Benjamin Straley smoked the organ with his Improvisation-Toccata on Cwm Rhon­dda

Update: Benjamin Straley performed for Donald Trump. One would have hoped he would have higher standards than that! Read more about that here at the top of the page.

This article is about the music at Washington National Cathedral (WNC), a cathedral church of the worldwide Anglican Communion in the District of Columbia, and its superb cathedral organist, Benjamin Straley.

Note: This may be my last article about Benjamin based on the sorry camera work for the Liturgy on the twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost, el 16 de octubre de 2016/the 16th of October 2016, where the organist was completely disrespected by their pathetic camera crew’s refusal to show him at all. Either the camera at the organ console was having techical problems that they didn’t feel it important to tell viewers about in the video, or the camera is broken or they’ve removed it. I’d go with the latter at the rate things are going there. I hope I’m wrong. Viewers were not allowed to see the organist at all for the entire Liturgy which is really loco, including the playing of the Organ Prelude, organ improvisation during Communion and the Organ Voluntary. Instead, we were forced to take part in production’s addiction with stained-glass windows, columns, baskets of flowers and … more windows. One wonders why they don’t produce a video series just on their stained glass windows since they’re so obsessed with them to the point where it’s become monotonous during the Liturgy, but of course only during the music and never during “the spoken word.” They could do 50 videos or so just on their windows and that might help get this out of their system for awhile, no? Without seeing the organist during the Liturgy, there’s no way to know who’s playing (Benjamin or their new Assistant Organist, George Fergus). And watching our Benjamin perform was a major part of my interest and pleasure in writing about him and his artistry. I’ll check back in a week or so to see if this most unfortunate situation continues. If so, it’s a terrible change….backwards to another era. UPDATE 10.23.16: The camera is back at the organ console.

Hola a todos. On the eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (the 18th of September 2016), our Benjamin smoked the organ with his absolutely superb and fiery Improvisation-Toccata and I was beginning to think they might have to call in the District of Columbia Fire Department and Emergency Services, but in the end that wasn’t necessary. Knowing the Cathedral’s Great Organ as well as he does, Benjamin knows how much the organ can take. The recessional hymn on the eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (el 18 de septiembre de 2016/the 18th of September 2016) was the hymn tune Cwm Rhon­dda. You may know it as Guide Me, Oh Thou Reedemer and I’m using the CofE’s/Church of England’s hymn title which is different than the hymn title used in the US church.

Legato hymn playing at St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral in London but choppy hymn playing at Washington National Cathedral. Why? … when WNC is a smaller space with a shorter echo.

As I said up above, for his organ voluntary our Benjamin improvised a fiery and powerful toccata on the same hymn tune. But for playing the hymn, he chopped his way through all the verses. To me, he looked utterly bored, if not depressed. I would have been too if required to play it that way. He mostly played the hymn choppy, slow and “by the book,” just trudging through it. He’s played this hymn for years yet I watched his left hand just playing choppy chords. Not at all musical and very unlike him, but I don’t blame him for any of this. I think he’s just following orders. The ongoing question: Did the choppy hymn playing help the congregation sing the hymn better? No, not at all and it never does. Yet someone there never gets the clue, and whatever idiots are ordering him to play hymns in this style would do well to watch the video below where the same hymn is played very legato in a much larger space with a longer echo and is actually sung by the large congregation at St Paul’s Cathedral, complete with descant from the trebles as opposed to a smaller congregation standing and mumbling as was the case at Washington National Cathedral. So there. Why does some idiot at WNC feel the need to ruin their hymn playing by ordering the organist to play almost in an unmusical staccato manner? The reality is that the congregation at WNC is not a singing congregation no matter how the hymns are played therefore shouldn’t the organist play the hymns as he — and all other well-trained organists — was taught to play hymns: legato, full and lush.

The Original High Church Benjamin Straley

When Benjamin was hired, he played gloriously, and he still does on occasion, when he can/is allowed to. I loved his playing. He was the best organist WNC had hired in years. He played the hymns much differently then than he does now. He played them very smooth, beautiful, legato and lush. I thought at the time that WNC had hired a High Church organist which gave me the false impression that they wanted to become more High Church. Was I wrong! It wasn’t too long after that that some idiot reigned-Benjamin-in and his style of playing changed from High Church to just ordinary (“by the book” – just play it as written and nothing else – don’t add anything). And I wrote about it at the time. That’s why I’ve concluded that Benjamin is being suppressed by someone above him from playing his original signature High Church style. They don’t want that at Low Church WNC, where I often think they would prefer to be southern baptists.

