For many years, my mother was a church organist and choral director, having begun her professional career as a teenager in Pittsburgh. Sometimes after school, I would accompany her to an empty church and watch her practice. For someone who was not particularly coordinated, she had amazing dexterity when it came to navigating three keyboards (manuals), a multitude of stops and foot pedals below. It’s amazing how athletic you have to be to play a pipe organ.
Organists and carillon ringers may be unique in that they cannot bring their instruments home to practice. Practice and performance happen in a particular place, on an instrument usually of someone else’s choosing. The organ often eclipses the organist: on the website for the NPR program “Pipedreams” is a listing and photo gallery of the organs and places that have been featured on the show.
McNeil Robinson (March 16, 1943-May 9, 2015) was familiar with a number of Manhattan organs throughout the course of his distinguished career: at St. Mary the Virgin (1932 Aeoolian-Skinner), Park Avenue Christian Church (1946 Casavante Frères), Holy Trinity Catholic Church (1927 Estey), and for nearly 50 years at the Park Avenue Synagogue (1926 Casavante Frères).
Robinson studied at Julliard in New York and at the University of Salamanca in Spain. For nearly two decades, he was the chair of the organ department at the Manhattan School of Music. His students have won more international awards than those of any other teacher.
The Park Avenue Synagogue website cites Robinson’s many commissions, including from the Archbishop of Canterbury, the San Francisco Symphony, and the American Guild of Organists.
McNeil Robinson Improvisation, Part 1