7 years ago

Volume 5 Issue 10 - July/August 2000

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the most recent CBC

the most recent CBC choral competition, John Tuttle's Exultate Chamber Singers won not only the first prize for its category but also the prize for being the best choir overall -- one more feather in the copious Tuttle headdress. He also conducts two choirs at St. Thomas's Church, where he is both organist and choirmaster. At the neighbouring University of Toronto, he is the university organist, teaches the organ at the Faculty of Music, and conducts the Hart House Chorus. And at the age of 55 he has just stepped down as the artistic director and conductor of the Canadian Children's Opera Chorus, a position he has held forthe past 15 dynamic years. He is not easing himself into retirement, though, just giving himself more time to devote to what he sees as his greatest musical love -- the organ. As a child, John Tuttle learned the piano, then at age fifteen began studying the organ in his home town of Philadelphia, accepting his church organist's offer to give him organ lessons in exchange for Tuttle's services as piano accompanist for his teacher's choir. Having become a bit bored with the piano, he became instantly fascinated with the organ, with its array of gadgetry, stops, multiple manuels, foot pedals and almost limitless combinations of sounds. He was hooked. After finishing high school he embarked on six years of study with Alexander McCurdy, first at Westminster Choir College and then at the Curtis Institute. By this time the Vietnam War was raging and he was drafted by the U.S. military. By a stroke of luck or providence, the position of Chapel Assistant at West Point military school became vacant just then. He auditioned and got "the best job in the U.S. army"! There was a marvellous choir too, and access to the best young string players New York City had to offer. So his two years of military service were filled with music, in stark contrast to what they might have been. Several years of work as a church organist in Philadelphia followed West Point, until in 1975 he answered an ad in The American Organist for a position at St. Paul's Anglican Church in Toronto. Much to his surprise, he got the job, and spent the next fourteen years at St. Paul's. Then, in 1989, he was appointed organist and choirmaster of St. Thomas's Church on Huron Street, where he now presides over one of the finest liturgical music traditions in Toronto. He calls it "the best job in the world", because St. Thomas's is "one of the few parishes left that understand the value of art music and its use liturgically." As he put it in an article for WholeNote three years ago, "[St. Thomas's] holds the beauty of holiness and the holiness of beauty in high esteem." MUSICIANS IN OUR MIDST Exultate Chamber Singers, for PROFILE BY ALLAN PULKER, PHOTO BY GARY RAY RUSH Organist, John Tuttle The problem in most churches, he says, is that "the large body of mass settings by fine composers for liturgical use [has been] put aside in favour of congregational music ... by its nature easier to perform" but which "rarely provides an aesthetic experience for anyone who appreciates great music." At St. Thomas's, on the other hand, when Tuttle suggested that they use Palestrina's Pope Marcellus Mass as the musical setting of the Eucharist, the rector replied that this was one of his favourite musical compositions and a fine idea, the length of the work notwithstanding. The day it was used, adjustments were made to the church service to accomodate the music's length, in contrast to what too often occurs, which is that adjustments are made to the music to fit the church service. This, Tuttle says, was an indication of the healthy attitude that prevails at St. Thomas's about how music, at least music of a certain stature, can be a beneficent influence that can help the soul to grow. "If you do your job [as a musician] well enough," he comments, "you don't have to convince anybody about this." The music itself does the convincing. In an interview' John Tuttle tends to be self-effacing. Asked about the success of the example, he talks about "the communal view" and choir members contributing their ideas. "With the likes of Peter Tiefenbach in the choir, you can't go wrong!" Does he have plans for Exultate? "Ten years from now? For it to be right where it is right now -- an amateur group doing four concerts a year and doing them well." And on the topic of the Canadian Children's Opera Chorus: "I have no ideas why I was hired. I had had little experience with children, and less with opera." He speaks of his fifteen years there with evident enjoyment. And by all accounts his time there has been extremely successful and productive. The group has commissioned a number of works, including this spring' s opera The Star Child, has also mounted several Gilbert and Sullivan operettas arranged for children's voices, and has toured twice to Vancouver, first to Expo '86, and in 1993 to perform at the International Choral Symposium. In addition to this the CCOC is responsible for providing choristers when needed by the Canadian Opera . Company for its productions, one of the more recent of which was La Boheme last April. "I have worked with some great people doing this," he says, "like Tom Diamond and Mark Wilson (stage directors of The Star Child') and I have learned to compromise!" His decision to leave the CCOC has everything to do with the organ. "After fifteen years of neglecting the organ I need the time to get things to the state where I want to perform them." And what is it about the organ that calls him? "The musicality of the organ" he says, "is largely illusory." It has a very small area of expressiveness. The reality of the organ is that, no matter how firmly or gently you press a key, the note it produces is unvarying in its dynamic, colour and attack. A pipe either sounds or it doesn't - it's either off or on. How long you hold a note, how much space you leave between notes, these are the organist's only resources to create the illusion of a phrase. "The art of the organist is to make a non-expressive instrument expressive." Tuttle's clarity about the essential challenge of the organ leads me to suggest that he is probably a very good teacher. His response, typically, is that the quality of the playing of the students who come to him is going steadily up. The coming years should be interesting as Tuttle brings his finely honed choral skills to bear on the many voices of his chosen instrument.

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