During the playing of this recessional hymn on the twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost, el 16 de octubre de 2016/the 16th of October 2016, he looked like he was holding back/suppressing himself while drugging monotonously through Guide Me Thou, Oh Thou Reedemer. So who’s suppressing him? It has to be one of three people or groups of people:

1. The Bishop
2. Some priest(s), or
3. The head of the Music Department.

It’s not the Dean because he just arrived. My guess is that it’s Low Church Michael McCarthy, the Director of Music/Choirmaster. You know who I’m talking about. He’s the Choirmaster who never (or rarely) uses descants in a cathedral church of the Anglican Communion. I know it must frustrate Benjamin deeply to allegedly be ordered to play Low Church. It would frustrate me. One of my commenters awhile back thought the same and asked: “Can we send Michael McCarthy back to England?” I didn’t comment on that at the time, but I’d go for that now after what I’ve seen – fed up. I’d suggest that they bring in someone to raise the quality of the music standards, and put the Cathedral Choir of Men and Boys or Girls back in the Quire stalls where they belong rather than the “southern baptist look” they’ve had for years with the Choir seated outside the Quire stalls. (They do some strange things at WNC.) Our Benjamin provides the highest of organ music standards and repertoire and hymn playing standards when he’s allowed to be his High Church self, so that’s already in place and in superb hands. All I’ve seen Michael do is his style of conducting or I guess what he calls “conducting,” (he doesn’t “beat time”…he just sort of bounces his arms/hands…similar to the “conducting” style used by the organist that the Bishop fired awhile back). I’ve never seen Michael play the organ (as other Choirmasters do) and of Anglican protocol all I’ve seen Michael do is bless himself and he didn’t do that correctly. It’s left-to-right for “Holy Spirit” (as in Father, Son and Holy Spirit) and not right-to-left as I saw him do in a recent video when he was in camera view. He never bows for the processional crosses or for certain Holy language in the Liturgy as our Benjamin did when he served as Choirmaster (when Michael wasn’t there). And I’ve never seen him genuflect. Maybe he would prefer another denomination? He spends much of his time looking around back into the Nave for some reason. Maybe he’s in the wrong field. Maybe he would prefer to be one of the Vergers?

For the recessional hymn (Guide Me, Oh Thou Reedemer), there was not even a descant and the girls were there. The girls can easily do descants, as opposed to the vocally-weak boys.

Benjamin’s High Church Organ Voluntary

For his organ voluntary, our Benjamin came to life and didn’t look at all bored with his High Church Improvisation-Toccata on the same hymn tune, which I and mi amigo/my friend enjoyed very much. He was like a different organist. Mi amigo/My friend was watching the video with me and said, “It’s as if Benjamin was saying to himself: “Now I can play like I want” when he began his Improvisation-Toccata.” And he let it rip; he smoked the organ. He disguised the hymn tune early-on in his improvisation but made it quite obvious when the melody line entered in the pedals in octaves at 1.25.19 in the first video below. I heard bits of some French organ repertoire — my favourite and I sense his as well — in his improvisation. I always enjoy his improvisations. He’s really great and I rarely use that word (but he doesn’t show that he knows it – our humble and modest Benjamin, the sign of a true artist). With his hymn playing, when he’s allowed to play his High Church style with elaborate/highly-skilled and creative interludes it is most inspiring to me and has brought tears of joy to my eyes and put a lump in my throat on occasion. He’s such an absolutely splendid organist when he’s allowed to be himself. But when he’s being suppressed by some idiot there and not allowed to be himself, he’s just very ordinary. No tears of joy and no lump in throat. Instead frustration sets in and I want to click off the video in disgust because I know how he can play when he’s allowed to and I see a superb organist that has been “ruined” by some Low Church idiot in a cathedral church. Mi amigo/My friend sarcastically said to me: At the down-hill rate things are going there at Washington National Cathedral, I’m surprised they haven’t ordered Benjamin to play something like the hymn “Bringing in the Sheaves” or “Give Me Dat ‘Ol Tiiime Religion” a few times straight through exactly as written in the hymnal for his organ voluntaries.” Yeah well, give it time. Frustrating indeed.

Descants at WNC

Descants are rarely sung at WNC. I’ve never understood that. Stagnant Michael seems to prefer hymns bland, boring, dull and “by the book.” The girls of the Cathedral Choir can easily sing descants. The girls are excellent. Then there are the boys. I don’t know what’s going on with them. The boys don’t seem to have much of a high register which is odd isn’t it? How can boys not have a high register? As an analogy: When the boys are out on the playground playing, one never hears high-pitched yells or screams from them because they have no high register? I don’t believe that. There’s one thing for certain about the boys and that is the boys from St Albans School for Boys (adjacent to the cathedral on Mt St Albans in the District), don’t sound like the trebles at St Thomas Fifth Avenue, I can tell you that.

