Update 2017: 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.
The following article is about Cathedral Organist Benjamin Straley and Washington National Cathedral in the District of Columbia (Los Estados Unidos/The US). Washington National Cathedral (officially known as the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Paul) is a cathedral church of the Anglican Communion.
First, a request to production: Can you kindly please keep the camera on Benjamin when he’s playing his organ voluntaries and Communion improvisations? He deserves the same respect given the priests when they’re speaking. There’s plenty of time during the Homily or Baptism or before and after the Liturgy to show scenes of the cathedral. Muchas gracias.Hola. When I lived in the District in the late 1970s (which doesn’t seem like that long ago in a way; I have vivid memories of that era), un amigo/a friend of mine worked at the classical records store near Wisconsin and M Streets in Georgetown. Like me, he had a strong interest in symphonic choral music. This was during the era that the superb University of Maryland Chorus had frequent performances with the National Symphony Orchestra under NSO conductor Antal Doráti. The Maryland Chorus was Doráti’s favourite Chorus — they had quite a legacy under him — so he would invite them as often as possible to perform with the NSO. Whenever mi amigo and I talked about the DC orchestra choruses — University of Maryland Chorus, the Choral Arts Society of Washington and the Oratorio Society of Washington (now known as The Washington Chorus) were the three major ones — and the repertoire each Chorus was scheduled to perform with the NSO and guest national and international orchestras, the University of Maryland Chorus always came up and mi amigo would often say to me, “You know, that Maryland Chorus can sing the shit out of choral music.” LOL. Yes, they could and I knew exactly what he meant. They were outstanding and his #1 favourite (mine too). That was the ultimate compliment for them and that’s how the title of this article is meant regarding Cathedral Organist, Associate Director of Music and Artist Benjamin Straley.
Our Benjamin has been promoted!
Yes! I have some buenas noticias/good news. Our Benjamin is now The Organist and Associate Director of Music at Washington National Cathedral. Isn’t that wonderful?! Well I think it is. The other guy (I’ll just refer to him as the former organist, or “the FO” from hereon) who was originally the Principal Organist was fired a few months ago by the Bishop of Washington (District of Columbia). Yes, Fired! Mi amigo/my friend said: “Imagine being fired by the Bishop; how embarrassing.” Well, Mary the Mother of god works in mysterious ways, doesn’t she? Her wonders to behold. I don’t like to encourage unemployment but I was very pleased to hear that the FO is gone because I never did like his hymn playing in particular. And whenever I saw him play he always looked so uptight, stiff and rigid as if he were afraid of the organ, or something. He didn’t look relaxed while playing the way Benjamin does. The FO reminded me of this:
Our Rose: “It looked good, but he was under-powdered.”
Do you remember our Rose (Hyacinth’s sister in the British comedy “Keeping Up Appearances?” Who could forget Our Rose? I remember a scene from KUA where our Rose was going through a box of pictures of her past “gentlemen friends” (that’s what they called them). They were guys that our Rose had had sex with. Our Daisy, our Rose and our Onslow were all in the living room together and our Daisy picked up one picture and asked our Rose: “what about him?” Rose put her glasses on to have a look at the picture closely, she paused and then said to Daisy, “It looked good, but it was under-powered.” LOL. Then Daisy showed Onslow the picture and said, “He was under-powdered.” (Implying Onslow was too?) That scene comes to mind when I think about the former organist at WNC. It looked good on paper meaning his résumé, but from what I saw and heard of him the two did not seem to match. The FO was “under-powdered” as an organist and conductor. I wouldn’t expect that considering his background, which again looks good on paper. Whereas Benjamin looks completely relaxed and makes his playing look effortless. That’s the sign of an artist. So I came to click off the videos when I saw the FO was playing. He was too frustrating for me to watch and listen to. And his choral conducting, phew! … good lord!….if one can call what he did “conducting.” On the occasions I saw him conduct he was embarrassing to watch. I didn’t know whether he was trying to conduct or trying to take orbit and fly out of the cathedral the way he flailed his arms around unnecessarily so. One doesn’t need all of those body-theatrics to conduct. He didn’t conduct like any of the respected conductors I had the privilege of working with (see here and here, as two examples). Robert Shaw (Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus) and Margaret Hillis (Chicago Symphony Orchestra Chorus) didn’t conduct like that. After the FO was hired I kept asking: How did this guy get hired? I couldn’t understand that. He’s the best they could find after — from what I read — putting Benjamin through multiple audition sessions? Who wouldn’t hire Benjamin immediately upon hearing him and watching him play? There was no qualified organist at a parish church in the District that wanted to work at WNC? I imagine some people liked the FO, but obviously I wasn’t one of them. And if Benjamin happened to not be there, Jeremy Filsell was there (the Artist in Residence) and he’s superb (you can watch him play Tu es Petra by Henri Mulet at the bottom of this page). I always looked forward to Benjamin being at the organ console, and still do. I don’t click off the videos of their Liturgies when our Benjamin is there.
