more theologically deep. 

As an art instrument, the organ is wonderful because we have the great heritage of contrapuntal music, with everything from Bach and before, to contemporary 21st-c. music. The organ works like no other instrument because one person is able to control a symphony’s worth of tonal colors. The Pasi organ has 50 different stops, essentially 50 different instruments, that I can sum up at any point and orchestrate in any way. I think for a listener that can be actually really engaging because you never hear the same thing twice. It will have lots of different colors. The organ has a stereotype of just being all-loud-all-the-time. And that’s far from the truth if you program effectively.

How did you assemble the program that we will hear on November 3rd? What unites all the selections? Is there a journey we go through? 

I think there’s a bit of a journey. It definitely goes generally from older to newer. I start with the Bach Toccata, Adagio & Fugue in C Major which will be great on the Pasi organ, because Pasi’s are very sympathetic to baroque music, and the action will be really conducive to playing it. The Bach starts with an extended virtuosic pedal solo, which I think people will find really exciting. 

I wanted to play some William Byrd and some Joseph Jongen because it’s an anniversary year for both of them. It’s the 400th anniversary of Byrd’s death, and his Sellinger’s Rownde is going to sound great on the Pasi organ. It’s a set of variations and has a lot of fun little elements to it. It was made somewhat famous by Glenn Gould recording it back in the 60s. It was originally written for the virginal, a sort of harpsichord, but it works quite well on the organ because we can actually engage other colors on the organ and do more variation than you could otherwise.

Then in response to the Byrd, I’ve programmed Master Tallis’s Testament by Herbert Howells, which is also a theme and variations. Howells must have known Sellinger’s Rownde, which is in G major, and he set his piece in G minor. He’s definitely referencing the keyboard music of Tudor England. It’s a beautiful, wonderful piece that uses the organ to its fullest extent; we go from the very softest stops to the very loudest and back down again.

After that, I’m playing a piece by Nico Muhly, a contemporary composer who is well-known in the opera world. Muhly grew up as a chorister in an Episcopal Church in Providence, Rhode Island. He incorporates influences of Gibbons, Tallis, and Tompkins in his writing. This title is styled after English Tudor music: The Reverend to Mustard his Installation Prelude. That said, it’s written in the American minimalist style, a la Philip Glass. It will be interesting to experience it through the lens of the English Tudor music we will have just heard.

The second half of the program is based on the 20th-c. French tradition. Jehan Alain’s Trois Danses is a really amazing, spiritual piece. The three movements are Joys, Mourning, and Struggles. He wrote it just at the outbreak of the Second World War. It’s a snapshot of how someone responded to a season of change and channeled their emotions into music. Considering all the global change that we’ve all been living through, and all the political stuff going on, it could be very engaging to us. Alain enlisted in the army and was actually killed in action in 1940, just one year after this piece was written. Legend has it that he had a copy of Trois Danses in his messenger bag at the time of his death, as he was working on orchestrating it; it was clearly a very deep and personal piece to him. He died tragically young, and we can only imagine what he would have written had he lived a full life.

Then I will play Prière by Joseph Jongen, a Belgian composer from the turn of the 20th-c. It’s tuneful and lovely and will be a good palate cleanser after the Alain. It’s the 150th anniversary of Jongen’s birth, so it’s great to feature a little bit of his music. It will be lush and gorgeous and definitely show off the romantic side of the Pasi.

To close, I have a piece called Evocation II by Thierry Escaich, another contemporary composer. He draws on many diverse influences like he’s trying to create the effect of a stained glass window showing lots of different colors and swirling them together. We hear a little bit of “Comfort, Comfort Ye My People” throughout the piece. I thought that this would be a great piece to play in November when we’re in the pre-Advent season.

Tell us about Pasi organs. What are they built for, and what piece on your program will highlight the Pasi the best? 

Pasi’s are grounded on classical principles, built to support the music of Bach and the North German school, but very much aligned towards eclecticism and varied use. While that may be its primary grounding, it has stops that will work for a wide variety of repertoire. The Pasi will also bring a beautiful clarity to the Nico Muhly. I think all of it is going to be thrilling!

We’ve spoken a little bit about the organ as an instrument of art music, but because it is so tied with liturgy and sacred spaces, what do you see as the future of the organ in an increasingly secular world? 

I think there’s a lot of interest in the organ in the secular world. If anyone is in the organ world, they’ve undoubtedly heard of Anna Lockwood or Wesley Hall and their amazing use of social media, Instagram, and Tik Tok, to show the organ. There are massive audiences that are so inspired by this cool thing, that young people are flocking to their concerts. 

The church as a whole isn’t going away anytime soon. We’re coming out of the pandemic, and from what I have seen the stronger places are getting stronger. There may just be fewer of them. If the organ is core to a church’s identity, there’s no reason that would change.

What organ would you like to play that you haven’t yet?

I would love to play the organ at Notre Dame Cathedral. It’s quite a beast and has quite a history to it. I’m sure there is a backlog of recitals since the fire, but hopefully, I could play it one day. 

What organ have you played that sticks out in your mind as a notable instrument? 

One of my very favorite instruments is in Woolsey Hall at Yale University. One great thing about organs is that there are so many different types; that’s one of the best romantic organs, but they’re also wonderful Baroque organs that are just very different. It’s hard to compare apples and oranges!

What is your favorite fun fact about organs that most people wouldn’t know?

I think most people don’t have any idea just how many pipes there are. They may see an organ and think, “a few dozen pipes, that’s probably about it”. Usually, an organ will have as many as 1000 pipes. The sheer scale and complexity of the instrument is all a bit hidden away. 

We spoke a little bit about your skills and training as a director, but you’re also a composer. How does being a composer affect your craft at the instrument?

My compositions have mostly been practical things. I’ve written a congregational mass for St. James. There just aren’t that many congregational mass settings and the ones that we know we’ve sung one too many times. So this past summer, I wrote one specifically for us that incorporates improvising at the organ. I wouldn’t say I’m a composer per se, but a practical musician. Improvisation and composition feed into each other a lot. You have to be composing regularly in order to keep that intelligence alive. mattis, pulvinar dapibus leo.

Do you have a favorite piece that you’ve written, arranged, or even improvised on?

It’s hard to say, but probably my favorite pieces that I’ve composed and published have been hymns. Last year, I wrote a hymn for our previous Dean who became a minister in England, and they were gracious enough to use a hymn that I had written for him for his final service. Then I went over to the UK for his installation service, and we sang the same hymn again! It was very fun.

Where can we find you after November 3? 

I’m playing a concert in Houston on November 12th. Otherwise, I play every Sunday at St. James’s Cathedral. We have a big service of Advent Lessons and Carols on December 3rd, and we’ll have a festival of Lessons and Carols for Christmas on December 19th.