The Cathedral Opera Chorus

Continuing the topic of descants: I have heard the wobbling soprano section of the Cathedral Singers or what I sarcastically call the Cathedral Opera Chorus attempt a descant on more than one occasion. But in their case I would prefer they not sing a descant and that’s because they can’t seem to sing descants without wobbling/fluttering vibrato (like an Opera Chorus). At the conservatory where I trained, we were taught no vibrato on descants. Isn’t that standard? And the Symphonic Choruses I had the privilege of singing with never used vibrato on descants (Choral Arts Society of Washington – Norman Scribner Chorus Director, and the San Francisco Symphony Chorus – Margaret Hillis/Vance George, Chorus Directors, for the Sir David Willcocks’s descants). The soprano section of both Orchestra Choruses had perfect intonation and had a flute-like sound for descants, similar to the superb boys at St Thomas Church Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Vibrato on a descant sounds very unrefined as when the soprano section of The Cathedral Singers Cathedral Opera Chorus attempt a descant. They sound like your average podunk unrehearsed church choir of sort of feeble sopranos — whose vocal range sounds closer to that of altos than that of first or second sopranos — wondering if they can still “do it,” and I don’t think that’s how they intend to sound. I sincerely don’t like being critical of other musicians but in this case I’m saying this because I think it needs to be said about the Choirmaster/Director of Music and his Cathedral Opera Chorus. The Director of Music likes that sound does he? And I guess Michael doesn’t agree with the late Gerry Hancock that an Anglican Liturgy is not complete without at least one descant.

I heard the Cathedral Singers The Cathedral Opera Chorus for the National Acolyte Festival at WNC. Their singing was not an example of choral excellence. It was difficult for me to listen to them. The closest thing I can come up with to describe their sound was the sound that seals make out in the ocean. I was thinking: How do I type that and put that sound into words? The vocal vibrato sound was like this: Yayayayayayaayayayayayayayayayayayayayayayayaya. (Using rapid up and down tongue movements inside the mouth). There was wobbling in all voice parts. It sounded awful. Is Michael losing his hearing to find that acceptable?) And again, the sound that seals make out in the ocean best describes them. One wonders if someone didn’t lose a tonsil. I got as far as the middle section of “I Was Glad” by Sir Hubert Parry and had to click off. I couldn’t take anymore. When I heard the organist (George Fergus) begin that piece my first thought was: They’re singing that? How are those wobbling sopranos going to possibly handle the ending of that piece properly with that high B Flat on the word “palaces?” I can only imagine and I don’t care to hear it!

I really think they should change the name of the Cathedral Singers to the Cathedral Opera Chorus as that would more accurately describe this ensemble and since Michael obviously loves heavy wobbling, fluttering vibrato (I don’t understand why) otherwise he would tell them “no vibrato, please, and keep it off. Gracias.” I have heard them sing some Introits in the back of the Nave and they were beautifully sung and vibrato-free and I even wrote about one awhile back. It was lovely, so they are able to turn that god-awful vibrato off. Why don’t they keep it off? There’s nothing appealing about it. It sounds unrefined and amateurish. And this is odd because the girls and boys never use vibrato, fortunately. For those who don’t know, each section (SATB) of a Chorus is supposed to sound like one voice and that is impossible to achieve when the choristers are using vibrato and wobbling and fluttering at all different times. If one didn’t know, one would have thought that the Choir for the National Acolyte Festival was some very average podunk church choir from one of the guest parishes.

What happened to the Cathedral Choir of Men and Boys/Girls?

The Men of the Cathedral Choir are no longer acknowledged on the service leaflets. The Cathedral Choir of Men and Boys or the Cathedral Choir of Men and Girls have sung for the Domingo/Sunday morning Liturgies for years. Do you know what they’re calling the same ensemble now?

Girls Cathedral Choir
Boys Cathedral Choir

Qué?/What? So what do they call the men choristers singing on the back row behind the boys or the girls every Sunday? Well, they don’t call them anything. Their presence is not even acknowledged/listed on the service leaflet. The Men of the Cathedral Choir must appreciate that level of respect. I’m wondering who changed their name? The Music Department? Loco/Crazy. Even though he’s been there for years, our Benjamin’s name is only listed on the service leaflet for “special” Liturgies. I guess they think that “we” don’t need to know who he is any other time. (Sigh.)