So why did the Bishop fire the FO? I don’t know. She had credible reasons, I would assume. But as usual, some people who live for chisme/gossip have speculated about it, but I’m not going to pass along the reasons they gave since it’s all speculation. Whatever her reason(s), she made the correct decision by keeping Benjamin as far as I’m concerned, so the Bishop would appear to have an ear for music and know something about music. Also, I read that the Bishop disband The Cathedral Voices, a volunteer choral ensemble, that the FO “conducted.” I didn’t know that Bishops could fire people in their cathedral or go over the head of the Choirmaster in this instance, but apparently they can. I bet that went over well! Or did she ask Michael McCarthy, the Choirmaster, which organist he wanted to keep and he said Benjamin? I would have answered Benjamin for many reasons, including he’s superb at organ improvisations which are very important to an Anglican Liturgy.
Speaking of improvisations, in the video below, I was so pleased that Benjamin played two improvisational interludes during the processional hymns, which gave a more “grand and glorious” High Church feel to the Liturgy. (You wouldn’t have heard these interludes from the FO if he were still there). Benjamin’s interludes add a lot to the hymns, and then he changed the harmonies on the last verse of the last hymn with special emphasis on the bass/pedal notes (by changing them).
I know Benjamin has a lot more to do now with a lot more service music playing — I hope he doesn’t burn out — but maybe he or someone can work on the trebles/boys. The girl choristers are the best choristers at WNC, along with the Men of the Cathedral Choir. Sorry chicos. I would like to say the boys are the best but they’re not, unfortunately, but they might be able to change that. The problem with the trebles/boys is that they often sound weak especially in their high register. It’s almost as if they don’t have much of a high register — how can boys not have much of a high register ??? — and I’ve noticed this for a long time. They don’t sound like the superb trebles at St Thomas Fifth Avenue in Manhattan and I use them as a point of reference. Listening to the trebles in the first video below (other than the boy who was part of the quartet near the beginning), I don’t hear much of a high register from the boys. From listening to them when I’ve been able to, much of their repertoire seems to fall in a lower voice-range for the boys. Is that deliberate? High soaring trebles lines — like one hears at St Thomas Fifth Avenue — are not something I hear from the boys at WNC. Perhaps this also explains why I can’t remember the boys singing a descant for any hymn. I’ve heard the girls — they’re excellent — sing a descant on occasion, but not the boys. And frankly, WNC is not big on descants for some reason, unfortunately. It’s as if WNC considers descants too, “High Church” for Low Church WNC. Recently, WNC used, “Praise My Soul, the King of Heaven” for the processional hymn and I said to mi amigo/my friend while watching the Liturgy: There’s a descant for this hymn, but don’t expect the boys to sing it. Did they? No. And Benjamin didn’t play the descant on the organ either.
