This Sunday, the LCH Choir will be singing two anthems by McNeil Robinson, an acclaimed New York organist and improvisateur. We first met Neil when he came to Honolulu to dedicate the Beckerath organ at LCH in 1975. At that time I was fortunate to spend about 20 hours in organ study with him and it is he who taught me the special techniques used to play a tracker organ. Two years later he came back to Honolulu to play an all-Bach recital at LCH and an all-Franck recital at St. Andrew’s Cathedral. He then stayed an extra week to play for our wedding.
His organ playing is virtuosic, but what sets him apart from other organists is his incredible talent for improvisation. According to Wikipedia, improvisation is the practice of “making and creating in the moment.” That means that the performer “makes it up on the fly” and doesn’t look at a musical score to play even whole symphonies and fugues. In France, it has long been a tradition to improvise the organ voluntaries for the service. In 1968 when I was a student in Paris, I went every Sunday to Saint Sulpice to hear Marcel Dupré improvise.
This Sunday, the choir will sing “God is Love (Beloved, let us love another)” at the offertory and “Lo the winter is past” at the communion. This last piece is unpublished since we are reading it from hand-written manuscript. Both of them are composed in the same mood as Robinson’s “Improperium,” which we have sung in the past on Palm Sunday — very melancholy and soulful.
I just now re-read my blog about our chance encounter with Neil on the streets of New York City in 2005. Here it is again, from my post “It’s a small world after all.”
In 2005 when we were in New York City for the Association of Lutheran Church Musicians conference, we were coming out of the Guggenheim Museum and started to walk up Park Avenue. All of a sudden, we heard a man calling, “Carl! Carl! Carl!” and I thought, well, who knows we are in New York City? But the calling continued, “Carl! CARL! CARL!” We turned around, and a taxicab had pulled alongside on the curb. It was McNeil Robinson, the organist from our wedding, who just happened to be riding in a cab! Neil told us later the taxicab driver nearly had a heart attack for all the commotion he made trying to get the driver to stop. And it also happened to be the day of our 29th wedding anniversary! We had not told Neil we were in coming, and in fact had not corresponded with him in years.
McNeil Robinson is now the Director of Music and Organist at Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church in New York City.
UPDATE 5/10/2015. I just learned and am saddened at the news of McNeil Robinson’s peaceful death this morning.
Here’s a YouTube video of his improvisation at Chester Cathedral.