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Organists come and go from their church jobs all the time, but some changes have a wider resonance than others — like hearing that Stephanie Martin is leaving the Church of Saint Mary Magdalene at the end of November.
That church, at the corner of Ulster and Manning Aves, is modest in every way except for its musical legacy; it’s the place where Healey Willan worked for 46 years until his death in 1968. Thanks to Willan, it became a cradle of Anglo-Catholic music, a tradition that is still less than 100 years old.
This tradition marries Medieval ritual and plainsong with the language and sensibility of modern times. So many churches in this tradition have, over the past few decades, turned into musical museums. Martin, since taking on the job at St. Mary Magdalene only six years ago, has done the opposite, working hard at rebuilding bridges with the here and now, especially through the music she composed for the church’s choirs (some of which can be heard on disc).
This may seem like a small blip in the wider scheme of things, but it is the work of people like Martin, who make connections between art music, musicians, listeners and potential listeners one person at a time, that helps maintain fine sacred music as a living artform.
There are three excellent opportunities to hear Martin’s compositions first-hand, outside of a liturgical context. Two concerts are with the church’s Gallery Choir, which sings at the church on Thursday, Sept. 27 as well at at the 10th annual Colours of Music Festival in Barrie on Saturday, Sept. 29. The other concert, also at the Barrie Colours of Music festival, is on Sept. 24, with University of Toronto’s MacMillan Singers and high school singers from the Barrie area.
Martin is the composer-in-residence at the Barrie festival this year. She also continues to teach at York University’s Faculty of Fine Arts’ music department and is director of the Pax Christi Chorale, which begins its season on October 21 with a programme celebrating the 150th anniversary of St Anne’s Anglican Church on Gladstone Ave (the Byzantine-style building with the Group of Seven murals).
Martin’s decision to leave St Mary Magdalene’s is a consequence of the death last March of her husband, organist Bruce Kirkpatrick Hill. Theirs was a musical as well as a life partnership, which has left her bereaved as much professionally as personally.
In a text reply to a query this morning, Martin replied, “I adore (St Mary Magdalene), but I am too fragile to take the stress of church music at the moment. As commissions come in from out of province and the UK I find the solitary practice of composing much more compatible with my current emotional state.”
Here is a beautiful little Bravo!FACT video of Martin’s Schola Magdalena singing her “Alleluia,” a shining example of old form wrapped in a new but somehow timeless sensibility: