Performing Arts

American Guild of Organists brings its convention to KC for the first time

Jan Kraybill will be among the local hosts for the American Guild of Organists’ convention.
Jan Kraybill will be among the local hosts for the American Guild of Organists’ convention. File photo

Kansas City is known for its barbecue, baseball, jazz and … organs?

The American Guild of Organists thinks so. In fact, the national organization of organists was so impressed by the number and range of Kansas City’s organs, it decided to hold its national convention in Kansas City for the first time. The convention, July 2-6, will include conferences and seminars, as well as a number of concerts open to the public, although tickets are going fast.

“I look forward to welcoming our AGO colleagues to our city,” said Jan Kraybill, organist-in-residence at the international headquarters of Community of Christ in Independence and conservator of the Julia Irene Kauffman Casavant organ at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

“I can’t wait to surprise them with what we have here because it is significant. I’m going to be very busy as a host of guest organists. The three organs that I oversee are going to be featured in the convention, along with lots of others. On those three organs will be 18 different organists, including me. It’s going to be such a busy and fun time.”

Organs all over the area will get a chance to shine, from Grand Avenue Temple’s venerable 3,500 pipe, 106-year-old Skinner organ to Grace & Holy Trinity’s noble Gabriel Kney tracker organ. Newer instruments will be featured, too, of course, like Westport Presbyterian’s gorgeous Pasi organ and Village Presbyterian’s $2 million Richards, Fowkes & Co. instrument.

Elisa Bickers, principal organist for Village Presbyterian, will allow a lineup of organists to take her beloved instrument out for a spin.

“I’m hosting a lot of people there, so my main job, aside from working with the Chorale, is to host performers at Village and make sure they have what they need,” Bickers said.

Bickers will accompany the Kansas City Chorale at the opening night concert at Helzberg Hall. She’s also proud of her role as head of the New Music committee, which commissioned 13 pieces that will have their premieres at the convention. They include works for choir and organ, organ and mezzo-soprano, an organ concerto and, of course, for organ solo.

“I’m really thrilled with all of them,” she said. “They’re so unique. One of the challenges is that we’re not going to please everybody. We’re twelve hundred organists, all of whom have different levels and different preferences. And we really wanted to highlight local university composition faculty, like Anthony Maglione from William Jewell College. He is a fine composer, and he’s written a piece for choir, orchestra and organ. It’s such a beautiful work.”

The convention has been in the planning stages for at least seven years. Kraybill says John Obetz, long-time organist at the Community Christ Temple and host of the syndicated radio show “The Auditorium Organ,” was a driving force behind bringing the convention to Kansas City.

“John had served as the national treasurer for the AGO and was greatly respected as an educator and performer,” Kraybill said. “He is the reason Kansas City is known in the organ world. His radio show helped people realize that there was a significant organ in Independence and that people should listen to it.

“We’ve had regional conventions here, but we never had a national AGO convention, and I know John wanted it to happen. I think his influence was key.”

Fittingly, Obetz, who died in 2015 at the age of 81, will be honored at the opening night concert. That will lead into a service of remembrance and reconciliation commemorating the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.

“I just think it’s the perfect opening to the convention here,” Kraybill said. “We need to remind ourselves of past challenges and know that future challenges will continue and music can be a way to inspire us to be our best selves. Every time I rehearse this opening celebration, I just can’t wait for people to participate in it.”

Other highlights include recitals by Jennifer Pascual, director of music at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, at Grace & Holy Trinity, and Hector Olivera, who will perform on the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception’s magnificent Ruffatti organ.

“Hector Olivera is an incredible organist,” said Lynn Bratney, convention coordinator. “The Ruffatti is half pipes and half digital, and many of the digital stops have been provided by Hector. He recorded a number of the pipe sounds at St. Sulpice and Notre Dame in Paris, and that is what he installed at Immaculate Conception.

“Those sounds supplement the sounds of the pipes of the cathedral organ, and the combination is absolutely beautiful, especially in that space, with that acoustic.”

Hector Olivera will give a recital on July 6 at Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. From the American Guild of Organists

Those involved in the massive task of mounting this convention hope it will spur interest in organ music locally and will show the 1,200 plus visiting organists that Kansas City is an overlooked musical treasure.

“You’ve got Kansas City right here in the middle of the country, and it’s just fly-over country, but we know that’s not true,” Bickers said. “There is a lot we have to offer here with our beautiful instruments and passionate people. We’re excited to host the nation’s organists and say ‘Hey, welcome to Kansas City. You might not be expecting how cool this place is.’ 

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Concert schedule

Tickets are available at unless otherwise noted. Availability may be limited.

July 2 at 6:45 p.m.: World War I themed opening celebration and John Obetz memorial with organist Jan Kraybill and the Spire Chamber Ensemble directed by Ben Spalding. The second part of the program will feature the Kansas City Chorale conducted by Charles Bruffy with organist Elisa Bickers and pianist Kurt Knecht) Tickets available through the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts: (Helzberg Hall)

July 3 at 11:30 a.m.: Bach Vespers Choral Program performed by Spire Chamber Ensemble and Spire Baroque Orchestra. No charge. (Visitation Catholic Church, 5141 Main St.)

July 3 at 2 p.m.: National Young Artists Competition in Organ and National Competition in Organ Improvisation Winners’ Recital. (Central United Methodist Church, 5144 Oak St.)

July 3 at 2 p.m.: Christopher Houlihan recital. (Country Club Christian Church, 6101 Ward Parkway)

July 3 at 7 and 8:30 p.m.: Douglas Cleveland recital. The performance will include dancers from the Störling Dance Theater. (Village Presbyterian Church, 6641 Mission Road, Prairie Village)

July 3 at 7: Vincent Dubois recital. (St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church, 6630 Nall, Mission)

July 4 at 2 p.m.: Chelsea Chen Recital. Includes world premiere of “Remembering” by Kansas City native Emma Lou Diemer. The second part of the program features the Hymn Festival with organists Tom Trendy and James Bobb and the Convention Festival Choir Brass and Percussion. Tickets available through the Kauffman Center: (Helzberg Hall)

July 5 at 1:30 p.m.: Te Deum Choral Ensemble. (Village Presbyterian Church)

July 5 at 3:30 p.m.: Pipedreams Live! With Michael Barone and the 7 Rising Stars. (Community of Christ Auditorium, 1001 W. Walnut Ave., Independence)

July 5 at 7:30 p.m.: Todd Wilson recital. Community of Christ Temple, 1001 W. Walnut Ave., Independence)

July 6 at 9 a.m.: Nicole Keller recital. (Unity Temple on the Plaza, 707 W. 47th St.)

July 6 at 1 p.m.: Jennifer Pascual recital. (Grace & Holy Trinity Cathedral, 415 W. 13th St.)

July 6 at 1 p.m.: Hector Olivera recital. (Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, 416 W. 12th St.)

July 6 at 2:30 p.m.: Damin Spritzer recital. (Grand Avenue Temple, 205 E. Ninth St.)

July 6 at 8 p.m.: Closing concert with organists Kimberly Marshall and Thierry Escaich and the Kansas City Summer Festival Orchestra conducted by Matthew Christopher Shepard. (Helzberg Hall)