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Stanford Report, November 10, 1999

Staff profile: Morgan on organ


Unless you're tying the knot, it's unlikely you'll see Robert Huw Morgan doing his job. But you might hear him unwind sometime.

Seated in the upstairs gallery of Memorial Church with his back to the sanctuary, Morgan doesn't usually capture one's eye, although one can't shut out the powerful music he produces.

"The vibrations go right through you," Morgan says in his lyrical British accent. "Some of the pitches you can actually feel in your bowels."

Robert Morgan, Memorial Church's interim organist, says he has "fun" playing the church's three organs.

Photo by L.A. Cicero

"It's a grand sound, it really fills the place," says Betsy Koester, wedding coordinator for the church. "It gives so much comfort and assurance for the bride making the 90-foot trek down the aisle."

As the interim university organist at Memorial Church, Morgan, who arrived in August, performs for as many as 30 services, mostly weddings, each month. You also can catch the Welshman working the ivory keys at Sunday morning worship services and at the occasional memorial service.

At the conclusion of a recent Sunday service, the congregation surprised Morgan by acknowledging his efforts. "Bless them ­ they gave me a round of applause," he recalls, then without missing a beat, diverts the conversation away from himself.

Memorial Church audiences exhibit a good, positive attitude toward music and "sit quietly and listen," Morgan says.

He's been in other churches where "you're playing before the service and you can't hear yourself because people are yak, yak, yak, yak," Morgan says, scowling slightly.

While the selections played at weddings vary depending on the package couples choose, Morgan usually performs 15 minutes before the service begins. During the ceremony, he plays different selections for the formal seating, for the bride's attendants, for the bride, before the vows, during the unity candle lighting and for the recessional. "There's very little down time at a wedding," Morgan notes.

Although it is church policy that music be classical, sometimes Morgan will accommodate special requests ­ "but I draw the line at Broadway selections."

Below the navy blue blazer and silk tie visible to weekday church visitors, Morgan is usually clad in jeans and loafers. Sunday morning services, however, call for a full suit of the dark and pinstripe variety, even if nobody is watching the silhouetted torso dwarfed by the organs filling the upper back deck. Morgan, 32, also can be spotted tooling about in khaki shorts, golf shirt and sandals, looking like the student he was up until a few months ago.

The organist's office/studio is a windowless basement room with sheet music scattered on the floor and a change of clothes draped on a hanger. There's a "ghastly old piano" by his desk and a keyboard hooked up to his computer that brings up notes on the monitor screen when he taps the keys.

But the real practice ground is up above in the church, where he "pops in for a little doodle" ­ a bit of relaxed practice on weekday mornings before tourists or those seeking solitude start arriving.

The gallery offers what Morgan regards as "the best view in the house," a sweeping panorama of skylight wafting through stained glass windows, carved arches and stone columns. And then there's the up-close presence of the massive organs, all finished wood and gleaming pipe.

"The nice thing about it is the instruments are so fun to play, regardless of what the situation is."

The existence of three organs at the church represents a "unique" situation only a few places in the nation can boast, Morgan said. One organ per venue is the norm. Furthermore, each instrument is designed to play best music from a specific period.

Pipe organs are custom designed and tailor-made for the acoustics of the building where they will be housed. Every pipe, which can range from the width and height of a half-used pencil to about 20 inches wide and 25 feet high, is hand made. An organ is composed of sticks of wood, pulleys, rods and even a fan blower that creates the wind that passes through a tube that vibrates against a ridge to create a note.

Organs are played on manuals, or keyboards. Some instruments have one keyboard, such as the small Potter-Brinegar model found in the chapel of Memorial Church. The church's upstairs gallery houses the original organ, a 1901 Murray-Harris with three manuals, and a 1985 Fisk-Nanney, a four-manual model. The latter is named after its builder, Charles Fisk, and Herbert Nanney, the late professor of music who was Stanford's organist for 39 years until his retirement in 1985.

Pipe organs are leagues away from mass-produced electronic button organs, regarded by Morgan as "the work of the devil."

The Rev. Maurice Charles, the associate dean for religious life, also recognizes that Stanford is fortunate to have "three superior instruments in one chapel."

Such a setup "makes Stanford particularly attractive for an accomplished musician," Charles adds.

The trio of organs allows Morgan the ability to offer a repertoire of pieces from the 14th century to the present. "I have the instruments to play them on," he says.

"The range is huge -­ that's what makes it fun."

The organ of Morgan's eye is a five-manual instrument in an old church in Paris called St. Sulpice, that was played by the late Marcel Dupré, the subject of one of Morgan's doctoral dissertations.

Morgan's first instrument was not an organ at all, but a violin. A native of Wales, he began playing the organ at age 12 and toured several continents as an adolescent. During one visit to New York City when he was 16, the New York Times credited him with a "brisk rhythmic stride and a vivid stage presence."

Morgan taught high school music in Wales for five years and also was an instructor for "fives," a British game dating back to the 13th century that is similar to handball.

Morgan received his bachelor of arts and master of arts degrees from Cambridge University in England, where in 1989 he became a fellow of the Royal College of Organists. From 1985 to 1988 he was an organ scholar at St. John's College at Cambridge, where he performed for daily services in the college chapel and assisted in directing its renowned choir of men and boys.

He has a doctorate in organ performance and another in orchestral conducting from the University of Washington-Seattle. While there, he served as the assistant conductor of the University of Washington Symphony Orchestra and Opera. Although conducting appealed to Morgan's theatrical taste, it posed its own set of challenges.

"You've got to try to convince 60 musicians in front of you that you know more than they do," he said. With opera, Morgan sometimes found "damage control" very preoccupying when he had to keep track of performers who missed cues and jeopardized the musical program.

Right now he says he's content performing. During the academic year he performs about four public recitals. The first took place in September and the next one will be a free holiday program at 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 5 at Memorial Church. On the world front, he participated in the 1998 Calgary International Organ Competition, where he finished as a finalist.

Recently Morgan tried the violin again and found it bad ergonomics to bend and hold up his arm in such an unnatural position. He'll stick to playing his organ, warming up beforehand with stretching exercises to prevent tendinitis and carpal-tunnel syndrome.

"With the keyboard, you're not fighting gravity." SR