A New Assistant Organist

For the Liturgy on the eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, el chico/the guy turning pages for our Benjamin and observing him was George Fergus, who is the new Assistant Organist at WNC. I’m glad our Benjamin is still the Cathedral Organist. George is the 2016-17 Gerre Hancock Fellowship recipient and WNC was chosen to be the host institution for the Association of Anglican Musicians, and with that, the appointment of George as the Assistant Organist. George played for the National Acolyte Festival at WNC and it would seem that he has already received his orders from Michael too (or someone) to play the hymns choppy, which was the way he played the processional hymn Westminster Abbey. It was played in a very choppy and unmusical style. Again, to hammer my point for the thick people who might stop by and read this: I think the intent of choppy hymn playing at WNC is to help the congregation hear the hymn (tune) better so they will sing. BUT THEY DON’T SING. As usual, it didn’t work. As I’ve written before, it does not matter how the organist plays the hymns at WNC (choppy or legato), the congregation does not sing at WNC. They stand and mumble/stare at their service leaflet; even the resident congregation stands and mumbles. The “singing” sound one hears in the videos is mostly the Cathedral Choir of Men and Boys or Girls (I refuse to use their non-inclusive new name disrespecting the Men of the Cathedral Choir as I wrote about up above). So therefore, shouldn’t the organist play the hymns smoothly, lush, full and legato the way all well-trained organists are taught to play hymns? George arrived recently and from what I’ve heard of him so far I already have the same complaints about him that I have about our Benjamin and I don’t think it’s a coincidence. They both trained at Yale Institute of Sacred Music. I lay this on somebody at WNC. I would like to have heard George’s playing before he supposedly got his orders from Michael — or someone there — and became an ordinary Low Church organist (“ruined”) like our Benjamin.

Here are the timings for the first video below for the Liturgy:

1.23.16 Benjamin’s Improvisation-Toccata begins
1.25.19 Melody begins in pedals in octaves

If you’d like to hear Cwm Rhon­dda performed in the CofE (St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral) with a lovely descant sung by the trebles of St Paul’s Cathedral Choir and Her Majesty’s Chapels Royal watch this short video below. Again, to hammer this point: I’d like to point out that St Paul’s Cathedral is a larger space than WNC so there’s more of an echo to deal with. But despite that, you’ll notice that the cathedral organist at St Paul’s does not play the hymns at all choppy (or anything else choppy). He plays legato as well-trained organists are taught to play. So I’d like to know what idiot(s) at WNC are requiring choppy hymn playing. I’ve not heard that unmusical style of hymn playing anywhere else. It can also give the false impression that the organist is not trained in hymn playing. Chau.—el barrio rosa

Note (November 2016): A change of venue to Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris: Organ Improvisation by Philippe Lefebvre (Organist at Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris)

Videos referred to in the above article:

In this video below, you’ll hear legato hymn playing at Westminster Abbey in London for the hymn tune Blaenwern (Love Divine, all love excelling) complete with descant from the trebles of the Choir of Westminster Abbey:

UPDATED (10.23.16): Gracias to a commenter for mentioning the Cathedral Church of St John the Divine in Manhattan as an example of smooth/legato hymn playing, and St John the Divine has a long echo. Yes, Raymond Nagem, is the Associate Organist there and a 2016 candidate for the DMA (Doctor of Music Arts degree) in organ from The Juilliard School. He’s known for his (High Church) interludes during hymns. I’ve heard him play several things so far and he plays beautifully and their organ is superb and sounds wonderful in that acoustic. Too bad they don’t video record their Liturgies. Chau.—el barrio rosa

3 comments on “Benjamin Straley smoked the organ with his Improvisation-Toccata on Cwm Rhon­dda

  1. Tina

    Dont think you’re by yourself in your agitation with their cameras. I watch their services each week and find it peaceful to watch the choir and organist, then swoop, we’re taken away from that. It disturbs that calm. Sometimes their shots of the cathedrals windows are blurry. I’d thought of emailing them but a big church like that doesn’t care what I think.

  2. David in Breuckelen

    Add St John the Divine here in NY to your list of churches where they play the hymns smoothly (listen to this…quite an echo):

    Rededicated Cathedral of St. John The Divine, NYC

    Don’t know what’s going down at WNC. A melt-down? Would love to be a fly on the wall to see the drama going on behind the scenes. They should make Benjamin head of the music dept. but keep him as head organist.

Fin. The End.