It’s a bittersweet Christmas at Grace & Holy Trinity Cathedral. Dec. 25 marks the last Christmas and the last Sunday morning service that John Schaefer will lead as organist and music director.
Schaefer has been in the job since 1976. The cathedral’s music program was in disrepair when Schaefer arrived, but he’s leaving the church with several choirs that perform at the highest standards.
“It was a building process,” Schaefer said. “There had been a choir of boys and men, and it had gotten really bad. So my first job was to bring it back to life. Then I took on the assignment of dealing with the Trinity Choir, and then we started a girls choir and so forth and so on.”
The cathedral was lucky to acquire an organist and choirmaster with Schaefer’s deep background in the English cathedral tradition. Schaefer began playing the organ when he was 7 years old.
Growing up in Mansfield, Ohio, he and his two older sisters learned to play instruments. But when Schaefer visited his aunt in a nearby town and heard the church’s organ, his life changed.
“I was fascinated with the way this instrument looked, with its knobs and double-keyboards and so forth,” Schaefer said. “I would look forward virtually every Sunday to going over. In the course of the afternoon, my aunt would say, ‘Would you like to go down to the church?’ And of course I would say, ‘Yes, yes.’ And that’s how it all began.”
Schaefer’s musical education includes playing tuba in the Ohio State Marching Band and getting a master’s degree from Union Theological Seminary. He was awarded a Fulbright grant and spent one year in London at the Royal Academy of Music. He was also assistant organist at New College, Oxford University.
Schaefer’s immense knowledge of organ music served him well when he oversaw the cathedral’s installation of a Gabriel Kney tracker pipe organ in 1981. The instrument has been the pride of the cathedral, serving not only at liturgical services but also at popular events like Bachathon.
Those who regularly attend Grace & Holy Trinity know what they have in Schaefer. There is considerable pride in the cathedral’s music program, which is a product of Schaefer’s uncompromising musicianship and refined taste.
“Whether John is at the organ or answering the plea of someone needing bus fare, John is a minister of the Gospel,” said Vern Barnet, a congregant of the cathedral and an interfaith leader. “By offering God the gifts of music, he undergirds and uplifts the worshippers; he makes sounds which offer praise for the miracle of existence, with all its anguish and exultation.”
Schaefer brought his beloved music to the wider community by providing a venue for artists and presenting artists, including English organists Peter Hurford, on the Cathedral Artists Series.
After that series ended, Schaefer began Music in the City, which presented well-known national and international ensembles like the St. Thomas Choir from New York and Chanticleer. Schaefer also made a point of featuring local talent.
“Actually, the most recent performance by the Kansas City Chamber Orchestra with Musica Vocale was just a gorgeous evening,” Schaefer said. “But there have been tons and tons of fine performances.”
Schaefer has also been a valued friend, colleague and counselor to many in the arts community. Jan Kraybill, organist and music director for Community of Christ and conservator of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts’ Julia Irene Kauffman Casavant organ, recalled Schaefer’s kindness.
“Many of my concerts have been enriched by his ideas,” Kraybill said. “In fact, on my upcoming annual Super Bowl Sunday concert in February, I’ll be playing a piece that he specifically requested I play: Gaston Litaize’s ‘Prélude et Danse Fuguée.’ It’s a challenge but so totally worth it, and as always, I’m grateful to John for suggesting it and for his confidence that I’ll do it well.”
One of the ways Schaefer supports the arts community is simply by being there. It’s a rare classical event at which one doesn’t see Schaefer and his wife, Leona.
Schaefer is in the process of cleaning out his office.
“It’s getting close and there’s tons of work to do,” Schaefer said. “I will still be busy right up until 6:30 or 7 on New Year’s Eve. I am also in the process of clearing away the things I want to take with me, that are mine to take with me. It’s been an arduous task. I had no idea how hard it would be.”
And there is one other nagging concern: Grace, the cathedral’s cat, who many consider to be Schaefer’s cat.
“I don’t know about Grace,” Schaefer said. “There are plenty of people who can feed her, so that will be OK. The dean and I will be having a chat soon, and I’m hoping he’ll give me dispensation to stop by a couple of times a week just to make sure she’s well fed.”
Lyric artists win international awards
The Lyric Opera of Kansas City’s resident artists program has good news to share: two of its singers have recently won important international competitions.
Mezzo-soprano Samantha Gossard won the William Matheus Sullivan Musical Foundation Award, and baritone John Viscardi won the top prize of the International Tosti Competition.
Last spring, Gossard was a national semifinalist in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. She has appeared in several Lyric Opera productions, including “Don Giovanni,” “Carmen” and “Rusalka.” She will play Jade Boucher in “Dead Man Walking” in March and Kate in “Pirates of Penzance” in April.
Viscardi has previously appeared as Morales in the Lyric Opera’s production of “Carmen.” He’ll sing the role of the Motorcycle Cop in “Dead Man Walking” in March and will be featured in Elvis Costello’s “The Juliet Letters” for a Lyric Opera Explorations concert in January.
The Lyric Opera’s resident artists program is meant to provide professional training and performance experience to some of the most promising young talent in the country.
For more information about the Lyric Opera, visit KCOpera.org.