At the end of January, I traveled to California to spend a portion of my sabbatical observing the work of some highly skilled colleagues at churches and cathedrals in Garden Grove/Los Angeles and San Francisco/Belvedere. On January 19, I flew out of Richmond at 6:30 in the morning and touched down at the Santa Ana Airport in the mid-afternoon after more than eleven hours of travel. My long-time friend and esteemed colleague, Dr. John Romeri, Director of Music Ministries and Organist, and Cathedral Music Administrator, Lauren McCaul, picked me up at the airport, which is just a short distance from Christ Cathedral (formerly Crystal Cathedral), Garden Grove. This being only the third time in my life that I have travelled to a warmer climate during the winter, I was immediately taken by the palm trees and the other greenery.

Christ Cathedral and the offices of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange are situated on the entire property of the former Crystal Cathedral. They currently utilize a building known as the Arboretum for masses, other liturgical events, and concerts. Unlike the future cathedral building (the worship space you would have seen on “Hour of Power” with Dr. Robert Schuller), the Arboretum seats only 900 and houses an 82-rank Aeolian-Skinner organ. That famous glass encased structure, which will be transformed into a glorious Roman Catholic liturgical space by mid-2019, seats more that 2600 people. Its organ is one of the largest in the world. During my visit, though, it was a hard-hat zone.

During my time at Christ Cathedral, I observed and accompanied rehearsals and services with both the Cathedral Choir and the Diocesan Children’s Choir (60 hard-working and joyful singers in middle school and high school). John Romeri immediately bestowed on me the title “Intern Bob,” and said, “Everyone who shows up here has to work.” I also observed the very first rehearsal of the newly-formed Diocesan Preparatory Children’s Choir. Orange is a large county – children and youth come from far and wide to be involved in these programs. This choir was only begun two years ago, and they have already traveled to Rome, singing for a papal Mass at the Vatican on the Feast of the Epiphany and performing a concert at the Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola.

The current choir room and three four office cubicles occupy the entire twelfth floor of the former Tower of Hope, which used to serve as Dr. Schuller’s office/study. Of the five masses I attended that week, two were multi-lingual, including a wedding celebrated in both Vietnamese and English. There are two Spanish masses at the cathedral every weekend – and four in Vietnamese. One evening, after a diocesan liturgy, I had the privilege of meeting the Bishop of Orange, the Most Reverend Kevin W. Vann. He actually plays the organ. Last Friday night, he performed in an organ concert, along with the cathedral organists and Msgr. Christopher Smith, rector of the cathedral (formerly a church organist)! I greatly enjoyed spending time with David Ball, the brilliant young Assistant Director of Music Ministries and Organist. He is a fellow Juilliard graduate, and we reminisced about the old days on Manhattan’s Upper West Side (older days for me than for David). We both affirmed that there are some professors and teachers you just can’t get out of your head – the demanding ones! During my visit, John Romeri interviewed me as his guest on his one-hour weekly radio program, “Music from the Tower,” which will be broadcast sometime in February. More about Christ Cathedral’s staff can be found on their website.


Photos from Christ Cathedral


The organ console at First Congregational Church, LA

On Sunday, January 21, I attended an afternoon recital by Isabelle Demers (Baylor faculty) at First Congregational Church in Los Angeles, on the world’s largest church organ – a difficult program performed perfectly from memory. Some of you might remember Isabelle’s superb recital a few years ago at River Road. Later that day, John Romeri, David Ball, Isabelle, and I attended a recital by Paul Jacobs (Chair of Juilliard’s Organ Department) on the large new Fisk organ at the Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa – another impressive memorized recital. Both David Ball and Isabelle Demers studied with Paul Jacobs, so it was a joyful reunion for them.

Part of my itinerary was to have included a drive to Palm Desert for a visit with my organ teacher from Manhattan School of Music, Fred Swann. For four years, I had had an organ lesson with him every Monday morning at The Riverside Church. Fred wrote to me the day before that visit to cancel – due to circumstances that were “too complicated to explain.” Naturally, I became concerned about his health – he turned 86 last summer. But a few days later, he wrote again, telling me that his own “boss” at the Episcopal church where he is Organist in Residence had become ill. So Fred had to fill in for everything – rehearsals, services, and two funerals. Then, he had some surprises come up that week with the organ at the University of Redlands, taking him away from home for many additional hours. Glad he is keeping busy, but sorry to miss out on that highly anticipated visit!

On Thursday, January 25, I flew to San Francisco and spent the late afternoon and evening attending Evensong and Men and Boys rehearsal at Grace Cathedral high up on Nob Hill. The music for Evensong was exquisitely sung. After Evensong, the choir eats dinner together (it was tandoori chicken that night), and after dinner, there is a one-hour Men and Boys rehearsal. Aside from that rehearsal, the boys rehearse every day of the week during their regular school day. Ben Bachmann, Grace Cathedral’s inspiring Canon Director of Music, was most gracious and hospitable during my visit. His rehearsals with the choir were very informative and educational for me. His college organ teacher near Atlanta (Richard Morris) was actually my landlord in New York back in the 1980’s, so we really had a great time telling each other stories about this “common thread” in our lives. In addition to the Thursday Evensong, I attended Sunday Eucharist, a beautiful and meaningful service in every way. I need to reiterate that this choir is extraordinary.


Photos from Grace Cathedral


Working lunch browsing anthems

In between my Thursday/Sunday visits to Grace Cathedral, I met up with my college friend and well-known composer of organ and choral music, John Karl Hirten. He is published by World Library, GIA, Augsburg, and Concordia. John is Director of Parish Music at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Belvedere. During my visit to his church, we spent a good bit of time playing the organ for each other and looking through some choral music that was previously unfamiliar to me. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to re-ignite a wonderful old friendship (outside of Facebook posts!).

David Hatt is another San Francisco organist whom I met for the first time during this visit. David is a multi-faceted musician, but I was especially struck by his devotion to the difficult music of the late German Romantic composer, Max Reger. David made is possible for me spend some time listening to and playing the marvelous Ruffati pipe organ at St. Mary’s Cathedral. Although this instrument is somewhat rough sounding from the organ console, it is very impressive sounding throughout the nave of this modern cathedral building.


Photos from St. Mary’s Cathedral


My time in California brought me many new perspectives. One unavoidable and sad part of life in the two large cities I visited is the extent of poverty and homelessness. During a car ride from the airport, one could see an extensive tent city along the highway embankment. And within a three-block radius of my San Francisco hotel, I walked among as many as a hundred homeless people each day. There could be so much more to say about this pathetic situation. Let’s just say that we should pray that organizations like CARITAS might grow in prominence and bounty to the extent of corporations like Amazon.

I would like to express my thanks to River Road Church for making it possible for me to experience a time of observation, education, and relaxation last month.

Written by Bob Gallagher