If you’re guessing that I spent yesterday morning playing the organ at Kawaiaha’o Church, you guessed right! On Friday, I got a call from Nola Nahulu, the director, saying that the organist, Buddy, had pneumonia and wouldn’t be able to make it on Sunday. Oh, and by the way, she was going to send me the anthem in advance, since I probably would want to look at it before the rehearsal.
She was right! The composition was called “A Virtuous Woman,” by former University of Hawaii music professor, Neil McKay, who died just a couple of weeks ago on December 8, 2016. It was commissioned for the dedication of Bishop Memorial Chapel on the Kamehameha Schools campus in 1987. However, because the chapel was not quite ready, the premiere of the piece took place at Kawaiaha’o Church.
It was a good thing I had the ONE day to look at the piece, 23 pages in all, as it was fraught with pitfalls such meter changes, tempo changes, and many dynamic changes, necessitating that I register the organ in advance. I actually spent an hour on Saturday doing just that.
Although I knew Dr. McKay by sight and may have had several conversations with him, I found the following information about him in a University of Hawaii newsletter article about his retirement:
Born Roderick Neil McKay in 1924 at Ashcroft, B.C., Neil showed early signs of musical ability by his accurate singing of hymn tunes. (Had he known then that he would spend the rest of his life listening to others sight-sing, he might never have sung a note!). His formal musical instruction began at age 4, with piano lessons, terminating two years later when a cousin put a tack on the piano bench just before Neil was to play at a church recital. It isn’t known whether Neil actually sat on the tack, but he did take the hint and switched to violin.
He moved to Hawaii in 1965. His teaching and personal style fit in perfectly in the island setting, and Neil quickly won the confidence and love of his students and colleagues. McKay thrived in his new environment; the new sounds he heard in Hawaii had a strong impact on his music.
Perhaps the single.most striking impact that Hawaii has had on Neil’s music is the influence of the various ethnic traditions on his composition. McKay’s keen ear is quick to pick up the details as well as the essence of new music. Thus he studied Japanese music and produced World(s) for koto solo, Voice of the Phoenix for koto and orchestra, Soundprints for clarinet and koto, Evocations for band, and Planting a Pear Tree (a one-act opera). From his “Javanese period came Gamelan Gong for band and Parables of Kyai Gandrung (written in con- junction with Hardja Susilo for the Honolulu Symphony). Also employing non-Western ideas and musical mate- rials were Legends of Maui, Ritual, Three Songs on Poems of Po Chu-i, Lazy Man’s Song. A recent commission by the Bishop Estate has resulted in a work for mixed chorus and organ, A Virtuous Woman, to be performed at the dedication of the new chapel at Kamehameha School (1987).
Dr. McKay and his wife, Marion, frequently attended musical events at the Lutheran Church of Honolulu.
Yesterday also happened to be Ali’i Sunday where at least 100 people marched in the entrance and exit procession. It was a day many alumni from Kamehameha Schools came together to honor the legacy of Bernice Pauahi Bishop, a former choir director and Sunday School teacher at Kawaiaha’o. Many of the alums were invited to come back to sing “A Virtuous Woman,” for many, it had been 30 years since they had sung it! Needless to say, our performance was a bit rusty, and for the most part, we were together.
No sooner did I come home when I plunged into all the cooking preparations for my 35th Floor Christmas party. Although the attendance was a little smaller than usual, we had a great time, and I think this was the best party yet. I sure have a lot of nice neighbors on my floor!