WNC’s Brief Experiment with High Church
Awhile back, for a couple of weeks I guess it was, WNC briefly introduced some High Church aspects to the Liturgy. It made me think they were trying to become more High Church. Yeah well, so much for that. And at the time, I wondered if this idea came at the suggestion of Benjamin (who I sense prefers High Church)? Two things that come to mind that they added: Incense and chanting the responses before and after The Gospel reading. Well, it was rather obvious to me by their behaviour that none of the priests had any interest in the incense. None. It seemed to be a bother to them. The priests rushed through it as fast as they could and often there was no hint of smoke coming out of the thurible, as if the coals hadn’t been prepared properly. Most of the priests — especially the low, low, low church Dean — almost literally ran around the free-standing altar to get the censing of the altar over with as quickly as possible. At the time I thought: Why are they even bothering? The same for the censing of The Gospel (I remember Gina rushing through the censing of The Gospel). By contrast, one thing I’ve noticed about Roman Catholic priests in televised broadcasts on the español language networks — usually from La Ciudad de México or from Rome — is that the RC priests take their time with the incense. They don’t rush it. They are respectful of the incense. Then there are the priests at Low Church Washington National Cathedral who can’t be bothered with any of it, or that’s the impression they give. Of the High Church changes they made for a short time at WNC, only the chanting of the responses remain a part of the Liturgy today, and who knows for how long that will be around. The responses they use before and after The Gospel reading at WNC are rather dull and boring. The responses they use at St Thomas Fifth Avenue before/after The Gospel are far better, especially the response after The Gospel reading with the soaring treble line. It’s rather glorious. But unfortunately, I would not describe any of the sung responses at WNC as “glorious.”
They have made at least one improvement at WNC: The acolytes no longer stop in the Quire area — that always looked awkward to me — but rather they continue on towards the High Altar and then turn and disappear. And they return the same way. That looks much better. They look very polished.
Shouldn’t the Dean Set an Example of Anglican Protocol?
I and others think so. Which causes me to ask: What’s up with the Dean carrying The Gospel like it’s a library book or notebook under his right arm when he went to read The Gospel in the first video below (starting at 24.05 into the video)? It’s also Anglican protocol to bow to the High Altar after picking up The Gospel. He didn’t bow to the altar either. For some time I’ve had the distinct sense that this Dean is in the wrong denomination, or is he bored by it all, or does he no longer agree with Anglican protocol? If he were anti-gay (which he’s not), I think he’d fit in nicely in a Southern Baptist Church to tell you the truth based on his behaviour. The Gospel is supposed to be held up high (the same way it’s carried in the procession), not carried like a library book under the arm. I know he’s very, very, very Low Church (if that), but really! Then you have Gina. She “works” The Gospel. She’s good at it. Watch her sometime. I take it she has practised some for endurance or works out at a gym to build up for keeping The Gospel up during the length of the Gospel/Sequence hymn. Then when she lowers it, opens it and chants, “The Holy Gospel of our lord jesus christ, according to ____” she doesn’t appear to be at all tired from having held up The Gospel during the Sequence/Gospel hymn and she makes the three signs of the cross (which again the Dean doesn’t do either). I swear, el hombre! Sigh. I’ve also noticed that the Dean doesn’t bless himself or bow to the processional crosses, which devout Anglicans do sort of on automatic-pilot (if you know what I mean), or one would expect that of someone who spends as much time in church as he does. Shouldn’t a Dean be setting an example for others? This Dean sets an example of what not to do when it comes to Anglican protocol. Why does WNC keep hiring these Low Church Deans? The previous Dean was also Low Church.
[Updated: This section about the (former) Dean has been updated as of 15 de enero de 2016. I read another article about the former Dean’s retirement and that article implied he had chosen to retire and had announced his retirement back in agosto/August of 2015. I forget the exact name of the group (the governing body) at the Cathedral, but they voted in favour of The Bishop becoming the Interim Dean. He said he and The Bishop were close allies. That was the sense I had all along. The former Dean made some statements in the interview that concerned me. He described WNC as “stodgy” when he arrived. Well, if he felt that way about it, why did he take the job as Dean to begin with? That could explain why he was/is so Low Church. Then he said as part of the 10-year plan that the new Dean will oversee, he said there will be some “programming changes, including the music” at WNC. Programming changes? Is he referring to the Liturgies? I don’t think of the Liturgy as a “programme.” And what change is he talking about with the music? Sigh. Oh here we go! (Benjamin are you listening?) Is the former Dean covertly talking about them bringing in Praise Bands to WNC to attract the younger and dumbed-down? If so, Praise Bands in an Anglican cathedral? I. Don’t. Think. So. A conservative critic (an Orthodox Anglican?) of the current WNC claimed that WNC is only appealing to “the liberals in NW” (meaning the North West quadrant of the District where WNC is located). I don’t know what the former Dean is talking about but what he said concerns me. Would could he possibly be talking about when it comes to a change in the music?
