As people who lost their homes in the Tea Fire begin to figure out how they will rebuild their lives, relief efforts are already well underway. With the shelter and myriad relief supplies it offered, the American Red Cross has done much to be a key element of this undertaking, but private citizens’ volunteer hours and donations have made the Red Cross disaster relief program as effective as it has been. Such was certainly the case on Sunday night, as Dr. Calvert Johnson, a renowned virtuoso on organ and harpsichord, played a recital at All Saints by the Sea Episcopal Church in Montecito, giving all of the money he collected from donations and CD sales to the Red Cross for fire victims. “It’s remarkably generous for a professional musician; especially one who has flown all the way from Atlanta at his own expense,” said Steve O’Connor, the church’s music director.
The 20 or so people who showed up at the free event — held in the congregation’s 100-year old sanctuary — were treated to some interesting and ornately beautiful pieces as Johnson rolled out his diverse repertoire on both harpsichord and organ. Because the pipe organ is not a portable instrument, the building in which it is housed is as important to the musical experience as both the organ and its player. Surrounded by intricate carvings and beautiful stained glass windows — some as old as the church — the audience listened intently as the room filled with the sound of the church’s 4,087-pipe organ and, on other songs, the delicate ting of the harpsichord sitting next to it.
The chair of the music department at Agnes Scott College — a Presbyterian-affiliated women’s college in Decatur, Georgia — Johnson is also a touring musician who travels the world to research centuries-old music and play historic organs. Not every congregation is privileged enough to have an organist who traveled around Spain digging up 16th-century organ music as his doctoral dissertation, but the First Presbyterian Church in Marietta, Georgia, is. Hailing from Denver, Colorado, originally, Johnson obtained his PhD in music from Northwestern University, later joining the faculty at Northeastern Oklahoma State University from 1977-1986. “I was beginning to explore the margins of the repertoire that were being ignored,” he said of his graduate work.
Johnson was encouraged to get involved in music from a young age. His father — a civil engineer who worked on the Hoover Dam project — crafted violins as a hobby, and wanted each of his six children to become proficient at a musical instrument. Johnson started with piano lessons, switching to organ in eighth grade, and picking up harpsichord as an undergrad at Kalamazoo College in Michigan. With his interest in this esoteric branch of music burgeoning at an early age, his current work has come to embrace genres and time periods nobody would have thought possible for such archaic instruments.
Aside from a full load of courses he is teaching at Agnes Scott and a busy travel schedule, Johnson still finds time to look for new music in the most unexpected places. His most recent project was recording Girolamo Frescobaldi‘s 1635 Fiori Musicali on a restored 17th-century Giuseppe Testa organ at Chiesa di Santa Lucia, located in Serra Quirico, Italy. The manuscript, which Johnson found as part of a research project, included a 1637 manuscript with ornamentations, embellishments, and chromatic details not included in the original. “This recording is the first ever of the 1637 manuscript,” he said of his newest two-disc album Girolamo Frescobaldi: Fiori Musicali.
Never ceasing his search for unexplored areas of his art, Johnson also has an interest in Asian organ and harpsichord music, and recently released an album of new Japanese and Chinese compositions, Soliloquies. A few of the songs he played in Sunday’s performance were composed by Santa Barbara resident Karen Tanaka, who is originally from Tokyo. The sound of these pieces is dissonant, leaving the listener feeling as if he has been transported into an artistic 1970s Italian horror film; Johnson plays them with an awe-inspiring precision and beauty. “You don’t hear 21st-century harpsichord music,” said O’Connor. “The harpsichord is thought of as a 17th-century instrument, so it’s good to know that 40- and 50-year-old composers are writing music for it.”
A lifetime of study in a very obscure genre of music has taken Johnson to Haarlem, the Netherlands, Pitoia, Italy, and northern Germany to attend several organ academies. He also received the Premier Prix (Medaille d’Or) from the Toulouse Conservatoire, where he studied improvisation and contemporary music. He said that between teaching classes in harpsichord, organ, women in music, sacred music, and pre-17th-century music, playing around the world, and conducting research, his schedule gets “a bit interesting.” From the look on his face when he’s playing and interacting with other people, he is a man who not only handles his burden well, but extracts a great deal of joy from his craft as a musician.
As of press time, it was unclear how much money was collected by Johnson’s recital, but the offering baskets held a healthy pile of green.