The Rev. Marius Joseph Walter, OSB, more commonly known as Father Joe, flew to Germany recently. What makes this journey unique is its purpose - he went to hear a piece of music he composed played by a renowned organist on a grand organ in the concert hall in Berlin.
"When I heard that the performing artist - Cherry Rhodes (who would be on any reviewer's top 10 list of best organists in the world)- had programmed my piece for this concert in one of the greatest concert halls in the world, you could have knocked me over with a feather (no mean undertaking)," Father Joe wrote.
Originally, he didn't think it would be possible for him to go. His sister Therese urged him to go as did many others, including his parishioners at St. Dominic's, the parish that serves Brocton and Westfield.
OBSERVER Photo by Diane R. Chodan
The Rev. Marius Joseph Walter OSB, known to his parishioners as Father Joe.
He was present at the concert hall while rehearsals took place.
"We didn't work all that time on my piece; I sat in the hall listening for balances and registrations for Miss Rhodes. That's important for an organist because the organ can sound very different closer to the pipes (where the organist sits) than it does out in the audience.
"The concert itself was at noon on Sunday. It was explained to me that this is not an uncommon time for a Sunday afternoon concert. ... It was well-attended -estimates I heard were in the range of six or seven hundred people. There was an empty seat on either side of me-I couldn't help but think of those being reserved by my mom and my dad.
"Sitting there I could scarcely believe it was happening. ... I felt honored, humbled, and most of all blessed. I also experienced deep down in my heart that the greatest joy of all was to be able to do it for the Lord.
"I wondered how it'd be to have my piece performed in a place where I didn't speak the language. But, you know what? It was as if we all did speak the language -we all understand the language of music not only with my piece of course, but with everything that was on the program. It was profoundly unifying to experience that."
Father Joe described his composition as "an attempt to musically depict the mood of the encounter between Jesus and Mary Magdalene on Easter Sunday morning, based on the Gregorian Chant, 'Salve, Festa Dies' (meaning Hail, Festival Day)."
He explained that he originally composed a theme in variations based on the eight days of Easter for the last of a series of concerts to dedicate two pipe organs (a choir organ and a grand organ) at the Mount Angel Abbey in Oregon. (Father Joe is a Benedictine Monk as well as a priest and was living there at the time.) This was when he met Cherry Rhodes. He later rewrote part of that work for a single organ.
Cherry Rhodes and Father Joe agreed that Rhodes asked him when taking a first look at the original work for two organs, "Where have you been hiding?" She was thrilled with the piece that he wrote and was happy to find a new and vibrant composer.
Rhodes is the first American to win an international organ competition. She made her debut at 17 with the Philadelphia Orchestra and subsequently performed with them many times under the baton of the famous Eugene Ormandy, as well as many guest conductors. Currently she tours extensively in the United States and abroad. She is also an adjunct professor of organ at the Thornton School of Music, University of Southern California.
She has played Father Joe's composition on her tours, and it can be found on her CD released in 2006, "Cherry Rhodes in Concert." (A number of vendors on the Internet sell this CD.) The music was recorded at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles.
When asked about Father Joe's music she said, "Father Joe has a (musical) language all his own. He has a fascinating way of creating different moods through various styles, but you can still hear his particular musical language unifying it all. Meditation on Salve Festa Dies is very beautiful. It is like a slow waltz written in three quarter time. That was a unique choice." (For clarification, she explained that it would probably be too slow to actually waltz to it.)
"It's not easy to write a simple piece and to hold the listener's interest. This piece is so poetic and profound. More difficult than it looks, it is open to interpretation through carefully thought out shadings and nuances."
Father Joe's journey as a composer is every bit as interesting as his journey to Berlin. He grew up in Buffalo and was influenced by church music from an early age. He said at two, he wanted to sing a church hymn (Salve Regina). His father selected different keys for him to start singing. The story is that the youngster was determined to get the notes correct, even when it was out of his voice range.
His father determined he should take piano lessons. Father Joe recalls wanting to quit when he was about nine years old. His father told him, "Even if I wanted to let you quit I couldn't because you have a gift from God." That sounded correct to the young man and he continued on his journey.
Father Joe said he started writing music when he was in high school at Bishop Turner and "I have never been bored since." He once won a contest for writing a theme song for the City of Buffalo.
In his junior year in college, he began playing the organ for churches in the Buffalo area and discovered he liked it. He received an MFA in music from the University of Buffalo. His major was piano, his minor voice, and he had a focus on composition.
Currently, in addition to his pastoral duties, Father Joe is studying composition with Donald Bohlen, Professor Emeritus from SUNY Fredonia's school of music. He is working on a longer organ piece based on a another Gregorian Chant "Puer Natus in Bethlehem." (A child is born in Bethlehem.)
Rhodes is looking forward to his next work. He has also been contacted by other organists who would like to use the piece played in Berlin.
Father Joe may be back in Western New York, but his journey hasn't ended. Godspeed.
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