After writing the paragraph about the Dean (Shouldn’t the Dean Set an Example of Anglican Protocol?), I’ve read that he will be retiring at the end of 2015 with two years remaining on his contract. The article I read didn’t say he’s being forced out, but that was the impression I got from one article I read. Is he being forced out by the Bishop? I don’t know. But from another article I read, he announced his retirement back in agosto/August and that article didn’t imply he was being forced out. The Bishop will become the interim Dean for the next couple years and she will also continue in her role as Bishop. (You go, muchacha! All right!). The search for a new Dean will begin in the Fall season of 2016. Does this new information possibly explain why the Dean carried The Gospel like it was a library book and was lax on other Anglican protocol? No, he’s been lax on Anglican protocol long before this happened.]
The Orthodox Anglicans
I see that the Orthodox Anglicans (OA) have their conservative bowels in an uproar over what goes on at WNC. Why do those idiots care what goes on at WNC? I didn’t know anything about the OA’s until recently. They’re Low Church (ugh) and anti-gay conservatives (or at least the anti-gay, closet case moderator on their forum is. Note to OA forum moderator: “Straight” people who are secure with themselves and their own sexuality don’t hate on gay people and gift wrap it in the bible. Closet cases do that. You’ve exposed yourself, hombre.) That bible is constantly used by bigots to justify and condone all types of hate and prejudice in your fundamentalist/literal interpretation of it. Those OA fossils are of that tired, outdated thinking that, “marriage should be between a man and a woman” (so they can later get a divorce?… with the divorce rate in the US being well over 50% ?) That “man and a woman” stuff sounds so hick and so outdated. The OA also oppose women priests. The Orthodox Anglicans are really quite mentally-twisted and backward-thinking people. I can’t stand people/outdated fossils like that.
Fortunately, Washington National Cathedral is not a conservative cathedral church and that’s why the OA can’t stand WNC. They have women priests at WNC and have for years. (By comparison, St Thomas Fifth Avenue doesn’t have one woman priest. Something is quite wrong with that.) And WNC is pro-GLBTQ and my very reliable gaydar tells me that some of the Men of the Cathedral Choir are Queer boys. Caliente! But the OA were whining about how they disagreed with what the Bishop talks about in her Homilies and that she doesn’t talk about the gospel of jesus. *roll eyes* Well, we already have plenty of churches rattling on about the gospel of jesus every week so we don’t need that at WNC too. It’s good that the Bishop does something different at WNC, and I’m sure you would agree! And didn’t these thick Orthodox Anglicans grasp the “gospel of jesus” the first time around? Do they really need constant regurgitation of the “gospel of jesus?” As an Anglican Atheist, I don’t care to hear it at all, so I support the Bishop here. She seems to be a very bright mujer/woman and with an ear for music. The OA say the Bishop needs to go because she’s on a power trip. The Bishop is on a power trip? I’ve seen the Bishop in the videos many times and I’ve never picked up on that from her at all. I don’t know whether she’s on a power trip or not, and don’t really care. So far, I agree with the changes having been made at WNC. It’s interesting that the sexist Orthodox Anglicans never accuse guys of being on “a power trip” when they make similar/major changes at a church.
I read that the FO has since found employment/another church job in Maryland, outside the District in Bethesda. I guess they like dull and boring out there at that church where the hymns are played as “dry as dust.” But I’m pleased that our Benjamin is The Organist at WNC. As I’ve said many times, he’s one of the best organists I’ve ever heard and WNC is very fortunate to have him, and I take it that the Bishop recognises that. I’m glad Benjamin has been promoted. He deserves it. He should have been The Organist since Day One. Chau.—el barrio rosa
At the very beginning of this video below from the Second Sunday in Advent, Benjamin has some time to fill and he improvises on “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 645″ before he plays the original Bach piece by that same name which is listed in the service leaflet. As usual with Benjamin, he sets the mood perfectly. I really enjoyed his improvisation. He looks at the score of the original Bach piece on occasion (I think checking for the melody line), but he’s improvising and I know his improvisational style. He has a “signature” style to his improvisations. Then at the end of the Liturgy, his Organ Voluntary is Fugue, Op. 12 by Maurice Duruflé. Chau.—el barrio rosa
Here’s Benjamin’s recital on Navidad/the First Day of Christmas 2015. He played beautifully. I think this recital demonstrates that he can indeed, “Play the Shit Out of Organ Music.” I love his Latin-coloured socks! Very colourful and pretty: