Mario Pearson, director of music and principal organist of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, grew up in Capetown, South Africa. His journey to America was fraught with emotion, but he now finds himself a beloved member of Kansas City’s musical community. Pearson will lead An Evening of Baroque Music, at 7 p.m. Nov. 14.
Pearson’s father was a community worker for the Catholic church in South Africa in the early ’80s when apartheid, the South African system of racial segregation, was facing strong resistance. He tried to return to South Africa after spending time in America on an international exchange program for community workers, but was not granted a return visa.
“So my father applied for political asylum in the United States,” Pearson said. “Two or three years later and after open-heart surgery because of all the stress, he was finally granted political asylum. My mom, my two brothers, my sister and I flew to the U.S. I was 19 years old.”
It was a difficult time for Pearson to leave South Africa. He had just graduated from high school, and had to leave his friends and his plans for the future behind.
“My sister and I still reminisce about those experiences,” Pearson said. “We left on April 1, 1983, which was Good Friday, and were in the U.S. on Easter Sunday. So it was symbolic. It was through the passion and death of our old life that we’ve come to this resurrection.”
Pearson would find America a much more welcoming place than the country he left. His father was of Indian ancestry and his mother was of Dutch ancestry, which meant Pearson was considered “colored” under South African law. Whether you were white, a person of color or black determined where you went to school, the quality of education you’d get, the jobs for which you could apply and, most importantly, where you could live.
“When I was in high school, I was part of the resistance,” Pearson said. “I went to a Christian Brothers school, where my brother and I earned scholarships to attend because we couldn’t afford those schools.
“But we often participated in demonstrations and resistance. This was in ’79 and ’80. We’d have rallies and the South African riot police would come out shooting tear gas. You’d have bullets whiz past your head and be chased down by police vehicles. That’s what we lived through.”
In spite of the chaos and violence, Pearson was able secure an excellent musical education that began when he took piano lessons in the third grade. He later received formal training at the Trinity College of Music and the Royal Schools of Music based in London and Ireland. When he finally made it to America, he continued his musical studies at West Virginia University and Fairmount State College in West Virginia.
After graduating in 1988, Pearson applied for a job as music director at St. Paul’s Basilica in Daytona Beach, Florida because, as Pearson said, “I hated the cold weather.” He got the job and also worked with low-income communities in Florida, helping motivate disadvantaged students. For his efforts, he was given the Milken Educator Award for Teaching Excellence.
“But I finally decided I wanted to make a change in my plan and go into consulting and do master classes,” Pearson said. “I thought I was done with education and done with church music, but I always say God has a very strange sense of humor.”
In 2006, Pearson’s late brother Fabian, who was living in Kansas City at the time, told him about a position that was opening at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Pearson said he applied “just to see where it goes.” He was one of the three finalists.
“Ed Blasco, who is now my dear friend, was the leader of the search committee,” Pearson said.
Pearson went through a vigorous selection process that involved writing essays, directing the cathedral’s choir and an intense question-and-answer session. At the end, he was appointed the cathedral’s new director of music and principal organist. Mike Throop, a member of the cathedral’s congregation since 2001, says that Pearson’s skill as an organist is especially impressive. Throop says that Pearson came on board shortly after the cathedral acquired a Ruffatti organ as part of its 2003 renovation.
“People would play the organ, but not at Mario’s level,” Throop said. “I remember the first time I heard him play. It was the hymn ‘Rejoice, the Lord is King,’ and he played an interlude between the first and last verse. Honest to goodness, I was crying at the end. I was so moved I could barely finish the last verse of the song.”
John Gregory, who has been a member of the cathedral since the early ’90s, agrees that Pearson’s skill as an organist is one of his greatest strengths.
“Mario is a consummate organist,” Gregory said. “He started the French Organ Music Festival, which is wonderful. But he also has a really good sense of liturgy.”
The search committee and Pearson definitely shared a vision of liturgical music.
“My understanding of the church documents is that the role of cathedrals is to preserve the treasury of Catholic sacred music, including Gregorian chant and polyphonic music and to develop scholas to perform that music,” Pearson said. “That’s what I was charged to do and that’s what I’m good at.”
A perfect example of Pearson’s devotion to the classics is the Nov. 14 “An Evening of Baroque Music.” The concert featuring the cathedral’s schola, as well as its pastor Father Paul Turner, on harpsichord, will consist of cantatas and instrumental music by Bach and Buxtehude. Members of the Kansas City Symphony will also take part in the performance.
On Nov. 17, the cathedral will host its 11th annual St. Cecilia Music Festival, another Pearson initiative. Church choirs and school choirs from across the area are invited to perform, along with the cathedral’s schola.
“I have just begun my 14th year with the cathedral, and the community hasn’t changed one iota,” Pearson said. “They are still such a committed, devoted, deeply faith-filled community. I just feel so honored to be here and in America. My family was the tired and poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. I know firsthand what hope and promise America offers, and America lived up to that promise for my family.”
An Evening of Baroque Music. 7 p.m. Nov. 14. Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, 416 W. 12th St. Free. St. Cecilia Music Festival. 3 p.m. Nov. 17. Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Free. For more information about both programs, visit www.kcgolddome.org.
Westport Pres - Lyric Arts Trio
The free Brown Bag Concerts, sponsored by the Westport Center for the Arts and presented at Westport Presbyterian Church, are a wonderful, and affordable getaway. On Nov. 15 at noon, The Lyric Arts Trio will perform music by Brahms, Dvorák, Clara Schumann and Brahms’ only pupil, Gustav Jenner. The Lyric Arts Trio is composed of some of the city’s finest musicians: clarinetist Elena Lence Talley, pianist Daniel Velicer and soprano Sarah Tannehill Anderson.
12 p.m. Nov. 15. Westport Presbyterian Church, 201 Westport Road. Free. For more information, visit wcakc.org.
Park University’s International Center for Music will present pianist Jan Jiracek von Arnim Nov. 16 at the 1900 Building. Praised for his “muscular, broad, colorful technique” by the Los Angeles Times, von Arnim will perform music by Schubert and Haydn, as well as one of Beethoven’s most popular sonatas, the Op. 27 No. 2, better known as the “Moonlight” sonata.
7:30 p.m. Nov. 16. 1900 Building, 1900 Shawnee Mission Parkway, Mission Woods, Kans. icm.park.edu.
You can reach Patrick Neas at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow his Facebook page, KC Arts Beat, at www.facebook.com/kcartsbeat.